In 2020, Ryuk Ransomware operators shut down Universal Health Services by exploiting the zerologon vulnerability to gain control of domain controllers. In mid-2021, cybercriminals exploited an old, unpatched memory corruption vulnerability in Microsoft Office that allowed them to remotely execute code on vulnerable devices. This vulnerability was disclosed in 2017 and found to be one of the most exploited by nation-state hackers. The above-mentioned cases illustrate the importance of patching software vulnerabilities immediately, especially those that have already been compromised.
In this blog, we’ll discuss patch management policy best practices and explain how they contribute to a better patching environment for large and small organizations alike.
What is a patch management policy?
Patch management involves identifying, sourcing, testing, deploying and installing patches for all systems and applications in an organization. Patches are applied to improve the efficiency and functionality of a system as well as to mitigate security vulnerabilities. Since unpatched vulnerabilities create weak links in a company’s IT infrastructure, cybercriminals target them frequently.
Modern IT environments are intricately structured, resulting in patching becoming a far more complex and time-consuming task than in the past. It takes about 200 days to apply a patch to a regular vulnerability and 256 days to fix a severe vulnerability.
That’s not all though. It takes 15 days on average to patch a vulnerability that is being used in active attacks, according to data collected by Google’s Project Zero. The challenge is even more daunting for smaller companies, which are always strapped for resources and talent. The result is that hackers manage to discover and exploit vulnerabilities before they can be patched.
This is where patch management policies come into play. The policies define the steps, procedures and best practices to follow, especially when patching vulnerabilities that pose a security risk. The goal is to produce a standardized patching process so that technicians can make informed decisions during any stage of the patching process, including when correcting mistakes and handling contingencies.
In the absence of a patch management policy, businesses may have difficulty identifying critical patches. Moreover, without a process to follow, patches can be installed incorrectly, resulting in the shutdown of applications and devices, leading to business disruption.
What is the importance of a patch management policy?
Unpatched vulnerabilities are the cause of one in three breaches around the world. Having an effective patch management policy can help minimize the risk of cyberthreats and business downtime caused by improper patching practices. The Australian Cyber Security Centre (ACSC) describes patching as one of its eight essential strategies to mitigate cyber incidents and ensure security. Let’s look at the benefits of having a patch management policy.
- A patch management policy ensures risks are managed promptly so companies can avoid falling prey to cyberattacks.
- Managing patches can be a colossal task that often hinders the work process and leading to clashes between departments over patch timing. When resolving a crisis, time is of the essence. An effective patch management policy anticipates scheduling conflicts and gives guidance on how to resolve them so that work downtime is kept to a minimum.
- A good patch management policy helps ensure that all patching work is completed on time and that the process is well documented. Patching is one of many compliance requirements, and failing to do so can lead to audits, fines and even denial of insurance claims in the case of a breach.
- A company that sells technology should provide timely patches for its solutions in order to manage vulnerabilities. Addressing software bugs quickly helps maintain serviceability and boosts customer satisfaction.
- Patching plays a vital role in enhancing company revenue and reputation by driving product innovation and upgrades.
What should a patch management policy include?
A patch management policy is unique to every company and their systems and processes, but at its heart, it must include the following components to be effective.
Asset tracking and inventory
The security of any device, be it a laptop, a server or a network endpoint, can be compromised if left unpatched. To keep tabs on endpoints that connect to an organization’s network, the IT department should use an automated IT asset discovery tool.
The first step in developing a successful patch management policy is to take inventory of your IT assets. It becomes even more important in remote and hybrid environments where employees connect to the corporate network using various devices and locations. There is no doubt that as the line between personal and business devices blurs, corporate networks will become vulnerable to grave threats.
Teams, roles and responsibilities
Patching is a multistage process that should flow smoothly. Therefore, all stakeholders’ roles and responsibilities should be clearly defined. To make patch management ideal, each step of the process, from identifying vulnerabilities to applying patches, should be handled by a dedicated team. It is also important for management to be actively involved in the patching process and escalate issues when patches aren’t applied on schedule. Even though patching may seem simple, it should not be handled by employees, but rather only by IT experts who follow set guidelines.
Risk classification and prioritization
Besides the routine patches, IT technicians must also identify patches for critical software vulnerabilities on a regular basis. Since patches must be applied to several applications and systems, technicians should learn to prioritize and classify patches according to their vulnerability risk and impact on business continuity. Take the example of a company whose servers are vulnerable to cross-site scripting. In this case, servers that host business-critical data must be patched before servers that host internal websites and less critical business applications. Classification and prioritization of assets and patches helps technicians approach patch management in a systematic manner and ensure that critical assets can always remain operational.
Patching process and schedule
The previous sections provide the framework for establishing an enterprise-wide patch management policy. Patching and scheduling outline how to execute the patching process. Patching is a multistep procedure. It includes:
- Monitoring for new patches and vulnerabilities: Monitoring applications, software and devices that require patching or are at risk because of software vulnerabilities. Patch management policies should specify when and how often this task should be performed.
- Patch sourcing: Once the patch is released, you need to obtain it from the vendor. There should be a dedicated person or team for the task since a delay in obtaining patches that fix critical vulnerabilities can spell big security problems for the company.
- Patch testing: The patch should also be tested in an environment very similar to the original IT infrastructure of the company. There are times when patches will not work in certain IT environments. Test environments allow you to study the impact of a patch before applying it to the entire environment. It is crucial that IT managers take backups of their systems prior to applying patches so the old system can be rolled out in case of a problem.
- Configuration management: The goal of this step is to document every change that will occur when the patch is applied. This helps identify devices that don’t respond correctly to the patch or show an anomaly.
- Patch roll out, monitoring and auditing: After a patch is applied to the entire IT infrastructure, its results are monitored to ensure that everything works as expected. Audit your patching process to identify any failed or pending patches, and keep an eye out for unexpected performance issues or incompatibilities.
- Reporting: Update all relevant documentation after a patch is applied. There should be a detailed and in-depth report of every patching session and step. This report can be used for compliance audits, insurance claims and even to demonstrate value to clients.
What are the benefits of a patch management policy?
By having a defined and documented patch management policy, you will be able to improve the process and ensure that it gives the desired and required results. This will also help you identify the best practices. Check out some of the advantages of implementing a patch management policy.
A clearly defined chain of accountability will help mitigate problems faster if there is a breach due to a software vulnerability or a problem during the patching process. A common theme that emerged in the wake of Equifax’s 2017 data breach, which was the result of a security flaw the company should have patched weeks earlier, was lack of accountability. The absence of accountability was also a factor in the company’s lax security posture.
Documented processes and expectations
When the patching process is well documented, it is easier for new and long-time employees alike to follow it carefully. An absence of a written process can cause confusion on how to proceed and too many ideas can make matters worse.
Ensures security and compliance
Government agencies are cracking down on companies to ensure that they comply with all security requirements as cyberattacks become more common. Integrating security and compliance standards into your patch management policy will help you stay compliant with the rulebook and keep you on the good side of everyone from the government to the cyber insurers.
Supports uptime and SLAs
Following the wrong patching process can wreak havoc on your operations, cause system downtime and damage your SLAs with your clients. Patch policies detail the steps that need to be followed even when a patching session goes awry. Patching policies translate to a more accurate and efficient patching system at work, more support uptime and happier customers.
Provides a framework to build upon
A documented patch management process reduces ambiguity and makes day-to-day operations easier to follow. This can also be an effective way to identify best practices while ensuring that employees are not left in the dark when they assume responsibility for various patching tasks.
Patch management policy best practices
Each company will have its own patch management policies, and the process will change as technology and business change. However, the following are considered best practices within the industry and should be taken into account when creating a policy at work.
Update systems regularly
A company’s IT systems and assets need to be updated on a regular basis for them to function smoothly. Any disruption can severely impact revenue, profitability or customer service. With a sound and updated IT infrastructure, a company is better positioned to capture opportunities and growth while remaining safe from regulatory fines and cyberattacks.
Track common vulnerabilities
Being proactive is the key to keeping your IT environment secure. Documenting your patching process means you will have a record of all vulnerabilities your company encounters. This information can be used to plan security setups, strengthen your IT infrastructure and derive great learnings for the future.
Document security configurations
A configuration management record should document all the details about patches, tests and configuration changes. Using these documents, one can determine whether immediate action is necessary to mitigate a vulnerability.
Stay current with third-party vendors
Every company, no matter how large or small, uses a variety of third-party software. As the name implies, third-party patching consists of applying patches to third-party applications that are installed on one or more of your endpoints, such as a server, desktop or laptop. Many organizations are proactive in patching their OS software but aren’t as diligent when it comes to patching and updating their third-party software. Therefore, third-party applications have emerged as a popular attack vector for a variety of cyberattacks including malware. According to IBM’s Cost of a Data Breach Report 2021, it takes 210 days to identify a breach caused by a vulnerability in third-party software, and 76 days to contain it. Thus, it is imperative for businesses to embrace third-party patching to minimize the attack surface for cybercriminals.
Take a comprehensive approach
Your patch management policy should cover all aspects of your IT infrastructure and not just software and operating systems. You should take an inventory of all of your software and hardware, including servers, applications and network devices, as well as operating systems, databases and security systems.
Monitor and assess continuously
The process of patching is continuous, and with each patch, you will learn something new. By documenting each step of the process, you will be better able to identify trends, challenges and opportunities that can further enhance your policy outline. The result will be streamlined business operations and enhanced security.
Automate when possible
The old-fashioned method of manual patching gives you a slim chance of identifying and installing all the patches you need. It is simpler and more efficient to automate all steps in the patch process. The asset inventory process should be easy to repeat regularly, so automating it helps ensure that every new device and piece of software is quickly discovered and patched. The automation tool should gather all required patches and install them based on the specified policies and priorities. To avoid software conflicts, you may want to test the patch before deploying, and this should also be automated through acceptance testing and the ability to roll back.
Build a strong patch management policy with Kaseya
You can easily address the difficulties associated with patch management by automating the entire process using Kaseya VSA. The tool gives you the ability to review and override patches and see patch history. What’s more? This scalable, secure and highly customizable policy-driven approach is location-independent and bandwidth-friendly. With VSA, you can also automate the deployment and installation of software and patches for both on- and off-network devices.
Patching your software and devices is, without question, necessary. We’ve put together a checklist that will help you optimize your patch management policy and build a robust security stance for your IT environment.
Ready to automate your patching? Request a VSA demo today!