What Is Patch Management: Definition, Benefits, and Best Practices

Organizations such as schools and enterprise practices hold a treasure trove of sensitive data, including student records, enterprise information, and financial data. A cyber attack could not only expose this data to nefarious actors putting employees and customers at risk but also lead to legal liability, operational disruption, and reputational damage. But there’s one way you can help prevent this: patch management

Let’s delve into the “why” behind patching, the risks of ignoring it, and the power of automation to make your life easier (and your data safer).

What is patch management?

A software patch is a fix or update for a computer program that can improve its security, performance, or functionality. These patches are typically designed to address security vulnerabilities or bugs (errors) found in the software.

Patches may be:

  • Temporary (as in the case of zero-day vulnerabilities)
  • Permanent fixes (cross your fingers!) 
  • Some are provided by software vendors for operating systems and applications and vary widely in the frequency of release

Why does patch management matter? 

Much like eating a healthy diet, patch management ensures that your software and operating system remain healthy.  

Otherwise, you are left with slower, less effective, insecure older versions (nobody’s got time for that) that leave you vulnerable to hackers who can exploit these weaknesses to steal data (leading to breaches and loss), disrupt operations (causing downtime and lost productivity), and put you out of compliance with regulations.

Patching helps keep your employees, partners, and customers’ data secure.

Vulnerabilities in school systems or educational software can expose student and staff data, which may lead to identity theft and financial fraud. Ransomware attacks exploiting vulnerabilities can lock schools out of their data and systems,  resulting in inaccessible teaching resources, and student records-

In enterprises, vulnerabilities in hospital systems or electronic health records (EHR) can expose sensitive patient data, which may be sold to be used for identity theft or fraudulent medical claims.

Similar to education, healthcare facilities can be crippled by ransomware attacks, hindering their ability to provide critical patient care. Unpatched devices may fail to operate correctly and may even put patient health at risk. 

Using a service like FileWave allows you to set up and push necessary security patches to your operating systems automatically and control them from one tool.

This helps you maintain compliance with regulations, such as HIPAA or GDPR, avoiding fines.

As Benjamin Franklin once famously said, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

What happens if you don’t patch?

Image credit: https://m.xkcd.com/1328/

Around 60% of major data breaches can be traced back to unpatched system vulnerabilities that IT teams can have addressed through timely patching.

A report by security company Sophos surveyed 2,974 organizations hit by ransomware attacks in the last year. It found that 32% of ransomware attacks started with an unpatched vulnerability. 

In 2022, the company found that among the incidents it was called in to address, which started with exploited vulnerabilities, 55% were caused by ProxyShell and Log4Shell — both of which had existing patches at the time of compromise. The company continues to see ProxyShell being exploited 30 months after the release of the patch.

If that’s not bad enough, the researchers also found that ransomware attacks that start with an unpatched vulnerability have considerably greater financial and operational impact than those that begin with compromised credentials and that recovery is typically much slower than when the root cause is compromised credentials.

And it’s worth noting that no industry is immune. In November last year, a ransomware attack on the US arm of the state-owned ICBC, one of the largest banks in the world, was linked to an unpatched vulnerability.

Central to patching is the process of identifying, testing, and deploying updates to help keep your systems protected from known vulnerabilities.

Are you scared enough to take patching seriously? Here are some key best practices for patch management.

Patch management best practices

1. Policy-first patch management

An effective patch management policy is a proactive defense against cybersecurity threats. It ensures that all systems receive up-to-date patching. 

A policy should be a working document that is regularly reviewed, especially regarding roles and responsibilities, which may need to be updated as people leave or move within a company. 

Besides who will do what, your plan should include schedules for patch applications and maintenance windows — this will most likely be outside of normal business operating hours to minimize disruption to your employees and other users. 

2. Know your inventory to know what needs patching

Do you know what devices can access your network? It’s crucial to keep an accurate view of your entire environment. It only takes one unpatched app or device to gain entry and cause chaos. Preventing this means keeping an inventory of all devices, software, and systems to know what needs to be patched. 

You should strive to reduce the amount of unused and unpatched software residing on your networks to reduce the potential for future data leaks and network exposure.

Automated discovery tools such as LogicMonitor and WhatsUp Gold can scan networks for devices. However they don’t manage anything, the scanning is to identify unmanaged devices only.  To manage them you need a tool such as FileWave. And it’s always worth remembering that no environment anywhere has 100% of its devices under management — so the act of looking for unmanaged devices is super important and needs to be done repeatedly.

FileWave enables you to create custom groups of devices, which can be used to target specific sets of devices according to factors such as department, location, and type for patch deployment and software distribution. This makes tracking and managing patching across your ecosystem far easier. 

3. Prepare for the worst

Your organization should already have a disaster recovery business continuity plan (DRBC or BCP), at least in the event of emergencies and expected events like fires and floods. You should include a section on cybersecurity in your plan in the event of attacks across shared resources like networks and servers. 

Think proactively. How will you restore your systems and data after a disruptive event? What single points of failure do you have? What steps need to be undertaken to prevent disruptions and ensure that you can maintain operations during and after an incident? 

It’s important to update this regularly, much like your patch management policy, and store your documentation both on-site and off-site to ensure accessibility if you cannot access cloud and/or on-prem software.

4. Document patching like a love letter to your future self 

Much like proactive patching management policies and DRBC, maintaining thorough records is essential for effective patching. Documentation should include information like addressed vulnerabilities, patches applied, testing outcomes, and any issues encountered. 

This provides an audit trail — Filwwave provides the history and reporting — in case of any difficulties and can also help you meet industry standards and regulations. 

5. Go automatic 

Patching can be manual or automated.

However, automated patch management is a more proactive approach than manual patch management, where critical patches can be delayed or overlooked amid the hundreds of flaws discovered each month. Using the latest version of an application or tool ensures you benefit from the vendors’ most recent security fixes.

Replacing manual steps with automation offers a means to reduce human error and make patching happen faster.

That said, we also suggest manual patch testing first before automation to reduce any chances that the patches themselves harm your organization.  Best practice suggests always deploying to a set of “patch testers” before rolling out to production.

FileWave allows you to set up and push necessary security patches to your operating systems automatically and control them from one tool. It also provides customizable reporting on patch status, software installations, and software usage. 

Key takeaway

In today’s ever-expanding landscape of cyber threats, it can be easy to feel overwhelmed. But patching provides a powerful shield against security vulnerabilities that may harm your organization. By using tools like those from FileWave, you can take control and turn patching into a powerful ally, not a nagging chore.

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