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Automation is everywhere.

In 2023, automation was the second most popular IT trend in organizations across the US and Europe. There is almost no area of IT operations that automation does not already impact.

Including patch management.

Patches are essentially ‘fixes’ or ‘updates’ designed to address vulnerabilities discovered in operating systems (OS) and software applications. Traditionally, these patches were manually tested and deployed; a time-consuming task fraught with potential for human error.

Enter automated patch management: an innovative solution enabled by advances in AI and machine learning technology that removes many of the challenges of patch management and makes it faster, more effective, and more reliable.

Automated patch management defined 

Automated patch management is the process of scanning, identifying, downloading, testing, deploying, and verifying system patches automatically. It enables organizations to automatically identify vulnerabilities within their networks that require patching. Unlike humans (who do need to sleep!), automated patch management works around the clock to find and fix these system loopholes fast, before nefarious players can take advantage. 

Advantages and benefits of automated patch management

Automated patch management is the best of both worlds, merging smoother operations with optimized security protocols. Let’s get down to details and explore the many benefits that automated patch management brings to IT organizations, including the enhancement of cybersecurity posture and the maintenance of regulatory compliance with patch management policies.

Enhances cybersecurity posture

Outdated software is essentially a ‘leave-your-door-unlocked’ level security risk. Automated patch management eliminates one of the key attack vectors that cybercriminals exploit. It ensures continuous uptime by regularly updating systems with latest patches without human oversight, thereby minimizing potential breaches.

According to Microsoft, 68% of organizations do not have effective patch management processes, and relying on manual rather than automated patching leads to “critical openings.” An automated system can nip such threats in the bud considerably earlier.

Increases operational IT efficiency

Improved operational efficiency is a massive plus for companies employing automated patch management or auto-patching solutions. Manual patching involves substantial employee resources dedicated to maintaining updates – this is costly in terms of both time and budget. By delegating patch management to capable automation tools, IT teams can focus more intensively on strategic business objectives rather than the ‘house cleaning’ tasks of manual patching

Most automated systems allow patches in the background during non-business hours, which means the patching continues with zero attendance required by IT teams! This reduces downtime and service disruptions, so operations are far more streamlined while rigorously adhering to security protocols too.

Maintains regulatory compliance

Regulatory compliance requirements are always changing and they differ according to industry. However, they all have one key demand: up-to-date system maintenance for all software applications. Falling behind due to inefficient manual processes can lead to hefty penalties.

This is where automated patch management solutions come into the picture. They provide concrete evidence that updates have been implemented accurately within mandatory timelines of GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation), HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act), or PCI DSS (Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard), among others.

Reduces vulnerabilities and risk exposure

Modern networks are enormous landscapes with vast surface area primed for potential hackers. Perhaps the most critical advantage of patching automation is vulnerability reduction. Without it, timely detection and resolution of all potential threats across complex IT environments becomes a Herculean task. 

With an automated approach, organizations can promptly identify missing patches and automatically remediate them. Patch automation reduces system vulnerabilities against malware attacks, ransomware threats, zero-day exploits and more, minimizing risk exposure and placing you ahead in the cybersecurity race.

Automated patch management process

To understand how automated patch management can streamline IT security operations, let’s walk through the key steps. There are three primary phases that characterize the typical automated patch management process:

  1. Scanning for vulnerabilities and missing patches

Automated patch management begins with scanning the IT network to identify missing patches and potential vulnerabilities. This involves an in-depth analysis of the entire software inventory across every device connected to the system, searching for potentially problematic gaps in current software deployment that hackers could exploit.

The beauty of automated scanning and detection is its ability to continuously monitor the network in real time, ensuring no vulnerability goes unnoticed. A well-equipped tool like Atera automated patch management makes this part of the process significantly more manageable and efficient compared to manual scanning.

  • Automatic patch deployment strategies

Once vulnerabilities are identified, the next step is deploying patches to secure them. Automated patch deployment is executed by intelligent algorithms based on data gathered during the initial scanning. Appropriate patches are strategically applied to secure weak spots as needed.

Automated patch deployment takes important factors into account, such as criticality rates of specific installations and avoiding peak usage times to ensure minimal disruption to routine business tasks. Not only does automated patch administration quickly secure detected vulnerabilities; it also keeps productivity from faltering.

  • Monitoring and verifying patch installations

After deploying necessary software patches, automated systems then monitor their impact while verifying successful installations. This ongoing surveillance confirms effective patch installation, and at the same time, examines overall system performance post-patching. Any potential adverse impacts created by new updates to the system are therefore managed ahead of time.

Patch automation tools typically provide comprehensive reports outlining the actions taken together with outcomes, making it easy to track the organization’s cybersecurity status. If a patch fails or causes unexpected side effects, the system alerts immediately, enabling swift correction or rollback.

Monitoring and verifying installations within automated patch management adds another layer of assurance to the security protocol — ensuring applied patches have indeed filled the gaps they were meant to fix without introducing new problems.

Identifying vulnerabilities, applying suitable patches, and validating their efficacy — with these key steps, automated patch management streamlines and solidifies IT security operations for enterprises of every size and network configuration.

Manual patching vs automated patching

Once, patch management was a manual process. Today, the conversation around patch management includes two options: manual vs automated patching. Each strategy has its own merits and drawbacks. Understanding both in depth provides the perspective needed to decide which can best address vulnerabilities within your systems.

Manual patching

Manual patching refers to the traditional method of updating software, a labor-intensive approach involving human intervention at every stage. Because of the human touch, it may seem to offer more control over when updates are implemented and which specific patches are applied.

Performing patching operations manually requires an individual (or even a team) to scan for online updates, test them in controlled environments for potential conflicts, deploy them across systems, and verify their successful installation. Despite the benefits, manual patching is very costly in time and resources.

Manual patching has several other pitfalls too. Human error is an inevitable and significant issue: forgetting patches or misapplying them could lead to increased security risks or system instability. Also, manual patch management burdens the technical staff with mundane and routine tasks. Their time could surely be better spent innovating or focusing on strategic developments that can grow the business.

Automated patching

On the other hand, automated patching (or auto patching) is a modern AI-based approach that automates most (if not all) steps involved in the patch management cycle. Once set up, it often requires no human oversight at all. Some of the tasks that auto patching takes off the plates of the IT security team include scanning for vulnerabilities or outdated applications, downloading necessary patches, testing them, deploying them strategically throughout the IT infrastructure, and verifying their correct application.

An automated patching process means that organizations can maintain up-to-date defenses against known vulnerabilities without significantly draining available manpower. As cybersecurity threats become more sophisticated and frequent, and the digital landscape expands with more applications than ever before, it’s safe to assume that dependency on automation solutions, such as auto patch deployment tools, will only grow.

A big advantage of automation is substantial gains in patching speed. The ability to quickly respond to threats gives your systems a fighting chance against modern cyberattacks. Furthermore, deployment across multiple OS and applications — be it Windows, Mac, or Linux — isn’t even an issue with current auto patch management tools.

Automated patching solutions have awesome scaling abilities: they can handle large volumes of software patches across vast networks without skipping a beat, which manual methods struggle to cope with efficiently.

Bottom line, what distinguishes automated from manual patching is consistency combined with reduced human intervention. This gives automated patching a distinct overall advantage: unprecedented efficiency and accuracy in rolling out system updates and patches, together with improved cybersecurity posture. 

6 steps to automate patch management

Shifting to automated patch management can be a daunting process and there are numerous factors that should be carefully considered in advance. It’s important to take the time to do it properly. By starting with the right structure and methodology, you can increase productivity and resilience against cyber threats. 

Let’s go step-by-step on the journey to automating your patch management process:

  1. Choose the appropriate patch management tool: It all begins with selecting the right automated patch management solution for your network system. There are lots of products available on the market, so it is crucial to narrow down the options to a shortlist that can meet your specific business needs and requirements. Things to consider include ease of use, scalability, integration with existing systems, pricing, and more.
  2. Configuration of automatic patching settings: After selecting a suitable tool, it’s time to configure some automation settings into your system according to your organization’s unique needs. For example, set preferences for when patches should occur (off-peak hours?), how frequently they’re executed, and which type of updates should trigger automatic patches. Weigh up your strategy to fit in with your goals: for example, more frequent updates could mean less downtime, but this approach requires constant monitoring.
  3. Identification and assessment: The next step involves identifying any vulnerabilities within your infrastructure and assessing their potential impact on operations if left unaddressed. Ideally, this includes conducting regular vulnerability assessments along with penetration tests for certainty.
  4. Testing: Before global deployment comes testing — this is non-negotiable! Without thorough testing cycles, you risk deploying problematic patches system-wide that may cause additional risks or disruptions due to compatibility issues.
  5. Deployment: Finally comes the execution phase, when tested patches get rolled out across all systems as defined during configuration.
  6. Evaluation and reporting: After every deployment cycle ends, evaluate its effectiveness. Were there any failures? Any hiccups during installation? This paves the way for continuous improvement while ensuring proper documentation for future audits or compliance checks.

Remember, these steps are iterative, and automated patch management is an ongoing process of improvement. Approach it with an open mindset to learning — this is key to your success.

When to automate patch management?

The decision to automate patch management can depend on many variables, from the size of your organization’s network to your IT operational requirements. Here are a few scenarios where automating patch management is a must:

Limited in-house IT security resources

If there is a shortage of skilled manpower or insufficient IT security resources, automated patch management is imperative. With auto patching, you save both time and money while ensuring that all systems remain up-to-date and secure with the latest patches.

High volume of software and patches

If your organization uses a large number of software applications that frequently require patching, manually keeping track can quickly become overwhelming. Overlooking even a single application could lead to potential security risks. Automation solves this problem by continually checking for updates across all software and applying the required patches.

Complex IT infrastructure

Organizations with complex, multi-tier architectures and systems spread across various geographical regions face significant challenges in managing cyber hygiene. Automated patching could be an effective solution as it offers a centrally managed system that keeps all endpoints updated, regardless of their physical location.

Desire to improve remediation time

Traditional manual patching methods tend to be slow and prone to human error, which increases vulnerability to exposure windows. On the other hand, automated solutions operate round-the-clock without oversight interruptions or administrative delays, so they support speedy remediation while eliminating the scope for mistakes. 

Ready, steady, patch!

Convinced? Want to implement auto patching in your organization? Here are the two top tips to ensure patch automation is optimized within your existing infrastructure:

Tip 1: Choose the right patch management tool

A proper patch management tool has attributes that match your organization’s needs best,  whether it’s scalability, cost-efficiency, capabilities for handling complexity, compatibility with existing tools, or user-friendliness (or preferably all!).

It should ideally also provide comprehensive logs for tracking and auditing purposes as well as supplier support to help resolve tool-related issues.

Tip 2: Configure automatic patching settings

Once you’ve selected a suitable patch management tool, it’s time to customize settings based on your unique requirements. Most patch management tools allow granular control over automation processes, from specifying scanning intervals for devices in the network to deciding how patches are tested before deployment. Fine-tuning these parameters can go a long way to aligning automated workflows with organizational policies and efforts, and mitigating cyber risk.

At the end of the day, automating patch management is no longer optional; it is a necessity for most organizations. As cyber threats continue to stalk networks and systems, and become even more sharp and sophisticated, you are going to need an agile, responsive security posture that automation promises and delivers.

Importance of demonstrating compliance with automated patch management tools

Besides enhancing cybersecurity and operational efficiency, shifting to automated patch management has another hidden benefit (and a big one!) — demonstrating compliance.

Data privacy regulations are becoming increasingly rigorous around the world. Enforcement agencies and customers are both demanding better protection against data breaches. Failing to comply is not an option anymore; penalties can be severe, and reputational damage significant.

Automated patch management tools provide seamless compliance tracking in several ways:

  • Documenting diligence: A patch automation tool stores all actions related to patching: what was fixed, when it got fixed, who fixed it (if matching was manually carried out), and more, providing crucial evidence if your business ever faces an audit.
  • Real-time reporting: Companies must keep up-to-date with emerging vulnerabilities and threats. Automated patch management tools kick-start remediation efforts by immediately generating reports as soon as they detect any irregularity.
  • Maintaining consistent standards: To ensure you’re meeting industry-specific requirements like HIPAA or PCI DSS, auto patching tools have built-in functionalities for compliance.

Remember that demonstrating efficiency paints a picture of an organization dedicated to maintaining the highest security standards — exactly what’s needed in the current cyber climate.

However, while automated patch management eases the burden of compliance demonstration, it doesn’t do away entirely with human involvement. Security teams still need to check on things periodically. Audit logs require scrutiny; false positives may need ruling out —  these are important tasks that require the discerning eye of experienced IT professionals.

This is the crux of the matter: striking a balance between automatic processes and manual checks to create an environment of operational efficiency and regulatory compliance — the best of both worlds in patch management.

Atera’s automated patch management

A leading player in AI-powered IT management, Atera’s intuitive platform includes multiple powerful tools, including automated patch management. 

Atera’s unique approach not only automates but also centralizes your entire patching workflow. It assists in detecting missing patches across the broad range of software running in your system, and supports easy scheduling of periodic updates. Most importantly, it enables automatic patching deployment without disrupting any business activities.

Risks and vulnerabilities are inherent within all digital infrastructures. However, Atera’s automated patch management helps you stay on top of these challenges by continually identifying and addressing security gaps in your systems with timely automated patching processes.

Post-deployment verification is equally critical for successful patch management, and Atera reassures with comprehensive reports detailing each component’s update status in the post-patch deployment period.

Feature-rich and user-friendly, automated patching with Atera’s intuitive navigation is simple and straightforward, even if you lack advanced technical knowledge or prior experience with automation software.

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