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

    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 software 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 that needs robust tools and frameworks to change code and mitigate vulnerabilities. This blog explains patch management and its crucial to the IT device management lifecycle.

    What is Patching (or 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as it acts as a security tool against vulnerabilities that are caused by evolving threats, system configurations, or outdated patches.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 software patch management is to secure endpoints from bad actors and keep systems running optimally.

    Types of Patching

    Many different types of patches exist, each serving a specific purpose. Some patches fix bugs to improve security, while others add new features to the software. These patches can be generally grouped into three main categories:

    Security patches: These patches address vulnerabilities in the software that could be exploited by attackers. They are essential for keeping your software safe and up-to-date.

    Bug fix patches: These patches fix errors in the software that can cause crashes, unexpected behavior, or other problems. They can improve the stability and reliability of your software.

    Feature patches: These patches add new features to the software. They can improve the functionality of the software and make it more useful for users.

    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 software 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.

    Importance of Patch Management for Enterprises

    Cyber threats are multiplying rapidly, with software vulnerabilities and ransomware attacks on the rise. Patching all devices—servers, desktops, laptops for remote offices and home workers—across a complex network can be a daunting task for businesses.  While managing these patches manually might seem like a cost-saving option, it’s both inefficient and risky. Patch management tools offer a far more secure and streamlined approach.

    According to a Ponemon Institute report1 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.

    Patch management isn’t just another IT chore—it’s a critical line of defense for your entire organization. Here’s how:

    Fortress against cyberattacks: Patches fix vulnerabilities in software and applications, acting as shields against cyberattacks. Unpatched systems are easy targets, potentially leading to devastating breaches.

    Compliance without complications:  Regulatory requirements are becoming stricter. A strong patch management strategy ensures all your devices comply with the latest standards, keeping you on the right side of the law.

    Beyond bug fixes: Patches aren’t just about security. They often introduce new features and functionalities, improving usability and making life easier for your end users.

    Keeping downtime at bay:  Ransomware and other cyber threats can cripple your systems, costing valuable time and money. Patch management keeps your devices updated and secure, minimizing the risk of downtime caused by security breaches.

    How to Implement Patch Management or Patching

    Here’s a breakdown of how to implement effective patch management across your network’s systems:

    Seeing the Big Picture: Centralized Visibility

    First things first: you need a clear view of all your network devices. This centralized view allows IT admins to understand each system’s patching status. With this knowledge, they can prioritize critical and important patches for timely deployment.

    Scheduling Deployments: Balancing Security and Productivity

    Finding the right time to patch is crucial. Disruptions during work hours can be a pain for employees.  Patch management tools can help by scheduling deployments based on user availability and system uptime data. These tools can also automate patch deployment based on pre-defined policies. This includes configuring settings like automatic reboots after installation.

    Patching Every Corner of the Network

    For businesses with a global workforce, patching strategies need to be comprehensive. This includes systems on the local network (LAN), remote offices (WAN), and even employee homes (for remote work).

    Testing and Reverting Patches: Safety First

    Before unleashing patches on your systems, always test them first. This ensures they function correctly without causing any issues. Once tested, deployment can proceed smoothly. However, even tested patches can sometimes go awry. That’s why it’s important to have a rollback plan in place. This allows admins to uninstall problematic patches from all affected systems.

    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 software 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, the deployment process to different device groups will be automated 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.

    Benefits of Patch Management

    In addition to protecting systems from vulnerabilities, a patch management system also presents organizations with several other benefits:

    1. Employee Productivity

    Patching ensures software and applications 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 on-site visits.

    Choose Scalefusion MDM for Effective Patch Management

    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. Companies should utilize automated patch management solutions or patching tools to ease the operational burden on IT staff and minimize errors.

    Scalefusion MDM’s patch management solution helps IT teams automate the application software and 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 in touch with our experts to find out more about automated patch management using Scalefusion. Sign up for a 14-day free trial today!

    References:
    1. IBM

    FAQs

    1. What is patch management software (patch software)?

    Patch management software automates keeping your devices and programs up-to-date.  It scans for missing security patches (fixes for weaknesses), downloads them, and installs them on your systems. This can be done automatically or with your approval.  These tools help ensure your computer network is protected from cyberattacks and running smoothly.

    2. What does patch management do?

    Patch management is like fixing holes in your software armor. It involves finding and applying updates (patches) created by software vendors. These patches address weaknesses (vulnerabilities) that hackers can exploit to attack your systems. By keeping your software patched, you close these gaps and make it much harder for attackers to sneak in. Patch management also often improves software performance and adds new features.

    3. Why is patch management important?

    Software vulnerabilities are like cracks in your armor, and patches are the reinforcements. By applying them regularly, you plug these holes and make it much harder for hackers to exploit them. This protects your systems from data breaches, ransomware attacks, and other online threats. Patching also keeps software stable and running smoothly, preventing crashes and ensuring a productive workflow.

    4. Is a software patch the same as an update?

    A software patch and update are related but not the same.  Think of an update as a broad improvement, while a patch is a specific fix. Updates can introduce new features, improve performance, or offer general enhancements. Patches, on the other hand, target and fix specific issues or vulnerabilities in the software. So, all patches are updates, but not all updates are patches.

    5. What does patching an OS mean?

    Patching an operating system (OS) is like fixing holes in a net.  These “holes” are weaknesses in the software that could let security threats in.  Patches are updates released by the OS vendor that mend these vulnerabilities.  Installing them is crucial to keeping your system safe and stable.  Some patches also improve performance or add new features.  Most operating systems have built-in automatic update features to simplify this process.

    Renuka Shahane
    Renuka Shahane
    Renuka Shahane is an avid reader who loves writing about technology. She is an engineering graduate with 10+ years of experience in content creation, content strategy and PR for web-based startups.

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