Understanding Patch Management: Why it matters?

Wayne Thompson

Dec 18, 2023

12 min read

The recent surge in ransomware attacks highlights the critical importance of robust cybersecurity measures. One pivotal aspect of fortifying managed devices against evolving threats is effective patch management. This article is to help you understand the intricacies of patch management, focusing on the challenges faced by the tech industry, and the compelling need for a well-structured patch management strategy.

What is Patch Management?

Patch management is the proactive process of identifying, deploying, and managing software updates, or patches, to rectify vulnerabilities, enhance performance, and boost security. It is a systematic approach to maintain the health and functionality of the endpoints by regularly applying software updates or patches. These patches are released by Microsoft (for Windows devices) and Apple (for Mac and other Apple devices) to address various issues, including security vulnerabilities, software bugs, and performance enhancements. Managing updates across this spectrum requires a nuanced understanding of the operating system’s architecture and the specific challenges posed by various hardware configurations.

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Challenges in the tech industry

From rapidly evolving threats to the sheer diversity of devices and software, maintaining a secure ecosystem poses significant hurdles.

Device diversity

The widespread use of devices, each with its unique specifications and operating systems, complicates the task of ensuring uniform security. A robust patch management strategy must account for this diversity, providing tailored solutions for different devices and platforms.

Evolving threat landscape

Cyber threats evolve at an unprecedented pace. Patch management must be agile, capable of swiftly addressing emerging vulnerabilities to prevent potential exploitation. This necessitates continuous monitoring, threat intelligence integration, and rapid response mechanisms.

Interconnected systems

In modern IT environments, systems are interconnected. A vulnerability in one component can have cascading effects. Patching, therefore, needs to be synchronized across the entire infrastructure to prevent security gaps.

The need for Patch Management

1. Device & data security

Patch management serves as a defence against security threats, safeguarding sensitive data and strengthening the security posture of managed devices. It ensures that known vulnerabilities are promptly addressed, reducing the attack surface and enhancing overall resilience.

2. Reduced device downtime

Swift and automated deployment of patches minimizes device downtime, ensuring seamless operations and productivity. This is especially critical in business-critical environments where even short periods of disruption can have significant financial implications.

3. Compliance

Meeting regulatory standards is imperative for organizations. Patch management aids in compliance by keeping systems up-to-date and secure, providing evidence of due diligence in maintaining a secure computing environment.

4. Reduce costs

From device lifecycle management to repair expenses, a proactive patch management strategy can yield cost savings. Timely updates reduce the likelihood of security incidents that might result in costly data breaches or system failures.

5. Improved functions

Patching not only addresses vulnerabilities but also enhances the overall functionality of the devices. Performance optimizations, feature updates, and bug fixes contribute to a smoother and more efficient user experience.

6. Tech support

Efficient patch management simplifies the tech support landscape, reducing the burden on IT teams. With fewer issues stemming from unpatched vulnerabilities, tech support can focus on strategic initiatives and higher-value tasks.

To understand the situation better, imagine a scenario where the finance department is diligently closing the fiscal year with 40 Windows computers. The IT admin spots a critical patch for urgent deployment to maintain system security. Stressing the patch’s significance, the admin communicates the need for a 3-4 hour downtime to the finance team. Facing tight deadlines, the finance team requests a delay, promising to address it the following week.

Unfortunately, within a few days, all 40 Windows systems fall victim to a ransomware attack. The attackers demand a hefty ransom, threatening to expose sensitive financial data if payment isn’t made immediately. The organization faces chaos as the ransom cost exceeds the financial projections for the entire fiscal year. This story underscores the importance of proactive patch management to prevent such disasters.

Challenges in Patch Management

Despite its importance, patch management comes with a set of challenges.

1. Timely deployment

Coordinating and deploying patches in a timely manner can be challenging, especially in large and complex environments. Delays in patch deployment leave systems exposed to potential exploits.

2. Compatibility issues

Patches may inadvertently introduce compatibility issues with existing software or configurations. Thorough testing is crucial to identify and address these issues before widespread deployment.

3. User resistance

In environments where end-users have control over their devices, resistance to updates can pose challenges. Educating users about the importance of patches and implementing user-friendly update processes are key strategies.

4. Rollback complexities

Despite thorough testing, issues may arise post-patch deployment. Having robust rollback plans and mechanisms is essential to mitigate the impact of unforeseen complications.

Best practices for Patch Management

Navigating the complexities of patch management requires a strategic approach.

Regular audits:

  • Assess patch status regularly.
  • Evaluate installed patches.
  • Identify missing patches.
  • Ensure the system is up-to-date.

Automated patching:

  • Enhance efficiency with automation.
  • Schedule updates during non-business hours.
  • Minimize disruption to normal operations.

Rollback plans:

  • Mitigate potential failures during updates.
  • Include backups and system restore points.
  • Document procedures for reverting to a pre-update state.

User education:

  • Communicate the importance of patches.
  • Inform users about potential downtime.
  • Provide guidance on necessary actions during updates.

Patch testing:

  • Conduct thorough testing in a controlled environment.
  • Identify and address conflicts or issues before network-wide deployment.

Why is a Patch Management Policy needed?

A well-defined patch management policy is crucial for maintaining a secure and resilient IT infrastructure. It efficiently coordinates timely updates, addressing new features, performance improvements, and security vulnerabilities. This policy ensures regular, non-disruptive patching tailored to the systems, preventing clashes with employees’ productive hours. Furthermore, a patch management policy, in adherence to regulatory standards like HIPAA and GDPR, plays a crucial role in ensuring compliance. This compliance not only shields against audits but also fosters trust by consistently improving products and services with secure functionality.

Simultaneously, the policy mitigates risks through methodical testing and deployment of updates, reducing the likelihood of security incidents. Furthermore, it facilitates strategic planning by outlining patching frequency, prioritising critical updates, and establishing efficient communication protocols, ensuring optimal resource allocation.

Difference between OS Updates and patch updates

Clarifying the distinction between operating system updates and patch updates is essential for understanding the scope and impact of different types of software updates.

OS Updates

Operating system updates are comprehensive updates that may include new features, major enhancements, and changes to the overall system architecture. These updates often require system reboots and have a more significant impact on the user experience.

Patch Updates

Patch updates, on the other hand, are focused on addressing specific vulnerabilities, fixing bugs, and improving security. They are incremental updates that are generally quicker to install and have a narrower scope compared to operating system updates.

Automating Patch Management

Recognizing the need for automation, this section will delve into the benefits of automating patch management processes.

Need for automating

Automation in patch management streamlines the entire process, from patch identification to deployment. The need for automation arises from the increasing volume and frequency of patches, the complexity of IT environments, and the imperative to reduce manual intervention.

Benefits of automating

  • Efficiency gains: Automated patch deployment reduces the time and effort required for manual intervention, allowing IT teams to focus on more strategic tasks.
  • Consistency: Automation ensures consistency in patch deployment, reducing the likelihood of human errors and ensuring that all devices are consistently updated.
  • Timely updates: Automated tools can schedule updates during non-business hours, ensuring that critical patches are applied promptly without disrupting regular operations.
  • Centralized management: Automation provides centralized control and visibility into the patch status of all devices, simplifying the management and monitoring processes.

A Patch Management software automates the entire patching lifecycle, covering identification, deployment, monitoring, and reporting. This boosts efficiency, strengthens security, minimizes manual errors, and enables organizations to adeptly address evolving software vulnerabilities.

Hexnode’s Patch Management for Windows

Hexnode’s Windows patch management feature gives administrators a powerful system to accurately install updates on Windows devices. Admins attain precise control by configuring target versions to limit the maximum number of updates to be pushed. This allows them to align the deployment of patches with the specific needs and compatibility requirements of their Windows devices, ensuring a tailored and effective update process.

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Hexnode has the following Patch Management capabilities for Windows devices.

Windows Update Preferences

Windows Update Preferences are customizable controls for administrators, allowing them to decide when and how Windows updates occur. This includes choosing the update version, managing driver updates, handling optional updates, and setting download limits and maintenance wake-up times. It enables administrators to tailor Windows updates to meet their organization’s specific needs.

Hexnode UEM’s Windows Update Preferences settings empower administrators to efficiently manage software updates on Windows devices, ensuring optimal performance across the board. These configurations allow admins to define the maximum version of updates pushed to devices. The specific configurations include:

  • Setting the maximum version of updates to be pushed to devices.
  • Options to include or exclude driver updates and optional updates.
  • Control over downloading updates over metered connections.
  • Configuration of wake-up requests for daily maintenance.
  • Options related to Windows Update for Business (WUfB) to handle compatibility issues and specify target product and version.
  • Ability to set a time period after which installed feature updates cannot be removed.
  • Options to choose from pre-release builds and update channels made available by Microsoft.

WSUS Specific Settings

Windows Server Update Services (WSUS) is a Microsoft-developed software application empowering IT administrators to manage the distribution of updates and patches. It offers control over Microsoft Updates distribution across Windows devices within a network. WSUS plays a crucial role in ensuring the security and stability of the production environment by keeping all Windows devices up to date with essential patches. Hexnode UEM facilitates IT administrators in configuring specific settings for WSUS. They include:

  • Adoption of WSUS workflows for third-party software and patch distribution.
  • Configuration of the update service URL and detection frequency.
  • Allowance of third-party signed updates based on Trusted Publishers certificates.
  • Control over online Microsoft update services.
  • Implementation of dual scan policies to determine scan sources for updates.

WSUS (Windows Server Update Services) operates as a localized solution, centrally managing Windows updates within an organization’s network. It ensures a structured workflow, enabling administrators to meticulously approve, decline, or prioritize updates before deploying them to devices. This approach suits organizations with strict update management policies, providing a controlled and tailored environment.

Conversely, WUfB (Windows Update for Business) adopts a cloud-based strategy, utilizing Microsoft’s infrastructure for efficient update distribution. By focusing on automatic updates directly from Microsoft’s servers, it minimizes dependency on local servers, offering increased flexibility. WUfB allows individual devices to fetch updates based on configured policies, making it a preferred choice for organizations prioritizing ease of use and leveraging Microsoft’s cloud capabilities. The choice between WSUS and WUfB depends on personal preferences, with WSUS offering detailed control, while WUfB provides a more adaptable approach that is easy to use.

Windows Update Experience

Windows Update Experience settings grant administrators precise control over update download and installation timing on Windows devices. This includes managing restarts, notifications, and user interactions. With Hexnode UEM’s policy, admins can set update timing, deadlines, customize notifications, and control user interactions, handling both Feature and Quality Updates efficiently.

  • Customization of the end-user experience during patch deployment.
  • Receipt of updates for other Microsoft products along with OS updates.
  • Choice of automatic update behavior, including scheduling restarts.
  • Setting of active hours during which updates won’t be pushed.
  • Configuration of restart checks, pause updates, and user access to check for updates.
  • Control over Windows Update notifications and their behavior.
  • Fine-tuning of auto-restart notifications, including schedules and dismissal options.
  • Setting update deadlines and restart deadlines, with options to opt out of automatic restarts until a specified grace period is reached.
  • Management of engaged restart transitions, allowing users to choose when to restart.

Let us understand this better with a scenario.

Sarah, an IT administrator, faces the daunting challenge of efficiently managing updates and patches across all Windows devices in her organization without disrupting the workflow. Without a centralized solution, the network’s security and stability are at risk, and manual update configurations could lead to potential disruptions, missed deadlines, and annoyed users.

With Hexnode, Sarah smoothly set up update schedules, avoiding interruptions during work hours. Users could still access their devices hassle-free, and the updates happened seamlessly in the background. This not only saved time but also ensured a smooth workflow and a user-friendly update experience. Without a solution like Hexnode, Sarah would have had to manually navigate a complicated process, putting the network at risk of not receiving important updates on time. This could lead to security problems and make the network more vulnerable to threats.

A comprehensive guide on Windows 11 security

Wrapping up with a bonus

Rest assured that Hexnode goes beyond merely providing a set of Patch Management capabilities for Windows. With Hexnode UEM, IT admins can effortlessly manage Windows devices, encompassing settings, policies, and configurations. The platform provides robust security features, including BitLocker for encryption and recovery, Windows Defender configurations for threat management, app management for regulation and security, password policy enforcement, network and accounts management, and versatile Kiosk Mode options.

In addition to these capabilities, Hexnode is preparing to roll out patch management features for Macs, ensuring a comprehensive and unified approach to device management across different operating systems. Moreover, Hexnode offers Remote View for real-time diagnosis and Remote Control for troubleshooting, allowing administrators to efficiently monitor and control devices without the need for onsite visits. Therefore, it is recommended to implement a device management software that not only simplifies patch management but also empowers your IT team to exercise complete control over the managed Windows devices.

Wayne Thompson

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

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