What is Patch Management and Why is it Important?

Written by Brenna Lee on September 1, 2021

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Patching solves issues in software that can lead to system compromise. While there are also other reasons that prompt the creation of patches by vendors, security and stability are the main drivers here.

These small fixes to software are an important part of IT infrastructure management, which, if not correctly implemented, can be a time consuming and difficult process for administrators, especially as corporate systems diversify with approaches such as bring your own device (BYOD) and remote devices.

In this article, we’ll take a look at what software patch management is, what needs to be patched across your IT landscape, and why it’s so important. On top of this, we will explore the barriers to effective patch management for small to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) — and how these can be overcome.

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.

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.

Why is Patch Management an Important Process?

Addresses security issues like 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.

Challenges Small-to-Medium Sized Enterprises (SMEs) Face When Implementing a Patch Management Process

Lack of visibility into network assets and software

Do you know all the devices across your network and what versions of software they are running?

Many SMEs do not have the requisite network scanners or device agents in place to assess patching needs, which requires immediate attention. With a device management platform in place, a deployed agent can often communicate these details back to a central dashboard for IT admins to quickly review.

For example, JumpCloud’s System Insights address this problem — you can see device patch states across your network (on-site, cloud, and remote), delivering a complete picture of patch status available at any time, from anywhere.

Difficult to prioritize which patches to apply and when

If a patch management process hasn’t been implemented, you may be struggling with too many issues to address and not enough direction on where time and effort should be allocated. There is also the issue of cascading update dependencies that needs to be managed, and cross platform patch management needs to be a top-of-mind focus if you have a heterogeneous environment, as most organizations do today.

While employee devices may be more straightforward (albeit time-consuming) to bring to current patch levels, critical infrastructure (e.g. infrastructure-as-a-service solutions from AWS, for instance) may become too temperamental or unstable if patches go too long without being deployed. 

Unable to remotely manage the process with traditional tools

It’s not always convenient to have someone on-site to patch systems or to check on processes. Thanks to the pandemic, it’s now imperative that everything can be done remotely — including infrastructure administration — whether that infrastructure is remote, cloud-based, or on-site. This modern setup requires a cloud patch management strategy. Legacy patch management systems sometimes do not allow for remote control, distribution, and patch checking, which is why new tooling needs to be implemented.

Not enough time

Administrators have a lot of work to do, and with growing infrastructure, a cross-OS fleet and frequent yet variable patch releases across devices, this can create significant manual overhead. 

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 JumpCloud Free — get up to 10 users and 10 devices free with 24×7 in-app support for the first 10 days. 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.

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