What is Patch management?

Patch management describes the processes and tools designed to effectively detect, distribute, and deploy software updates to a business’ IT systems.

No software is ever without flaw. Even after passing through the rigorous testing phases that generally precede deployment, applications may still contain unaccounted-for flaws and weaknesses—many of which may go undiscovered for quite some time. Likewise, data security threats are always evolving, potentially creating new attack vectors and rendering once-effective app security measures obsolete.

Patches allow developers to update their systems and applications, perform maintenance and repairs, and improve performance and usability after the software itself has been released. But while patches are essential to keeping IT assets current, many businesses find that the sheer number of patches to their software and systems can create problems of their own. To ensure that all relevant business technologies are up to date and free from known security vulnerabilities, organizations use patch management.

Modern businesses rely heavily on computing software, fielding potentially hundreds—or even thousands—of applications to streamline internal processes, improve communication, track performance, and more. Manually managing patches for all of these different applications is extremely time consuming and pulls dedicated professionals away from core business activities. Manual patch management is also prone to human error and may lead to exposed vulnerabilities or decreased app performance when patches are overlooked or incorrectly applied.

An effective patch management solution eliminates these issues. By applying automation to tracking and installing updates, patch management helps organizations account for and oversee all the software patches their systems and devices depend on.

Here, we take a closer look at several specific areas that benefit from patch management:

Graphic outlining the items that make patch management important.

Security

Threat actors are constantly innovating new approaches and discovering security weaknesses they may be able to exploit. When vulnerabilities are identified and security updates are released, patch management ensures that these updates are applied immediately, reducing the risk to the organization and its customers.

Compliance

New dangers often necessitate new regulations regarding data handling and consumer privacy. Patch management helps organizations remain compliant with new laws as they are introduced, protecting them from the consequences of non-patched (and thus noncompliant) applications.

Availability

Unpatched systems are more prone to experiencing bugs and crashes. Patch management keeps these systems up to date, so that businesses don’t have to worry about suffering unintended downtime.

Functionality

Not every patch has to do with security, maintenance, or repair; often, developers will release new features in their software patches, improving their product offering. Without patch management, businesses may not be getting the full functionality from their applications.

Guarantees/support

Software developers expect users to remain up to date on all patches. In fact, most will refuse to stand by system guarantees unless users are working with the latest versions. Similarly, some providers may not be willing to provide user support for unpatched apps or systems.

In addition to improving and reinforcing the areas addressed above, patch management also carries with it several other advantages. These benefits include the following:

Reduced liability

A significant percentage of cyber breaches can be traced directly to unpatched vulnerabilities. Those companies that fail to fulfil their obligations to protect customer data may be held legally responsible. Proper patch management provides an essential line of defense—not only for customer information, but also for the organizations that collect it.

Improved customer experience

Few things are as frustrating for customers as faulty, malfunctioning applications. With patch management, customer-facing businesses can ensure that their technology offerings work as they are supposed to—fixing bugs and vulnerabilities as they arise and creating a more-positive customer experience.

Accurate patch sourcing

A key aspect of patch management is identifying which patches should be applied. With effective patch sourcing, organizations can monitor patch-intelligence sources to find and apply relevant updates as they are released.

Enhanced prioritization

When there is a backlog of important patches that need to be deployed and limited resources available to deploy them, patch management may be employed to help prioritize updates based on type, severity, vendor, and other factors.

Efficient deployment

Automated scheduling can establish the best times for updates to be applied, including times outside of regular work hours. This helps minimize system downtime and prevents reboot scenarios from encroaching on productivity.

Optimal tracking/reporting

Patch management makes it easy to access patch policies, track network status changes, identify missing patches and failed patch attempts, and enjoy full, real-time transparency into all updates and scheduled updates. Detailed reports may be generated at the push of a button.

Effective patch management must be capable of more than just installing any new updates that may be rolled out; to ensure effective, efficient, and economical patching, successful organizations follow a patch management strategy. Key steps in this strategy include the following:

  • Inventory of all relevant
    IT assets Effective patch management depends on a comprehensive inventory of all applications and operating systems, as well as their version types, IP addresses, owners, and physical locations. Because most IT environments are not static, scheduling frequent IT-asset inventorying helps keep everything accurate and accounted for.
  • Standardize assets to the same version type
    Identifying and applying patches is not nearly as complex when dealing with systems and operating systems that are the same version type. Standardize assets wherever possible, so that subsequent remediation processes can function more smoothly.
  • Inventory all security controls
    With a clear picture of all relevant IT assets, the next step is to inventory any and all security controls that may be in place to protect them. Make note of what each control is protecting and which assets they are attached to.
  • Match known vulnerabilities to assets
    Compare every relevant IT asset against all reported vulnerabilities. This will provide essential information to use in creating a picture of the organization’s security risk.
  • Prioritize based on risk
    After comparing known vulnerabilities to IT assets, organizations must next classify and prioritize patch initiatives by the risk each represents. Based on the needs of the organizations, the most critical patches can then be scheduled ahead of less-essential updates.
  • Test patches in a secure environment
    Occasionally, a patch may bring with it unintended issues that can negatively impact applications, systems, or even entire organizations. Before fully committing to a patch, test it on a representative sample in a controlled lab environment.
  • Apply updates
    If the patches have been validated and priorities have been established, it’s time for the organization to begin applying updates. It’s advisable that patches be deployed in batches to specific assets; if any problematic issues make it past the test phase, it’s better to keep the impact confined to a limited area.
  • Track to ensure success
    Once a patch has been deployed, continue to track the asset and watch for any abnormalities that may be a result of the update.

With so much depending on an organization’s IT assets, it only makes sense to be cautious when approaching patch management processes. Consider the following patch management best practices:

Be intentional

Intentional patch management—based on a clear understanding of the why behind the initiatives—helps keep everyone involved committed to its success. The importance of patch management should be well understood and communicated throughout the organization.

This will help ensure widespread adoption of any patch management solutions, and secure the backing of key decision makers.

Set expectations

Any teams or individuals who will be taking an active role in patch management will need to clearly understand their responsibilities, as well as any relevant metrics or goals that they will be held responsible for.

Promote accountability

Patch management should be more than just an ideal; it must be something measurable and accountable. Leverage organizational agreements (including service-level agreements) help keep teams focused on and progressing towards their goals.

Never apply without testing

Applications and computer systems are extremely complex, and there's always a chance that a new update may create unintended problems. Never roll out a new patch without first testing it in a controlled environment. Once the patch has been vetted, it’s still advisable to apply it first to an isolated group of computers before trusting it with an entire network.

Collaborate effectively

As previously stated, patch management is the responsibility of multiple teams and departments. Effective communication between these players helps prevent dysfunction. It is likewise important to establish common language when using technical terminology, so that everyone involved is operating on the same page.

Create a recovery plan

As is always the case, it’s a good idea to establish a plan and train relevant teams on what to do in the event that the patch management solution fails. Work with IT teams and management to create and publish such a plan, and make sure that it accounts for as many scenarios as possible.

Business software is anything but static; it’s a dynamic, constantly evolving amalgamation of systems and applications that must be updated regularly to ensure full effectiveness. Patch management empowers businesses with the ability to quickly detect and deploy software patches as they are released, minimizing the dangers of reduced performance and exposed vulnerabilities. But patch management is only a part of the solution. For full cyber resilience, successful organizations rely on Security Operations (SecOps) from ServiceNow.

SecOps employs security orchestration, automation, and response (SOAR), in conjunction with risk-based vulnerability management, for a secure digital transformation across the entire business. SecOps gives IT the full picture of their security posture, promoting operational agility and helping prioritize risk and IT remediation. And, because your business is at least as dynamic as the software it relies on, SecOps groups essential applications into scalable packages, so that your software can easily grow with your business and meet your changing needs.

ServiceNow is revolutionizing patch management and taking cyber resilience further than ever before. Learn more about Security Operations, and optimize your security posture.

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