IT Operations

What Is Patch Management?

Patch management is the process of distributing and applying updates to software, operating systems, applications and network equipment. If a vulnerability is detected in software, for example, a patch is used to fix it. This prevents assets in an environment from possible exploitation.

Patch management is a multistep process. Administrators need to know what patches are available, decide which ones to apply to certain systems, ensure that they’re installed properly, test the systems once the patches are installed, then document procedures and configurations.

The surging number of endpoints in enterprises makes applying patches both time consuming and cumbersome. As a result, the average time to patch is 102 days — leaving vulnerabilities susceptible to security threats for months on end.

This poses significant risk to organizations. Unpatched vulnerabilities expose businesses to potential cyberattacks, malware infections, data breaches and other threats — all of which siphon valuable time, money and resources from companies.

Those risks sometimes become reality. According to a Ponemon Institute report, almost half (48 percent) of respondents said that their organization experienced one or more data breaches in the past two years. Sixty percent of those people said the breaches could have occurred because a known vulnerability went unpatched.

Automating patch management work?

Patching one piece of software is a relatively simple process. But when your environment includes hundreds or thousands of devices with software and systems that are physical, virtual and cloud-based, you need something more effective.

Automated patch management allows businesses to scan their network environments for devices and applications with missing patches, automatically downloading patches that are released by application vendors and deploying other patches based on deployment policies. These capabilities allow organizations to quickly patch full environments, reduce the patch window and minimize risk exposure.

Without patch management, risks to organizations can skyrocket.

While these processes can be performed manually, it’s not recommended. Not only do manual processes stress an already-strained IT team, it often introduces errors and is an ineffective use of time. In fact, 60 percent of businesses report that IT security spends more time navigating manual processes than responding to vulnerabilities, which leads to an “insurmountable response backlog.”

The benefits of patch management

In 2017, the WannaCry ransomware attack infected 200,000 computers across 150 countries, with total damages ranging from hundreds of millions to billions of dollars. While the attack was devastating, it could have been avoided: One month prior to the attack, Microsoft released a patch to fix the vulnerability in its Windows operating system that WannaCry ultimately exploited.

[Read also: Ten ways to improve patch management]

Patch management is critical in ensuring that vulnerabilities don’t go unaddressed. While a more secure environment is the main reason why many companies adopt a patch management solution, it has other benefits, too. These include:

  • Improved productivity. Patching ensures that your software is functioning correctly and efficiently. Without patching, software that’s out-of-date might run slowly or crash, reducing employee productivity. Patch management fixes these software bugs, which helps keep systems running smoothly.
  • Compliance. Regulatory bodies require some businesses — like healthcare and financial companies — to adhere to certain compliance standards. Implementing patch management is commonly required by a number of security frameworks or standards. If an organization isn’t patching, it could be subject to fines from regulators.
  • Accelerated innovation. While patching fixes software bugs and vulnerabilities, it also provides organizations with a way to deploy updates to improve their own software features and functionality. In a competitive business environment, any innovation advantage is a value-add.

Without patch management, risks to organizations can skyrocket. Solutions should be fast, scalable, efficient and comprehensive — fortifying the security for network environments.

Kristin Burnham
Kristin Burnham is a freelance journalist covering IT, business technology, and leadership.