What Is Linux Patch Management and Why Is It Important?

Written by Kelsey Kinzer on December 21, 2021

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Got Linux machines? Running a time-repeated patch script on each one is a dated practice. Centralized patch management across your fleet is the way forward — and it’s achievable, too.

Linux comes with significant benefits as an operating system for organizations large and small. Linux machines are highly configurable and customizable, whether they’re physical or virtualized, server or client, housed on-site or elsewhere, using Ubuntu, Red Hat, or another distro. They also present significant cost savings over other operating systems such as Windows and macOS. 

However, Linux machines are also easy to configure incorrectly, as they lack the built-in safety controls of Windows or Mac. Patching across your entire Linux fleet is not always straightforward. This is where the value of a patch management solution comes into play.

What Is Linux Patch Management?

Linux patch management is the coordination of Linux patch scheduling, rollouts, and updates across a fleet of machines. While manual patching will suffice for a single machine, using a centralized and orchestrated approach across organizational infrastructure is best practice for operational productivity, security, and compliance. 

Like any other operating system, Linux requires regular updates to ensure it stays free from known and anticipated threats, resolves software bugs, and includes new wanted features. 

Who Needs a Patch Management Process in Linux?

If you or your organization is an administrator of Linux machines, whether they’re on-site, in a data center, in the cloud, physical or virtualized, the ability to take care of patching in one spot is a marker for quality process management. Every organization should develop a patch management process.

Patching in and of itself is critical no matter your operating system, hardware, and software, to ensure you’re protected from known vulnerabilities, errors, and inefficiencies, and that your systems work the way they are supposed to.

The Challenges in Linux Central Patch Management

Configuring and updating Linux is traditionally manual

Patching a Linux machine is usually done by users, via the terminal, via a command such as sudo apt-get update. However, doing this manually means errors can occur, or patching tasks can be forgotten. Scripting and automation should be deployed for success.

Degree of confidence in patching

Unlike Windows or Mac machines, which can be easily configured to restore to snapshots from built-in tools, rolling back a Linux machine after patching can be tricky. This means you need to: 

  • Have created a rollback process for restoring a previous system version and state
  • Have a very high degree of confidence in the success of your patch

Ideally, your patch management process and solutions should provide both. 

Live or offline kernel patching?

When the Linux kernel itself needs patching, admins need to decide whether doing it live or taking machines offline is the better option. Live patching isn’t available across all distros and updates.

Managing all Linux deployments in one place

Running a script every day to look for patches and apply them on a Linux machine is a trivial activity, even logging the results. However, doing this across all your machines is trickier, especially if you are running different Linux distributions, or a combination of servers and clients.

Management across different distributions

Different Linux distributions are maintained and managed by different companies and communities, with the OS itself ranging from fully free and open source software through to enterprise commercial variants. This makes coordination of patching across different types of Linux distros much trickier than, say, a pure Windows setup. There is no WSUS here to help you.

Linux Patch Management Products

There are a number of patch management tools on the market for each of the larger Linux distributions. These are paid products and generally do not come included as part of your operating system, rather, they are usually produced by a different vendor.

Ubuntu patch management tools

The most popular patch management tool for Ubuntu systems at present is Landscape. Only their most premium subscription comes with the option to do live kernel patching. Debian patch management can also be done by this product.

Red Hat Linux patching process

Red Hat patch management, aka RHEL patch management, can be performed with Red Hat’s Ansible playbook and some configuration.

Key Considerations Before Deploying a Linux Patch Management Solution

Is the solution well maintained?

Some distributions of Linux are well supported and maintained — particularly commercial versions — however, some definitely are not. Be aware that patch tool maintenance may not be at the top of the to-do list for community-based versions of Linux.

Does it also manage patching for other operating systems?

Windows and Mac operating systems work in very different ways from Linux when it comes to the patching process. But that doesn’t mean management of all three — and even other operating systems — can’t be coordinated from one spot.

Instead of standalone solutions, look for a Linux patch management solution that either incorporates or is configurable to support patching across a range of different OSs.

Does it provide system insights across machines?

Up-to-date insights including system health, patch progress, versions, etc., should be available both at a glance and via drill downs so that admins can quickly assess overall and solo system state across infrastructure.

What’s an All-in-One Patch Management Solution?

Rather than choose a patch management solution that can only look after your Ubuntu servers, your Red Hat clients, or your Windows fleet, instead it makes sense to choose a tool that can coordinate and take care of patching across all machines.

JumpCloud offers a cloud-based directory platform that combines remote identity and access management (IAM) with unified device management and System Insights, enabling IT admins to get a clear view of infrastructure patch information across all types of machines. Through JumpCloud, admins can: 

  • Ensure updates go to end users by communicating available updates and their criticality
  • See the status of patches as well as the overall percentage of patches implemented
  • Block updates, like macOS Monterey or Windows 11, as needed to address security or compatibility concerns

We help our customers accomplish cloud patch management, no matter their OS landscape complexity. If you’re after centralized management and control, try JumpCloud Free today for up to 10 users and 10 devices for as long as you need until you scale to more.

Kelsey Kinzer

Kelsey is a passionate storyteller and SEO 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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