Patch Management Process & Flow: Best Practices

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Patching vulnerable software and systems is more important — and more challenging to keep up with — than ever. Here’s how IT pros can make their patch management process more efficient, eliminate disruption, and keep their networks secure.

What is patch management?

Automatically identify and remediate vulnerabilities across your entire IT portfolio at speed and scale from a single pane of glass – no infrastructure required.

While Windows devices still dominate the business market, Mac and Linux endpoints are becoming more prevalent. Modern patch management requires a tool that can effectively secure all three operating systems.

Download our guide to learn how to evaluate your organization’s patching readiness and how to assess potential solutions.

Why is the patch management process important?

Patching not only keeps systems and applications running smoothly, but it’s also one of the core activities involved in keeping today’s organizations secure. Leaving machines unpatched makes them vulnerable to cyber attacks, and the risk is anything but theoretical. In fact, according to the Ponemon Institute, the majority of data breaches (57%) can be directly attributed to attackers exploiting a known vulnerability that hadn’t been patched.

A quick scan of security-related headlines offers plenty of examples, from Equifax (culprit: a two-month-old unpatched Apache Struts vulnerability) to SingHealth (data for 1.5 million patients exposed thanks to an outdated version of Outlook).

All resulted in highly publicized security incidents and data breaches that could have otherwise been avoided with a more rigorous and efficient patch management process..

The sudden scramble to get employees working remotely during the COVID crisis has compounded the issue, with attackers routinely seeking to exploit vulnerabilities in popular Virtual Private Network (VPN) solutions, including:

The challenge for small and medium-sized businesses

If some of the largest, most well-funded organizations in the world are having difficulties with patch management, what chance do small and medium-sized businesses with limited IT support have?

More than 18,000 CVEs were published in 2020.

Source: InfoSecurity Magazine

Some of the biggest difficulties with patching center around the fact that the process can be time-consuming, complicated, and disruptive to end users. As a result, it’s easy to put patching off or simply have important updates get lost in the shuffle. And with more than 18,000 CVEs published in 2020, it’s no surprise many organizations have difficulty keeping up.

The average time to patch is 102 days.

Source: Ponemon

Unfortunately, the risk unpatched systems pose is increasing. Once a vulnerability has been disclosed and a patch has been released it’s a race for organizations to apply the patch before attackers begin actively exploiting it. That window of time is shrinking dramatically, with numerous recent examples where attackers were able to launch attacks abusing new vulnerabilities prior to or just days following their disclosure

Once working exploits have been developed they gain widespread adoption quickly. Scanning tools like Shodan, nmap, and masscan then make it trivial for attackers to identify vulnerable systems and launch targeted campaigns. 

For many small businesses, the solution to staying on top of patching cycles is to outsource the burden to managed services providers (MSPs). But how are the most effective MSPs tackling the problem?

Learn how the Syscomm Group was able to leverage NinjaOne to get the most out of their security monitoring.

“We use Ninja to automate patching across our end-user devices and servers. We save a ton of time on patching now as we no longer have any manual steps in our patching workflow.”

Martin Wells, CEO of Syscomm Group

10 key steps in a patch management process

Below is a 10-step patch management process template that highlights the fundamental considerations that need to go into any patch management plan. Before diving into this workflow you’ll want to make sure you’ve established clear roles and responsibilities for each step, and that all key stakeholders are fully on board. 

Step 1: Discovery

First, you need to ensure you have a comprehensive network inventory. At the most basic level, this includes understanding the types of devices, operating systems, OS versions, and third-party applications. Many breaches originate because there are neglected or forgotten systems that IT has lost track of. MSPs should be utilizing tools that enable them to scan their clients’ environments and get comprehensive snapshots of everything on the network.

Step 2: Categorization

Segment-managed systems and/or users according to risk and priority. Examples could be by machine type (server, laptop, etc.), OS, OS version, user role, etc. This will allow you to create more granular patching policies instead of taking a one-policy-fits-all approach.  

Step 3: Patch management policy creation

Create patching criteria by establishing what will be patched and when, under what conditions. For example, you may want to ensure some systems/users are patched more frequently and automatically than others (the patching schedule for laptop end users may be weekly while patching for servers may be less frequent and more manual). You may also want to treat different types of patches differently, with some having a quicker or more extensive rollout process (think browser updates vs. OS updates; critical vs. non-critical updates, for example). Finally, you’ll want to identify maintenance windows to avoid disruption (take into account time zones for “follow the sun” patching, etc.) and create exceptions.  

Step 4: Monitor for new patches and vulnerabilities

Understand vendor patch release schedules and models, and identify reliable sources for timely vulnerability disclosures. Create a process for evaluating emergency patches.

Step 5: Patch testing

Create a testing environment or at the very least a testing segment to avoid being caught off guard by unintended issues. That should include creating backups for easy rollback if necessary. Validate successful deployment and monitor for incompatibility or performance issues.

Step 6: Configuration management

Document any changes about to be made via patching. This will come in handy should you run into any issues with patch deployment beyond the initial test segment or environment.

Step 7: Patch rollout

Follow your established patch management policies you created in step 3.

Step 8: Patch auditing

Conduct a patch management audit to identify any failed or pending patches, and be sure to continue monitoring for any unexpected incompatibility or performance issues. It’s also a good idea to tap specific end users who can help by being additional eyes and ears.

Step 9: Reporting

Produce a patch compliance report you can share with your clients to gain visibility into your work.

Step 10: Review, improve, and repeat

Establish a cadence for repeating and optimizing steps 1-9. This should include phasing out or isolating any outdated or unsupported machines, reviewing your policies, and revisiting exceptions to verify whether they still apply or are necessary.

What are the best practices for Patch Management?

As the demand for effective patch management continues to become more integral, MSPs need to improve on their own process and offerings or risk falling behind. Here are three keys to MSPs providing smarter, more efficient, and more effective patch management services in 2022.

1) Automate patch updates

Patching is a game that’s extremely easy to fall behind in, especially if you’re still relying on identifying, evaluating, and deploying patches manually. Cloud-based, automated patch management software allows MSPs to schedule regular update scans, and ensure patches are applied under specific conditions or automatically.  

How NinjaOne can help:

  • Automate patching for Windows and third-party software from over 120 vendors.

Patch management integration dashboard

  • Easily configure patch scanning and update schedules for specific segments of devices or users. Get granular control or set it and forget it.

Patch management integration editor with granular settings

  • Less time combining through new update releases and vulnerability disclosures, more time growing your business.

2) Mitigate patch deployment validation with audit reports

Despite patching automation becoming increasingly popular, MSPs unfortunately can’t always assume automated patching solutions are working as promised. That means time-consuming, manual validation. Developing scripts or processes to ease that burden (or, better yet, utilizing solutions that don’t require double-checking) is a worthwhile investment. 

How NinjaOne can help:

  • Gain access to detailed patch audit reporting.

patch audit reporting dashboard with details for workstations

  • Eliminate the guesswork by ensuring you have access to reliable real-time information.

3) Streamline reporting

Everything you do as an MSP should be communicated as value-add to your clients. Patch management should be no exception, but delivering patch management audit reports should be as automatic as possible. After all, the more time reporting takes, the less time you have for providing additional services and growing your business.

How NinjaOne can help:

  • Generate patch compliance reports that highlight the number of patches you’ve applied.
  • Give your hard work more visibility with your clients.
  • Ensure your tools are up to the task.

Next Steps

Patching is the single most critical aspect of a device hardening strategy. According to Ponemon, almost 60% of breaches could be avoided through effective patching. NinjaOne makes it fast and easy to patch all your Windows, Mac, and Linux devices whether remote or on-site.

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