Patch management is an IT function that involves monitoring, identifying, testing and installing patches—a term used to describe system and code updates intended to make improvements or resolve security vulnerabilities and bugs within a software program.
Why Patch Management is Important
Managing your organization’s system patches proactively and methodically is critical for a few reasons:
Software providers release patches for programs to remedy vulnerabilities or bugs in the system. When patches are left uninstalled, it increases your risk of being exposed to that vulnerability. In fact, according to a Ponemon Institute study, 57% of cyberattack victims report that their breach could have been avoided by installing an available patch. Maintaining the most up-to-date version of software programs is essential for adhering to compliance and security regulations and protecting your organization’s valuable information.
While risk management is a critical factor, ensuring your staff have access to the most optimized, efficient version of technology available to them is also a significant driver for patch management. Software providers are constantly working on updating features and functionality on their platforms, and maintaining the latest version of those tools ensures your staff has the best resources at their disposal at all times.
Challenges of Patch Management
The challenges of patch management are often complex and interwoven—and since the onset of remote work over the past few years, those challenges have only magnified. As employees disperse geographically, IT teams are dealing with a broader range of endpoints connecting to the network. This in turn increases the amount of vulnerabilities, which can equate to a greater number of patches to deploy.
As the number of patches rise, IT teams struggle to stay on pace. According to the Ponemon Institute, 74% of enterprises can’t keep up with the pace of patching due to IT staff shortages. Prioritizing patches by urgency, testing those patches and effectively deploying them takes time and strategy—and if critical updates fall through the crack, risk increases. It’s a vicious cycle that can result in very real consequences for organizations.
How Patch Management Works
You might be thinking: isn’t patching just like clicking ‘update’ on your iPhone’s iOS? Technically yes, but when it comes to enterprise IT, it’s so much more complex. An effective patch management process consists of many steps and is an ongoing effort, not a one-and-done deal. The process looks something like this:
IT teams must develop a process to assess their environment on an ongoing basis. This includes keeping an active inventory of the devices, operating systems and applications that need to be monitored for patching.
Policy and Process
In this critical step, leaders should make decisions around patching policy and process, considering who will complete the patches, when and under what conditions. This includes deciding which software versions should be standardized across the organization and categorizing assets and patches by risk and priority.
Following the outlined policies and procedures, your IT team can now get into action. In this phase, you’ll perform tasks like testing patches in a sandbox environment, running pilots to identify potential bugs and errors, planning rollouts including outage communications to teams, installing the patches across the organization, and finally documenting them to help improve the process down the road.
Best Practices of Patch Management
As a Managed Services Provider (MSP), there are many best practices that we adhere to when it comes to patch management protocol. Here are a few of our favourites.
1) Develop emergency patching protocol
While there are standard patches you’ll plan for on an ongoing basis, there will also be times where updates need to be installed urgently in response to a security vulnerability. In those high-stakes times, it’s best to have a proactive plan in place.
2) Keep in tune with vendor patch release schedules
Having a solid understanding of the operating systems, applications and firmware you’re working with is a great first step—but keeping a log of their regularly scheduled patch releases will help you plan ahead.
3) Prioritize by level of risk
Much like a triage system at a hospital, patches should be prioritized by level of risk. Develop a colour-coding system to help you determine how critical a patch is based on factors including the system's importance to business operations, downtime requirements and level of vulnerability.
4) Be timely
Especially in the case where a patch is deployed in response to a critical security vulnerability, it’s important to be timely with your updates. Yes, it’s possible business productivity will be interrupted. However, a bit of downtime is surely preferred over the alternative—the risk of a hacker gaining access to your network.
5) Develop a contingency plan
Always have a backup plan in place in case a patch doesn’t work out as intended. This means having a rollback plan and systems snapshot available for restoring them to the state they were in before the patch was deployed.
Outsource Your Patch Management
Patch management is a time consuming task that can be hard to keep up with in house. Today, many organizations outsource patch management to MSPs like IX Solutions, which allows their IT staff to focus more on big-picture strategy and less on day-to-day tactics.
Ready to talk to an MSP about outsourcing your patch management? Give us a call today.