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Automated patch management: 9 best practices for success

Automating the patching process is almost a necessity, especially in large organizations. Here's why, plus pros and cons, tips and best practices for keeping systems up to date.

One of the most important routine tasks of IT managers is patch management -- the deployment of code changes to hardware, network infrastructure, OSes and applications.

Patch management is part of IT systems management. It involves identifying, acquiring, testing and installing patches -- or code changes -- to fix bugs, close security holes or add features.

The need to automate the process is clear. Managing software updates is a much more complex process than it was 20 years ago when the rate of change was slower and the threat landscape was considerably less complex. Now, threats emerge daily -- sometimes, several times per day.

Furthermore, given the increased complexity of the three major OSes -- Windows, macOS, and Linux -- and applications, there are more opportunities for error, which means potential bugs in the bug fixes. More than once in recent years, Microsoft, Apple and Linux distribution providers had to recall patches and roll back OSes to previous versions due to errors in their bug fixes.

And not just software needs to be updated. Hardware does, too. Updates to firmware and other vital silicon are common.

Change comes faster, but accompanying that change are risks that have to be managed and mitigated. At the same time, patching must be done with an eye toward system stability and ensuring that patches don't introduce instability or crash the systems. Problems are more likely to occur in customized environments. Custom applications tend to be more sensitive to changes in the operating environment.

For all these reasons, automated patch management has become a necessity.

Leading patch management software vendors

There are numerous packages to automate patch management, starting with Microsoft's own Windows Server Update Services (WSUS), introduced in 2005. However, third-party developers have come up with far more comprehensive Windows offerings that support applications, as well as macOS and Linux. Prominent names include Acronis Cyber Protect, Atera Patch Management for Windows, Automox, Avast Business Patch Management, Kaseya VSA, ManageEngine Patch Manager Plus, NinjaOne Patch Management and SolarWinds Patch Manager.

Automated vs. manual patching

Due to the increased scale and complexity of systems, it is no longer feasible to perform manual updates in large enterprises -- with some important exceptions. In small organizations with a few dozen computers, manual updates are still realistic.

Automatic patching is best in the following situations:

  • Expedience. Pushing an update out to every system at once is the fastest way to do it.
  • Efficiency. Patch management systems can determine what patches need to be applied and do so quickly.
  • Reduction of human error. Automated patching systems reduce the inherent risks of human error during manual patching.
  • Scale. Only an automated patching system can push out updates to thousands of computers at once.

There are negatives, however, including the following:

  • Complexity. Automated patch management is great for a simple update, but if there is any complexity to it, such as having to choose from various options and settings, manual intervention is necessary.
  • Tool quality. Patch management tools are not immune to bugs, which can impact the update process.
  • Cost. Automated tools can get expensive with both initial acquisition and ongoing subscription costs.

The pros and cons of manual patching are mostly the inverse of the pros and cons of automated patching. But some of the arguments in favor of manual patching are unique, including the following:

  • Control. Manual patching enables more granular control over the patch management process. There might be different settings in a patch for different computers, or you might not want to update some systems right away. Manual control helps here.
  • Complexity. Most updates are straightforward, but occasionally, one has complications, as well as multiple options for deployment. This is especially true with firmware updates, where multiple settings must be evaluated before the patch can be applied. Automated patching software can't quite match human decision-making. It can only do what it is programmed to do and can't improvise, though advancements in AI are starting to change that.
  • Cost savings. Manual patching usually saves thousands of dollars in software tools.

On the downside, manual patching has some unique disadvantages:

  • Time. Manual patching means people go from computer to computer to perform installations. In a large, complex environment, that can take days, if not weeks.
  • Human error. There is always the potential for mistakes or misconfigurations in the patching process, as well as potential inconsistencies in the manual installation process that leave some computers more vulnerable or less secure than others.

Benefits of automated patch management

By far the biggest benefit of patch automation is speed of deployment. It is extremely impractical and unmanageable for a large organization with hundreds or thousands of PCs to have IT workers go individually from computer to computer.

Another major benefit of automation is the ability to delay updates. You might not want to have to rule out fixes immediately for fear they could break your applications. This is especially true if you run a lot of custom, homegrown software. Automation makes it easier to hold off rolling out updates until you can validate and test the patches.

Other benefits include the following:

  • Distribution guarantee. While Windows has an update feature for downloading and installing patches, you can't leave it up to individual employees to remember to execute those tasks. By automating the patching process, organizations can make sure security updates and bug fixes are promptly distributed across all systems.
  • Improved system performance. Patch management not only addresses security vulnerabilities, but also fixes bugs and performance issues. With patch automation, organizations can improve system stability and performance, leading to better overall productivity.
  • Regulatory compliance. Industries subject to strict regulations and compliance standards must update their hardware and software promptly to protect sensitive data. Automated patch management virtually ensures compliance.
  • Centralized control and reporting. Automated patch management systems typically provide centralized control and reporting capabilities, enabling administrators to monitor patch status across every system from a single interface. Centralized visibility helps ensure that all systems are properly patched and up to date.
  • Proactive maintenance. Automation enables organizations to push updates out to the users automatically and during off-peak hours to minimize disruptions.

When should you use automated patch management?

Here's when automation makes the most sense:

  • Large scale. In a small business, it is fairly easy to go from computer to computer for manual updates but not when systems stretch into the hundreds.
  • Regular updates. Automated patch management can ensure updates are applied in a timely manner rather than relying on users.
  • Urgent security patches. Security vulnerabilities need to be patched as soon as possible, especially zero-day threats. Automated patch management can make sure that happens.
  • Compliance. If you are in a heavily regulated industry with significant compliance requirements, automation is better than manual patching for ensuring that your systems comply.
  • Minimal interruption. Every automated patch installer, including WSUS, lets you decide when to push out patches and avoid interrupting the workday.
  • Centralized management. In a highly distributed IT infrastructure with systems located in different geographic locations, automated patch management makes updates faster and easier to manage.

The automated patch management process

Automated patch management is a multistep process, with deployment happening in the middle of the chain. Here are the main steps:

  1. Discovery and inventory. The first step is knowing what you have. That means identifying and cataloging every component of your organization's IT infrastructure, including software, workstations, laptops, servers, VMs and other devices.
  2. Vulnerability assessment. Once the inventory is complete, the patch management tool can identify out-of-date software and other security vulnerabilities that require updates.
  3. Patch identification and prioritization. After vulnerabilities are identified, the automated system assists with finding and prioritizing upgrades, starting with the most critical systems down to the least critical.
  4. Patch testing. Patches are checked for bugs and other issues, typically in a representative test environment that mimics the broader ecosystem.
  5. Patch deployment. This is the process of installing patches according to predefined schedules and policies. You can set patch deployment to roll out to specific systems, groups of systems or the entire network.
  6. Verification. After patches are rolled out, the automated system verifies that they were successfully applied to the target systems. This step involves verifying that a patch has indeed been installed and performing post-deployment scans or manual testing to ensure it is working properly and no issues have been introduced. Verification also includes compliance tests to confirm that patches meet regulatory requirements for security.
  7. Monitoring and maintenance. This is an ongoing process of checking with vendors for new updates, which are typically downloaded automatically. Then, the entire process repeats.

Best practices in automated patch management

Automated patch management isn't a deploy-and-forget process. IT systems must be constantly managed, and patch management software doesn't absolve you of that responsibility. It just makes it a whole lot easier.

So, here are nine best practices to keep in mind:

  1. Prioritize patches based on their severity, criticality, and potential impact on systems and data. Balance those risks by making sure the fixes don't break anything in your infrastructure.
  2. Establish a regular patching cadence to ensure timely deployment. Schedule automated patching during maintenance windows to minimize disruptions.
  3. Delay rollouts when necessary. Highly customized environments can be more sensitive to changes introduced by updates. You can program patch management software to roll out patches to allow time for due diligence to test the updates before wider deployment.
  4. Maintain a testing environment. This goes hand in hand with delaying rollouts. Even if you have no custom software, it is important to evaluate patches before deploying them. Test patches for compatibility, functionality, and potential conflicts with existing software and configurations.
  5. Have fallback mechanisms. If things go south and a patch introduces instability or other problems to your network, you need the ability to roll back the patch and restore systems to their previous state.
  6. Keep up monitoring and reporting. Patch management software can continuously monitor system activities, including crashes, and maintain detailed records of patch deployment, including unusual behavior. It regularly generates reports to provide visibility into your environment and patch levels, along with compliance with security and regulatory requirements.
  7. Conduct regular reviews of automated patch management processes to identify areas for improvement. Evaluate patching effectiveness, efficiency and impact on system performance, and make adjustments as needed to optimize workflows.
  8. Integrate automated patch management practices with your other security practices, such as vulnerability management, threat intelligence and incident response, to bolster the overall security posture.
  9. Foster user awareness and communication. Even though much of the work is taken out of their hands, you should keep employees up to date on patching activities, including scheduled downtime or service interruptions, policy changes and any steps they may have to take, such as manually running a patch program.

Should you consider automated patch management software?

To reiterate, the bigger the enterprise, the more automated patch management software becomes a given and almost mandatory. But, even in a large enterprise, one tool does not fit all. You might need more than one, and there is still a need for manual patching in critical, hard-to-automate scenarios, such as hardware and firmware updates.

Patch automation is a significant productivity and security enhancer, ensuring that the latest security and vulnerability fixes are distributed and deployed as soon as possible. It also keeps an organization's IT infrastructure updated and performing at its best.

Andy Patrizio is a technology journalist with almost 30 years' experience covering Silicon Valley who has worked for a variety of publications -- on staff or as a freelancer -- including Network World, InfoWorld, Business Insider, Ars Technica and InformationWeek. He is currently based in Southern California.

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