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What is Patch Management? Key Strategies, Workflow, and Benefits

Securing computer systems is akin to navigating a complex maze, with patch management acting as your reliable map guiding you through potential pitfalls and hazards.

This blog post talks about patching or patch management, explaining what it is, why it’s important, and how it works. We’ll delve into the patch management process, uncover the benefits of patch management software, and explore patch management best practices. So, whether you’re a small IT team or an enterprise cybersecurity leader, this guide will equip you with the knowledge you need to keep your systems safe and secure.

What is Patch Management?

Patch management encompasses the systematic identification, testing, deployment, and installation of software updates (often referred to as patches) on computer systems. These patches, primarily issued by software vendors to address security vulnerabilities within software, play a critical role in maintaining a robust cybersecurity posture. While the focus is on security, patches can also optimise the performance and functionality of software and devices, ultimately enhancing the user experience. Patch management is sometimes considered a subset of vulnerability management, highlighting its role as a core cybersecurity practice.

Why is Patch Management Important?

Patch management is a critical process for organisations of all sizes, offering several key benefits:

  • Enhanced Cybersecurity Posture: By addressing security vulnerabilities in software and applications, patch management significantly reduces the organisation’s exposure to cyberattacks.
  • Optimised System Uptime: One of the key benefits of patch management is to ensure that software and applications remain up-to-date and function smoothly. This minimises disruptions, maintains optimal system availability, and strengthens an organisation’s overall business continuity posture.
  • Compliance Adherence: In today’s evolving regulatory landscape, organisations in Australia are subject to various compliance standards, including the Australian Signals Directorate’s Essential Eight (ASD Essential Eight or AE8). Patch management plays a vital role in demonstrating adherence to these established security protocols.
  • Access to Feature Enhancements: Patch management extends beyond just security fixes. Patches can also introduce new features or improve existing functionalities within the software, ensuring your organisation benefits from the latest advancements offered by the vendor.
  • Improved User Experience: Patch management can address bugs and performance issues that hinder user experience. By resolving these issues, patches can significantly improve user experience by creating a smoother and more efficient working environment for employees.

The Patch Management Process

Patch management is an ongoing process due to the regular release of new patches by vendors and evolving IT environments within companies. To ensure effective patching throughout this lifecycle, organisations typically implement a structured, six-stage process.

1. Asset Management

IT and security teams create a comprehensive inventory of network assets, including operating systems, third-party applications, mobile devices, and on-premises and remote endpoints. Standardising hardware and software versions used by employees can simplify patching by reducing the number of different asset types and preventing the use of potentially unsafe or outdated applications and devices.

2. Patch Monitoring

A comprehensive asset inventory serves as the foundation for effective patch monitoring. This enables IT and security teams to:

  • Proactively identify missing patches: By comparing the asset inventory with available patch information, teams can identify systems lacking essential security updates.
  • Track patch status for each asset: Monitoring the patch status on individual assets allows for a clear understanding of which systems are fully patched, partially patched, or missing critical updates.
  • Monitor for newly available patches: Staying informed about newly released patches ensures timely identification of potential vulnerabilities.

3. Patch Prioritisation

Not all patches carry the same urgency. Security patches are especially critical due to the vast disparity between the number of vulnerabilities reported annually (e.g., 19,093 in 2021 according to Gartner) and those actively exploited (1,554). Patch prioritisation, often aided by threat intelligence feeds, helps IT and security teams focus on addressing the most critical vulnerabilities first. This prioritisation minimises downtime by initially rolling out the patches that address the most significant risks.

4. Patch Testing

New patches can sometimes introduce unforeseen complications or even fail to address intended vulnerabilities. In rare instances, they can be malicious. Patch testing allows IT and security teams to identify and resolve these issues before widespread deployment, safeguarding the network. This proactive approach aligns with best practices and recommendations from the Australian Signals Directorate (ASD).

5. Patch Deployment

Patch deployment involves both the timing and method of applying updates. To minimise disruption:

  • Patching windows are scheduled for off-peak hours.
  • Deployment often aligns with vendor release schedules (e.g., Microsoft’s Patch Tuesday).

A staged approach, deploying patches to subsets of assets, ensures:

  • Continued user productivity while some systems undergo patching.
  • Early detection of potential issues before widespread deployment.

Patch deployment plans often incorporate post-patch monitoring and rollback procedures to address any unforeseen problems, further highlighting the importance of patch management as a proactive strategy for mitigating security risks.

6. Patch Documentation

Comprehensive documentation plays a vital role in ensuring successful patch management. This documentation captures:

  • Test results: Recording the outcomes of patch testing helps identify and address any potential issues before deployment.
  • Deployment outcomes: Documenting the success or failure of patch deployment on individual assets provides a clear record of completion.
  • Unpatched assets: Maintaining a list of assets that haven’t received patches allows for targeted action towards achieving full coverage.

Patch Management Best Practices

Effective patch management goes beyond simply updating operating systems and applications. It encompasses maintaining the security of your entire computing environment by addressing vulnerabilities in hardware firmware and drivers as well. Recognising this comprehensive approach, Intelliworx actively collaborates with software vendors and operating system partners to ensure firmware updates are integrated into broader software patch deployments.

Here are key best practices IT administrators can implement to lead a robust patch management strategy within their organisation:

1. Embrace a Holistic Approach:

Patch management should not be limited to operating systems and applications. It’s crucial to extend this process to include updates for hardware firmware and drivers, mitigating potential threats across the entire computing stack.

2. Establish Predictable Patch Cycles:

Implement a routine and predictable patch management schedule across your organisation. This established cadence allows users to anticipate upcoming patching activities and minimise disruptions to their work.

3. Utilise Staged Deployment:

Consider a staged deployment approach, also known as “soft launch” or “sandbox testing”. This practice involves initially deploying patches to a small user group to assess potential impacts before a wider rollout.

4. Define Patch Management Responsibilities:

Clearly specify ownership for patch management. It is typically the responsibility of the software or system provider to issue patches for known vulnerabilities. However, IT managers play a critical role in ensuring these patches are deployed across the network of business systems and devices. In smaller organisations, patch management might fall to individual users, with software notifications or automatic updates facilitating this process.

5. Leverage Patch Management Systems:

Utilise dedicated patch management software to streamline and automate processes. These systems assist IT departments in orchestrating and tracking patch versions and deployments across the network.

Effective Patch Management: The Cornerstone of Robust Cybersecurity

Intelliworx offers comprehensive patch management services that go beyond standalone software, often integrating seamlessly with existing cybersecurity solutions you might already have in place. Contact us today for a free consultation and discover how we can help you safeguard your business from evolving cyber threats.

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