GuidesPatch Management: Definition, Process & Best Practices

Patch Management: Definition, Process & Best Practices

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Maintaining and safeguarding code is an inherent part of the software development lifecycle.

A picture of bandaids representing the software updates that provide patches to code vulnerabilities and feature enhancements in a process called patch management.

For developers, software programs are a never-ending work in progress. From adding new features, revising code, and resolving vulnerabilities, software publishers release updates or patches to ensure their software applications remain fully functional and secure. For clients, legacy or outdated software tools can appear harmless — but the reality is that most code contains vulnerabilities. 

In this article, we look at patch management, how patching works, and best practices for safeguarding software integrity.

What Is Patch Management?

Patch management is the practice of identifying, acquiring, deploying, and verifying software updates for network devices. This includes updates for operating systems, application code, and embedded systems, including servers. Patch management strategies and solutions help distribute and apply updates to an organization’s software inventory. 

In this context, patches are fixes for identified vulnerabilities and bugs that create risk or prevent program functionality.

Read more: Exchange Server Hack Highlights Failure of Patch Management

Why Is Patch Management Important?

Because software development is a complex process, organizations must practice vigilance in ensuring systems are up-to-date. Devices for entry-level personnel up to executive officers require updates to avoid unnecessary cyber risk

Failure to update software risks exposure to identified vulnerabilities. With every patch released, malicious threat actors take note and seek out those organizations that are slow to update their systems. Without patching, a critical flaw in code can disable system functionality and open the door to hackers.

Who Makes Patches?

Patches are written by program developers, ensuring organizations have the software updates needed for business continuity. As IT industries grow, so do the number of organizations releasing patches.

Examples of Patch Developers 

In general, most patches fall under updates to applications, network equipment, or operating systems.

Application Vendors
  • Adobe
  • Google
  • Salesforce
  • SAP
  • Zoom
Network Equipment Vendors
  • Cisco
  • Dell
  • HPE
  • Juniper
  • VMware
Operating System Vendors
  • Android
  • Apple iOS
  • Apple macOS
  • Microsoft Windows
  • Linux

Read more: Best Vulnerability Scanner Tools

What Is Patch Management Software?

Patch management software is a tool that helps organizations manage patches for a network of devices. Network patching can drain IT resources without patch management tools in place to ease the process for extensive or complex networks.

Patch Management Process

The patch management process continues until the software program is retired. With insights from clientele and threat intelligence, developers generate patches for distribution to their client network. 

Organizations receiving patches must regularly check for new updates to download and install. To avoid mishaps, administrators should test the update before pushing the installation to all devices. With patches delivered, the administrator can validate all up-to-date systems and log the newest changes to the network.

Patch Management Best Practices

  • Build an inventory of all active software for the organization
  • Limit the extent of software types in use to decrease exposure to third-party risk
  • Classify systems based on risk to inform patch strategy and update priorities
  • Prioritize vendor patch announcements to ensure immediate processing
  • Test patches on a subset of systems before rolling out a network-wide update
  • Configure automated patching for specific programs and open-source libraries
  • Patch as soon as possible
  • Validate and record all patch activity for visibility, analysis, and evidence

Does Patch Management Work?

Yes. Patch management is axiomatic for the cybersecurity industry. Incidents like the SolarWinds breach, where a vulnerability slipped through the cracks of the Orion software build, point to the necessity of patching and the consequences for client networks.

To meet advanced threats, detecting malware already known to global threat intelligence feeds is half the battle. Patch management is essential to stop known threats.

Read more: Best Server Security Services

Patch Management Features

  • Automated systems for receiving, testing, distributing, and logging patches
  • Cloud functionality for patching software based in cloud environments
  • Cross-platform compatibility for managing patches on all endpoints
  • Discovery of available updates and their pertinence to network systems
  • Reporting for internal systems, compliance and legal records, and SLAs
  • Rollback to the previous system state for inappropriate patches
  • Testing of software patches received from software developers
  • Prioritization of updates for optimal network service and security

Read more: Best Patch Management Software & Tools

Where Does Patching Originate?

In early computing, punch cards were the basis for storing digital data. Administrators could insert and remove physical cardstock to run applications, but application development required significant testing, like modern computing. 

Technicians could apply a “patch” with tape or additional paper to cover punched holes without remaking punch cards.

A picture from the Smithsonian Archive Center showing a punch card once used for early computing. Punch cards could be altered by adding tape over holes in the earliest form of patch management.
Small corrections to the programmed sequence could be done by patching over portions of the paper tape and re-punching the holes in that section. Image courtesy of the Smithsonian Archives Center.
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