Everything you need to know about managing macOS updates

Wayne Thompson

Mar 23, 2023

13 min read

As an IT professional, managing software updates is a crucial task that ensures your Macs are running at peak performance while keeping them secure from potential threats. Apple constantly evolves the macOS operating system and releases new updates frequently to address security vulnerabilities, improve performance, and add new features. In this blog post, we will take a closer look at macOS updates and provide you with the best practices, tools and resources for managing software updates on Macs.

Updates vs Upgrades: Clearing the confusion

Software updates and upgrades are two different processes. A software update is a small and incremental change that fixes bugs, adds security patches, and improves performance. It does not usually introduce new features or change the user interface. On the other hand, a software upgrade is a major release that introduces significant changes, such as new features, a redesigned interface, or compatibility with the latest hardware and software.

From an IT admin’s POV

The role of an IT admin in a software update is to ensure that the update is compatible with the existing infrastructure, such as operating system and hardware, and then install the update on all managed systems. IT admins will typically schedule the update at a time that minimizes disruption to the end-users and ensure that any data is backed up before the update is applied.

Whereas the role of an IT admin in a software upgrade is more involved as it may require significant planning and preparation. The admin needs to assess the impact of the upgrade on the existing infrastructure and end-users and communicate the changes to stakeholders. In addition, they may need to test the new software in a test environment before deploying it to production systems to ensure compatibility and minimize any disruption to the end-users.

Importance of macOS updates

Software updates are essential for keeping your Mac running smoothly and securely. With macOS updates, your device can become more efficient and easier to use due to the new features and performance improvements. Additionally, software updates also contain security patches which address vulnerabilities that could compromise your system’s security. Furthermore, failing to update your software in a timely manner can leave your Mac vulnerable to cyber-attacks and cause issues with compatibility and performance.

Challenges associated with managing software updates

Managing software updates can be a challenging task for many organizations, especially when it comes to large-scale software deployments. Some of the common challenges associated with managing software updates include:

  • Ensuring that the software updates are compatible with the existing system components, hardware, and other software. Compatibility issues can lead to system crashes, data loss, and other issues. For Macs, it can be even more challenging to manage compatibility issues due to the limited number of hardware configurations available.
  • Sometimes, software updates might require system downtime, which can disrupt business operations and productivity. To minimize disruptions, organizations need to carefully plan the update process, including scheduling updates during off-peak hours. Furthermore, they need to carefully allocate time, personnel, and hardware to ensure that the update process does not negatively impact other business operations.
  • In certain cases, end-users may resist software updates due to concerns about changes to workflows, features, or usability. Organizations need to communicate the benefits of updates and provide adequate training and support to help users adapt to changes.
  • macOS updates are intricate and can include various systems, apps, and dependencies. This complexity can make it difficult to confirm proper installation, configuration, and testing of all updates, when performed manually.

Know more about Hexnode’s OS Update management

Understanding the macOS update process

There are different types of software updates available for Macs, including security updates, feature updates and bug fixes. Security updates are the most important and should be prioritized, followed by feature updates that improve the overall performance and functionality of your Mac.

The OTA update method

The OTA (over-the-air) update method replaces Universal Mac Assistant (UMA) updates for macOS. Updates are now incremental patches that result in smaller downloads and faster installation. They require a sealed system volume and can be performed by any local user. Only the components required to complete an update are downloaded, improving network efficiency by not downloading the entire operating system. The default is to have incremental upgrades and updates, but if incremental upgrades or updates aren’t available, a full replacement is installed.

The software update process on Macs is straightforward. You can access software updates from the App Store or from the System Preferences menu. The App Store will show you available updates for installed applications, while the System Preferences menu will show updates available for the macOS operating system.

Updating software on a Mac from System Preferences
Updating software on a Mac from System Preferences

The internal process of an OS update

The update process is based on a hardware root of trust and installs only Apple-signed code. System software authorization checks ensure only Apple-signed operating system versions can be installed. This prevents downgrade attacks and allows Apple to stop signing older, vulnerable operating systems.

The end-user might not be aware of internal process involved during an update. Updating an OS involves a complex set of internal processes to ensure that the system is properly updated and secure. Apple provides several features that help streamline the update process and enhance security, such as Content Caching and Rapid Security Response.

Some internal processes involved during an OS update:

  • Verification of the update: The OS verifies the authenticity and integrity of the update before it is installed. The digital signature of the update is checked to ensure that it was not tampered with and came from a trusted source.
  • Preparation of the system: Before the update is installed, the system prepares by making a backup of important files and data. The system also creates a snapshot of the current OS state, which can be used to roll back to the previous state if necessary.
  • Downloading and installing the update: The update is downloaded and installed on the system. During the installation process, system files are replaced or updated as required. Once the update is installed, the system may need to restart to complete the update.
  • Content caching: Content caching is a feature that allows multiple devices on a network to share the same downloaded content, such as OS updates. This helps to reduce internet bandwidth usage and speeds up the update process. A local server or computer stores the cached content, and other devices on the network can download the update from the cache instead of downloading it from the internet.
  • Rapid Security Response: Rapid Security Response (RSR) is a feature that allows devices to receive security updates as soon as they are available, without waiting for the next OS update. RSR is enabled by default on macOS, and it checks for security updates daily. If a security update is available, it is downloaded and installed automatically.

Best practices for managing macOS software updates

Having a clear software update policy is crucial for managing updates on Macs. This policy should outline which updates are mandatory, how frequently updates should be installed and who is responsible for managing updates. Here are some best practices for managing software updates on Macs:

  • Enabling automatic updates for security updates will ensure that your Mac is always up-to-date without requiring user intervention.
  • Prioritize the security updates. Ensure that security updates are installed as soon as possible to keep your Mac secure from potential threats.
  • Before deploying updates across your organization, test them on a small group of devices to ensure that there are no compatibility issues or other problems.

Tools and resources for managing software updates on Macs

Managing software updates on Macs can be a time-consuming and complex process, especially when dealing with multiple devices. To help simplify this task, there are several tools and resources available that can make managing software updates on Macs much easier. By using these tools, organizations can automate the update process, reduce downtime, and ensure that all devices are up to date and secure.

The Best Mac tools for IT admins

Managing software updates using macOS Server (Deprecated)

macOS Server is a tool that can be used to manage software updates across multiple Mac devices. This tool provides a centralized way to manage and control the software updates that are installed on different Macs in an organization.

With macOS Server, organizations could create software update catalogs, configure software update policies, and push updates to Macs. This helped to ensure that all devices are running the latest version of the software, reducing security risks and improving performance. macOS Server included a Profile Manager service that allowed administrators to manage software updates on multiple macOS devices in their network. However, macOS Server has been deprecated by Apple, and the Profile Manager service is no longer supported.

An alternative to the Profile Manager service of macOS Server is a Mobile Device Management (MDM) solution. MDM solutions enable administrators to manage devices from a central location, including managing software updates. MDM solutions provide administrators with more advanced features for managing updates, such as ensuring that specific software versions are installed on devices or limiting access to certain updates.

Third-party MDM/UEM solutions

With macOS Big Sur and later, MDM offers new ways to manage macOS updates, replacing options in earlier macOS versions and providing additional control for administrators. The Restrictions payload allows administrators to configure delayed software updates for macOS and specific apps, and MDM commands enable the downloading and installation of specific updates on demand without changing the delay settings. In macOS Big Sur, MDM commands offer even more control, including the ability to download updates in the background, install previously downloaded updates, or send default instructions based on the current state of the device.

Explore Hexnode’s Mac management features

How to schedule macOS updates using Hexnode UEM

When managing software updates on Macs, it is mandatory to supervise devices.

What are supervised devices and how to supervise Mac devices?

Supervised devices are devices that are managed by a UEM solution, which provides more control over the updates that are installed. By supervising devices, organizations can ensure that updates are installed correctly and that all devices are running the latest version of the software. Supervised devices also provide increased security, as the MDM solution can monitor devices for any security threats.

To supervise Mac devices, organizations can use Automated Device Enrollment (ADE). ADE is a process that enables organizations to enroll multiple devices in an MDM or a UEM console quickly and easily. By using ADE, organizations can automate the enrollment process, reducing the time and effort required to set up new devices. When enrolling devices, it is important to ensure that the devices are compatible with the UEM solution being used.

To schedule macOS updates using Hexnode UEM, they will need to create a software update policy in Hexnode UEM portal. The steps are:
  • Go to the UEM portal and create a new policy.
  • Then, navigate to macOS > Security > OS Updates and click Configure.
  • Next, choose from the available actions for handling updates when they are available, including Notify Only, Download Only, Download and Install, Install, and Install later.
  • Save the policy and go to Policy Targets to select the target devices.
  • Once the update is scheduled, the user will be notified to keep the device connected to power during that time.

Managing software updates via scripts

Managing operating system updates and upgrades on Mac devices can be a complex and time-consuming task for IT administrators. One way to streamline this process is by using scripts. Shell scripting on Mac devices can automate OS updates, upgrades, and other maintenance tasks, reducing the risk of human error and saving time. Hexnode, a leading device management solution, offers a powerful feature that allows administrators to execute custom scripts on Mac devices.

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With Hexnode UEM, IT teams can easily create and deploy scripts to all devices or specific groups, ensuring that updates and upgrades are installed consistently and efficiently. Furthermore, Hexnode’s detailed reports and logs make it easy to track script execution and troubleshoot any issues that may arise. Additionally, IT administrators can remotely execute custom scripts on Mac devices. This allows for system-level configurations to be performed without any user interaction. The administrator can perform tasks such as shutting down or restarting devices, installing or uninstalling apps, pushing updates, and setting up app configurations.

Script to Update OS

The code shown employs a variety of commands and tools to upgrade the operating system to the most recent release of macOS Big Sur that is currently obtainable.

Script to Upgrade OS

To update the operating system, you need to replace with the version you want to update to. Similarly, and should be replaced with the admin’s username and password, respectively.

The script takes the desired OS version as input, installs the corresponding installer app, and starts the update installation process. For instance, if the admin enters 12.1 as the desired OS version, the script will install the macOS Monterey installer app and begin the update installation process once the admin provides their credentials.


In conclusion, managing software updates is an ongoing process that requires careful planning and execution. By following the best practices and utilizing the right tools, IT professionals can ensure that their Mac devices are always up-to-date and protected against the latest security threats. We recommend that IT professionals prioritize software updates as a critical component of their overall device management strategy, and regularly review and update their software update policy to ensure it meets their organization’s needs.

Wayne Thompson

Product Evangelist @ Hexnode. Busy doing what looks like fun to me and work to others.

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