What is Patch Management & Why is it Important
Patch management is the collection of processes and procedures IT professionals use to coordinate software updates and bug fixes. These patches and updates are critical to cybersecurity and MSP services because they ensure a business’s IT infrastructure is operating with the latest security features.
In today’s modern era, large software companies distribute their software updates and bug fixes via the cloud. Using the cloud to distribute these updates comes in handy for both the company and the user. Both parties save money because multiple versions of software applications don’t have to be created.
Thanks to the cloud, updates can be pushed out to millions of users from a central location with the click of a button. In seconds, a user will receive a push notification or email, notifying them to download the latest version of their favorite software applications.
This process is easy enough for the PC user who only runs a handful of apps. All it requires is patience for the time it takes for the update or bug fix to install. But what if you’re an MSP or IT professional monitoring intricate networks for your clients?
Small to medium-sized businesses are constantly running a variety of different software. Scheduling, monitoring, and ensuring every update and bug fix gets installed is no small task, which is why savvy MSPs have a plan for their patch management.
The basics of patch management
The systems IT professionals use to manage, install, identify, and test patches make up their overall patch management plan. Occasionally, the patch management process may require downloading or changing code. Still, the end goal is always the same – closing gaps in a software app’s security or adding newly-released software features.
Depending on their environment, MSPs and other IT admins may take a different approach to patch management. The patches necessary for a standalone system differ from those needed for systems within large businesses or corporations.
For a standalone system, like a PC user conducting patch management for macOS or patch management for Windows, their system will automatically search for patches to install. Once an update or patch is found, their PC usually installs them automatically. The system may then prompt the user to restart their device for the updates to take effect.
Patch management within a larger organization can be a little trickier. It’s typically not a good idea to let individual PC owners manage and administer their own updates and patches across the company. Doing so could drastically compromise software version consistency throughout the network.
Usually, MSPs will distribute a centralized patch or update to all the computers on the network. To do this, they’ll use a central patch management server that scans hardware devices throughout the company’s IT infrastructure. This server will then download and administer any missing patches or updates in accordance with the network’s patch management policies.
Relying on a separate patch management server for this process is a smart move for a few reasons:
- Relying on a server helps to automate the patch management process.
- Keeping patch management software on its own server frees up resources on the primary system that could be used in more effective ways.
- Dedicating one server as the patch management server affords MSPs more control when distributing patches and updates. If it’s determined that a particular patch is doing more harm than good to the system, the patch management server can be configured to skip that update and prevent it from being deployed system-wide.
Performing patch management from a central location can also help to conserve internet bandwidth. Organizations can download a particular patch once and then distribute it to the necessary machines. Only requiring one download and not forcing each system to re-download the same patch optimizes the organization’s system resources from a bandwidth perspective.
The patch management process
Like many IT processes, patch management policies can differ depending on your organization. But, although some rules and regulations may be individual to a specific team, there is a standard workflow to how the patch management process should unfold.
The fundamental steps of any patch management process are:
- Take inventory. Compile a list of all the devices, applications, and operating systems within your client’s system that may need patches or updates.
- Set a standard. Decide which version of a particular software all system devices will operate on.
- Prioritize assets. Assess the risk and priority of each asset within your client’s system. Decide which devices are most critical or less so and categorize them accordingly.
- Test potential patches. You’ll want to test any upcoming patches before distributing them to devices throughout the organization. Installing patches in a sandbox environment first reduces the risk of corrupt or clunky patch installs compromising your client’s network. For ConnectWise RMM partners, proactive patch management is an added benefit. Our NOC extensively researches and tests every Microsoft® patch rollup, whitelisting or blacklisting as needed to minimize risk and ensure you are confident when pushing out patches.
- Run sample installations. This step isn’t a requirement, but it’s another wise precaution. Install the upcoming patch on a small number of computers first to ensure there are no potential hiccups you may have missed during your sandboxing in step #4. Large organizations may want to make this step a requirement since they may need to distribute patches and updates across several hundred – or even thousands – of devices.
- Plan your rollout. This step involves a more granular look at your patch management. Who will be responsible for the rollout of the newest patch or update? Which devices need updates and which don’t? Take the time to set a detailed game plan, and you’ll have a solid foundation for the next and final step.
- Document patches. After the rollout comes to a close, keep a detailed record of each patch you implement. Be sure to note which devices received the patch, any vulnerabilities, and the results of any testing you decided to run. The more data you can compile, the better, as analyzing all this information will help improve your future patch management procedures.
Keeping these 7 steps at the core of your patch management process will help to ensure it goes smoothly and provides the useful data necessary to optimize your organization’s patch management services moving forward.
Why MSPs need patch management
Ensuring your client’s software applications are up-to-date and secure is one of the first steps toward solid cybersecurity. With just a little scheduling and organization, you can quickly begin to show your clients impactful results toward securing their network.
MSPs should also focus on airtight patch management for industries that have compliance requirements. Many government agencies or private organizations that enforce compliance in sensitive industries, like healthcare and banking, require companies within those sectors to operate on the latest software platforms. Implementing the latest software security features in these patches reduces the risk of data breaches and network infiltrations by digital threat actors.
Best practices for patch management
Most small to medium-sized businesses already have some form of patch management in place. They may be implementing a patch management policy and not even know they’re doing it. Something as simple as choosing a particular day of the week or time of day to install software updates is technically considered patch management.
Although your clients may already be implementing some sort of patch management practice, there is always room for improvement. They will also need to implement more formal patch management procedures as their network and company continue to grow.
Here is a list of patch management best practices you can use as a benchmark to compare, analyze, and optimize your client’s current patch management process:
- Have a plan. Analyze your client’s network and get a clear idea of your target devices and their locations.
- Be prepared for emergencies. MSPs should have two sets of patch management policies for their clients: standard and emergency. Emergency patches should be time sensitive. Even if they fall outside the regular patch management schedule, they must be installed as soon as possible. Both your standard and emergency patch management plan should be crystal clear and understood by all stakeholders.
- Keep track of releases. Every organization uses a significant number of software tools – and, therefore, software vendors – to run their business. MSPs should keep track of each vendor’s patch release schedule. Getting out in front of patches before the release date allows you to better coordinate patch implementation for the variety of operating systems, hardware, and apps your clients use on a daily basis.
- Create an effective test environment. How and where you choose to test patches needs to closely resemble the actual network environment to be successful. This may be costly to do at scale, so choosing a smaller sample size of assets within the organization’s network is the most effective way to perform accurate testing. If you’re installing updates for a client whose infrastructure is on the cloud, like performing patch management for AWS, you may be able to leverage a virtual testing environment and possibly achieve the same results on a single computer.
- Perform post-patch analysis. Assessing how each patch went and analyzing your patch management KPIs – like number of assets or number of vulnerabilities – will help improve your future patch management process for your clients.
- Prioritize your patches. Assess which patches and devices are most critical. Think about which devices are most critical to your client’s business, which have the highest vulnerability level, and consider the ideal downtime for those systems. Assign each asset within the organization a level of importance based on your assessment, then conduct patch testing and deployment in that order.
- Stay informed of the latest security risks. Subscribe to reputable cybersecurity blogs and organizations to hear the latest news and threat trends. When dealing with patch management for internal software, you may want to use a software composition analysis tool to keep a watchful eye on any API calls or third-party integrations.
- Deploy with speed. The faster you can deploy patches, the better. Downtime is never convenient, but if you hold off patching your client’s system to appease users, you’re exposing their entire system to a higher cybersecurity threat risk. The longer you wait, the longer the system operates without the latest security features, and hackers may eventually find a way to break through.
- Break rollouts down into stages. The intention of reducing the entire system rollout to stages is twofold. First, it’s more manageable. Second, you can roll out patches to less critical systems first. Once the patches are implemented successfully, you can move on to more mission-critical IT assets.
- Make sure you have a safety net. When rolling out new software patches, it’s a good idea to have a backup plan. Be sure to use backup and disaster recovery (BDR) tools to take and store a system snapshot before patch deployment. If something goes wrong, the system can be restored to pre-patch status quickly and easily.
To learn the latest in BDR tools and techniques, check out our eBook: 3 Reasons to Rethink Your BDR Strategy in 2022, or feel free to contact us for advice on how you can improve and adapt your current BDR procedures for flawless patch management.
Patch management tools and software
Patch management is a vital component of your strategy as an MSP. Once you implement a proper patch management strategy, you’ll have a solid foundation to build a more intricate cybersecurity and network services framework.
As always, ConnectWise is here to support the MSP services you offer to your clients. Our full suite of MSP tools, including ConnectWise RMM and ConnectWise Automate can provide the ideal infrastructure for organizing patch deployment within any small to medium-sized business. Our free trials and demos also allow you to “try before you buy” until you have the perfect setup to meet your client’s needs.
Ultimately, our goal here at ConnectWise is to see you succeed in the IT industry. Let us know what we can do to help.