The process of patching itself is an easy one. You probably just need to click some buttons or run a couple of commands and the software takes care of everything else. This, however, is simple only when you have a couple of software to patch on a personal system. But at an enterprise scale, it’s not that simple. This post focuses on the approach to make this process simple - Patch Management Policy. We’ll start by understanding what a patch management policy, why it is important. We’ll then get into what a typical patch management policy should include and wind it up with some best practices.
Think of all the systems, software, services, components of an application that you need to patch, and in time. With multiple vendors releasing patches as soon as they can and the criticality of applying these patches in time to avoid a cyber incident, it’s crucial to have a strategy for patching.
Patch management policies are a set of guidelines to ensure controlled, efficient and secure patching. These guidelines contain steps and procedures that one should follow when patching bugs and vulnerabilities. There are different types of patches - security patches, hotfixes, service packs, and so on. Some of these focus on fixing vulnerabilities, while others focus on fixing bugs or enhancing functionality.
The process of patching has been around forever, even without any policies. So what’s the need for patch management policies now?
Patch management is not just about patching. It’s about how well we do it. There are 3 important things you have to take care of in patch management: timeliness, efficiency, and quality. Patch management policies help you achieve all of them.
This mostly applies to security patches. Vendors and security researchers are continuously working on finding vulnerabilities and fixing them. Their goal is clear, find a fix and make patches available as soon as possible. However, there’s also a downside to this. When vendors release security updates, they’re making patches available. But along with that, they’re also making information about the vulnerability public. Attackers can leverage this information to target and launch attacks. Patch management policies help you apply security patches sooner so that the attackers can leverage the vulnerability.
There are 2 aspects with respect to time when it comes to patch management:
Patch management policies address both of these. With proper policies in place, your team knows how to learn about new patches, and how to plan and schedule patching so there’s minimal impact on teams. Therefore patch management policies also help you build efficient processes and workflow.
Organizations are required to comply with certain regulations based on the industry. Although these regulations are best practices and a baseline for security, they’re not optional. If an organization is not in compliance with necessary regulations, the organization might have to pay heavy fines. One might find patch management expensive but these fines are way more expensive. Feel free to check this to get an idea of the most expensive fines organizations have paid in the past.
It’s important for any business to keep their services available and have good performance. A good number of patches aim towards improving the performance of applications. Effective patch management policies help maintain availability and improve performance so the business benefits from it.
We’ve been going about patch management policies. Now it’s time see to what a patch management policy should include.
An ideal patch management policy can vary from one organization to another due to multiple variables involved in the process. However, there are some elements that are the core of patch management policies. And that’s what we’ll cover in this section.
The first step to fixing something is to understand what needs fixing. At an enterprise scale, you will find a lot of systems. Manually exploring the systems and checking if each system needs the newly released patched is not efficient. Therefore it’s important to keep track of the systems in the scope of the policy. To make things easier, you can also go ahead and have details about the products, software, and packages used on different systems so that if there’s a new patch available, you know what systems are affected by a vulnerability and fix them.
First, let’s do an imagination exercise. Let’s say you’re in charge of security for an organization and the organization is under attack. The server is under attack and there’s an L1 employee's system under attack. Which of these 2 systems will you attend to first? No doubt the server. And the reason is simple - a compromised server is far more catastrophic than a compromised system of an employee.
You can have multiple patches to apply and you can have multiple systems to patch. A good patch management policy should cover prioritizing patching so the most critical systems and patches are addressed first.
It is not wise to wait for a patch to be available to decide how to apply the patch to your systems. It’ll only delay the patching process giving time for attackers. Patch management policies should have well-defined processes so the focus can be on applying patches rather than thinking about how to go about the process. Scheduling patching is also important to make sure the process doesn’t affect the operation of your organization, especially in cases where patching requires a system restart.
The patch management process involves multiple tasks and phases. As this process is something that organizations have to perform on regular basis, it’s important to know who does what. Patch management policies should include roles and responsibilities and the stakeholders and teams should be aware of these.
Patch management policies focus on patching efficiently and on time. And a good number of patches are to fix vulnerabilities. Due to this, patch management policies help organizations ensure security. Additionally, a lot of security-related practices are the baseline for compliance so these policies also help you stay compliant with regulations.
One of the goals of patch management policies is to ensure the patching process doesn’t impact the current state of applications, systems, and teams. As a result, the policies help in uptime and sticking to SLAs.
Patch management policies define clear processes, roles, and responsibilities. Thereby enabling an efficient workflow.
Let’s now go through some of the best practices for patch policies.
Although patch management policies apply to all kinds of patches, we will focus a bit more on security patches.
An efficient patch management policy should be such that the patching process is like a well-oiled machine. And to achieve this, the policies should have standards defined. SOPs increase efficiency as everyone knows what they have to do. It also decreases errors in the process as the processes are clearly defined. Automation can be of great help especially if you have repetitive tasks.
This involves 2 things:
Past information helps you understand where you’re lacking and strategize on strengthening your defenses. Knowing how a category of the patch was applied can also benefit in the future and can help improve the policies.
Vendors are constantly working on providing patches to fix issues. You have to keep up with them and make sure you look for these updates. Regular research is important to learn about these patches so you can work on fixing them. You can also set up notifications to be informed when a vendor releases patches.
A patch is not the only way to fix all security issues. In some cases, a patch is all you need but in other cases, there’s more. It’s crucial to know which category a vulnerability in your system falls under. To address this, you have to document all details regarding the vulnerability and its patch. Evaluating test results and updates to security configurations can help you understand if the patch is enough or if you need to do more.
Patch management is a continuous process. A patch management policy that is perfect for you today might not be enough in a couple of months or years. Hence, it’s important to evaluate your policies and see if they’re still ideal. The documentation part mentioned previously can be of great help as you can use it to understand where you’re lacking and then tune your policies accordingly.
Throughout this post, we’ve covered different aspects of patch management policies - what is a patch management policy, why is it important, what it should include, how can organizations benefit from it, and some best practices.
Patching is important for security and improving functionality. So are patch management and patch management policies. I will leave you with two questions to think about and act upon - Are you following the best practices mentioned in this post? Are your best practices enough for your organization?