Why is patch management so difficult to master?

This question has plagued IT and security departments for years. Each month these teams struggle to keep up with the number of patches issued by the myriad of vendors in their technology stack. And it’s not a small problem. According to a Ponemon Institute report, more than 40% of IT and security workers indicated they suffered a data breach in the last two years due to unpatched vulnerabilities.

patch management process

To get a better handle on the never-ending cascade of patches, let’s first address some of the problems organizations face today.

Most significant pitfalls

Each vendor, platform, and application has its own approach to patch management. For example, when we look at SAP, their patches fall into two categories: automatic and manual.

Automatic patches don’t require a system restart, which means IT teams can push patches into production without disrupting business operations. Manual patches, on the other hand, require a system restart. These patches are often tricky to implement and require IT teams to sync patching with maintenance windows, which could be weeks or even months away. These updates also need to be added to development, quality assurance and production environments, adding even more time for the patch. The problem? Hackers aren’t waiting that long.

A recent study showed that some hackers are attacking vulnerable platforms within 72 hours of an issued patch. IT teams need to move quickly, which brings up the next pitfall. A record labor shortage with skyrocketing unfilled security positions has left enterprises shorthanded. And while some mission-critical business applications have a dedicated team, like SAP and BASIS administrators, security procedures for many applications are left to general IT and security staff who are already spread thin.

With hundreds of patches coming in every month, some updates can fall through the cracks, be deprioritized, or left unassigned. This is especially true for teams using outdated methods to track patches like spreadsheets and email.

Five steps towards better patch management

How can teams keep up with this never-ending issue? Businesses need to take five critical steps to drive alignment and establish a well-oiled patch management process.

These steps include leveraging automation, streamlining workflows, adopting advanced analytics, and more. These processes can alleviate patch management pitfalls, support staff, and up-level an organization’s overall security posture.

1. Understand the problem and achieve buy-in: Patch management is a team program. IT and security teams need to chart a map highlighting the full scope of applications within their business, the criticality of each system, and who is managing each vendor’s updates.

With tightening security budgets, it’s essential to showcase the growing, complicated web of applications and patch management processes to leadership in order to achieve buy-in for financial allocation and staff resources to fix this very solvable problem.

2. Automate: To replace spreadsheets and manual tracking, businesses should consider investing in third-party solutions that automate the scanning of a company’s entire application landscape. These offerings can aggregate unpatched vulnerabilities, highlight priorities patches and chart a roadmap to a level of manageable risk. Smart companies will also consider adopting workflow offerings that integrate with automation solutions to help streamline the remediation process.

3. Implement compensating controls: Complete coverage and immediate response to security patches are not always possible. That’s why it’s essential to implement compensating controls that can help organizations “buy time” while patch prioritization, implementation, and testing kick in. There are different types of compensating controls, but one of the most common ones is enabling real-time visibility to assess whether security vulnerabilities are being exploited or not.

4. Analyze key trends: With the support of automation, businesses can move beyond identification and remediation to focus on trend analysis. As critical patches are resolved, security teams can quickly generate reports that show leadership where their business stands regarding unpatched vulnerabilities. The team can then establish a risk baseline the company is comfortable moving forward.

5. Establish an ongoing process: Every company is different, and the patch management process will reflect these differences. Whether that’s the number of tools they leverage, the level of risk they’re willing to accept, and how they apply these patches. One thing that’s the same across every company, patch management is an ongoing process. It’s essential to develop a patch management workflow that works for your organization, stays up to date on Patch Tuesdays’ news and never forgets older vulnerabilities.

Automation technology promises to help streamline the monotonous job of tracking and applying patches, so security teams can focus on managing edge cases and more advanced issues. With a never-ending influx of patches, these five steps can help enterprises chart a course to better patch management.

Don't miss