As anyone who uses computers and smart devices knows, operating systems often need to be updated to fix bugs, improve security or implement new features. These software “patches” are deployed by developers to ensure end users have the most up-to-date version available. It’s important for a business to have a process in place for managing system updates and getting every employee on board with installing patches as they become available. Here’s what you should know about patch management and how it impacts the security of your business software.
What is patch management?
Patch management is the process organizations use to deploy and install software patches to their entire network of devices. An established patch management process helps protect your network from cyberattacks and ensures that all the systems your employees use for their daily workflows are up to date.
“The majority of cybersecurity breaches stem from unpatched vulnerabilities and outdated systems,” said Christopher Hass, director of information security and research at Automox. “For example, the WannaCry ransomware attack exploited organizations that failed to stay up to date with Windows patches or used old systems that no longer receive security updates.”
How does patch management work?
Patches are released on a regular or as-needed basis by software developers and network administrators. End users are often notified by pop-up notifications on their devices to update their software.
Individual users of personal devices may ignore these notifications and let weeks or months go by before they install the patch. For businesses with a multitude of devices containing sensitive data, ignoring these patch updates could be an enormous cybersecurity risk.
“With the shift to remote work, employees at home are more vulnerable to cybersecurity threats as they leave their organization’s secure network and will likely dismiss any computer updates to avoid disruptions to their workflow,” Hass told business.com. “Without a proper – and modern – patch management process that can see and manage endpoints outside the corporate VPN, IT teams will have a difficult time applying updates remotely, and these endpoints will become even more vulnerable for cyberattacks.”
Tools like remote PC access software can help with patch management. By remotely accessing employees’ desktops, IT staff can install patches on a user’s behalf. They will also test the patch to make sure it is working correctly, and that the user has no questions or issues when using it. Companies may also opt to use patch management tools that automate the process and install updates remotely as soon as they become available.
Why do companies need patch management?
There are various reasons why companies need a patch management process for their business devices and systems.
First and foremost, patch management helps keep all your systems and software secure. The updates to your software and applications fix vulnerabilities in the programming that could potentially lead to cyberattacks.
“It’s important that businesses have a plan to regularly review and apply vendor-provided software patches and updates to ensure systems stay secure and protected against malicious threats like malware,” said Mieng Lim, vice president of product management at Digital Defense Inc.
Patches aren’t always just for security fixes. They can also come with updates to existing programs, giving them additional features and making them run more efficiently. If your device is running on an outdated version of a system, it could take longer to run the program, wasting your company’s time. By updating applications as soon as the patch is ready, you can help ensure that your system will run smoothly.
Many organizations must maintain a certain level of regulatory compliance to reduce the rate of cyberattacks. Patch management is often one piece of a corporate compliance policy. It gives companies an extra layer of security and liability to protect themselves and their partners’ information. If your business does not comply with these standards, you could be subject to monetary fines.
Patches can add new features to existing software and applications to improve your workflow. New features often simplify existing processes and boost efficiency. Having everybody on the same patch gives your company a certain consistency, preventing discrepancies between an updated device and an outdated one.
What are the benefits of patch management?
A more secure environment
Regular maintenance of your software and applications protects your company’s data, files and information. It also protects your employees from potential security breaches and lets them work in a free and secure environment.
Your clients and partners will be happy to know you are taking necessary and regular steps to protect their data. Knowing that you have an active patch management system, your customers will feel valued and know they are in good hands. This can lead to future sales and customer loyalty.
Greater product innovation
Patch management will update your software and applications with new features that improve their functionality for your employees. These features can give your business new ways to optimize your workflow and lead you to discover new processes, products, and services that also help your productivity.
How to implement a patch management process
With multiple systems, assets, and applications, implementing a routine patch management process can be complicated. However, once you’ve implemented it, it will save your company time and effort while maximizing productivity. Here are the steps to create that process:
1. Develop an up-to-date list of endpoints and security controls.
First, catalog all of the IT assets within your network based on device type, operating system, current operating system version and hardware. If your organization is using multiple versions of the same software, consolidate versions as much as possible. This keeps your employees on the same page and standardizes your inventory to be more efficient.
“Securing endpoints should be the top priority for IT teams if businesses want to avoid dealing with preventable cyberattacks,” Hass said. “Ensuring proper use of limited IT resources is vital for small business owners, and implementing software solutions to help streamline patch management can help their IT teams be as efficient as possible.”
You also want to list all of your existing security controls, including firewalls, antitrust software and vulnerability management tools. Knowing where they are located, what they protect, and what systems they are running on makes them easier to update and maintain.
2. Identify and classify security risks.
While creating your inventory list, you may come across some vulnerabilities within your software and systems. You’ll need a process for identifying and mitigating these vulnerabilities.
“Small businesses should opt for a penetration test, an ethical hacking exercise to identify vulnerabilities and assess your current security controls,” said Harman Singh, a director at Cyphere. “This technical gap analysis works like a validation after your security work to assure that your business is safe from cyberattacks.”
If you find a risk, classify it and focus on updating your system to eliminate it. Prioritize the systems that are most important to the function of your organization. Determine which systems need to be updated first and which users need to receive those patches first.
3. Test and apply patches.
Using a smaller representative sample of your assets, conduct a stress test to make sure that once the patch is installed, it will not cause any issues with other applications in your network. Test your fixes on every device and application that will be updated.
“Each system configuration is different, and vendors don’t always know how their patch will impact your systems,” Lim explained.
Singh agreed, noting that patching may sometimes introduce new risks to an environment. “Applying the latest patches may break compatibility with software or other dependencies relying on it.”
If the patch passes the stress test, it’s time to install it. Start with the highest-priority devices and users, then roll out the patches from there. Inform users of available updates, and make sure they understand it’s important to install it as soon as they can.
4. Track your progress and revisit your process frequently.
As the patch is being installed, continually monitor your assets to make sure there are no unexpected results in production. If there are, have your IT department assess the issue and create a solution. Monitor the patch over an extended period so you can make sure it is successful over the long term.
“Know that patch management is not a one-and-done; it’s a continuing process,” Lim said. “As your environment changes and threats evolve, so will your patch management strategy.”