Patch Management vs. Vulnerability Management

What Are the Core Differences Between the Two?

Written by Kelsey Kinzer on March 17, 2022

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The attack surface of any organization has significantly expanded in recent years. Unlike in the past, where organizations secured their assets in on-prem servers, today’s business environment consists of various technologies extending far beyond the enterprise’s perimeter. Unfortunately, securing enterprise assets — especially operating systems (OSs) and applications — is not a one-and-done event but rather an ongoing process.

Because of this, IT teams must continually monitor and deploy security patches to safeguard multiple entry points from hackers. The process of discovering security vulnerabilities and applying the appropriate patches and updates to fix them— also called vulnerability and patch management — is critical for the company’s overall bottom line, and every IT professional should understand it. 

Compatible — But Not Interchangeable — Terms

The terms patch management and vulnerability management are often used interchangeably, albeit with different meanings. While patch management and vulnerability management have a compatible relationship, they are distinct processes with different goals. Patch management focuses on applying software updates to correct specific flaws or enrich the application feature sets. In contrast, vulnerability management is a much broader process that incorporates the discovery and remediation of risks of all kinds. 

Learn more about patch management versus vulnerability management to understand their core differences in this post.

What Is Vulnerability Management?

Vulnerability management is a cyclic process of discovering, prioritizing, reporting, and remediating security vulnerabilities across an organization’s endpoints, workloads, and systems. When implemented alongside other security measures, vulnerability management can help organizations prioritize possible threats and minimize their attack surface. 

IT teams must conduct this process continuously to keep up with new applications that are added to the network, changes made to systems, and the discovery of new security threats over time. Vulnerability management solutions can help organizations streamline and automate this process. These tools largely rely on business operations and threat intelligence to prioritize risks while addressing vulnerabilities as quickly as possible.

Even though vulnerability management tools have varying strengths and feature sets, the majority of them largely incorporate the following processes in their operations:

Discovery

The vulnerability management solution continually identifies and categorizes each corporate asset in a networked environment and stores the attributes in a database during this stage. It also includes discovering security threats associated with assets. 

Prioritization

The vulnerability management solution ranks the known risks and vulnerabilities at this stage. For example, the tool can rank vulnerabilities as high, medium, or low depending on their impacts on the corporate assets. 

Remediation

The system generates links to information about the identified vulnerabilities, including the recommendations for vendor patches where applicable. A vendor can decide to maintain its own vulnerability database information or publish links to third-party resources such as Common Vulnerabilities and Exposures (CVE) or Common Vulnerability Scoring System (CVSS). 

Patch Management vs. Vulnerability Management: Distinctive Features

Patch management is a process that IT teams often use to logically update applications and operating systems. The primary goal of the patch management process is to highlight, categorize, and prioritize any missing patches for a particular asset. For specificity, a patch is a software update from the vendor. It can include anything from security fixes to new software features. 

In other words, not all patches contain security fixes. Likewise, not all patches will fix the security bugs you’ve identified in a particular asset. This explains why having a patch management solution isn’t enough to secure your enterprise resources. You still need to incorporate an effective vulnerability management strategy to address all security risks. 

How Do Patch Management and Vulnerability Management Overlap?

While patch management and vulnerability management overlap a lot, they’re definitely not the same. Vulnerability management deals with security issues of all kinds; software and operating system vulnerabilities can include issues with the underlying code as well as configurations pertaining to permissions and network capabilities. While you can resolve most software security issues with a patch, this certainly isn’t always the case. For example, you could (or might have to) fix some security issues by changing firewall policies, re-configuring the network, purchasing new hardware, or even training employees. 

Like vulnerability management, you can also conduct patch management via an automated, centralized management solution. Such a solution allows IT teams to set policy-based rules that automatically apply patches rather than a manual process. For example, you can schedule the patching process around off-peak times to ensure that the activity does not result in downtime or productivity loss. 

Why BYOD and Multi-Vendor Networks Are Raising the Patch Management and Vulnerability Management Ante

The bring-your-own-device (BYOD) phenomenon is now a familiar trend, as employees yearn for greater mobility and flexibility in their workplaces. However, adopting BYOD also means that IT teams have to protect endpoints that the organization didn’t specify, procure, or even configure. These endpoints are often laden with unknown and unpatched vulnerabilities.

In addition, most organizations are now multi-platform oriented, blending in macOS and Linux OSs with their mainstay Windows client and server operating systems. Besides heterogeneous endpoints and multi-platform environments, the network is increasingly growing to incorporate cloud-based services.

Unless regularly inspected, maintained, and protected, these endpoints, OSs, and applications become increasingly vulnerable, making them easy targets for cybercriminals. This problem can become even more complex for regulated sectors such as healthcare and finance that demand strict adherence to how users access, use, and distribute information. This is because the organization’s compliance liabilities extend to employees’ personal devices that are not part and parcel of its IT infrastructure.

What Are the Security Costs of Not Using a Patch Management Solution?

Responding to cyber threats fast enough is the new urgency in today’s fast-paced and ever-changing digital landscape. On average, organizations disclose more than 22,000 new security vulnerabilities annually. This translates to about 60 new vulnerabilities being revealed each day. 

A sluggish infrastructure makes it nearly impossible to keep up with patching workloads, let alone get ahead of the security threats. In an ideal scenario, the race to secure OSs and applications through patching should start immediately after a vulnerability is disclosed. Security updates provide IT teams with details on new exposures and how to resolve vulnerabilities. 

However, it also gives hackers a specific focal point and codebase to plan future attacks. According to HP Wolf Security, the average time it takes for a hacker to weaponize a known vulnerability has significantly reduced in recent days, with many threats like zero-day exploits increasing. 

Conversely, companies without effective patch management solutions take a staggering 102 days to deploy just one patch. This is a worrying trend because unpatched vulnerabilities can lead to lost or stolen data, fraud, lawsuits, and violation of compliance regulations. The company won’t just lose money, but it can be sued or even go out of business.

JumpCloud Directory Platform: An Inclusive, Easy-to-Use Automated Patch Management 

The JumpCloud Directory Platform® is an out-of-the-box solution businesses can use to streamline patch management processes. IT teams can easily create and manage patch schedules from a single pane of glass, allowing them to achieve enhanced visibility and application version control with JumpCloud. Test drive the platform’s functionality, including comprehensive System Insights, with JumpCloud Free for up to 10 users and 10 devices and see first-hand how JumpCloud simplifies and improves your company’s overall security posture!

Kelsey Kinzer

Kelsey is a passionate storyteller and Content Writer at JumpCloud. She is particularly inspired by the people who drive innovation in B2B tech. When away from her screen, you can find her climbing mountains and (unsuccessfully) trying to quit cold brew coffee.

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