Government agencies as well as experts in the wider cybersecurity space have consistently pointed out that unpatched vulnerabilities continue to be a primary attack vector, especially for ransomware attacks. There is also a worrying trend where known vulnerabilities are left unpatched for long, giving criminals ample time to plan and attack.
According to the United State's Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), some of the top vulnerabilities exploited in 2021 alone include:
- CVE-2021-44228 (Log4Shell): affects Apache's Log4j library.
- CVE-2021-40539: affects Zoho ManageEngine AD SelfService Plus.
- CVE-2021-34523(ProxyShell): affects Microsoft Exchange Server.
- CVE-2021-34473(ProxyShell)): affects Microsoft Exchange Server.
In October 2022, Microsoft warned about CVE-2022-41033, a vulnerability affecting Windows COM+ event system service. Apparently this vulnerability was already being exploited by the time Microsoft was notified.
There is no shortage of examples of companies of all sizes that have suffered the wrath of unpatched vulnerabilities. In July 2021, Kaseya, the MSP software giant, suffered a ransomware attack that took advantage of zero-day vulnerabilities in the Kaseya VSA on-premises product and paralyzed about 1500 organizations that are cumulatively managed by about 50 MSPs. This came as a warning call for the MSP industry. Many organizations rely on Managed Service Providers these days. It means that the criminals now know they can target the parent vendor in the supply chain and easily get their way to thousands of organizations. But to its credit, Kaseya went ahead and shared details of the attack including the actions they took to minimize harm.
These happenings have amplified the importance of patch management, a practice that is so important yet so casually handled. Many organizations approach patch management without a patch management policy, and this is where it’s going wrong.
To correct this problem, it helps to understand what a patch management policy is and why your organization needs to implement it as soon as possible.
Also read: Trends shaping the MSP industry
Patch management policy explained
A patch management policy is a comprehensive document with a clear set of rules and procedures to actively manage the sourcing, distribution and installation of patches across the entire IT Infrastructure. This policy is critical in ensuring that all patches are installed in a timely manner. The goal is to protect systems from vulnerabilities by installing the latest patches as soon as they become available.
Patch management policies can be implemented in a variety of ways, but typically involve some combination of automated tools and manual procedures. Automated tools can be used to scan organization-wide systems for missing patches and to deploy the necessary updates automatically. However, manual procedures are still often necessary to address exceptions or specific system configurations that are impossible to automate.
A good patch management policy should serve as a guideline for how often systems need to be patched, how personnel should monitor systems for updates, and so on. For example, depending on your organization’s threat profile and budget, you may need to have patching performed weekly or even multiple times per day. For larger organizations, it can also be beneficial to have an automated system in place that downloads updates and applies them across the entire network with minimal effort from personnel. Furthermore, patching should take into account any solutions, operating systems, applications, or plugins that are used within the organization.
A strong patch management policy will also include provisions for testing new patches before they are installed.
Benefits of a patch management policy
The fundamental benefit of a patch management policy is to minimize cyber threat risks and downtime costs. It’s an essential part of IT security.
Here is a comprehensive breakdown of the key benefits of a patch management policy:
1. Reduced vulnerability
This is essentially the main purpose of a patch management policy. A patch management routine that is guided by a robust policy ensures that system loopholes are quickly addressed and patched so that malicious actors cannot take advantage. It eliminates the need for users to individually take care of updates, reducing the system's vulnerability to attack.
This ultimately improves performance on a consistent basis and enhances system stability, resulting in fewer technical problems overall and more reliable access to applications and services.
2. Prompt risk management
Policy-driven, regularly deployed security patches can help protect against new exploits before they have a chance to cause any damage, providing an extra layer of proactive protection against cyber threats. In other words, companies are able to prevent attacks from happening in the first place rather than dealing with their aftermath afterwards — immensely valuable from both a security posture standpoint.
The patch management policy ensures regular monitoring of software and hardware for any new network vulnerabilities or weaknesses. If it is determined that certain elements pose a risk or offer limited protection, the organization must then implement necessary fixes or upgrades as soon as possible. By establishing how frequently patches must be implemented and how notifications should be sent, a patch management policy ensures that no relevant change goes unnoticed and complications can be avoided quickly.
3. Minimal conflicts
Patch management should always be an ongoing task, keeping software and hardware up-to-date with the latest patches. Yet managing these updates can add complexity to the work process and create scheduling conflicts between departments or the key IT staff. Additionally, many organizations struggle with determining who among their staff have access to the patches and when they should be installed – leading to inconsistencies in patching..
To minimize these conflicts and make sure time is not wasted during crisis mode, a patch management policy ensures that the right people are assigned to handle specific patching tasks consistently at scheduled intervals; for example, Operating System updates being overseen by alternating IT staff every month on the first Monday of the month. This helps to anticipate conflicts over how quickly patches need to be deployed in order to resolve a security emergency, instead of having two departments or employees clash over who should handle it first.
Across many industries, patching is one of the compliance requirements that an organization needs to meet. A patch management policy comes in handy to guide the organization to properly patch their systems according to laid down compliance requirements by different industry regulators and government agencies. And since the policy provides clear guidelines for documenting the process, organizations will always have all the necessary documentation to meet their compliance obligations without delays.
5. Customer satisfaction
A patch management policy contributes to customer satisfaction by ensuring that all devices in a customer's environment are kept up-to-date with the latest patches and security updates. This helps to prevent vulnerabilities from being exploited, and minimizes the risk of data loss or theft.
This way, businesses can ensure that their customers enjoy a smooth, trouble-free experience with minimal disruptions.
6. Improved reputation
A strong patching policy sends a strong message that the organization is very serious about prioritizing safety. This is important because with cyber attacks occurring on an almost daily basis, many customers are now taking extra caution. They are keeping a watchful eye on the organizations they entrust with their finances and data.
Since the patch management policy gives a clear blueprint on practices such as timely application of patches, it contributes to building trust between a business and its customers by demonstrating that the company genuinely cares about protecting the users of its systems. The overall public perception raises the reputation of the organization, enabling it to attract more customers while naturally locking in the existing ones.
7. Better accountability
A complete patch management policy clarifies who should be responsible for performing which patching tasks and on what schedule, with clear consequences for those who don't follow through. This orderly process helps to provide structure and accountability around patch maintenance. As a result, the importance of proper patching remains on top-of-mind for everyone in the organization.
Without a patch management policy in place, it's often up to individual employees to take initiative. While this kind of vigilance is commendable, there's no guarantee that less tech-savvy staff members are aware of the latest vulnerabilities―or even that they have the resources they need to identify and patch them. Over time, this lack of focus on proper patching can build up into a larger security gap that increases risk across the entire organization.
A comprehensive policy takes away these worries by establishing clear guidelines on how often patches should occur and assigns responsibility accordingly. This ensures that all systems are updated in a timely manner and reduces the chances of missed vulnerabilities due to negligence or oversight.
8. Commitment to SLAs
The wrong patch work can mess up your Service-Level Agreements (SLAs). Fortunately, a proper patch management policy can avoid this by ensuring all vulnerabilities are patched the right way before any disaster happens, avoiding any trouble with contract terms.
9. Competitive advantage
Investing in a quality patching policy could help differentiate a business from its competitors who have yet to implement one. This is an easy way to keep clear of the competition especially now when competition is fierce and customers have numerous options.
Features of a patch management policy: what should it contain?
The contents of a patch management policy can vary from organization to organization, largely dictated by factors such as the scope of the IT infrastructure, number of users, customer base, the industry, compliance requirements and so on. But some features are basic and will cut across most policies regardless of the organization size or type.
Here are some of the most basic components that should be included in a patch management policy:
1. Patch scheduling
The patch management policy should contain a precise schedule for all patching tasks. This should specify how often patches should be checked for and applied. It should also be specific about where manual or automated methods will be used for patch deployment. For example, if operating systems only support manual patch deployment, then personnel might need to be allocated time for performing the necessary tasks. By contrast, automated methods might save time by automatically regulating patch delivery schedules and pushing updates to the network.
The schedule component should also specify how often each system or application should be monitored.
2. Processes for identifying, evaluating and deploying patches
This outlines the procedure which new patches must undergo in order to be accepted into the organization's IT infrastructure, taking into account any associated risks with different patching tasks.
3. Testing procedures and environment
Pre-testing should always be done on non-production systems so that patches can safely be deployed across all environments.
4. Documented rules and communication protocols
Clearly defined rules, roles and responsibilities can help to prevent any issues arising due to lack of communication or inconsistent understanding of processes.
5. Data protection
In addition to patching applications and operating systems, policies must also cover processes such as backing up files before applying updates or establishing secure protocols for downloading them. This component drastically strengthens the overall security posture by making sure that only approved devices have access to sensitive data.
6. Asset monitoring
This specifies guidelines around the monitoring of all hardware, software, and other devices connected to a network. Having insight into what's connected to your networks can help administrators quickly identify systems that are outdated or require patches and other updates.
Automated asset tracking can also save time by automatically alerting administrators whenever a new device is installed or connected to the network.
7. Patch sourcing
This initially involves sourcing for new patches released by vendors or security researchers. This ensures that any vulnerabilities discovered in patches are identified early, so they can be applied as soon as possible before they can be exploited by malicious actors.
Gathering and cataloging relevant patch details provides necessary visibility into the updated status of all assets in a system. Additionally, keeping a single up-to-date repository of all available patches at the disposal of administrators speeds up decision-making when it comes to assessing newly released patches and responding to them promptly.
Without consistent patch information gathering, network operators risk leaving vulnerabilities unpatched for long periods of time — a significant risk point.
Depending on the size of the organization, one or more individuals should be named as responsible for implementing patching processes. Not only should they make decisions about which patches should be applied and when they would go out, but they should also make sure that all key staff members in different departments know their roles in managing potentially vulnerable systems.
For example, designated personnel may need to monitor server and service events or review system logs to determine if additional remediation steps are needed. Including comprehensive roles and responsibilities within a patch management policy ensures that all those involved have a clear understanding of what it means to keep an eye on patching schedules.
Everyone involved in the patching process should internalize their duties, including who is responsible for testing patches, scheduling updates and monitoring system performance.
9. Risk categorization and prioritization
It’s always important to understand the nature of existing risks in order to accurately determine which areas of the system most require attention, and allocate resources accordingly. The policy should outline rules on which patches should be applied first based on severity rating.
This categorization will help prioritize critical updates over minor improvements/fixes. Furthermore, assessing risk levels across potential vulnerabilities can help determine which threats are most urgent and need to be addressed first.
10. Maintenance window request and approval
The success of a patch management policy depends heavily on having a clear and organized process for requesting, scheduling, and approving maintenance windows. This is especially important for organizations that have strict service-level agreements (SLAs) in place as it eliminates the risk of unplanned downtime. Your patch management policy should therefore include a step-by-step guide for initiating requests for maintenance windows and getting approvals. This should include user roles such as system owner, system operator, network admin, and security admin, who may be involved in different stages of the process.
Once the request is made via the ticketing system or email by the user responsible, it should be reviewed by all relevant parties and then approved by someone with administrative permissions. Once approved, each party should confirm their acceptance and schedule any necessary developer or IT team time to complete the patch work.
Once approvals are granted, make sure users are aware ahead of time. Update them accordingly, letting them know when there will be planned downtime due to patching. This will help them plan accordingly and minimize disruption of services from their end.
Creating a patch management policy: quick steps
Take the following steps to formulate and create a strong but easy to use patch management policy:
- Start by outlining procedures for determining how systems including software and hardware will be identified, categorized and prioritized.
- Assign patching roles for each of the different categories of systems as outlined in step 1.
- Clearly define the tools and resources that will be used to identify vulnerabilities and how these tools will be used, by who.
- Document procedures for patch requests, approvals, plus elaborate rollback guidelines.
- Formulate a patch lifecycle timeline for each category of patches, outlining the timelines for each patching task across different systems.
- Outline a monitoring process that thoroughly checks and reports the overall effects of each patch, including the negative effects and the root causes.
- Develop a post-patch analysis template that generates feedback from users, alongside a clear procedure for incorporating the feedback in future patches.
- Constantly review the policy document, update it to reflect the current landscape. IF need be, strike out or replace whatever is outdated.
Best practices for a sound patch management policy
Here are the best practices that should be part of an effective policy.
1. Prioritize patches, always!
It’s essential to develop a process for prioritizing patches, making sure that the most critical ones are implemented first. Start by categorizing updates into three distinct tiers
- High priority patches
- Medium risk patches
- Low risk patches
Take note that regardless of the tier, all patching must be completed. The fact that a vulnerability is low risk does not mean it’ll remain that way forever. Even low risk vulnerabilities can quickly escalate to high risk. So never leave anything to chance.
2. Maintain journalistic records
Keep comprehensive records regarding installed versions of programs and any updates applied or rejected. This will not only provide an audit trail but also allow easy tracking of patch deployments should the need arise.
The policy should clearly outline and even provide simple templates for documenting all vulnerabilities, including common vulnerabilities. This data can be used to bring out a pattern of vulnerabilities, help to devise better protection and cut costs along the way.
3. Automate where you can
Automation can help reduce manual labor and free up IT personnel to focus on more crucial tasks. Always make an effort to deploy automated solutions that apply patches as soon as they are released by vendors.
4. Establish clear testing guidelines
Whenever new patches are available, test them in a controlled environment before rolling them out across your organization’s network. This ensures compatibility with existing applications and systems without creating costly errors or downtime.
Left unchecked, some installed patches could potentially have a negative effect on system performance or user experience.
5. Cover the entire infrastructure
It's important to have a comprehensive patch management policy that covers all aspects of the organization's IT infrastructure. Don't just limit your policy to operating systems and common internal systems such as CRM, ERP.
Even items such as basic connectivity devices and security cameras should be patched or upgraded when due. Essentially, all the hardware and software that makes up your entire IT infrastructure both internally and externally must be accommodated in the patch management policy.
6. Don't forget third party vendor patches
Unfortunately, some vendors don’t always provide sufficient communication of available updates, leaving organizations in the dark regarding necessary patches until they are too late. This is where the patch management policy should play the ‘watchdog’ role. It should outline procedures for checking with vendors and updating third party systems on a regular basis.
7. Seek professional help
For particularly complex patches, it’s advisable that the policy outlines how professional help will be sought to ensure successful implementation of sensitive patch management processes. You can seek help from professional firms that offer IT services such as network support.
Why patch management policies fail?
Even the best systems fail at some point. This is also true for patch management policies. A good number of organizations end up failing to achieve their policy objectives for several reasons.
- Lack of buy-in from executive leadership. Without executive level participation and support in setting expectations and distributing resources, the policy is unlikely to achieve successful results.
- Limited testing capabilities. Patches need to be thoroughly tested before they can be deployed in production environments. This is often a challenge due to limited resources, time constraints, and other internal factors.
- Insufficient automation capabilities. Automation is key for ensuring patches are applied quickly and accurately; however, many organizations lack the necessary tools to automate their patching processes.
- Inconsistent auditing. Many organizations fail to invest in consistent processes for auditing their patching processes as provided in the policy.
- Limited talent. Patch management requires significant technical implementation at all levels of the organization's network infrastructure. If there is not enough appropriately trained staff on hand to manage the process, then the policy can flop.
- A culture of failures. If an organization has had a long history of policies that were sometimes neglected or forgotten about, then employees may not take the patch management policy as seriously as they should.
You can overcome these pitfalls by allocating adequate resources and assigning high level responsibilities to key IT staff to consistently ensure that all patching is active, and in accordance with the policy. In other words, even the policy itself needs to be monitored. No patching should be done outside the policy. This way, it’s always easy to spot gaps in the policy framework and continuously improve it to a level where it becomes a norm and a crucial part of the organizational culture.
Failure to have a sound patch management policy can actually dilute your patching activities, even when you think you are doing it well. You can miss crucial patching timelines, forget some or even do a poor job. A patching policy brings everything together, always guiding the patching process so that nothing is missed. And even when things go wrong, the policy steps in as a crucial reference point that guides recovery teams to quickly get operations back on track — instead of fumbling in the dark.
A well-defined policy outlines how frequently patches should be applied, as well as how administrators should go about identifying risks that would require a patch approval. By following the protocols outlined in the policy, organizations can ensure that they always remain up to date on all of their patches. Not only does this help you to maintain compliance with regulations, but it also helps you to stay ahead of potential risks that could lead to costly damages.
Once again, the patch management policy should be constantly reviewed and updated accordingly to match new trends.