A patch is a small fix to an existing piece of software, usually used to fix bugs or security vulnerabilities. Patch management may not sound critical, but it can be one of the most important aspects of both the productivity and security of your entire system. Every new cyberattack is a reminder of why patching is important, as well as the risk of not applying security patches.
Why is it so vital to keep security patches up to date?
Patching is important to ensure all your software is functioning correctly and in the most efficient way. Sometimes when software is out of date, it doesn’t work properly and might be slow or crash itself or entire systems. The longer you go without updating the bigger the risk of losing productivity.
But the most important and critical reason you should maintain patching is the security aspect. Security patches for your network and infrastructure are paramount as they tend to remediate vulnerabilities and issues concerning your core values.
You need to implement patch management best practices and apply them to the right applications at the right time.
Patching one piece of software from one vendor is usually a simple process, but if you have a lot of devices with numerous software versions, or you want to make sure all your devices are patched at the same time, you’ll need to have a patch management plan and use patch management software.
Inventory Your Systems
A comprehensive inventory of all software and hardware within your environment is a critical piece of any patch management process. Once you have a clear picture of what you have, you’ll be able to compare the known vulnerabilities to your inventory to quickly discover which patches matter to you.
Assign Risk Levels to Your Systems
Risk levels give you the ability to choose the right priorities. Don’t waste all your time on patching by applying patches to the wrong systems.
While all systems should be patched, it makes sense to assign risk levels to each item in your inventory. For example, a server in your network that is not accessible from the Internet should not be as high a priority to patch as a laptop used by your sales team. The more exposed to attack an item is, the faster it should be patched.
Consolidate Software Versions
The bigger pool of software and software versions you use, the higher the risk of exposure. Choose one version of Windows, Linux, or MacOs and keep that version up to date with patches. Large organizations sometimes buy different software products that perform similar functions. Periodically review all software in use and its purpose. When you find multiple pieces of software performing the same function, choose one and get rid of the rest. Fewer software products mean fewer patches to implement.
Keep Up with Vendor Patch Announcements
Keeping up with vendor patch announcements is key in order to know when patches are scheduled and when software versions have an end of life. Once you have a clear inventory of products, subscribe to all of their security updates through whatever channel patch announcements are made. Monitor each of these by sending them to a specific inbox or Slack channel.
Mitigate Patch Exceptions
Sometimes a patch cannot be applied right away. For example, a Java patch may break an existing business application and changes need to be made to make the patch work. However, this will take time.
In these situations, mitigate the risk to the extent possible. Lockdown the user permissions on the server. Don’t leave an unpatched server exposed to the Internet. Figure out how to reduce the impact and likelihood of an exploit until the patch can be applied safely.
Test Patches Before deploying to the entire environment
Every environment is unique. A patch could cause problems or even bring down machines with certain configurations. Take a small subset of your systems and apply the patch to them to make sure there are no major problems.
Automate Open Source Patching
The number of open source vulnerabilities is rising quickly as more open source tools are created and used. If you use open source, you need to patch the open source libraries you use when vulnerabilities are discovered. The challenge is keeping track of all the open source libraries and tools in use by your developers.
Instead of focusing on the latest zero-day exploits, work on implementing patch management best practices. Poor patch management will lead to an attack on your systems.
Keep an inventory of your systems. Keep up with vendor announcements. Test your patches, mitigate where you can’t patch and act quickly to patch your own applications. Use automation to keep open source vulnerabilities from becoming vulnerabilities in your applications.