No one questions the enormous impact patch management has on security, compliance, and day-to-day operations for IT teams and the businesses they serve. As time-consuming as it is, patch management requires careful planning and automation.

The U.S. government’s National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) tracks reported vulnerabilities and the “severity” of each. Their report shows that there is a new “here to stay” trend in the growing number of vulnerabilities that IT teams cannot keep up with on their own.

The need to understand patch management and how to create patch management solutions is critical, and no matter what stage in your career, it never hurts to learn and re-learn the best practices and strategies.

What is patch management?

Simply stated, it’s the process of applying updates to software. Though if we are to dig deeper, what is important is the motivation for an update. Meaning, what is the intended update from the vendor? Most commonly this is:

  • New versions with new features
  • Bugs being fixed
  • Security vulnerabilities that need correcting from their own code or provided by third-party code that is integrated into their software.

No matter the motivation of the software vendor (including operating system vendors), they all tend to include multiple types of updates into a single “patch”.

Fun fact: the term “patch” in the IT world comes from days when computers used punch cards as their set of inputs. When a card was damaged or inputs changed, it could then get a “patch” to restore the card to working order.

What software and devices need patches?

For many years patch management was limited to servers and workstations. Today this is extended to IOT devices, mobile devices/applications, and even appliances. If the word “smart” is in front of a product, then there is a good chance it will need updates. For businesses, there should be a focus on:

  • Windows and Mac operating systems
  • On-premises software
  • Cloud-based applications require patches (even if conducted by the vendor)
  • Microservices

The thought that a cloud or SaaS application means you do not need to worry about patches and updates is not true. When selecting providers and tools, it is always important to keep in mind the level of security that you expect from the vendor, and it should be factored into your selection.

After all, the cloud is simply somebody else’s computer!

What types of patches are there?

There is no straightforward answer to the names or labels that various vendors place on the types of patches or even the severity of patches. However, there is a common-sense approach to this. To begin we will go back to the list we provided on the “motivations” of a patch.

Non-security-related patches—these will typically split based on the size of the patch/update

  • Patch—would fix a single issue or bug
  • Bug fix—is usually an update with multiple bugs being addressed
  • A minor release—is typically a roll-up of minor feature changes and bug fixes
  • Major release—Contains major feature work as well as all other updates up to this point, including bug fixes.

Security-related patches

NOTE: security patches can be released on their own separate from non-security-related patches, however, they are often bundled together.

  • Zero-day—these are emergency patches that require immediate deployment based on the severity and the volume of attacks that are exploiting it. These tend to be rare.
  • Critical Security Patches—these are major security updates that should be taken very seriously and should be the first to be deployed and should protect your most critical devices.
  • Important Security Patches—these patches tend to hold less severe consequences than critical but otherwise are still worth deploying and treating with the same care as critical patches.
  • Moderate—these are typically minor security updates or fixes that affect very few or are limited in the gains that an attack may get from exploiting it.
  • Low—these are very minor security issues that typically have low gains from attackers and high levels of effort to exploit. In the event that they are already this far, it might be too late.

Now some may believe that the above list is not perfect or is not how XYZ vendor sees the world and that may be true. Though the point here is to simply use a common-sense approach on how to untangle the multitude of naming conventions so that you can relate to what each vendor uses.

For example, if you click on this link you’ll see the Windows 10 software update types. They make sense for Microsoft, but they do not apply to all software providers.

How do threat actors use unpatched software?

To understand how threat actors use unpatched software, it is helpful to remind ourselves of the objectives threat actors hold and their motivations. Long gone are the days when threat actors were simply vandals; they are now sophisticated, financially backed criminal organizations that are run like a business. Like any business, they identify their target market with their product or service and attempt to reach as many of those targets as possible. When they do find one, they would like to maximize the value of that target.

As it relates to patching, the following is a quick list of how unpatched software plays into this:

  • Reaching a wide audience
    Threat actors will look for software applications that are the most widely used by most companies, such as Microsoft OS, Office, Adobe, web browsers, and more.
  • Find the easy “wins”
    They tend to prey on the most vulnerable software, which often is legacy unsupported/nearly unsupported software and operating systems. Windows 7, or Exchange 2003, are a bit long in the tooth and are a prime target.
  • Gain access and persist
    There are many ways that unpatched software can leave an environment vulnerable to security threats, of which those that provide elevated permissions or access to multiple devices are valuable to threat actors. They will use this access to continue their process and spread out across the network, giving them a better chance of not being caught and access to more data.

What are the major parts that make up a good patch-management program?

As mentioned, this is part one of a multi-part series, therefore we will not go into much more detail on all the bits and bobs of a good patch program. However, the following will provide you with a good place to start that can even be beneficial to those who have been running a program for many years—there are always ways to improve.

  • Scope and visibility
    A good patch program needs to start out with the scope of the network you wish to patch. This should include which devices, by group, with some level of importance that relates to reducing the risk of business downtime. The visibility portion should include a plan that continuously allows you to discover devices entering and exiting the business.
  • Policies
    Based on the importance of a device or group of devices, or based on the severity of a patch, you should plan out and maintain documentation of your desired policies for when and which patches are deployed.
  • Patch operations
    While patch operations are very close to policies, the major difference here is this is all about how you and your teams will manage the day-to-day of patching. Not all patches will work correctly and not all devices need or want the latest patches due to conflicts or legacy application dependence. What is important here is not to overload yourself with all the devices all at once.
  • Patch testing and vetting
    Ensure there is a pilot group of devices that you test that contains a mix of non-critical devices (servers, workstations, etc). This could give you insights into how well or poor your next roll-out might be.
  • Reporting
    Often overlooked, reporting before and after roll-outs is important and should contain the data you need for your security program, your operations, and any compliance regulations you might have. (These are often multiple reports). This will give you a sense of your progress in minimizing risk to your company.
  • Governance
    As we see from the NIST report, more and more security patches are needed each year and there is really no way to keep up manually. It is important that only software that is needed is installed on company devices. This means setting governance and monitoring up to identify and remove any unauthorized software.

If this information is helpful to you read our blog for more interesting and useful content, tips, and guidelines on similar topics. Contact the team of COMPUTER 2000 Bulgaria now if you have a specific question. Our specialists will be assisting you with your query. 

Content curated by the team of COMPUTER 2000 on the basis of marketing materials provided by our partners/vendors.


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