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Patch management: A guide for network administrators

As much as software engineers try to make their products perfect, we all know that’s impossible. For those times that problems are recognized, loopholes exploited, or a simple update is required, patches exist. Patches are typically, although not always, sent out as part of a patch management process because a lapse in security has been identified.

We hope that the identification took place simply because a client or engineer noticed the problem, but often it’s because malicious actors snuck their way into exploiting these vulnerabilities. Regardless of how it was discovered, having good patch management means not only that your software is up to date with all functionality, but also (and more importantly) that your machines are protected from security complications.

Put simply, patches are changes to software or firmware that are meant to repair some problem. Patch management is quite complex, as patches must be applied regularly on almost everything, from small software like your web browser to large complexities like operating systems. Additionally, not only do these patches need to be completed on machines physically in the office, but also company smartphones or computers used by remote workers.

It’s also important to recognize that if the patches are poorly written, they can introduce their own issues.

What is patch management?

Patch management is the technique of planning, testing, and installing patches to a computer or computer system to keep it up to date, as well as determining which patches should be applied at particular times to which systems.

The administrator or network management software must always be up to date about currently installed and available patches, recognize which updates are required for which systems, and know how to properly test to certify that all changes have been installed correctly. On top of this, IT workers will need to document the information for future reference.

Challenges

There are quite a few things that could go wrong during patch management or challenges that present themselves.

First, there are numerous different devices, operating systems, and configurations. Not only do many offices have different devices, such as mobile phones, computers, and laptops, but each device has its own requirements that the network administrator needs to take into consideration when configuring the patch management program.

A second problem is deciding the time of when a patch should be installed, which should be pushed first, and when they can be tested. Although for network security purposes it can be clear that installing updates immediately upon release is preferred, this isn’t always possible.

Patches can interrupt the busy workday, making some systems unusable while they are installed. Certain vendors will bundle patch updates to make this more simple, but this solution brings more problems when it comes to a potential security breach. If a patch is created once a security issue is recognized but it has not yet been installed on the system, this opens a perfect window of opportunity for malicious actors.

Last, businesses often have issues with testing patches before implementation. Many companies seem to cut patch testing out of the equation for a number of reasons, whether they be due to time or budget, but this could lead to a lot of challenges. Admins should run tests for stability in an environment similar to where the patch will be installed. However, not only does this require employees to spend their time testing the patches, but there are also hardware and software resources that must be available for the testing, making it difficult for many businesses to find the time, resources, and money.

Benefits

Now that we’ve gone over a few of the main problems, you might be wondering what the benefits are.

Starting with the most important advantage, patch management brings greatly increased security protection. Anytime a security vulnerability is discovered in software or firmware, the company will (read: should) immediately repair this problem. After they make the necessary software fixes, they will deploy a patch that can be installed.

While these security breaches are sometimes recognized by those who won’t exploit it, they are more often found by malicious actors specifically looking for any mistakes in the software. So, it is vital that the patches are installed immediately in order to protect your machines. This means that a good data management program will be absolutely vital for the security of your computers and company.

Strengthened security is the main benefit of a comprehensive patch management plan, but not the only one. While most patches relate to security, others simply improve the software. This means that if you regularly install updates to your computers, the products should have increased performance and fewer crashes, greatly increasing your company’s productivity. These patches work towards less frustrated employees and less downtime, which are both vital for a business’s success.

Automated patch management

You don’t have to be up to date on the latest technology news to know that security is important. From small vulnerabilities that leave certain information exposed to immense problems like the WannaCry ransomware attack just a couple of years ago, cyber criminals only seem to be continuously getting better at exposing vulnerabilities.

Taking WannaCry as an example, we know Windows fixed the vulnerability in their operating system relatively quickly, but a number of people never patched their machines, resulting in many computers being locked needlessly by ransomware even months after the patch was released. In fact, Cisco’s Cyber Security Report less than two years ago showed that 92% of threats were left unpatched, and thus, open to cyberattacks. Even more, “known vulnerabilities cause 44 percent of all data breaches.”

Of course, no administrator leaves systems unpatched purposefully. One reason for waiting could be that they are required to per company rules for a specific day to install all patches that have been released since the last patch update day in order to not interfere with the busy workday.

Otherwise, if an administrator is patching machines on their own manually, the lack of update could simply be due to human error. Perhaps they didn’t realize a patch was available, they weren’t keeping track of which machines were patched and which weren’t, or they simply ran out of time.

Humans always make mistakes, especially if it’s an overworked IT professional. Greatly lower the potential for these simple errors to occur by automating the process as much as possible. With a good automated patch management software, the program regularly scans and applies the patches within your set time frames, meaning these simple mistakes don’t happen.

Of course, if your IT employees don’t have to manually install multiple patches on every computer regularly, they are saving untold hours. By setting up automated patching within certain parameters, they can focus their attention on more pressing concerns, saving their productivity and your company’s budget.

Security is obviously improved if an automated software is regularly scanning for new patches and immediately updating them (or updating them within the hours you’ve allowed). Reap the benefits of saving time, improving security, and reducing mistakes with automated patching. Your business will no longer have to worry about being yet another statistic of those who allowed a malicious actor to exploit a known vulnerability.

Effective patch management process

Now that you understand the importance of patch management, it’s time to create a plan for your company. Here’s an effective patch management process that you can implement for your own business.

  1. Evaluate the current state of your network. First, you must conduct a full network inventory. This comprises of determining the type of devices, operating systems and their versions, applications present on each device, and user role. While this may seem obvious, many offices don’t keep excellent track of their inventory, particularly of those who work remotely with company machines or via VPN or business mobiles. Part of this network assessment step includes making sure that each system in your network is fully operational and able to respond to new security updates.
  2. Create patch guidelines. Before you begin actually installing patches, it’s important to have certain policies in place. First, identify when patches are available. Some software companies have certain days each week or month, for example, when patch bundles are released so it’s imperative to understand vendor patch release schedules. Then, set clear rules for what order you patch devices in, when they will be patched (both by frequency and permissible hours, keeping time zones in mind for remote workers), and what conditions need to be met in order to break these set rules (i.e. when is a patch important enough to install immediately rather than waiting for a set time). This is the time that you’ll decide how frequently to patch operating systems vs browsers, for instance, or when to roll out critical vs. non-critical updates.
  3. Determine which devices are unpatched and decide which patches to install. Some patches might be necessary for each device in your organization while others are only necessary for certain access levels or particular operating systems. Additionally, different computing environments affect the importance of the patch and the time it takes for the update to take place. This step includes deciding exactly which patch to deploy immediately and which should wait for its scheduled date, determining if the device has all the essentials necessary for deploying the update, and identifying whether the patch might compromise other software.
  4. Test the patch. The software should be tested in a lab environment, whether real or virtual, and then an IT admin should pilot test the patch in the production environment. At a minimum, there should be a testing segment if your company cannot create a full test environment for new patches. Part of this process also includes creating backups in case the patch has unanticipated consequences. Once your IT employee is certain the updates don’t negatively affect any other aspect of your system, including any incompatibilities or performance issues, you can proceed.
  5. Deploy the patch. After you have completed each of the above steps taking care to perform proper testing, you can deploy the patch on each device in your environment. If this will not take place during off-hours, it is important to inform all those whose devices will be unusable. All failed deployments must be understood, handled, and redeployed. Be certain to monitor the updates and each computer’s software, recording all patches and versions, and keeping track of statistics for any issues that might arise and for future deployments.

Best practices

  • Keep a comprehensive inventory of your system. You must have an extensive list of all hardware in your system architecture. Within this, it’s important to keep track of every piece of software installed on each device and its version. This includes a list of security related components like firewalls and antivirus software. While this may seem complicated, it gets much easier to keep track after the initial inventory.
  • Try to consolidate software. If your company uses many different types of software or software versions, it’s more complicated to keep up with the latest patch for each one. Additionally, if you have software that overlaps functionality, try to scale back on the number of programs you use.
  • Automate as much as possible. With automation, you are less likely to miss important patch updates, push the wrong version, forget certain machines and more. Protect yourself and your company by automating your patch management.
  • Understand priorities and risk levels. Assign each computer in your architecture a risk level and order of patch installation. Of course, each computer needs to be patched; however, some systems are more prone to be hacked and wreak havoc on your system.
  • Create backups and test patches on each different environment. In order to be certain that you don’t lose any important data or make computers unusable, make sure to test patches in the environment they’ll be installed on before rolling out the patches throughout your system.
  • Reduce the risk on any unpatched systems. Whether it’s due to an incompatibility with other software on the device or needing to wait for a certain date, it's important to protect computers that don’t have the most recent patches. For instance, make sure user permissions are locked down on the server and don’t leave the server exposed to the Internet if possible.

Choosing the right patch management software

Now that you know how vital patch management is, and even more, how important it is to automate this process, you have to decide which patch management software is right for you. This can be a daunting process because of the numerous different options available. In an upcoming article we will cover the process of finding the right patch management software based on different business requirements.

Angela Karl

Angela Karl is a professional freelance writer specializing in technology and travel with over six years of experience in the editorial world. When she's not writing articles, she can be found perfecting her programming language skills and seeing as much of the world as possible.

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