We all know it: patching is hard. Even well-organized IT departments will at some time fall behind on patching – often without even knowing it. With new vulnerabilities disclosed every day and vendors releasing patch after patch, this is hardly a surprise.
For attackers this makes things all too easy: 60 percent of data breaches involved known vulnerabilities for which patches are available, according to a meta-research conducted by CSO Online.
But there are ways to get on top of your patching. Dedicated patch management solutions are designed to make patching easy and keep you in control and in the know. Here is how a patch management software will help you keep systems up-to-date and protect your business:
Reason 1: You can measure your patching health
How can you protect what you don’t see? Often the main reason why IT departments forget to apply an important patch is that they don’t know that a system is missing a patch in the first place. Vendors are releasing new patches every day. Our patch trackers routinely count more than 200 new patches each month (see our Patch Recap for February 2021 as an example). Keeping up with all the latest patches quickly becomes a full-time job. A patch management solution helps you sort through the noise and understand which patches apply to your systems. You can see at one glance all systems that are currently unpatched and take action immediately. This reduces the time a system remains in a vulnerable state and makes it harder for attackers to take advantage of new vulnerabilities.
Reason 2: You can patch with one click
If you are applying patches manually you are investing a lot of resources into an error-prone process. You need to access every endpoint and start the update process by hand. A better solution is to use scripting languages and automation tools to automate and standardize this process. For Windows-based environments PowerShell is the natural choice. For Linux the Ansible automation tool comes with lots of handy modules that can make patching easier.
If you want to go a step further and streamline the patching process even more have a look at patch management solutions. With these solutions you can patch individual systems with one click from a dashboard or apply patches to group of systems. The result: You save time and reduce the risk of missing systems which then remain vulnerable to attacks.
Reason 3: You can patch Windows, Linux and Mac with one tool
Many organizations use not just Windows but also Linux and Mac as operating systems. Your employee laptops and desktops may all run Windows but what about your Linux-based web server infrastructure and all the Macbooks in the marketing and development departments?
The diversity of operating systems nowadays makes patching even harder. Many traditional patching tools like Windows Server Update Service (WSUS) have not kept up with this trend (see also our post on WSUS alternatives if you are thinking about switching from WSUS). If you are in this category a cross-platform patch management solution is the right choice for you. These solutions have agents for all major operating systems and let you manage all your endpoints from a single dashboard.
Reason 4: You can test patches
Are you afraid that patches will break a perfectly fine setup? Unfortunately you are right. Although vendors have become much better at releasing stable patches and the majority of patches do not cause any issues there is the occasional hiccup. Such as freshly patched Windows systems descending into a blue-screen-of-death when trying to print a document.
But not applying patches is also not a solution since this will keep your systems vulnerable. What to do? Test your patches!
Most vendors test new patches extensively before release but it is hard for them to cover all possible environments and configurations. So you better do your own testing on top of that. One way to do this is to set up a group of test devices and connect this group to your patch management solution. You can then apply patches to this group or configure a policy to always patch these systems automatically. After the latest round of patches was applied you check if everything still works. If no errors pop up you can roll out the patches to the rest of your environment.
You can extend this concept and build multiple groups of systems based on how critical errors are for them. For example, you can start by testing patches on dedicated test systems, then roll them out to non-critical workstations, and only after everything looks good continue with more critical systems like servers.
Reason 5: You can automate your patching
Automation is key to having a well-organized and maintainable IT environment. Patching should be no exception to this. Automated patch management lets you define rules about which patches should be applied when. However, it is not the same as putting all your systems on the “Auto Update” setting. A good patch management solution gives you control over the automation process. For example, you can set maintenance windows so that patches are only applied outside of normal business hours.
Not every patching process should be automated though. Some systems need extra care and should only receive well-tested patches (see Reason 4 above). This applies mainly to server patching. Workstations on the other hand, which are a major attack surface for ransomware these days, greatly benefit from an automated patching process since this shortens the time window for attackers to take advantage of new vulnerabilities.
Patching is just a fact of life for IT professionals but it does not need to be the painful experience it still is in many organizations. A good patch management solution makes patching easy, provides smart automations and still keeps you in full control.
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