How to Develop a Patch Management Process

Written by Brenna Lee on September 10, 2021

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As the modern IT environment becomes more complex, security of that environment becomes more difficult to manage. Simple rules and automations to govern security that may have worked in the past have now become too convoluted to manage manually. 

Instead, the modern IT environment requires technical solutions that use automation to ensure organizational resources remain secure. An important opportunity here is software patching — the traditional approach of manual, one-device-at-a-time patching is outdated, and automation across fleets of systems is a significantly better solution to manage risk effectively.

Critical data and applications are only as secure as the devices and infrastructure that govern, modify, move, and store them. When you’re late applying a critical software patch to any of these systems, you run the risk of attackers taking advantage of potential vulnerabilities, failing compliance obligations and audits, or even losing the public’s trust should a breach occur. 

In this article, we explore why putting a trustworthy software patch management process in place is critical, the goals of the process, and the steps to develop an effective one.

Why Patch Management is Important

Software isn’t a static product; it needs consistent updating to fix bugs, add and remove features, improve performance, refine usability, and patch vulnerabilities. No matter what your organization is or it’s size, if you use any software, it’s essential to implement an effective patch management process that handles:

  • Discovery of new patches from OS, application, and hardware vendors
  • Application of critical fixes and scheduling others of lesser importance
  • Coordination of efforts for maximum uptime
  • Process automation

Cloud patch management is the modern solution for heterogeneous IT environments, which includes configuration and management of on-prem and remote Windows and Mac laptop patch rollouts, for added flexibility.

You might already be doing some of these activities internally, such as running scripts, periodically checking for updates, and doing Microsoft updates with Windows Server Update Services (WSUS). If your environment is more diverse, you may also be using a particular brand of Mac patch management software.

However, if your current patch management strategy struggles to manage all of your different operating systems, you’re unhappy with the current level of maintenance required, or you’re concerned that patching is taking too long, then it’s time to implement a more mature patch management process.

Like any good asset management program, patch management also requires strategy, coordination, and automation for efficiency, effectiveness, and a full paper trail. And as the most important part of your vulnerability management program, it’s a must-have on CISO agendas.

What are the Goals of a Patch Management Process?

Understanding the goals of a patch management process will help determine how you want to implement it across your infrastructure.

  • Reduce interruptions and rollbacks

An ongoing goal of modern patch management processes is greater system uptime with less chance of new patches breaking other systems and software. Downtimes due to patching should be scheduled for when systems will not be in use, such as overnight or on weekends, or workloads are transferred before patching in the case of systems that need 100% uptime. 

  • Create predictability and routine around patching 

If your patch management process is boring and routine, then you’re doing it right. Administrators should not be scrambling, wondering about schedules, or worrying about incoming critical fixes. All devices and software should be categorized for when and how to roll out patches, and new devices and software added to corporate infrastructure should be simple to add into your system.

  • Empower IT with emergency powers (rollback, distribution) when needed

When patching doesn’t go according to plan, there needs to be reliable, repeatable failsafe processes and controls in place to deal with the effects. While automation across patching is essential for efficiency, there must also be controls in place for administrators to halt processes and perform necessary rollbacks. Cloud patch management software allows for true emergency power, with the ability to manage this all from anywhere.

  • Ensure 100% visibility into patch status (for auditing and compliance reasons)

Know which devices and software have been patched, when, and how. Patches should also be searchable by version. You want to have complete visibility into scheduled patching, applied patches, and historical issues. This is a huge topic in the realm of compliance — in order to prove compliance with common standards, you need to be able to clearly prove that you have an effective patch management process in place through historical data.

How to Develop an Effective Patch Management Process

1) Establish device (and/or application) groups by OS and critical attributes 

Much like you group users by their role, tasks, and least privilege access in user administration, you need to do the same for your OSs, apps, and devices. Establish device and/or application groups based on their risk factor and priority. Risk is calculated by considering organization criticality, usage patterns, and endpoint mitigation capabilities should a worst case scenario occur.

With this classification, any devices with high organization criticality would likely be grouped as a high priority; for example, servers storing your customers’ personal information. In-office equipment like printers, however, may have endpoint security concerns due to trust in the manufacturer and known vulnerabilities but might be classified as a low priority (relatively speaking).

Note that bring your own device (BYOD) setups may require an even deeper dive. Creating standard environments (including devices, OSs, applications, and security settings) for different corporate applications, grouping for patch management is made much easier.

2) Establish internal policies around these groups that determine frequency, timeframes, and priority for patching

Once your devices and applications are grouped, you’re able to determine priorities and frequencies for patch rollout that turn into policies that outline the process of ‘how and when’. 

For example, if both your servers storing customers’ personal information and your printers require patching at the same time, you may want to apply it to the servers as soon as possible; whereas, the printers may just be done on a monthly schedule. Similarly, if an application that needs patching runs on an organization-critical device and a basic internet kiosk, the scheduling for each may differ.

The policies will also take into account the criticality of the patch itself, as reported by the vendor — related to the discovered vulnerability’s potential impact.

3) Monitor for new patches based on policies

Policies will dictate how often scanning for new patches is required, whether it is on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis. For best coverage, monitoring at all times is the ideal setup, but this isn’t always feasible. 

One way to do this is through System Insights™, JumpCloud’s device and software asset management functionality, which allows you to determine which devices on your network have out-of-date operating systems (across Windows, Mac, and Linux for cross platform patch management), view patch status, and view zero-day vulnerability status.

4) Test new patches to validate effect on existing applications and software

Setting up a test environment is crucial to ensure patch rollout goes as smoothly as possible before going live in the production environment. A test environment might look like a certain set of workstations, or even one server, where workloads are able to be patched quickly and tested. Other organizations will also be evaluating the patch, so many people like to leave some lag time between release and testing just to see what happens to others’ systems in that time.

5) Communicate upcoming patches to affected end-users 

Patches that will affect end-users should be communicated in advance to ensure users are prepared and not in the middle of tasks that could be interrupted. For some cases, this may include the ability to delay the patching by the end-user to ensure no work is lost.

6) Roll out patches

Coordinate patch rollout across all applicable devices, whether on-prem, remote, or even currently offline. The rollout should be automatically triggered based on incoming patch matches to policies and scheduling, with optional manual triggering for applicable device groups.

7) Monitor patch status and address issues on an as needed basis

Administrators should be able to gain insights into patch statuses that need attention, as well as overall systems and device group statuses. Your patch management process should also make it easy for an admin to address any areas that need attention without running the entire process.

With JumpCloud’s System Insights, patch status is available as an ‘always on’ overview. Admins can gain explicit insights and perform patch-related activities with JumpCloud via Policies and the Commands Tab.

8) Review, document, and repeat

Like any security and management processes within an organization, your patch management solution will need regular review to ensure it stays within current best practices, is adjusted as systems change, and includes any new types of devices across the organization. This review process can be on a monthly or quarterly basis, depending on your organization and pace of system topology changes.

Implement a Patch Management Process With JumpCloud

JumpCloud provides a comprehensive cloud directory platform that incorporates patch management as a function of its overall device management capabilities. Try out the platform’s full functionality, including patching and update policies, with JumpCloud Free for up to 10 users and 10 devices to see how JumpCloud uses cloud-based patch management to improve your organization’s security, compliance, and productivity. During your first 10 days of JumpCloud Free, you also get to enjoy 24×7 in-app chat support for any questions that arise.

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