The digital world today is full of constant cyber threats that pose a big threat to businesses. IT Teams are constantly battling a never-ending torrent of updates and sometimes they lose the battle.
According to IBM, the global average cost of a data breach reached $4.45 million in 2023, a 15% increase over the last 3 years in the Cost of a Data Breach Report - this is a record high.
You can counter these risks in your organization by staying on top of software vulnerabilities. This is another way of saying you need a robust patch management strategy.
A robust patch management strategy is possible through a tenacious patch management lifecycle. This is the focus of this guide.
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What is the patch management lifecycle?
The patch management lifecycle is a continuous process that involves identifying, testing, deploying, and monitoring software patches and updates. The goal of patch management is to address vulnerabilities and improve the security of computer systems.
Examples of such systems include:
- Operating Systems such as Windows, macOS.
- Web Servers like Apache, Nginx, and Microsoft Internet Information Services (IIS)
- Database Management Systems like MySQL, PostgreSQL, and Microsoft SQL Server
- Networking Equipment such as Routers, switches, and firewalls
- Content Management Systems (CMS) like WordPress, Joomla, and Drupal
- Enterprise Software like like SAP, Oracle E-Business Suite, and Salesforce
- Mobile Operating Systems such as iOS and Android
- IoT Devices like cameras and sensors.
A patch is a piece of code or a software update designed to fix, improve, or update the existing one. A typical patch is normally released by the vendor to achieve any of the following objectives:
- Address security vulnerabilities
- Enhance functionality
- Correct issues such as bugs or glitches.
Patches can range from minor updates to major revisions.
The patch management life cycle: The important stages
The patch management lifecycle constitutes the following key stages:
Stage 1: Identification
After identifying any potential risk, you next check if there is any available patch or update from software developers or vendors.
For example, after scanning, you may discover that your web server is running an outdated version of Apache HTTP Server (e.g., version 2.4.41), and a newer version (e.g., 2.4.46) is available. So what do you do? You update to version 2.4.46.
Stage 2: Evaluation
This is a crucial step that involves assessing and validating software patches before deploying them to production systems.
You want to ensure that the patches are compatible with your organization's software and hardware configurations. Essentially, they should not introduce new issues.
Start by reviewing the available patches from software vendors or security bulletins. IT and security teams need to identify which patches are relevant to their environment based on the identified vulnerabilities and the software in use.
Stage 3: Prioritization
This is the crucial process of determining which software vulnerabilities to address first based on their potential impact on the organization's security and operations.
The important factors to evaluate in this stage include:
- The severity of the vulnerability
- Exploitability of the flaw
- Criticality of the affected systems
This strategic decision-making helps the organization to allocate resources effectively, and this ensures that you address the most significant vulnerabilities promptly. As a result, the overall risk to systems and data is reduced.
Prioritization strikes a good balance between security, operational continuity, and resource allocation.
Stage 4: Installment
In this stage, the patches or updates are deployed to the affected systems. It's important to ensure that disruptions are minimal through a well-organized and controlled approach.
A few critical tips for smooth installation include steps like:
- Verifying system compatibility
- Scheduling patch installation during off-peak hours to minimize downtime
Let's say your organization identifies a critical security patch for customer relationship management (CRM) software, which, if exploited, could expose sensitive customer data.
In the installation phase, your IT team first schedules the patch deployment during the weekend to minimize business disruption.
Before applying the patch, a backup of the CRM database is created to safeguard against data loss in case of any issues. The patch is then installed on a test environment to verify compatibility and functionality.
Once verified, the patch is deployed on the production system, with constant monitoring to ensure a smooth update process.
With such a methodical approach, the CRM system will remain secure while safeguarding the integrity of customer data and minimizing downtime.
Stage 5: Verification
Here, you want to confirm the successful application of patches and ensure that the systems remain stable and secure.
This stage involves comprehensive testing of the patched systems to validate their functionality and security post-update.
What are some of the key activities you need to undertake for this stage of the patch management lifecycle?
- Functional testing to ensure that applications and services continue to work as expected
- Security testing to confirm that vulnerabilities have been effectively addressed
- Performance testing to assess any potential impacts on system performance.
By the end of this stage, you will have identified and rectified any issues that might have arisen during the installation phase. You basically want to ensure that the patch has achieved its intended purpose.
Let's say your organization has just installed a critical operating system patch on all employee workstations to address a security vulnerability. In the verification phase, your IT department runs a battery of tests. Some of these tests could include:
- Checking that all software applications function correctly
- Ensuring network connectivity remains stable
- Conducting security scans to confirm the vulnerability has been effectively patched.
If any compatibility issues or unexpected glitches surface during this phase, they are promptly resolved.
Stage 6: Documentation
Documentation in this context simply means the meticulous recording of all relevant information related to the patch management activities.
You need to catalog the specifics of the patches applied, including their origins and release notes, as well as maintaining a detailed account of the patching timeline. When and how were the updates implemented and on which systems?
Any challenges encountered are equally documented, along with the solutions employed to address them.
This comprehensive record not only serves as a historical log but also ensures transparency and accountability.
Consider an event where your organization has just applied a critical patch to the company's database servers.
The documentation for this patch will include the patch's name, version, and release notes, along with dates and times of installation on each server.
The documentation will also record any unexpected issues encountered during the verification phase, such as a temporary performance dip.
Stage 7: Communication
This is the stage where all the relevant stakeholders such as management and users are notified about upcoming patches. It also involves providing clear instructions for patch handling, and offering status updates to keep everyone informed of the progress.
Effective communication is key to minimizing disruptions and ensuring that all team members are on the same page throughout the patching process.
Stage 8: Monitoring
The monitoring phase is a critical process that involves the continuous surveillance of systems and networks.
The aim is to confirm the effectiveness of applied patches and watch out for any new security concerns. Specifically, the monitoring includes:
- Ongoing security and compliance checks
- Performance monitoring
- Early incident detection
- Tracking of patch status across all systems.
Through this vigilant oversight, you get to maintain a smoothly functioning IT environment while proactively addressing emerging threats that might arise post-patch deployment.
Stage 9: Repeat
As the patch management process is an ongoing and cyclical endeavor, you need to revisit the entire lifecycle regularly.
This iterative approach ensures that vulnerabilities are continually addressed, helping you to adapt quickly to evolving threats and technology changes.
Making your patch management a repeatable cycle is crucial for maintaining a proactive and resilient cybersecurity posture.
Common challenges that organizations encounter in the patch management life cycle
There are several challenges that can arise from the process of patching. These are the most common ones:
Sometimes, updates or patches can turn out to be incompatible with the existing hardware or software. This is a recipe for new problems.
For example, in 2020 Apple kernel extension APIs were deprecated in macOS 10.15.4 and replaced with a new mechanism called system extensions. This disabled security tools and VPNs. In this case, user organizations had to halt upgrades until Apple or in this case the VPNs could adapt.
2. Insufficient time
A study conducted by Ivanti found that most business owners or management in the organization at times request exceptions or postpone patching installations.
This could be because of unavailability on their end or that the process can be time-consuming.
Even while they know that patching is a good idea, many businesses have limited resources. Because of this limitation, they are often hesitant to spend money on whatever solution they consider expensive — regardless of the positive impact the patch could have on their systems.
There is also the need to hire teams to run the program, which requires a significant amount of money.
As a result, this lack of finances leads to consequences such as skipping, applying patches inconsistently, or simply delaying the patching.
Training is required for some patch management tools simply because they are too complex.
The learning curve can be tough and very time-consuming, especially for organizations with bigger systems to handle.
5. Patch tracking
Tracking all these patches that would be required to ensure all organization software is running optimally is not a walk in the park.
It becomes a daunting task to stay on top of all available patches. Vendors release patches regularly, and keeping an up-to-date inventory of software and their associated patches can be a time-consuming and resource-intensive endeavor.
6. Missing updates
At times a security issue or risk arises before there is a patch available to fix the issue. This situation can leave your organization exposed.
When this happens, you may need to rely on temporary workarounds. A common example of such a workaround is network segmentation, where vulnerable systems are isolated or segmented from critical parts of the network to limit the potential impact of a security breach.
7. System conflict
In some instances, an update can bring system conflict or new issues. For instance, a patched operating system may lag or be too bloated because of the new update.
The ability to be able to roll back to the previous operating system is essential but can bring its own set of problems.
8. Prioritization difficulties
Sometimes it can be difficult to identify which patches are crucial and need to be fixed right away.
You particularly run the risk of wasting resources on less important changes if priorities aren't set correctly.
The NIST reported that in 2021 alone, over 20,000 new vulnerabilities were found. In such a case, it would be extremely difficult to prioritize even a small portion of those vulnerabilities.
9. Disruption concerns
Patching a system could require downtime or reboots, which could be challenging for vital systems that need to be constantly available.
For example, a Windows update caused problems with videos and Microsoft had to issue an emergency fix.
Patch management vs vulnerability management
It’s easy to mistake vulnerability management to mean the same thing as patch management. While these two are related in some aspects, they are fundamentally different in the following parameters.
Vulnerability management is about locating, evaluating, and prioritizing security flaws in the hardware, software, and systems of an organization. Not only does it include the already existing vulnerabilities but also the weaknesses that could potentially be exploited.
In patch management, the process is about applying patches or updates to address known vulnerabilities.
Vulnerability management continuously checks on both patched and unpatched vulnerabilities. The goal is to check on the likelihood of an attack or how computer assets have been affected by an attack.
The goal in patch management is to apply the already available patches on the known vulnerabilities to reduce any risk of exploitation.
In vulnerability management, the scope is broad. It ensures that any potential threats, weaknesses, and vulnerabilities to the system are continuously mitigated to ensure no downtime.
The patch management scope, on the other hand, is narrow scope as it deals with the already existing vulnerabilities.
In a nutshell, patch management is more of a subset of vulnerability management.
The patch management lifecycle has transitioned from a choice to a necessity!
The patch management lifecycle has evolved from being a discretionary practice to an absolute necessity in today's digital landscape. This transformation is primarily driven by the escalating frequency and sophistication of cyber threats and the vulnerabilities that malicious actors exploit.
In the past, organizations might have considered patching as an optional task, but the consequences of neglecting it have become increasingly severe. As we have come to discover, vulnerabilities serve as prime entry points for cyberattacks.
Furthermore, compliance requirements and regulatory standards have reinforced the shift from choice to necessity. Many industries and regions now mandate rigorous patch management practices to safeguard sensitive data and critical systems. Organizations are legally obligated to maintain a secure and compliant IT environment, making patch management an integral part of your risk management and compliance strategies.
Together best out of the patch management lifecycle, please anchor it in a comprehensive patch management policy.