Anytime you upgrade software, you risk something breaking. This is the nature of the IT beast. The purpose of patches is usually to fix a bug or, worse, a security vulnerability. That said, sometimes good intentions lead to bad outcomes. For example, you hire a plumber to come and fix a leaky pipe. He patches it but inadvertently breaks the toilet in the process—good intentions with bad outcomes. That doesn’t need to be the case with Linux patching, though.
To make Linux patching easier, you can use some tools known as patch managers to help you save time and money. A patch manager tool also helps you avoid the bad patch that could accidentally break your toilet. In this article, I’ll cover why patch management is important. I’ll also discuss its benefits, problems, best practices, and strategy. Let’s first talk about why patch management is important for your business.
Why Is Patch Management Important?
Patch management is like the assistant ensuring your plumber won’t break the toilet while he fixes other things. It’s an extra set of eyes that can help manage all your machines and what needs updating. Essentially, patch management is setting up a protocol for your team to follow, the order of importance, and the urgency. It also answers what kind of patch it is: a bug fix, vulnerability fix, or new feature.
That said, patch management will fix and improve the performance of the Linux Kernel. It’ll also fix existing security vulnerabilities. Thus, patch management protects you from malicious cybercriminals looking for unpatched systems to target. Installing these patches will protect you against cybercriminals taking advantage of these security flaws. In addition, tools like GFI LanGuard can assist you in applying Linux patching.
Besides the important reasons I mentioned above, let’s dive into the other benefits of Linux patching.
4 Benefits of Linux Patching
The plumber’s assistant can help sort out the jobs from most urgent to least, and he can help keep the tools in order. That’s a big benefit to the plumber. Like any upgrade or patch in this instance, you’ll get many benefits in return. Let’s dive into a few, and then you’ll see why you should keep up with Linux patching.
1. Secure Environment
Do you recall the log4j event in December 2021? That was a major scramble to get things patched up and the vulnerability eliminated. When you keep up-to-date on patching your vulnerabilities, you’ll reduce the risk amount existing in your environment. In return, this will reduce the chances of a breach and something bad happening to your network. Heightened security in your environment is also a benefit to your customers.
2. Happy Clients
If you don’t conduct Linux patching, the Linux kernel will slow down, exposing you to all kinds of vulnerabilities and attack vectors. Customers wouldn’t be too happy to find out their information isn’t safe with you. In essence, it’s best to keep your Linux OS up-to-date and free from vulnerabilities. Your customers will thank you for it. The worst thing you can do in a business is to make your customer question the security of your operations.
3. Certification Compliant
If you maintain certifications, you better believe that the auditors will check if you’re up to date with your patches. If you’re not, you might face some hefty fines. That’s also because you’re putting your clients at risk. In many cases, if you want to maintain active certifications like SOC 2 or ISO 27001, staying up to date with your Linux patching is a must.
4. Reduced Costs
Keeping your patches up to date will save you money in the long run. That’s because it allows you to avert the possibility of being hacked. Being a victim of a hack compromises your data. Then, you’ll likely also have to pay for lawyers and possibly a settlement for your clients. Linux patching cuts all these possible costs short and helps you avoid them.
The benefits of Linux patching don’t end here. That said, the process isn’t flawless and has some downfalls. I already mentioned the broken toilet!
3 Problems with Linux Patching
Despite all the benefits, Linux patching has some downfalls that tend to be inadvertent issues. Thus, sometimes the patch can cause bigger problems than it’s trying to fix.
1. Linux Patching Failure
One of the biggest fears of Linux patching is patch failure. In essence, your patch may not work. What’s worse, your patch may break something else, like the entire OS. You might get that blue screen of death saying it’s impossible to boot the server. When this happens, you should ensure you have a business continuity plan in place.
Other times, something small like a driver on a peripheral device, a touchpad, or a mouse might break. That happened to me before, and fortunately, I had a touch screen and could roll back the driver and get the touchpad working again. That said, you can’t always roll back everything that breaks. Remember that you should also restart your machine after applying an update!
2. Downtime (Time Consuming)
Time is the most valuable asset for a business, and it’s never enough. Some patches might only take a few minutes to install and update. That said, the average company uses about 100 applications. Thus, if all these applications have patches 2-3 times per month, you’ll need an entire team to manage the patches. This will be very time-consuming for your company.
3. Behind the Latest Updates
You can’t ever be ahead of the game with so many applications and patches. You’ll always be playing catch-up with Linux patching and patching in general. This is where you need to make a plan on what to patch, what’s important, what has urgency, etc. That said, you don’t want to just update for the sake of it. That’s because you also don’t want to play wack-a-mole with your patch management. Thus, you’ll need to prioritize which patches are important to your systems and needs.
So how do you improve your patching strategy to best benefit your business? I’ll take you through some best practices next.
Top 6 Linux Patching Best Practices
Here are the top 6 best practices to help you get off to a great start on Linux patch management.
1. Identify the Linux Systems that Need Patching
If you run Linux systems in your business, you want to ensure you have some dedicated resources to keep you on top of the main Linux and peripheral patches. Thus, you should set clear expectations with your team and hold them accountable. In addition, ensure you leverage organizational agreements like service-level agreements. In return, this will keep your environment secure and save you the trouble of any breakdowns.
2. Choose a Linux Patching Tool with Proper Native Support
When you shop for a Linux patching tool, look for one with native support. In essence, native support will ensure that patches have been tested and are ready to go. If you encounter an issue, you can then be sure you can get the help you need. An example of a good patching tool would be GFI LanGuard.
3. Establish a Disaster Recovery Process
If the patch update fails—and by fails, I mean crashes your systems or makes your servers unable to boot—you better have a good plan to avert disaster, quickly roll back, or in the worst case, restore. The best plan is to test the patch in a sandbox environment. In other words, test it on a computer or virtual machine that’s a copy of your system. If it passes, you can deploy the patch to your main systems. On the other hand, if it fails, it gets blown away into dust when you reset your sandbox environment.
4. Don’t Forget Application Patches
Aside from your Linux OS needing patches, your applications do too. Third-party vulnerabilities are some of the most common issues that affect your network. Thus, you must ensure your team updates the applications and your OS. If you have a security scanner like SonarQube or Checkmarx, they’re only as good as their latest version. Thus, keep them updated, too!
5. Test and Audit Linux Patches before Distributing Them
Back to the sandbox! When you get your latest patches, test them locally on your systems. That ensures they’re working as expected before you make them available to the rest of your company. You’ll be glad you did when you finally find that bad patch. That said, hopefully, you’ll have found it in the sandbox (contained) and not wreaking havoc on your network.
6. Apply Patches as Quickly as Possible
In general, you should rush to get security patches applied. This is to prevent any exploitation of vulnerabilities. That said, you’ll want to test it and keep up with the news surrounding it in case the patch has some issues. Again, that sandbox environment ensures that patches go off without major problems.
Now, I’ll get on to the best Linux patching strategy.
Linux Patch Management Strategy
In this section, I’ll give you some pointers on some ways to create a good strategy that will keep you up to date and keep your network secure.
1. Test and Audit Patches before Distribution
As mentioned before, as a part of the best practices, you’ll want to test out your patches in a sandbox environment. In a sandbox, you can ensure that the patch you plan to send out to the rest of your company won’t take down the network due to some flaw. Once you know that your patches are safe to distribute, you can move on to implementing a certain policy in the company.
2. Create a Patch Management Policy
A steady stream of patches will always be coming your way, and they’ll vary in differing degrees of severity. To deal with all these patches and their different levels of urgency, you’ll want to create a policy to handle them. For security patches, you’ll want to prioritize testing that and then distributing it to the team as quickly as possible. You can test lower-level patches for longer before being deployed to the rest of your company.
3. Stay Up to Date and Current
You’ll want to ensure you’re up-to-date on what’s going on with Linux and the general security sphere. This way, you can get the latest updates and important security patches installed as quickly as possible. Sometimes, without the news and information, you might lack information that would help you to make a better, informed decision on what patch you should install or don’t.
Dealing with patch management is important and keeps your Linux systems up and running optimally. In return, this ensures your Linux kernel is operating at optimal speed and guarantees the protection of your network. You can also thwart potential attackers since you’ve patched your vulnerabilities.
Finally, Linux patching will also ensure your clients are happy, especially if they’re storing their data on your network and servers. It’s not easy to keep your Linux OS and third-party applications up to date, but it’s worth it. To make patch management more manageable, you’ll want to consider using a patch management tool to help make patching easier.
Got some more questions or just want to learn more? Check out the FAQ and Resources sections below.
What is patch management?
Patching or updating your software might not be that big of a deal to the typical home user. That said, this is different in the case of an enterprise environment where you deal with multiple OSs and hundreds of applications with updates coming out 2-3 times per month. You’ll need then a way to manage all the updates. Setting a policy to help filter out and get the important updates out as soon as possible is important. This policy is defined as patch management.
What if I skip patches?
If you skip patches, you leave yourself, your network, your employees, and, most importantly, your clients exposed to vulnerabilities. Cybercriminals are always looking for exploits, and you give them that opportunity to take advantage. Sure, you can upgrade to the minor release and get the updates. That said, minor releases aren’t as often nor as specific as a patch.
What are the 3 types of patch management?
The first type is security patches, which will fix an exploit that a cybercriminal could take advantage of. The second is bug fixes, which fix a flaw that made it past QA and now needs fixing in production. Last, the fun one is feature updates. You may get some UI enhancements of some features that might be refined or added.
What are some tools that handle patch management?
A handful of good tools help you with your patch management. Some of these are GFI LanGuard, SolarWinds Patch Manager, Microsoft SCCM, etc. These tools offer their pricing based on the number of nodes or servers.
What is SLA in patching?
The SLA, or service-level agreement, sets the expectations between the service provider and the customer. In terms of patching, many specify that you must patch 100% of connected devices and keep them up to date. This is to prevent attacks and keep the software running at its optimal state.
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