Overcoming the Challenges of Patch Management

Overcoming the Challenges of Patch Management

Patch management plays a crucial role in maintaining a strong cybersecurity posture for organizations. By regularly updating software and operating systems with the latest patches, businesses can prevent the exploitation of known security flaws and reduce the risk of data breaches.

Organizations that prioritize effective patch management can significantly enhance their security posture to protect their data. Failing to implement proper patch management procedures is akin to leaving the front door of your organization wide open for attackers. That’s why regular patching is essential to mitigate security risks and safeguard sensitive data.

Patch management can pose several challenges related to high volume of information, so organizations need to learn to prioritize based on potential risks in order to provide solutions and maximize effectiveness. In this blog post we will take a look at some of the challenges of patch management and how to overcome them, as well as the potential consequences of neglecting effective patching.

Manual Vs Automated Patch Management: Pros and Cons

Patch management can be performed either manually or through automated systems. Manual patch management involves individual administrators identifying, downloading, testing, and installing patches on each system. This method offers a high level of control and allows administrators to handle complex or unique situations with more flexibility. However, it can be time-consuming, error-prone, and unfeasible for larger networks.

On the other hand, automated patch management utilizes software tools to automate the process. These tools can scan the network for unpatched systems, download and test patches, and then deploy them across the network. Automated patch management is efficient, reduces human error, and is essential for managing large and complex networks. However, it may not handle unique or complex situations as well as a human could, and there is also the risk of automatic updates causing compatibility issues or other unexpected problems.

Many organizations opt for a hybrid approach, combining the strengths of both methods. Routine patches can be handled by automation, while more complex or critical updates can be managed manually.

Experts at Heimdal Security think that: “It is nearly impossible to conclude that one trumps the other when evaluating automatic vs manual patching. This is because it is entirely dependent on the context; automatic updating is preferable in some cases, but manual updating is preferable in others. […] The idea is to take advantage of risk-free automatic upgrades while simultaneously employing manual procedures as necessary.”

The choice between manual and automated patch management ultimately depends on the organization’s size, complexity, available resources, and specific needs. Regardless of the method chosen, having a comprehensive patch management strategy is non-negotiable in today’s cybersecurity landscape.

Challenges in Patch Management

Despite its critical importance, patch management can pose several challenges. One of the main challenges is managing the sheer volume of patches. With multiple vendors releasing updates at different times, keeping track of all patches can be daunting, especially for larger networks.

Another challenge is prioritizing patches. Not all patches are created equal; some fix critical security vulnerabilities while others address minor bugs or add new features. It’s important to understand which patches need to be applied urgently and which can wait.

Testing patches before deployment can also be difficult. Some patches may conflict with existing software or cause systems to become unstable. However, not testing patches can lead to even more serious issues, such as system downtime or data loss. Lack of visibility and control over all IT assets can further complicate patch management.

In an article published by Kolide, it is mentioned that “organizations face more pressure than individuals to keep up with patching because they’re bigger targets for hackers, and an updated fleet may be required  to meet their legal and compliance obligations. Yet IT teams must balance urgency with caution, because patching can introduce new problems.”

How to Overcome Challenges in Patch Management

In today’s world of remote work and BYOD (bring your own device) policies, it’s more difficult than ever to ensure that all devices are patched and secure, but to overcome some of the challenges presented, organizations can implement automated patch management tools, which can help manage the volume of patches and ensure patches are applied consistently. Regular network audits can also help maintain visibility over all IT assets.

A risk-based approach to patch management can help in prioritizing patches. Regular training and awareness programs can ensure that all staff understand the importance of patch management and follow the organization’s patch management policy.

Evaluating Patch Management Tools: What to Look For

Choosing the right patch management tool can significantly streamline the patching process and enhance your cybersecurity posture. When evaluating patch management tools, consider the following factors:

  • Coverage. The tool should support all hardware and software in your environment, including different operating systems, applications, and devices.
  • Automation. A good patch management tool should automate the process of discovering assets, detecting vulnerabilities, downloading and deploying patches, and generating reports.
  • Ease of Use. The tool should be user-friendly and intuitive, allowing your team to easily manage the patching process.
  • Testing Capabilities. Look for a tool that allows you to test patches in a controlled environment before deployment. This can help prevent stability issues or conflicts with existing software.
  • Prioritization. The tool should help you prioritize patches based on risk, ensuring that the most critical patches are applied first.
  • Reporting. Comprehensive reporting capabilities are essential for tracking your patch management efforts and demonstrating compliance with regulatory standards.
  • Integration. The tool should easily integrate with other systems and tools in your environment, such as your IT service management (ITSM) or security information and event management (SIEM) solutions.
  • Vendor Support. Strong vendor support is crucial. The vendor should provide timely updates and be able to assist you in case of any issues.

Remember, the best patch management tool is one that fits your unique needs and environment. Take the time to evaluate different options and choose the one that offers the best combination of functionality, usability, support, and cost-effectiveness.

How to Prioritize Patches: Risk-Based Patch Management

Given the sheer volume of patches released regularly, it’s often impossible, and not necessary, to deploy all patches immediately. This is where risk-based patch management comes into play. Risk-based patch management is a strategy that prioritizes patches based on the risk they pose to the organization.

“RBPM has the very real benefit of making IT feel like they’re gaining real ground (because they are), which impacts morale and offsets some of the burden of being understaffed and overwhelmed,” adds Jeff Abbott, CEO of Ivanti.

The first step in this approach is understanding your IT environment and identifying the most critical assets. We might be talking about systems that contain sensitive data, support critical business functions, or are most exposed to external threats.

Next, evaluate the severity of the vulnerability each patch addresses. This information is typically provided by the vendor or can be found in databases like the Common Vulnerabilities and Exposures (CVE) list. The severity of a vulnerability is often assessed based on factors like the ease of exploitation, the impact that could be caused if exploited, and whether the vulnerability is being actively exploited in the wild.

Finally, consider the usage of the software or system in question. Software that is rarely used or used only by a few employees might be lower priority than software that is used widely throughout the organization.

Prioritizing patches in this way allows organizations to make the best use of limited resources, ensuring that the most critical vulnerabilities are patched first. However, this does not mean that less critical patches should be ignored. All patches should eventually be deployed; it’s just a matter of timing.

Vendor Patch Management: Handling Third-Party Risks

In today’s interconnected digital ecosystem, organizations often rely on various third-party vendors for services and solutions. While this can bring numerous benefits, it can also introduce additional risks, particularly if those vendors don’t maintain stringent patch management practices. An unpatched vulnerability in a vendor’s system can become a potential entry point for attackers into your network.

To mitigate this risk, organizations should include third-party patch management in their own security policies. This starts with choosing vendors who prioritize security and demonstrate robust patch management procedures. Vendor contracts should include clauses that require the vendor to maintain up-to-date systems and provide regular security reports.

Organizations can also conduct regular security audits of their vendors or request third-party security certifications. Automated tools can help monitor third-party systems for unpatched vulnerabilities, although this may not always be feasible due to access restrictions or the scale of the task.

Ultimately, third-party patch management is about extending your organization’s security perimeter to include your vendors. By ensuring your vendors adhere to robust patch management practices, you can reduce your risk and create a more secure overall network.

Consequences of Negating Patch Management

One of the most infamous examples of the consequences of neglecting patch management is the WannaCry ransomware attack that occurred in 2017. WannaCry spread across 150 countries, infecting more than 200,000 computers, encrypting data, and demanding a ransom for its release. The attack severely affected many organizations, including the National Health Service (NHS) in the UK, which caused significant disruptions to healthcare services.

The ransomware exploited a known vulnerability in the Windows operating system for which Microsoft had released a patch two months before the attack. However, many organizations had not applied this patch, leaving their systems vulnerable.

The WannaCry case highlights several key lessons. Firstly, it emphasizes the need for regular patching and updating of systems. Secondly, it illustrates the importance of maintaining backup data as a precautionary measure against such attacks. Lastly, it underscores the need for a comprehensive cybersecurity strategy that includes not only technical measures but also employee awareness training, given that the ransomware was often initially introduced into systems through phishing emails. This situation underlines the critical importance of timely patch management.

In Conclusion

The evaluation of patch management tools, understanding the consequences of neglecting patch management, and handling third-party risks further emphasize the need for a robust patch management strategy.

By understanding the differences between manual versus automated approaches, and how to prioritize patches, organizations can significantly enhance their security posture. It’s also important to stay abreast of emerging trends and technologies to ensure your patch management strategy evolves with the rapidly changing cybersecurity landscape. With a strategic approach, even the challenges of patch management can be effectively managed.



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