What is Patch Management? How Does it Work? Best Practices

  • October 19, 2022

Here’s a quick history lesson – until the mid-1970s, most computer programs were created on punched cards. Engineers would take a piece of rectangular paper card and punch holes by hand on a keypunch machine and feed it into a card reader. The machine would then run the program. If the program produced an unexpected or incorrect result, it would probably be because an engineer punched the wrong hole in the card. The only way to fix the error was to scrap the incorrect card and replace it with a new one. This is how the patch management process used to work back then.

What is Patch Management
Plugging Holes in Security with Patch Management Best Practices

Today, patching has become an overly complex, cumbersome and time-consuming process and needs robust tools and frameworks to change code and mitigate vulnerabilities. This article explains patch management and why it’s crucial to the IT device management lifecycle.

What is Patch Management?

Patch management is the process of applying updates to operating systems, applications, and firmware. It involves identifying system features that need to be improved, creating a fix, releasing the updated software, and validating the installation of the updates. The aim behind patching is to protect systems against vulnerabilities.

All devices need to be secured, whether it’s an employee’s laptop, a shared tablet at school, or a self-ordering kiosk in a quick-service restaurant. Organizations must carry out regular patching as it acts as a security tool against vulnerabilities that are caused by evolving threats, system configurations or outdated patches.

Why is Patch Management Important?

Today, no software is immune from security vulnerabilities and the only way to prevent them is to identify and mitigate them immediately. The main goal of patch management is to secure endpoints from bad actors and keep systems running optimally.

Benefits of Patch Management

In addition to protecting systems from vulnerabilities, patching also presents organizations with several other benefits:

1. Employee Productivity

Patching ensures software and application are up-to-date and run smoothly, supporting system uptime. It helps improve overall employee productivity by minimizing downtime caused by outdated or unsupported software.

2. Compliance

Patch management is commonly required by security frameworks or standards such as ISO 27001 Annex A, PCI DSS, or NIST Cyber Security Framework. Failure to comply with patch updates could result in fines, sanctions, or other penalties.

3. Lower Costs

Patching lowers the cost of device lifecycle management and repair. With a dispersed workforce, businesses have had to pivot quickly to provide support. Remote mobile device management tools extend the abilities of IT staff, lowering the need for costly hardware shipments.

According to a Ponemon Institute report commissioned by IBM, over 40% of IT and security workers indicated they suffered a data breach in the last year due to unpatched vulnerabilities. While simple in nature, patching software in a large organization with several, complex systems takes time. It takes, on average, 102 days to apply, test, and fully deploy patches.

How Does Patch Management Work?

The patch management process works depending on whether a patch is applied to a standalone system or numerous systems in an enterprise’s network. Irrespective of the environment, there are three key steps involved in the patching workflow:

Step 1 – Vulnerability Scanning

This step involves a complete inventory check of all open vulnerabilities on all assets. It’s essential to check all devices in the company’s IT environment that have access to detailed hardware and software information.

Step 2 – Prioritization Strategy

Prioritization is key to ensuring that the effort of patching under scarce resources is expended toward maximum risk reduction.

Step 3 – Patch Management

Once a clear patching strategy has been articulated, and the vulnerabilities to be addressed have been prioritized, it is vital to use effective tools to discover patches from vendors and automate patching at scale. Finding and using the right patch management tools can significantly reduce the effort involved in patching.

Patching Best Practices

Failing to patch software leaves organizations exposed to vulnerabilities that can be easily avoided. Industry best practice is to keep applications, operating systems, firmware, and services up to date with the latest security patches. Patches should be applied according to schedule and after discovering new vulnerabilities.

1. Categorize by Risk and Priority

From the patch management perspective, not all applications, systems and platforms are equal. After collecting an inventory of devices, segment all users and systems based on priority such as risk level and the number of applicable and available patches.

2. Utilize a Patch-Testing Environment

Once a patch is released, there’s no guarantee that it will perform without any snag. Create a patching testing lab environment that mirrors the production environment. After patches are deployed in the lab, the IT security staff should monitor these for any updates and check to see if any breaks occur.

3. Patch Approval

It can be either manual or automated. The sheer volume of patch installation across enterprise servers, appliances and the cloud can become an operational nightmare with the manual approach. Automated patch management tools are more sophisticated and automate repetitive, tedious tasks to shorten the time between a patch’s release and its implementation.

4. Patch Distribution

After approval, it’s time to roll out the patches. As a practice, deploy patches to a select group of devices after business hours. Monitor those patches and implement a disaster recovery plan, if needed. Later, automate the deployment process to different device groups with patch management software.

5. Document the Patch Management Process

Once a document has been applied, it is important to check for improvements in the patching process. Keep a record of the process and procedure under the company’s IT security policies and procedures documentation. After deployment, use the patch management software to produce a report of the status of your devices.

Wrapping Up

Companies can fall behind on patching for many reasons, including talent shortages, infrastructure complexity, and software compatibility issues. Manual patching is slow and error-prone which can hold open all discovered security flaws. To ease the operational burden on IT staff and minimise errors, companies should utilize automated vulnerability management and patching tools.

Scalefusion MDM’s patch management for Windows devices helps IT teams automate the application of OS patches to ensure the devices run on the latest OS, identify if there are any patches to mitigate vulnerabilities and improve the security posture of the organization.

Get free access to the patch management feature for up to 14 days here.

Thousands of businesses rely upon Scalefusion for managing their mobile device, desktops, laptops and other endpoints

Rajnil is a Senior Content Writer at Scalefusion. He’s been a B2B marketer for over 8 years and applies the power of content marketing to simplify complex technology and business ideas.
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