December 11, 2020
What is Patch Management? Best Practices & Benefits
A patch is a piece of software that is applied to an application or firmware to improve its performance and functionality, resolve a security flaw or fix a bug. Applying a handful of patches is fairly straightforward, but the task becomes considerably more complex when hundreds of devices are in queue. The patch management process serves as a blueprint for IT professionals to stay on top of their network's patching requirements and execute them efficiently.
The patch management module in Datto RMM allows you to both control and automate the deployment of patches to your Windows devices so all your devices can stay up to date and secure. Our blog provides a comprehensive understanding of the patch management process so you can excel at it and keep your network secure.
What is patch management?
Patch management is the process of identifying all patches available for your IT environment and applying them safely and securely. A patch is a change to a computer program that is designed to update, fix or improve it. Patches help:
- Fix security vulnerabilities
- Implement bug fixes
- Improve the performance of applications and programs
- Improve the usability of applications or programs
Speed is of the essence when it comes to patch management. As soon as a patch is released, cybercriminals rush to exploit the vulnerability. IT professionals, too, have to move fast, but their job is made harder by the fact that they are juggling multiple patches. They need to prioritize critical patches and test them in a controlled environment before deploying while ensuring continuous uptime and minimal disruption to the end user. Technicians also have to be mindful that cybercriminals do not exploit the vulnerability first.
To make the process seamless, businesses turn to automated patch deployment solutions or MSPs for help. Patch management tools allow for a controlled and automated deployment of patches to systems. As a result, it creates an environment that is secure against known weaknesses while ensuring devices within a network are up to date.
Why is patch management important?
One short story can aptly summarize the importance of patch management.
The 2017 Equifax data breach affected more than 143 million U.S. consumers, compromising their personally identifiable information, including credit card numbers, driver’s license numbers, social security numbers, date of birth, phone numbers and email addresses. As a result of the breach, Equifax paid roughly $1 billion in legal fees, had criminal charges brought against it and suffered reputational damage.
As it turns out, the attack was a result of an unpatched web application that acted as a backdoor for hackers. A patch for the hole was available for a full two months before the breach occurred, but due to cybersecurity mismanagement, Equifax failed to detect, identify or update the software.
Proper and timely patch management is crucial for:
- Protection against cyberthreats: Effective patch management prevents cybercriminals from exploiting known vulnerabilities and minimizes the likelihood of zero-day attacks. It acts as the first line of defense, closing security gaps, securing confidential data and preventing malware infections from getting through.
- Prevention of exploits and malware: Patching vulnerabilities on time also minimizes the attack surface, protecting IT environments from potential exploits, malware, unauthorized access and security breaches.
- Fixing bugs: Promptly fixing bugs boosts software performance, leading to time savings, improved user experience and fewer system crashes. Additionally, it prevents attackers from exploiting bugs to gain access to systems or networks.
- Minimizing downtime: Patching, whether it's a software update, security patch or bug fix, is the antidote to unplanned downtime that can be triggered by faulty software performance or a security breach.
- Feature updates and improvements: Software patches and bug fixes that are designed to improve the performance and functionality of the applications and operation system are essential for maintaining system integrity, enhancing user experience and ensuring the overall stability of the software ecosystem.
- Regulatory compliance: Compliance is serious business, and overlooking it can draw penalties and fines from regulatory bodies. Patch management helps businesses and their clients stay compliant with the growing requirements around data protection and security while winning the trust of customers and stakeholders.
Patch management best practices
Every client has unique needs that you’ll need to account for, and this is by no means an exhaustive list of what should be included in your patching strategy. However, the following five best practices are a good place to start:
- Create a patching and reboot strategy that suits your client’s requirements. For example, you might patch workstations during lunch hours and allow end users to defer updates for a specified period (e.g., until tomorrow) to avoid impacting productivity.
- Create separate policies for workstations and servers. For example, you might patch desktops and laptops during the day when you know they are likely to be powered up while patching servers at night since they are typically on 24/7.
- Approve/deny by update type. For example, automatically denying patches that include the word “preview” (see above).
- Identify and exclude patches that should not be installed to avoid possible hardware or software issues. For example, many IT providers choose to exclude driver software from automated updates.
- Identify devices that cannot be automatically rebooted and create reboot tickets that ensure that those patches will be installed manually.
So, yes, patch management can be challenging. However, there are tools available that enable IT providers to deliver this as an effective and profitable service.
Common challenges of patch management and how to overcome them
Knowing the common challenges you might face while patching and the tricks to mitigate them can make your patching journey a whole lot smoother.
Diverse IT environments
Diverse IT environments demand IT professionals have multiple patching policies. Begin by taking a comprehensive inventory of all assets and then group them based on devices, software and configuration categories. You can further segment them based on function and criticality, allowing for planned and targeted patch deployment. These classifications help deploy patches to a group of applications at the same time.
Testing and compatibility issues
Not all patches might be compatible with the configuration of your network, which can lead to systems failure and costly downtime. A good way to bypass this issue is by testing your patches in a controlled environment before rolling them out to the bigger group.
Timely patch deployment
Regular monitoring for updates is the first step towards ensuring timely patching of vulnerabilities. A well-defined patch management policy that lays out the procedure and responsibilities of each stakeholder, along with a plan for emergencies, encourages proactive patch management.
Prioritization of patches
Prioritizing critical security patches and patching important devices, applications and servers first helps businesses shrink the IT network’s window of exposure to malicious cyberattacks. This will ensure that the most critical systems are protected and that any potential vulnerabilities are quickly addressed.
User resistance and downtime
End users sometimes delay applying patches to avoid interruption to their work. This practice can prove fatal for the organization when the deployment of a critical patch is in question. Educating the users on the risks of avoiding or delaying patches and providing advance notice can help you create a patching schedule that doesn’t disturb end users.
Automation and patch management tools
Automating the patch management process streamlines the process and reduces the time and effort it takes to deploy all the patches. Using a patch management tool, you can even roll back a patch in case of an unexpected issue and prevent downtime.
What to look for in a patch management solution?
A patch management solution provides small and midsize businesses (SMBs) and MSPs detailed insights into apps and devices that are potentially at risk. While the list is not exhaustive, investing in a patch management tool with the following features will make your job easy:
By using an automated system, admins can patch multiple systems simultaneously, reducing the time needed to patch large fleets. Additionally, it enables patching to be automated by policy, reducing the need for manual intervention. Automating the entire patching process, from identifying to deploying the patches, makes it extremely fast and efficient. It also reduces the chance of manual error, making the process more accurate, which results in smooth patching.
Compatibility and integration
Poor integration between solutions is often the biggest cause of operational inefficiencies, fragmented workflows and compromised data integrity. A patch management solution that integrates seamlessly with your core IT tools, like RMM, PSA and documentation solutions, will make the process more efficient and reliable. This integration should also allow for seamless collaboration between teams.
A patch management solution should be able to scale with the growth and needs of your businesses. It should also be able to support multiple operating systems and devices and more of them as your organization expands. Additionally, it should be easy to install and use with minimal to no training required.
It should be able to provide real-time reporting and analytics on all patching activities. This reporting should include details such as patch status, patch deployment times, patch compliance and more. It should also include the ability to track historical patching activities, trends, compliance and vulnerability assessment.
The user interface should be intuitive and easy to use. An interface that is complex and difficult to navigate is counterproductive and often comes in the way of maximizing its potential.
Security features like robust encryption protocols, secure update channels, access management and automated risk assessment should be built into the solution to ensure comprehensive vulnerability protection.
How to get started with patch management?
The patch management process should start by assessing the current security posture of the organization and may look something like this:
Set your parameters: Define a baseline of compliance to identify network gaps in the existing strategy and blueprint a path to a cure.
Identify risks and define a contingency plan: If a patch cannot be deployed or causes a software regression, how will you respond?
Test your patches: Do so in a controlled environment, and confirm your targets have backups, especially for vital devices like servers.
Get your team onboard: Loop in key stakeholders to primary and contingency plans so they can help respond in the event of deployment failure.
Deploy and assess: Once a patch is deployed, evaluate the environment and confirm compliance. If you find non-compliant anomalies, learn from the issues and build a corrective plan.
Report the results: Finally, report the results and continue to fine-tune your patch management process for stronger, continued success. This is why one aspect of Datto RMM is automating patch updating.
Above all, remember that patching is an ongoing process, not a single project.
How can Datto help you with patch management
Datto RMM is a unified remote monitoring and management platform with built-in patch management capabilities that ease patching for SMBs and MSPs alike. Datto RMM empowers IT professionals with policy-based patching and automation so you can schedule patches to ensure minimal disruption to business operations. The robust reporting and search capabilities supply a comprehensive view of changes made to the environment. These include patches that have been applied, those missing in the network and those which failed to deploy.
Automation powers patch management in Datto RMM. Technicians can develop custom policies to deploy patches for business applications on a scheduled basis, reducing the need to update systems manually. This keeps them secure from the latest threats and zero-day vulnerabilities.
Datto RMM can automate the delivery of updates for both operating systems and more than 280 of the most common software applications by:
- Automated patching capabilities for Microsoft and third-party software
- Providing flexible parameters to deliver patching to meet the needs of the environment
- Support for large and complex networks with policy-based patch approvals, local caching and device-level compliance reporting
- Automated responses to monitoring alerts
- Extensive library of pre-built scripts, policies and extensions supported by Datto
- Configure and schedule reports
Additionally, Datto RMM provides easy-to-understand reports that provide visibility to the sites and devices with the highest risk. This enables MPSs and SMBs to make data-backed decisions, showcase the value of their work to stakeholders and strengthen their reputation as partners/technicians who act proactively. To learn more about how Datto RMM fits into your patch management strategy, schedule a demo today.