The Importance of Patch Management in Cybersecurity

Applying a software update sounds like such a simple thing to do. And if you have just one computer with a few apps, it is indeed pretty straightforward to ensure that your software and operating system are kept up to date with the latest security patches and software updates. But even in your personal life, you’ve probably hit the “apply later” button or simply forgotten about an update.

Things get far more complex, though, in the business world, with many endpoint laptops and servers, each of which usually contains dozens of apps, firmware and even disparate operating systems. The field of patch management brings structure to the process of identifying what needs to be updated and applying those updates across your endpoints. Here’s why patch management is so important for cybersecurity, some key challenges with patch management and best practices.

The Value of Proper Patch Management for Your Cyber Defenses

Patch management is a process for identifying, testing and deploying updates (or patches) to the software and firmware installed on the systems within your IT environment. Software vendors typically release patches to correct bugs in the code that either disrupt the functioning of the underlying app or system or bugs that result in exploitable security vulnerabilities. Sometimes, patches are released solely to add new features to code.

Delving into the statistics tells a story in itself about how a lack of effective patch management inhibits cyber defenses:

  • A comprehensive study from 2019 found that 60% of data breaches involved unpatched vulnerabilities.
  • It takes organizations an average of 60 days to patch critical security vulnerabilities.
  • A 2023 study found large companies manage at least 2,900 applications across all devices, but more than half of them aren’t up to date with the latest patches.

It’s clear from these numbers that good patch management is critical for addressing security vulnerabilities on endpoint systems like laptops and servers in a timely manner. When you keep software and operating systems up to date, you can drastically cut the chances of being breached. Threat actors constantly probe for vulnerabilities because they are essentially low-hanging fruit that provide an entry route to your environment.

Patch management is also important for compliance with several data protection and data privacy regulations. The U.S. Department for Health and Human Services, for example, released an entire newsletter outlining the importance of patch management for complying with the need to protect electronically protected health information (ePHI) as part of HIPAA obligations.

Aside from securing your endpoints and network against attacks and fulfilling compliance requirements, patch management also supports system uptime and enhances apps or operating systems with the latest features.

Patch Management Challenges

Effective patch management involves identifying the latest patches available, prioritizing patching efforts (usually based on the criticality of the vulnerability), testing patch compatibility on your systems and finally, installing those patches across all affected endpoints. While this sounds easy enough, there are several challenges to effective patch management; here are four of them.

1. It’s Resource-Intensive and Time-Consuming

It’s no secret that security teams at companies of all sizes suffer from the drawbacks of a global talent shortage. Patch management compounds these resource constraints by placing quite a heavy burden on security and IT teams. With today’s decentralized workforces, there are more endpoint systems than ever that require identifying necessary updates and deploying important patches.

The task becomes even more resource intensive as work activities get supported by a wider variety of apps and operating systems. Finally, it’s not always easy to know when there are updates available, which means spending time manually checking for updates.

2. Incomplete IT Inventories

Companies often lack comprehensive inventories of their IT assets. Tracking hardware is easier than software, with one study finding that 56% of all apps are now shadow IT; apps that are managed and used without the purview of any central IT department. When your company lacks thorough visibility into all of the apps and systems within the IT ecosystem, it’s inevitable that some important patches get missed and systems are left vulnerable.

3. Conflicting Aims

Patches often necessitate downtime for systems or apps while they are installed and validated. The prospect of this downtime leads to conflict between IT or security teams in charge of patch management and other personnel, such as line of business owners who request to postpone maintenance windows in favor of business continuity or productivity concerns. Sometimes these conflicting aims even manifest between IT and security teams, with the former focused on ensuring systems are kept running smoothly for end users and the latter more interested in addressing potentially hazardous security weaknesses.

4. Lack of Prioritization

Sometimes the problem with patch management is that there is no prioritization. The high volume of updates regularly released makes it hard to keep up and flag which of those updates are most important to test and apply rapidly. The security talent shortage intersects with this challenge because companies lack the expertise for effective risk-based prioritization.

Patch Management Tips

  • Automate as much as possible—there are dedicated solutions available to automate various aspects of patch management. One example is the use of automatic IT asset discovery tools that can bring the required visibility over all systems and apps that manual processes may miss or take too much time to identify.
  • Prioritize based on risk—the average time taken to address critical vulnerabilities suggests that companies aren’t prioritizing patches. It’s not realistic to fix every vulnerability right away, so focus first on the more serious ones that pose higher threats to your assets and systems. Incorporate a risk response strategy where you have routine patching for standard updates released on regular cycles and emergency patching for severe vulnerabilities.
  • Take patching into consideration when procuring apps—it’s worth factoring patching into the procurement process so that you can ask software vendors questions such as whether they plan regular updates, the number of expected updates per year, whether the vendor tests the patch before release and at what frequency they estimate such updates. Knowing this information can make patch management more predictable and less helter-skelter.
  • Use outside expertise—given all the other demands placed on security and IT teams and the disproportionate resources consumed by patch management, using external expertise in the form of managed services is a cost-effective solution. Typically this comes from vulnerability management services that handle patching for you. NIST also recommends using managed services instead of software where feasible.

Nuspire’s Vulnerability Patch Management Service

Nuspire’s managed security offerings now include a patch management service that eliminates the burden of getting through your never-ending list of patches. Our expert team uses a phased patching approach to minimize service disruptions while leveraging data and reporting to prioritize patches based on risks. We ensure patches get applied across distributed workforces, no matter where they work from.

Contact us today to let us handle patch management for you.

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