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With cyber threats escalating in frequency and severity, maintaining a resilient security posture demands a proactive and comprehensive approach to patch management. In 2024, organizations face a myriad of challenges, from zero-day exploits to supply chain vulnerabilities, underscoring the importance of staying ahead of the curve.

In this guide, we’ll highlight seven patch management best practices of the current landscape, empowering your organization to minimize exposure and enhance overall security.

What is patch management?

Patch management is the process of identifying, acquiring, testing, and applying updates or patches to software applications, operating systems, firmware, and other technology components within an organization’s IT infrastructure. These updates typically address security vulnerabilities, bugs, performance issues, and other weaknesses that could be exploited by cyber attackers.

Fact: vulnerabilities often appear in software.

Also a fact: Many vulnerabilities are only discovered after the software is already released and implemented by organizations.

Such insecure software increases an organization’s risk of attacks and data breaches. On discovering these flaws, vendors release “patches” that users must implement to eliminate the vulnerability and strengthen the program’s ability to withstand cyber threats.

The primary goal of patch management is to ensure that systems and software are up-to-date with the latest security fixes and enhancements, thereby reducing the risk of security breaches, data leaks, and system compromises.

Software patch deployment lifecycle

The patch deployment lifecycle consists of multiple steps, including identifying the devices using a software, assessing whether those devices are missing any patches (scanning), identifying missing patches, and then deploying those patches as soon as they become available.

Patch management encompasses a range of activities, including:

Patch identification: Monitoring vendor websites, security advisories, and other sources to identify patches released by software vendors and developers.

Patch acquisition: Downloading patches from official sources or using automated patch management tools to obtain the necessary updates.

Patch testing: Testing patches in a controlled environment, such as a test network or virtualized environment, to assess their compatibility and ensure they do not cause any adverse effects on production systems.

Patch deployment: Deploying approved patches to production systems in a timely manner, either manually or through automated deployment tools and processes.

Patch verification: Verifying that patches have been successfully applied and that systems are functioning properly after the update process.

Patch monitoring and reporting: Continuously monitor systems for new patches and vulnerabilities, generating reports on patch status and compliance, and addressing any issues that arise.

Effective patch management is crucial for maintaining the security and stability of IT systems, especially in the face of constantly evolving cyber threats. Failure to apply patches promptly can leave systems vulnerable to exploitation by attackers, potentially leading to data breaches, service disruptions, financial losses, and reputational damage. 

Therefore, organizations must establish robust patch management processes and allocate resources to ensure that critical systems and software are promptly updated with the latest security patches.

Other important activities in the lifecycle are:

  • Determine which patches are essential based on asset vulnerability and business-criticality
  • Apply test patches to determine if the patch is secure, reliable, and stable for production usage
  • Get approval to deploy patches
  • Evaluate and document testing outcomes
  •  Document a system’s conditions before and after patching to help with later troubleshooting (if an issue arises)

Common patch management challenges

Patch management is a critical enabler of organizations’ cybersecurity programs and enables them to maintain a strong security posture. However, it is also one of the most challenging processes for IT teams.

Here are some of the most common patch management challenges:

Expanding IT environment

Applying patches to a few endpoints, software, or operating systems is simple enough. But as an organization’s software tech stack expands, patch management can become cumbersome, time-consuming, and error-prone if done manually.

Incompatibility issues

New patches or updates can be incompatible with existing software or hardware so applying them can create performance or operational issues leading to downtime and productivity losses. To avoid these problems, some companies defer upgrades, which then increases their risk of attack.

Exceptions or maintenance pushbacks

According to one survey, 61% of security professionals said that many business owners ask for exceptions or push-back maintenance windows. The problem is that every time this happens, a machine doesn’t get included in the patch management process, leaving the door open for adversaries to “weaponize” that machine.

Remote work and shadow IT

Employees working remotely often use devices or software that are unauthorized by or invisible to the IT team. This creates what is known as “shadow IT”. The presence of Shadow IT exacerbates patching challenges, since the team cannot patch what they cannot see. This again creates numerous exploitable vulnerabilities in the organization’s IT environment and increases the risk of attack.

Too many vulnerabilities, too few resources

The average IT team simply cannot keep up with the volume of vulnerabilities or patches released every year, much less prioritize, test, and deploy each patch as soon as it is released.

7 best practices to simplify patch management challenges

Fortunately, organizations can minimize most patch management challenges by following these best practices:

Use automation

Automated IT management tools like Atera help organizations streamline patch management, improving its efficiency and outcomes while reducing the IT team’s workload. With automation, organizations can stay updated on all current software patches, and ensure that patches are quickly applied as soon as they become available.

With Atera, IT managers and admins can create customized schedules for each endpoint to better control and optimize the patch management process. They can also separate out the tasks for different device groups, search and deploy patches based on different criteria, and create specific IT automation profiles.

Furthermore, Atera automates and simplifies multiple tasks, including:

  • Critical third-party application updates
  • Software installations across multiple endpoints
  • Deployment of existing bundles on new agents and devices
  • Windows, Mac, and Linux software patches on end-user devices
  • Driver updates
  • Maintenance tasks

Through a single platform and cutting-edge AI capabilities, IT and security teams can remotely monitor and manage patches, discover networks, and create tickets. All of this further simplifies patch management and helps strengthen the organization’s defenses.

Create a comprehensive and clear patch management policy

A detailed and up-to-date policy plays an important role in patch management. It provides a set of clear guidelines and practices for patch management. Following these guidelines helps organizations simplify the patching process and ensure that all patches are applied efficiently and securely.

Create an asset inventory and categorize assets by risk level

An up-to-date asset inventory helps improve visibility into the IT environment so IT and security teams can better understand which assets need to be protected. For large inventories, it’s useful to categorize assets by business-criticality and risk level. Categorization makes it easy to determine which patches must be deployed on priority, ensures efficient patching deployment, and prevents the waste of time and resources.

Create asset maintenance groups

Grouping similar assets or assets with similar patching/maintenance requirements — smartphones, laptops, cloud applications, and so on — can improve the speed and efficiency of the patching process. Groups also help accelerate vulnerability remediations.

Keep up with vendor-side updates and announcements

Software vendors frequently release and announce new patches. Organizations must keep up with these announcements to ensure that patches are tested and installed on time. Atera’s AI-powered patch management capabilities provide notifications about available patches, making it easy for security teams to keep up with new patches.

Test fixes before deployment

Sometimes, fixes may be appropriate for an organization’s platforms or IT environment. To avoid incompatibility issues, system crashes, and other problems, it’s a good idea to test fixes before deployment. Ideally, testing should be conducted in a lab setting before applying it to the production environment.

Create a backup of the production environment

Despite following every precaution, something may go wrong during patching. To avoid losing data and any modifications or customizations made to existing software, it’s crucial to take a backup of the entire production environment before deploying the patch. It’s also advisable to create a disaster recovery process to enable fast recovery in case a patch deployment fails.

Supercharge your patching 

To effectively (and confidently) operate in the modern threat landscape, all organizations must implement patch management. A well-designed, well-executed patch management process enables businesses to fortify their IT environments, minimize system downtime, and reduce the risk of cyberattacks and data breaches.

It’s easy to implement this process with smart automations provided by Atera’s AI-powered IT management software. With Atera, you can automatically implement and manage patches to your devices and operating systems with customized schedules, granular information on patching posture, and the power of AI.

To know how Atera can help you minimize patching hassles, boost security, and gain complete control over your entire IT environment, try Atera for a free trial, no credit card required! 

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