Managing vulnerabilities and patches are vital components of your company's IT and security game plan. How can you help safeguard your infrastructure from cyber threats and critical vulnerabilities? By implementing a patch management program and best practices.
This post will look at the basics and benefits of a good patch management plan and a process framework you can use to build your patch management program.
Before we define its management process, we need to know what a "patch" is.
In its simplest form, a patch is a chunk of code designed to fix a security vulnerability, repair a bug, or add new application features.
For this post, we'll think of a patch as a fix for a security vulnerability. Patches are short-term remedies until the software's next full release.
With that in mind, patch management is identifying and deploying patches over an enterprise network, typically in large quantities.
On the surface, this simple definition sounds, well, simple. But like most things in data security, there's more to it.
For example, a good patch management process should be documented, approved, scheduled, and tracked. It should rely on your IT asset inventory and monitoring systems and tie in with your vulnerability scanning process.
As we discussed in a previous post, vulnerability scanning (aka "vuln" scanning) is a process for identifying vulnerabilities in your network environment. A good scanning tool will automatically scan your networks, devices, applications, and configurations. It will document the findings, classify them, and create actionable reports to help you prioritize the patching and remediation process.
With ransomware attacks and security vulnerabilities increasing daily, the number of patches released likewise increases exponentially.
If your organization’s enterprise network consists of servers, workstations, and network devices, keeping track of all required patching is challenging and takes considerable time. If you ignore the vulnerability scanning and patching process, you're exposing your business to unacceptable risks.
In addition, it's essential to embrace patch management for these other significant benefits:
Increases security: Regular patching reduces risk by fixing vulnerabilities, protecting endpoints, and making cyber-attacks on patched systems more laborious.
Maintains compliance: Numerous security frameworks and compliance standards like HIPAA, SOC 2, and PCI DSS require routine, scheduled patching. Ignoring these requirements can lead to non-compliance, fines, and penalties.
Boosts system performance: Patches are not just for security fixes. Developers release patches to kill bugs and improve performance and efficiency.
Feature updates: Rather than wait until the next big version release, developers might include new and improved features, functions, and usability in their patches.
It's essential to have a strategy when deploying patches. Although it may be tempting to roll out patches the second they are released, history has shown that this method can wreak havoc on your systems and network. The key is to balance vulnerability and patch criticality with the needs of your business.
With that, here's a six-step process that forms a solid framework for a patch management process.
Have a reliable and current inventory of your IT assets: You can't monitor or patch what you can’t see. Make sure to track all your IT assets to have information on operating systems, versions, hardware specs, hostnames, IP addresses, geographic locations, and the like. There's no need to do this manually, as many free and inexpensive IT asset management tools are available.
Scan for vulnerabilities: With your IT inventory, scan your network endpoints for vulnerabilities. Read our "Quick Guide to Vulnerability Scanning" post for an introduction. Need a vulnerability scanning tool? Pick one from this huge list compiled by the OWASP Foundation.
Classify and prioritize: Any good vulnerability scanning tool will organize the findings into categories and severity levels. Categories include out-of-date systems and missing patches, misconfigurations, types of attacks, and more. Severity levels include critical, high, medium, low, and none/informational. To prioritize, focus on the critical and high-severity findings on your vital and internet-facing systems and work down from there.
Review and test: With your current vulnerability scan report in hand, review vendor patch release notes and recommendations. If no patches are released (or if you have systems you cannot patch for whatever reason), investigate other mitigating controls in place of the patch. It's best practice to test patches on a small subset of your environment (or better yet, a test "lab" environment) before rolling them out to your critical live production systems and user workstations.
Patch! Suppose your testing doesn't raise any red flags. In that case, it's time to roll out patches to your entire network environment. There are many ways to deploy patches. You'll have to do what works best for your business needs and your available resources. You might install patches en masse via your patching tool, manually install patches individually, or use a combination of approaches. There are no hard and fast rules here as long as it gets done.
Test and track progress: Even after initial testing, patching in a live production environment can still cause unforeseen issues and problems. Test critical systems post-patching to ensure they still function as required. Have thorough backups and a rollback plan in case things go wrong. Track your progress and trends through documented reporting and metrics. Running a second vulnerability scan after patching is a good idea and will reveal whether or not the patches remediated the vulnerabilities.
Implementing a methodical patch management program is key to securing your network and adding resilience against cyber attackers.
Streamworks takes a proactive approach to patch management. In addition to our patch management policy, we follow a defined patch management standard and implement patches weekly.
Our IT team regularly monitors various websites, message boards, and mailing lists for advanced notification of bugs and related patches before a public announcement by a vendor. We consider each patch independently to determine if it's necessary to deploy it within our production environment. If it is, we use automated tools to get the job done.
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