What Is Linux Patch Management and Why Is It Important?

Written by David Worthington on June 7, 2023

Share This Article

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, without having to adopt a point solution that isn’t integrated with identity management.

Linux has significant benefits as an operating system for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). Linux machines are highly configurable and customizable, whether they’re physical or virtualized, server or client, housed on-site or elsewhere, use CentOS, Red Hat, Ubuntu, or another distro. They can also present significant cost savings over other operating systems (OSs) such as Windows and macOS, especially as the latter drops support for older OS versions. Plus, SMEs can bypass unnecessary hardware upgrades at a time when hardware costs are rising. 

However, Linux machines are easy to misconfigure, because 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 delivers new features.

Understanding the Vulnerabilities

Linux isn’t immune to security vulnerabilities, and it will become a more attempting target for attackers as its popularity grows. Unpatched kernel flaws can grant attackers root privileges, and other cataloged vulnerabilities have already been actively exploited. The U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) has observed that standard change management processes weren’t followed in many occurrences of Linux security incidents. Also, many affected systems were unpatched and weren’t included in application management procedures.

The Consequences of Unpatched Systems

Exposure to any breach is risky for SMEs, especially those with compliance requirements or that face financial or reputational costs when they fail to protect the confidentiality, integrity, and assurance of private information. 

Patching 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 and a command such as sudo apt-get update. However, doing this manually gives rise to potential errors as well as forgotten tasks. 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:

  • Create 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. Unfortunately, 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 and log the results is a trivial activity. And doing this across all your machines is even 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.

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 Reporting 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.

Does It Integrate with Identity and Access Management?

Unifying identity and device management reduces costs, improves operational efficiencies, strengthens cybersecurity, supports workplace and identity transformation, and reduces the pressure on your IT admins and security teams.

Best Practices for Linux Patch Management

Create a Patch Management Policy

Document your policies with clear and concise instructions; and plan for change management to control the documents. The policies should outline IT’s approach to handling patches, including:

  • Establish supply chain guidelines to source patches
  • Keep track of security advisories and threat intelligence to prioritize patches and remediations
  • Establish testing procedures using non-production environments
  • Establish guidelines for regular system backups
  • Establish deployment timelines and a regular patching schedule
  • Implement least privilege computing to only grant necessary permissions to services and users.
  • Define roles and responsibilities

Automate Patching Processes

Use automation and configuration management tools or a unified endpoint management (UEM) service. Automation helps streamline the patching process, reduces human error, and ensures that patches are successfully applied across all of your endpoints (and notifies you when they’re not).

Conduct Regular Vulnerability Assessments

Audit and monitor your systems for non-compliance. Conducting regular vulnerability assessments on your Linux systems will help you to identify and plan for what needs to be patched. Insights from threat intelligence will assist with making determinations about prioritization or remediations when patches aren’t immediately available. 

Maintain a Comprehensive Inventory of Systems and Software

Maintaining an inventory of your assets helps to identify and scope all of your hardware and software resources. This is an important step as you implement vulnerability scanning. Avoiding compatibility issues and conflicts by being aware of package dependencies is important for Linux admins. Some patches may have specific requirements or conflicts with other software.

It’s also important to keep track of any commercial software licenses to obtain the latest patches and to keep your software updated with supported versions. 

These activities will establish controls to avoid security and legal issues. A complete asset inventory makes software management easier. It’s also crucial for effective incident response forensics if/when a breach occurs to assess the impact, root cause, and available mitigations. 

Benefits of Effective Linux Patch Management

Reduced Risk of Cyberattacks and Data Breaches

Patching resources reduces your attack surface area by addressing known vulnerabilities to prevent potential exploits and attacks in your networks. Preventing attacks reduces the risk of data breaches, unauthorized access, and other security events that will lead to costly recovery efforts.

Improved System Performance and Stability

Patching helps ensure system availability, operability stability, and reduces the incidence of unplanned downtime that can interrupt business and impact your organization financially. Consistent system configurations also lower the total cost of ownership for Linux systems.

Compliance With Regulatory Requirements

A growing number of SMEs are subject to regulatory compliance requirements such as the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS) or General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). Effective patch management helps meet these requirements and actively demonstrates that your organization is taking steps to secure endpoints and sensitive data.

Linux Patch Management FAQs

How Often Should Linux Patches Be Applied?

Follow threat intelligence to determine the severity of vulnerabilities and the impact of patches and remediations. Your patching schedule will depend upon how vulnerabilities are classified:

Critical vulnerabilities have a higher potential for exploitation and can pose a significant risk to your systems and data. These patches should be applied out of band, following testing and validation. It’s vital to weigh the risk of unexpected behaviors post update against threats. Vendors will offer guidance on the timing and urgency of patch deployments for their products.

Emergency patches address vulnerabilities that are actively being exploited. The timespan from the disclosure of common vulnerabilities and exposures (CVEs) to attacks is lessening. Apply these patches promptly or consider a remediation if a software fix isn’t available. A UEM system that has a root level command line interface can be helpful in this situation.

Regular patch cycles are used to apply non-critical fixes and feature updates. Many SMEs schedule these updates on a monthly, or even quarterly, basis depending what level of coordination is necessary to plan, test, and deploy patches. Avoid disruptions to business operations that could be more costly than a slight delay in patch deployments. A patching policy should account for deferral settings, but regularly alert users to perform a system restart. Technology isn’t the only component of a patch cycle: engage users with security awareness. 

How Can I Automate Linux Patch Management?

Choose a patch management tool to automate patching that supports your Linux distribution(s). Manual approaches leverage package managers such as apt, dnf, and yum to handle installations and updates. Point solutions may require additional work to maintain automation scripts, error handling, and roll-back procedures to manage dependencies. IT managers should keep in mind that poorly documented work poses risks during times of organizational change.

What Techniques Can Be Used to Test Linux Patches Prior to Installation?

Follow this checklist to test Linux patches for conflicts and issues that can impact operations:

  • Create a dedicated test environment using virtualization software that mirrors your production environment as accurately as possible. It’s important to keep versions aligned.
  • Create a test group to participate in user acceptance testing.
  • Perform functional testing to ensure that patches don’t break existing functionality that’s business critical. Line of business applications and services should work normally and applications should remain compatible with other software components. Linux admins should be mindful of specialized configurations that could break or have dependencies. Regression testing is helpful to uncover unintended consequences from patching. Re-run vulnerability scans after you patch to ensure that the problem(s) were fixed.
    • PyTest, JUnit, and Selenium can be employed to automate functional and regression testing.
    • Stress test systems where it’s appropriate to simulate normal load conditions.
    • Don’t forget to test patch roll-backs to validate that the system state is restored without introducing any adverse effects.
  • Create documentation and track test cases, test results, and flag any issues that are uncovered during the testing process.

What’s the Most Effective Way to Track Linux Patch Compliance?

First, maintain assets and inventory management. Use a patch management solution to track patch compliance; many systems provide dashboards and reporting. You may also consider using configuration management tools, implementing centralized logging, and always maintaining the vulnerability scan results. Conduct any required audits and reviews. These requirements should all be addressed by your patch management policies and procedures.

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

Choose a tool that can coordinate and take care of patching across all machines and most Linux distros. It’s not advisable to choose a patch management solution that can only manage specific distros or that siloes other OS endpoints; identities should be managed the same way.

JumpCloud offers a cloud-based directory platform that combines remote identity and access management (IAM) with UEM for all major OSs, a CLI to run ad hoc commands, remote assist, and System Insights for reporting on patching. JumpCloud enables IT admins to obtain a clear view of infrastructure patch information across all types of machines through a single interface. 

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 as needed to address security or compatibility concerns
  • Deploy policies that protect your systems and ensure compliant device postures 

We help our customers accomplish cloud patch management, no matter their OS landscape complexity. If you’re looking for 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. Pricing is workflow based as opposed to feature-based pricing where functions are separate into tiers.

In the meantime, if you need to get going fast and be sure everything is set up correctly the first time, our Professional Services team is here — just find a 30-minute slot that works for you.

JumpCloud for MSPs™

JumpCloud for MSPs enables you to expand your business by being vendor agnostic to manage clients that reside outside of the Microsoft stack. Device management is consolidated to manage all client identities, access, and devices the same way, at the same time, regardless of the toolset you use.

David Worthington

I'm the JumpCloud Champion for Product, Security. JumpCloud and Microsoft certified, security analyst, a one-time tech journalist, and former IT director.

Continue Learning with our Newsletter