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Patch Management: Overview and Best Practices

Keeping software up-to-date can be a challenging task, especially for teams that manage multiple applications and operating systems. Every system will typically have different patching requirements and frequencies. That's why having a patch management strategy in place is crucial for ensuring that your team is able to keep all of its applications and systems up-to-date, all of the time.

Read on for tips on the what and why of patch management, as well as tips on patch management best practices.

What Is Patch Management?

Patch management is the process of continuously identifying and installing software updates for the applications, operating systems, networking devices, firmware and any other applicable IT resources you manage.

Patch management also extends to keeping track of which patches have been applied previously, as well as verifying that patches have been properly installed and that they successfully delivered the fix that they promise.

Key Reasons to Implement Patch Management

By allowing organizations to take a systematic, centralized and streamlined approach to managing updates, patch management provides several critical benefits:

  • Enhanced security: Some patches provide important fixes for security issues. If you don't apply patches routinely, you risk leaving your systems at risk of known vulnerabilities.
  • Business continuity: Patches can provide updates that fix reliability or performance issues that, if left unaddressed, could bring down your systems and disrupt business operations.
  • Proactive protection: Patch management helps you apply patches proactively, rather than waiting for something to go wrong and only then looking for an update to address it.
  • Meeting compliance rules: Compliance frameworks often mandate that organizations keep software up-to-date as part of security requirements.

Further reading The Importance of Patching While Working Remotely

Patch Management Processes

Patch management can be broken down into a series of individual processes. Typically, a team will work through each of these processes for each cycle of patches that they need to release.

Asset Management

The foundation of patch management is asset management, meaning the identification of the resources that exist in your IT environment. You can't patch comprehensively if you don't know which systems you are managing.

Auditing and Analysis

Performing periodic audits and continuous scans of your IT assets helps you assess which security vulnerabilities or other problems may impact the environment due to insufficient updates.

Further reading IT Security Audit: Essentials Explained

Risk Classification

Sometimes, you can't apply every available patch immediately. That's why it's important to perform risk classification, which means determining the potential impact that could result from not applying a patch.

Further reading Risk Management Guide for MSPs

Prioritization and Scheduling

With the insight gleaned from risk classification, you can determine which patches to prioritize, then make a schedule for applying them.

Patch Installation

With a schedule in place, you can begin installing patches. In many cases, this process can be automated using patch management tools.

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Testing and Verification

After patches have been installed, review each system and check the installation log files to confirm that installation was successful.

Tracking and Monitoring

You should keep track of which patches you installed on which systems. This data is important in situations where you need to confirm that a particular patch was applied, or to determine whether a particular event (such as a security breach that could have been caused by unpatched software) occurred before or after a certain patch was installed.

Further reading Handling Updates and Patches

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Patch Management Best Practices

While simply having a patch management strategy in place will go far toward helping to keep your systems stable, there are several additional steps you can take to optimize the results of your patch management strategy.

Automate, But Not Too Much

Automation provides obvious benefits as a means of speeding the patch installation process. You should take advantage of automation tools where it makes sense.

However, in certain cases it's better to manage patches manually. For instance, if you need to apply a complex patch to a mission-critical application, it may be less risky to do so manually, in order to minimize the risk that an automated tool will fail to complete the job.

Take Additional Security Steps

Patch management is one way to help keep systems secure, but it's hardly a safeguard against all types of threats. Be sure to perform other security operations, such as monitoring with a SIEM tool and scanning applications for malware.

Further reading Data Security Management: 10 Best Tips

Apply Patches at Strategic Times

Patch installation consumes system resources and sometimes requires systems to restart. To minimize disruptions to users, schedule routine patch installations for times of low activity, such as overnight.

The exception, of course, is critical security or reliability patches, which should be installed immediately.

Manage Failed Patches

If installation of a particular patch fails, don't just wait until the next patch management cycle to try again. Be proactive in determining why it failed, and work to install the patch successfully, as quickly as reasonably possible.

Test Patches Before Release

While it may not be practical to test every patch, it's wise to perform a test installation and verification of patches for mission-critical systems before you install them within your production environment. That way, you can sort out any issues in the test environment.

Release Patches in Groups

To help keep the patch management process organized and consistent, consider releasing patches in groups. For example, release a particular vendor's latest set of patches as one group, security patches as another group and so on.

Document Your Process

Preparing documentation about how and when you applied patches will pay large dividends if you need to research your patch management process in the future. Documenting patching operations will also help you measure performance over time by, for example, determining which types of patches are the most problematic to apply.

Conclusion

Patch management is a foundational process for any IT team. Make patch management a systematic part of your IT operations by breaking it down into easy-to-handle processes, and think strategically about how and when you apply patches.

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