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By Chester Avey
Wed | Feb 7, 2024 | 11:38 AM PST

IT administrators and operations managers are responsible for overseeing much of any given organization's incumbent security practices. Upholding best cyber defense practices and maintaining a robust posture across systems and networks is a constant balancing act, especially given the evolving threat landscape of today.

As malicious actors find sophisticated new methods of compromising systems and exploiting valuable data, organizations have to adapt and innovate their defense strategies methodically. This is made more challenging as organizations become increasingly more "remote." Their systems and processes need to be flexible enough to scale while providing short- and long-term worker flexibility.

Luckily, new real-time collaboration tools, software, and solutions enter the market to make digital transformation challenges easier to overcome, while positioning organizations on the right path towards achieving their scaling targets.

However, maintaining oversight over the workability and value of various systems and tools is no easy feat either. Software, as we know, is increasingly prone to bugs and vulnerabilities, and must be kept in good working order to maintain worker and organizational productivity. This is where the process of security patch management comes into play.

Patch management in a modern cyber defense ecosystem

Patch management is a vital process that allows IT and operations specialists to identify, prioritize, test, and deploy relevant patches and updates for software, firmware, drivers, and APIs across an organization's entire infrastructure. Whether it's an employee desktop, a dormant endpoint device, or a cloud-based document storage system, they all need to be secured and patched. It doesn't have to be the remit of companies the size of Google, for example; patch management is crucial for organizations of all shapes and sizes.

The risks of ignoring patch management can be severe, as unpatched devices are more prone to breaches, while productivity can be impacted, not to mention the potential reputational effects should sensitive or customer data be exploited.

What does patch management involve?

The process of patch management will vary depending on an organization's incumbent setup and complexity. However, the process can often be broken down into several key steps:

  • Inventory – Discovering all hardware, drivers, and software on networks to know precisely what needs patching
  • Prioritization – Determining the severity of vulnerabilities and risk to categorize patch criticality
  • Testing – Validating patches in a development environment (such as a test server) before deployment
  • Deployment – Installing patches systematically across the organization
  • Verification – Confirming patches have been correctly and successfully installed
  • Reporting – Producing documentation on patching status for compliance

Undertaking these steps provides greater visibility into an organization's cyber hygiene and risk exposure, allowing IT teams to methodologically and proactively instigate the correct patches to uphold security.

How does patch management fit into cyber defense posture?

Patch management, much like other cyber defense strategies such as vulnerability scanning, incident response, risk assessments, or penetration testing (pen-testing), mustn't be viewed as a siloed exercise. It should not operate in isolation; instead, it should link seamlessly with other security disciplines, control processes, and other threat containment and risk mitigation steps.

Integrating these cyber disciplines ensures that patch management complements other priorities across an incumbent setup, rather than causing obstructions or conflicts. In systems where real-time collaboration and productivity must be maintained, uptime and availability of critical systems should be a priority.

Therefore, aligning patch rollout with vulnerability management, change control, and threat intelligence is a much more efficient and proactive way to ensure that security updates are rolled out promptly and to the highest-priority devices first.

In addition, organizational patch management relies heavily on clear top-level policies and standards that rely on systematic alignment. Doing so is often a governance and compliance exercise for organizations, but patch management mustn't be ignored when establishing these policies from the off. Such policies may mandate strict timeframes for rollouts after vendors release core OS updates or application firmware patches, or perhaps dictate specific testing requirements pre-deployment.

Policies may also instruct IT teams to follow stringent criteria when determining the validity and sensibility of patches in a staging or development environment before they are rolled out into live systems and networks.

Why is effective patch management essential?

Patch management is one small piece of the overall cybersecurity puzzle, but there are crucial reasons why getting it right delivers immense value in terms of upholding correct cybersecurity and hygiene.

  • It reduces the attack surface.
    Without system updates and patches, vulnerabilities can be more easily and actively exploited by cybercriminals. Patching means that these security gaps can be proactively closed.
  • It limits the impact of breaches.
    If threat actors do infiltrate networks, damage from lateral movement and data exfiltration is constrained when flaws are patched.
  • It optimizes resource usage.
    IT teams have extensive stacks of hardware and software to maintain. Patch management lets admins prioritize based on severity, to focus on fixing critical issues first.
  • It helps firms achieve compliance standards and regulations.
    Many organizations must satisfy domestic, federal, or global regulations as far as data protection goes. This includes PCI DSS, HIPAA, NIST, GDPR, and more.
  • It's cost- and time-efficient in the long run.
    Breaches cost organizations nearly $4.45 million on average globally, according to the IBM Cost of a Data Breach Report 2023. Staying on top of patching significantly reduces financial damage and productivity lost due to outages.
Patch management best practices

Implementing and upholding patch management policies is a responsibility thrust upon many IT teams, many of whom may be stretched thin. However, it's important to bear a few key tips in mind to cultivate an organization that understands, recognizes, and commits to keeping patch management top of mind when it matters.

  • Patch management is more than simply updating operating systems and core hardware; it refers to every aspect of all computer stacks that belong to and are used by organizations and their users.
  • Automate tasks where possible using enterprise-grade management tools to maintain uptime and speed without hindering worker productivity.
  • Segment environments so that patch tests and analysis can be conducted without directly impacting others.
  • Communicate patch management cycles throughout the organization, allowing users to prepare for rollouts and adjust their workloads accordingly.
  • Conduct soft launches or sandbox testing exercises to evaluate patch effectiveness on a small segment of users before determining its suitability for broader organization-wide deployment.
  • Maintain a culture that embraces transparency and feedback. Ensure that teams know exactly who is responsible for patch management and how to communicate anomalies or suspicious behavior of systems pre- or post-rollout.
Regular cycle prevents exploitable gaps

Fundamentally, it's important to recognize that patch management offers more long-term value and advantages to organizations than drawbacks. By continually cycling through effective patch and repair regimes, businesses can drastically reduce their threat exposure and chances of succumbing to costly data breaches.

With attacks growing in complexity and frequency, patch management is evidently a crucial cyber discipline for businesses looking to remain stable in a volatile and risk-heavy threat landscape.