What is Patch Management and Why is it Important?

Written by Brenna Lee on September 1, 2021

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The number of cyberattacks is rapidly rising in organizations with each passing day. For companies with multiple servers and endpoints, ensuring that all of them are updated is complex and time-consuming. 

Patch management can help you solve software issues which can potentially compromise your systems, especially as corporate systems diversify with approaches such as bring your own device (BYOD) and remote devices. While other reasons may prompt the creation of patches by vendors, security and stability are the main drivers here. 

In this article, we’ll take a look at what patch management software is, what needs to be patched across your IT landscape, and why it’s so important. On top of this, we will also answer frequently asked questions (FAQs) about patch management.

What is Patch Management?

Patch management is the process of coordinating software patching or updating on operating systems, applications, and devices which can include testing, rollout, and monitoring (including rollback, if necessary) of software updates across an organization. Patching is the process of applying a fix to a piece of software (OS, app, or device), usually to address a discovered security vulnerability, performance issue, or other software problem.

Generally, software developers think of patches differently than upgrades, which are software updates with new functionality included. Patching software and hardware systems is one of the most critical security functions and an absolute requirement for all IT organizations.

Patch management may be piecewise (for example, different processes for different operating systems), or orchestrated, in order to coordinate patching across different OSs, applications, and devices. 

A mature patch management process makes patching: 

  • More predictable
  • Easier to reconfigure
  • Highly automated
  • Less error-prone
  • More insightful
  • More compliant
  • More efficient
  • Highly visible

What is Automated Patch Management?

Cloud patch management puts the patching process in the hands of software, instead of individual IT admins, after the initial setup. For instance, your home laptop, if it’s running Microsoft Windows, is probably running Windows Update and automatically checking for updates including feature releases.

Security patches are always critically important to install, whereas feature updates can be optional and run at a convenient time that can be scheduled by the user. Security patches are often scheduled to be run overnight, before system shutdown, or on restart.

For Zero Day vulnerabilities where a patch is required immediately, an ad hoc patch push can be scheduled and even end users can be recruited to manually update their applications or Windows, macOS, or Linux devices.

In general, the best processes have everything scheduled, patched, and managed automatically while still giving the user some freedom to choose an optimal time for their system to initiate these processes.

Similar to Windows Update, automated patch management can apply to systems, applications, and devices across your entire corporate infrastructure, as opposed to just one device. This process can often be seen and managed by admins from a single pane of glass which makes implementing changes in the environment quick and easy.

Unlike Windows Update, though, the best patch management tools will provide detailed reporting for compliance and auditing purposes. These patching tools will also ensure that those machines not online or avoiding being patched are highlighted and processed either automatically or manually to ensure that they are updated.

While not all vendors have an automatic patching tool, you can, with the help of the right tooling such as JumpCloud, coordinate patching across Windows, Mac, and Linux OSs, applications, and various hardware.

On-Prem vs. Cloud-Based Patch Management

When choosing an automated patch management platform, organizations must consider end-user requirements and the limitations of their existing solutions. For example, if you haven’t fully embraced digital transformation, there is no way you can monitor endpoints remotely or send batch updates to user-owned devices.

On-prem patch management is a typical first step for companies that want to achieve some level of automation in their patching workflows. Under this model, patching is managed via Windows Server Update Services (WSUS) in Windows environments while Linux systems get updated through the command line.

While such a strategy may work well with internal deployments and other on-prem endpoints, it cannot provide end-to-end functionalities in hybrid environments. Also, on-prem patch management is generally more expensive and requires multiple manual configurations to work reliably. Minor configuration issues in the deployment stage can also cascade to other areas, introducing new inefficiencies into the patch management matrix. 

On the other hand, cloud-based patch management works well with hybrid infrastructures and remote environments. When assessing patch management costs, these are more cost-effective patching solutions because they don’t require internal servers or ongoing maintenance services, especially for small and mid-sized enterprises (SMEs) that have a global reach. 

IT admins can easily patch remote endpoints, cloud servers, and OSs, either individually or in batches. IT admins can also set specific rules for new updates. This provides the necessary oversight to enforce compliance regulations and test out new code updates before deploying the applications to users. 

What Kinds of Systems Require Patching?

Infrastructure that supports your product

What systems support your customer-facing applications and services? These are your most valuable company assets, and they carry the most risk to your organization if they are compromised.

For instance, for retailers, point of sale (POS) systems are on the front lines generating revenue, and as such, they’re often at very high risk of security vulnerabilities. As such, they need to be at the top of your list for patching.

Infrastructure that supports your organization

What other systems does your organization use to get things done? Whether it’s your mail server, files servers, enterprise apps, servers, workstations, or networking equipment, these are the apps, systems, and services that keep your organization running, and they should be prioritized as such.

Devices you use to do work

Beyond apps and services, you have your set of corporate devices that are necessary for your employees to get work done; from laptops, desktops, and tablets, to the networking equipment, IoT devices, and even personal devices — anything connected to the internet, whether they’re in house or remote, that in some way touches sensitive or critical data should be considered for regular patching. If these devices are compromised, they can act as the vehicle to further penetration and an eventual data breach. 

To keep most everything in your organization running smoothly, devices need to remain up-to-date, especially in the realm of security — which means that patches need to be applied in a timely manner.

If your organization is subject to compliance statutes or regulations, you will be required to update systems and applications on a regular basis and within a reasonable amount of time after the patch has been issued. Having excellent reporting and visibility of your patching status across systems, applications, and other IT resources is critical.

Types of OS Patch Management

Patch management works differently depending on the environment in which you’re applying the update. Let’s take a look at these approaches. 

1. Windows 

For Windows patch management, Microsoft regularly provides scheduled updates to its Windows OSs and other products like Office 365 on a day that has been nicknamed “patch Tuesday.” Once the update is released, stand-alone systems can leverage the Windows Update feature to automatically download and apply the patch. 

Businesses, however, are more likely to use WSUS included in the Windows Server environment to manage and deploy Microsoft patches. You can also use third-party services such as the JumpCloud® Directory Platform to centralize patch management. 

2. Linux 

You can either deploy the patches manually or automate the process via a patch management tool in Linux. Because most Linux systems don’t have the friendly user interface you expect to find in Windows or macOS environments, IT admins have to issue system commands through the terminal manually. 

Besides being tedious and error-prone, IT admins must have the necessary technical expertise to manually patch the Linux system. Automated patch management for Linux systems are more efficient because they can scan for missing updates, download them, and test the patches in non-production environments. If the tool discovers that the patch doesn’t cause any issue, it automatically approves and schedules it to be rolled out in the production environment.

3. macOS

Like Microsoft, Apple also releases periodic updates to its macOS software, including patches to apps and essential security updates. Once released, users can manually install the patches or use automated patch management tools. 

However, unlike Microsoft, which releases its patches almost weekly, Apple updates are fewer and further between. In some cases, the company doesn’t announce a new update until its release, complicating the patch management lifecycle. The company must arm itself with appropriate tools to optimize macOS patch management

Why is Patch Management an Important Process?

Addresses security vulnerabilities that could be exploited by attackers

Patches can address known security vulnerabilities, whether they have been found and exploited by attackers or discovered through other avenues such as white hat hacking or code reviews. For instance, threat actor Hafnium found previously unknown exploits in on-premises Microsoft Exchange Servers, prompting an emergency patch to be released to address the vulnerabilities in question. 

If you don’t have an appropriate patch management solution in place and you wait too long to implement a patch — especially for high profile vulnerabilities, you’re left open to the Hafniums of the world and other opportunistic attackers to take advantage of the known gap in security.

Addresses performance issues that may prevent certain applications from functioning well or at all

The interaction of system software and applications can lead to unexpected performance issues. For instance, Windows just released a Windows 10 patch to resolve performance issues in gaming applications that had persisted since March of 2021.

This can be a huge issue inside of an organization if one piece of software remains unpatched causing another application to crash or perform poorly. Incompatibilities are often extremely frustrating to IT admins and their end-users so, generally, software vendors try to avoid these issues and will often issue patches to rectify the issue.

Enables new software to be installed that otherwise could not

Some apps simply won’t work with an older version of system software, as it is not developed for that target configuration, and they’re incompatible. For instance, you may notice that you’re not able to install an app on your phone if you haven’t updated to a current Android version and the same is often true with apps for iOS devices.

May address certain compliance requirements

Some patches specifically address compliance rules and regulations, such as the patches that addressed microprocessor vulnerabilities known as Meltdown and Spectre. When unpatched, systems were identified out of compliance with GDPR regulations, leaving organizations at risk of fines and reputation loss.

General Patch Management FAQ 

How often should you perform patch management?

The best practice is to install the patch immediately after the system vendor releases the update. However, this may not be possible if the application is required throughout the year and has a service level agreement (SLA) on its uptime. Under such scenarios, your response largely depends on the company’s risk tolerance, the system’s resilience, compliance responsibilities, and vendor recommendations. 

What is the difference between patch management and vulnerability management?

Patch management is a process that distributes and applies updates to operating systems and applications logically. The primary goal of patching is to correct errors — also called bugs or vulnerabilities — in an operating system or an application. 

In contrast, vulnerability management is a set of processes that organizations use to discover assets on their networks, categorize OS and applications on the assets, and report the weaknesses on the target systems. A vulnerability management solution usually scans the assets and reports known vulnerabilities along with remediation advice.

Learn more about this distinction in Patch Management vs. Vulnerability Management.

What is the patch management life cycle?

The patch management life cycle is a series of uniform steps that a patch undergoes before being implemented in an OS or application. These steps include:

  • Updating vulnerability details from the system vendors, where IT admins keep an up-to-date record of all the patch-related information from various sources. 
  • Scanning the network, where IT admins identify the systems in the network that are likely to be affected with discovered vulnerabilities. 
  • Identifying patches for vulnerabilities, where IT admins assess the missing patches and what has already been installed. 
  • Downloading and deploying patches, where IT admins download and deploy the patches from the vendor’s website. 
  • Generating status reports, where IT admins create reports from various patch management tasks.

What does it mean to patch a server?

Patching a server or server patching is a process that updates the server’s software. You can undertake such a process to fix errors, update software versions, or enhance performance and security on the server. 

What are the challenges in patch management? 

Some of the common patch management challenges IT admins face include:

  • Lack of visibility into network assets and software
  • Difficult to prioritize which patches to apply and when
  • Unable to remotely manage the process with traditional tools
  • Not enough time

Implementing a Patch Management Solution Starts With Visibility

With the advent of contemporary cloud solutions and single-click integrations, you can now start automating your own patch management in an easier and more streamlined way. And that generally starts with getting visibility across your fleet. Starting with your highest-valued or mission-critical assets, JumpCloud System Insights and JumpCloud patch management policies can lead your journey with an effective patch management process.

Try out the full functionality of the platform with a free trial of JumpCloud. Utilize System Insights and JumpCloud patch management functionality to reduce the chance of human error, regain your valuable time, improve your organization’s security posture, and leverage the latest features and technologies available.

Brenna Lee

Brenna is a Content Writer at JumpCloud that loves learning about and immersing herself in new technologies. Outside of the [remote] office, she loves traveling and exploring the outdoors!

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