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Developing a patch management policy

Developing a patch management policy

Developing a patch management policy strengthens an organization's cybersecurity posture. Organizations can reduce the risk of security breaches and protect their valuable assets and data by establishing clear procedures for identifying, prioritizing, testing, deploying, and monitoring patches. 


Understanding patch management

Patch management involves identifying, testing, deploying, and monitoring patches (software updates) to address security vulnerabilities and improve system performance. Neglecting patch management can leave your organization vulnerable to cyberattacks, data breaches, and system failures. A well-defined patch management policy helps streamline the patching process and ensures timely updates across your IT infrastructure.

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What is a patch management policy?

A patch management policy is a set of guidelines, procedures, and protocols established by an organization to identify, acquire, test, and deploy software patches across its IT infrastructure. 

The goal of a patch management policy is to ensure that systems, applications, and devices are kept up-to-date with the latest security patches and updates to mitigate vulnerabilities and enhance overall system security and performance.

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Key components of a patch management policy typically include

  • Scope: Clearly define the scope of the policy, including the systems, software applications, and devices subject to patch management. 
  • Objectives: Outline the policy's objectives, such as reducing security risks, ensuring compliance with regulations, and minimizing system downtime.
  • Patch acquisition: Specify the sources from which patches will be obtained, such as software vendors, third-party patch management tools, or security advisories. 
  • Patch deployment procedures: Outline the process for deploying patches, including scheduling regular patch cycles, testing patches in a non-production environment before deployment, and prioritizing critical patches for immediate installation. Define roles and responsibilities for patch deployment, testing, and monitoring.
  • Patch testing: Develop a testing process to ensure that patches are compatible with existing systems and applications and do not introduce new issues or conflicts.
  • Patch deployment: Determine the frequency of the patch deployment cycles by considering both system criticality and the risk level of unpatched vulnerabilities. Automate patch deployment whenever possible to streamline the process and reduce human error.
  • Monitoring and reporting: Implement monitoring tools to track patch deployment status, identify systems that are missing patches, and detect any anomalies or security incidents. Generate regular reports on patch management activities, including patch deployment metrics, compliance status, and any issues encountered.
  • Backup and recovery: Develop backup and recovery procedures to mitigate the risk of data loss or system downtime caused by failed patch deployments or unforeseen issues.
  • Policy review and update: Regularly review and update the patch management policy to incorporate new technologies, emerging threats, and lessons learned from past patching experiences. Solicit feedback from IT staff and stakeholders to identify areas for improvement and refine patch management processes.


What does a patch management policy cover?

A patch management policy covers patching for a wide range of assets. Examples of these include:

  • Operating systems
  • Software
  • Applications
  • Network equipment


The benefits of a patch management policy

Implementing a patch management policy provides several key benefits:

  • Enhanced security: Patching vulnerabilities promptly reduces the attack surface and strengthens the overall security posture of the organization.
  • Compliance: Many regulatory frameworks and industry standards require organizations to maintain up-to-date software and apply security patches regularly to remain compliant.
  • Stability and performance: Patching addresses security issues, fixes bugs, and improves system performance, ensuring smooth and efficient operation.
  • Risk management: A structured patch management policy helps prioritize patches based on risk level and criticality, allowing organizations to allocate resources effectively and focus on addressing the most significant threats.


How to create an effective patch management policy

Successful patch management policies are comprehensive and include details about a variety of patching aspects in an IT environment. Follow these steps when creating a patch management policy for your organization:


Choose a patch management software

Using specific software designed for patch management is an efficient way to handle patch management. Find the best-rated patch management solutions based on reviews given by actual users.


Document your asset inventory

Compile a comprehensive inventory list of the IT infrastructure assets that require consistent patching and updates. This practice will boost efficiency in deploying relevant patches to your organization's equipment.

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Assign patch management roles

The patch management policy must designate specific end users to fulfill various roles in the patching process. These positions include policy setting, patch administration, system maintenance, patch deployment, and software-related policies.


Test your patches

Patch testing is crucial to ensure that the patches make software perform better, rather than create more issues.


Form a patch process and schedule

Patching works best when it is performed continually to ensure that systems work properly. According to research from the Ponemon Institute, 53% of companies spend more time navigating manual processes than responding to vulnerabilities. Automate the process to prepare patches more quickly. Then, plan the patch rollout so that your assets can receive them regularly.


Best practices for creating a patch management policy

There are many key points to keep in mind when creating a patch management policy. Following good practices when initially producing a policy makes the patch management process smoother. Here are a few patch management process best practices for creating an effective patch management policy:

  • Keep it up-to-date: Keeping a patch management policy updated will help you to account for all parts of your system and allow all steps in the policy to run smoothly. Continuously update the status of all systems in your environment so that you can stay on top of patching and reduce the possibility of a security risk to your systems.
  • Inventory: Document any hardware, software, or systems in the IT environment. Records will help you keep track of what has been updated or attended to.
  • Assess risk: Regularly assess the organization's IT infrastructure to identify vulnerabilities and assess associated risks. Prioritize patches based on risk severity and criticality to focus resources on addressing the most significant threats.
  • Patch testing: Testing new software patches is key to protecting your systems. In your policy, be sure to include how patch testing will be carried out, where testing will be done, and for how long before a patch is deemed safe.
  • Apply patches: After all the preparation steps have been completed, you should also include in your policy how to start implementing patches in your IT environment. An efficient way to apply patches is to make an automated schedule detailing when and how patches will be applied. 

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How often should patches be deployed?

The frequency of patch deployment depends on factors such as the criticality of systems, the risk level associated with vulnerabilities, and regulatory requirements. According to LinkedIn IT services, “Monthly is a good option for patches that are not urgent or have a low risk of exploitation; it allows for advanced scheduling and testing. Weekly is a good option for moderate or high importance patches with medium risk of exploitation; it reduces the window of exposure for vulnerabilities. As soon as possible is a good policy for critical patches with high risk of exploitation; it minimizes the risk of cyberattacks, but may also cause disruption or compatibility issues.”


What are the risks of not having a patch management policy?

Organizations risk falling behind on critical security updates without a patch management policy, leaving systems vulnerable to cyber threats such as malware, ransomware, and data breaches. Additionally, non-compliance with regulatory requirements could result in legal and financial consequences.


What tools can organizations use to automate patch management processes?

Various patch management tools are available to automate patch deployment, monitoring, and reporting processes. Examples include Microsoft WSUS (Windows Server Update Services), SCCM (System Center Configuration Manager), and third-party solutions like Ivanti Patch Management and SolarWinds Patch Manager.

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