What is patch management?
Patch management is the process of tracking security bug(s) and applying updates (code changes) on them in existing applications, software, or programs on a computer and other technologies to improve the functionality and security of already released programs installed in systems.
There aren’t many internal network penetration testing reports that come out without patch management issues. This is partly due to the tricky process and partly to blame the philosophy of ‘patch everything’ that leads to never ending cycles.
What is a patch?
Just like the clothing patch intending to cover a hole or a weak spot, a patch in computing is a set of instructions or piece of code that fixes security vulnerabilities and other bugs. These patches are commonly known as bug fixes. Patching is the process that defines how and what should be done to ensure timely fixes.
Why do we need patch management process?
If you have understood what patch management is, it is not difficult to know why you need it in your business. Cyber attacks are reported at alarming rates every other day, sometimes due to known and unknown vulnerabilities exposing assets to the threat actors. Although patching is mainly covered under the IT team’s processes, it is critically relevant to business and the security domain. The weaknesses paving the way for attackers to exploit and gain unauthorised access has resulted in losses of millions to date. Unpatched systems are the most critical issues that, if not fixed, may result in a variety of security breaches.
To avoid such incidents, we need to update computing systems, devices, applications, firmware with a patch release to close the vulnerable points and strengthen the infrastructure against cyber attacks.
Patch management is the most effortless and automatic way to update and keep track of the system/programs while reducing the attack vectors and breaches’ risks. Apart from this, automated patch management is necessary to ensure enterprise technology’s continuous functionality and productivity. However, this requires random audits and checks to ensure everything runs as per the plan. There is no 100% secure or patched system, nor it is possible to patch everything. However, to remove and reduce the known risks and impact-based bugs, it is important to incorporate patch management into the software development lifecycle (SDLC).
How does it work?
It is important to have a patch management policy for the entire patching process to roll out efficient patches. Firm patch management guides the development team to roll out new patches and features with pre-defined and well-documented methodologies. In brief, the patch management policy lists all the mandatory guidelines and requirements to fix the vulnerable end-points before any potential attacker finds and exploits such weaknesses to their advantage.
The patch management policy usually has instructions, methods, and procedures to mitigate the risk and manage the enterprise environment’s security vulnerabilities. This patch policy helps map out the required resources to handle, check, create and verify the latest patches and features. It includes the detection, prioritisation, testing, and deployment of new patches.
Ideally, a patch management policy addresses and document the following areas:
- Identified vulnerabilities risk level
- Timeframe to fix the vulnerabilities
- Responsible team and points of contact
- Testing of patches
- Patches release and deployment
- Patches reporting
- Monitoring and maintenance of released patches
Benefits of patch management programs
- Continuous Security: The patch management’s most prominent benefit is constant security. After the product release, people encounter bugs in the program/software/application prone to cyber attacks and can cause a severe breach. In this scenario, patch management ensures the fixation of vulnerabilities susceptible to exploitation and helps avoid malicious activities, theft, and long-lasting reputational damage.
- Innovative features: With time and usage, new features demands and innovation come in the evolving landscape of technologies. Patches updates contain new features and benefits- allow the software companies to keep up with the latest trends of technologies and ensure the product has the most unique and latest services to offer.
- Compliance: The increased ratio of cyber incidents, unpatched bugs problem, and negligence in data protection from the various organisations has made it mandatory to follow security industry regulations and best-practice. Patch management is one of the solutions that help and maintain a certain level of compliance standards.
- Productivity: Automated patch management helps to detect and install hotfixes and provide the patch deployment status. Besides this, it also boosts the staff’s productivity by focusing on other areas of programs. A consistent operating system and application patch deployment solution is critical to mitigate the risk and prevent security attacks.
- Low downtime: A patched system and automated patch management solution can improve the entire company’s efficiency and help reduce downtime. It also ensures all systems’ smooth, secure, and up-to-date productivity and supports programs.
Patch Management Process
A systemic approach to maintaining and deploying the patches can make the whole patch management process easy to implement and efficient.
Following are the steps involved in a patch management process:
Discovery and Inventory: This is an essential step of the patch management process. To patch the vulnerabilities, it is important to know and discover the environment’s flaws. It is vital to monitor all the critical assets in the company’s ecosystem to find potential weaknesses. This points to the necessity of patch management requirements. A comprehensive, up-to-date inventory of devices, hardware, third-party software, application, operating systems, OS version, and every other end-point device across the business network will keep you informed, boost the remediation process and not let you lose sight of any asset or bug.
Categorise and Prioritise: Once the inventory is prepared, it is time to segment the bugs and assets according to their criticality to business/risk level. This segmentation varies from business to business, frequent or infrequent use of assets, risk impact and likelihood.
Security controls and vulnerability management: To identify potential vulnerability, it is beneficial to assess it through vulnerability management tools and protect them with the organisation’s existing security controls before creating a patch. However, patch management and vulnerability management are not the same in their entire approach, but it is important to understand the vulnerability impact over the asset of the whole organisation’s ecosystem.
It is possible in many cases to mitigate the security weakness through managing vulnerability without any code updates to help save the cost and prevent the risk when an actual patch is released.
Patches Creation: Develop the patching requirements by taking the vulnerable systems, software, networks, etc., under consideration. For this, list down the criteria, frequency, conditions of the patches according to the technology and identify flaws with all the relative requirements that can come between or affect the environment. Once it is done, start the patch development process.
Patches Testing: Create a dummy environment to test and verify the patch to monitor the behaviour, compatibility, performance, and security issues of the created patch. So, in case there is any flaw, you have the time to work over it.
Patches Release: Once you and your team validate and get the surety of patches, release the patch according to the prioritise bug in the patch management policy.
Patches monitoring and maintenance: After rolling out the patches, assess your patched assets to verify whether the patching is done successfully or requires any changes to it. Apart from it, frequently monitor it to be aware of new weaknesses that may occur later in the released patches.
Patch management best practices
Following some industry best practices to enhance the patch management process and deploy an effective patch on vulnerable operating systems, applications, software, networks, and infrastructure is beneficial. Here a few patch management best practices every organisation must follow:
Prioritise and Understand the necessity: Before deploying the patches, it is important to understand which part of the operating systems, software, networks, applications, or system requires the update. Learn the security aspect of each flaw, and classify and prioritise them based on their risk level to secure and defend against zero-day or any other attack.
Team collaboration: Patching cannot be done without effective team collaboration, and the security patches go hand-in-hand with the code update. It is necessary for the security and IT development teams to collaborate and work closely to provide a successful patch management solution. It is also vital to keep the team accountable for their assigned task.
Automated patch management: Manually patching and updating the flaws can be time-consuming and increase the chances of errors in the deployment, but having automated patch management will save time, reduce errors, and schedule the updates according to patch management policies.
Data back-up and Disaster Recovery Plan: Every business needs to have a disaster recovery plan, a full on-site and off-site back-up of all data before rolling out any patch. So in case, the patch deployment fails, they do not go out of business or services.
Managed service providers: Not every company can do or focus on patch management. In this regard, managed service providers offering automated patch management solutions will help fill the void and deliver successful patches. Equally, regular vulnerability scanning or penetration testing exercises often shed light on the weaknesses in patch management practices.
Apply the patches as quickly as possible: Patching the computer, system, OS, software, network as soon as possible reduces the risk of attack because once an attacker gets known to the open path or vulnerable end-point devices, he might exploit them to get access to data.
Sample patch test: No one solution fits all; similarly, the patches you create might be incompatible with the existing operating system or any application part. It is good to run a patch test before deploying the patches onto the systems; so, in case if the created patch doesn’t go well with the current OS or program, you have the time to revise it.
Get in touch with our experts to discuss your concerns, be it be patch management or queries related to your environment.
Shahrukh, is a passionate cyber security analyst and researcher who loves to write technical blogs on different cyber security topics. He holds a Masters degree in Information Security, an OSCP and has a strong technical skillset in offensive security.