Establishing and following a comprehensive patch management policy is critical for organizations to stay ahead of digital security risks. Following best practices will set your organization up to develop a sustainable patch management program, prevent interruptions to daily activities, and mitigate security incidents. Read this guide to learn essential patch management policy best practices to stay secure in 2023.
Implement Patch Management Policy Best Practices for 2023
Following patch management policy best practices is essential to implementing a patch management policy that can successfully manage vulnerabilities and support the security of your organization’s environment. Cybersecurity threats are always evolving, so developing a well-defined policy can guide your team through these changes.
To help you optimize your patch management policy, this guide will cover:
- Some baseline approaches to risk response
- What patching and patch management are—and why they’re essential
- The benefits of following patching policy best practices
- NIST-recommended approaches to patch management policy development
- Several patching and patch management scenarios to consider
Approaches to Risk Response
Using any software comes with some amount of risk. Known vulnerabilities aside, there is always the possibility of zero-day vulnerabilities that tech teams are simply unaware of.
And every time a vulnerability is identified in a component, it becomes more at risk of being targeted by attackers. Approaches to responding to these risks include:
- Acceptance – Accept the risk associated with a software component as being manageable with existing controls or low enough not to require action.
- Mitigation – Take measures to reduce the risk, including options such as patching the vulnerability, implementing new security controls, or upgrading the software component.
- Transfer – Consider options such as managed security services or cybersecurity insurance to reduce the burden of identified risks.
- Avoidance – Eliminate risks by disabling features or uninstalling components that have been identified as vulnerable.
Patching is just one of several ways to respond to risks, but it’s one of the only ways to eradicate vulnerabilities without negatively impacting a software’s functionality.
Patches and Patch Management
A patch is a revision to existing files, software, or settings that are too small to be considered a new release. They are meant to fix issues until the next release of the component in question can be distributed. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) defines patch management as “the systematic notification, identification, deployment, installation, and verification of operating system and application software code revisions.”
Patch management is an essential aspect of overall vulnerability management. And patching policy best practice provides a framework to take the best, most appropriate measures for your organization and its needs.
Why Do Organizations Need a Patch Management Policy?
Cyber Attackers are constantly uncovering new vulnerabilities to exploit, which means that keeping your systems secured against exploits and other threats requires ongoing effort.
A patch management policy will:
- Delegate tasks and responsibilities
- Define patch management processes, procedures, tools, and timelines
- Document the results of monitoring, testing, and reviews
Besides the vital role it plays in maintaining the security of your organization’s systems, proper patch management will also help ensure your organization remains compliant with any applicable security standards and security-related legal requirements.
What Are the Benefits of a Patch Management Policy?
Mitigating threats, eradicating vulnerabilities, and remaining compliant with any applicable regulations and security standards are all primary objectives of a patch management policy.
Beyond these, there are other benefits that an effective patch management program can offer:
- Fewer disruptions – Patching can fix issues that could lead to system downtime, but since the patching process itself can also lead to downtime, having a policy that provides guidelines on how to time patches will help prevent downtime that disrupts the availability of systems and resources.
- Improved productivity – Keeping systems online and secure will help personnel remain on task and keep project timelines on track.
- Keeping infrastructure up to date – Patches are often issued to fix problems, but they can also provide improvements. Keeping your organization’s systems and resources patched will help ensure that the environment benefits from the latest developments.
- Supporting non-traditional work environments – It’s becoming more and more common for people to work in distributed environments as opposed to a single on-site location. A patching policy will help your organization be more flexible and prepared to address the complex security concerns of changing working environments.
- A good reputation – Keeping systems online, healthy, and secure is critical no matter what. And if your organization serves others or handles personal data, you have that much more of a responsibility to do so. Following patch management policy best practices will help keep things running smoothly, upholding your organization’s reputation in the public eye.
- Better financial stability – A well-planned patch management policy will consider your organization’s resources, ensuring that your plan can be implemented with the available budget. And since an effective policy will help ensure compliance with security standards, it can help your organization avoid monetary penalties that could result from non-compliance.
Patch Management Policy Best Practices to Follow in 2023
NIST has published multiple guidelines detailing patch management policy best practices.
Special Publication 800-40 Version 4.0, titled “Guide to Enterprise Patch Management Planning: Preventive Maintenance for Technology,” emphasizes the importance of:
- Organization-wide collaboration
- Being proactive
- Aim for simplification
- Utilizing automation
- Making constant improvements
Let’s take a look at each one in more acute detail.
Involve Leadership Throughout the Organization
One of the challenges that can arise when developing and implementing a patch management policy is navigating the conflicting interests of different stakeholders. While technical leadership may be focused on the necessity of patching from a security standpoint, other departments may be worried about how the downtime required for applying patches may impact productivity.
This is why you need to involve leaders from all across the organization in policy development.
It provides the opportunity for the technical leaders overseeing the policy to consider the needs and concerns of other teams who rely on access to those systems. It also ensures all other leaders know why patching is necessary to ensure they can remain functional and productive.
This collaboration will strengthen the organization overall, and being more unified in security initiatives will better help mitigate all threats in the long run.
Patching is not optional; it presents challenges that your organization will need to overcome. Identifying, understanding, and devising ways to overcome these challenges will establish a robust foundation for developing an effective policy that considers the needs of all stakeholders.
Some challenges that may arise, include the following:
- Identifying the right approach to testing and deployment to minimize both opportunities for attacks and disruptions to operations
- Determining the right amount of resources to dedicate to patch management
- Managing cloud-based, virtual, and other assets in addition to traditional IT assets
- Patches may not be immediately available when vulnerabilities are found
- Software that is no longer being supported by the vendor will not be patched
- Scheduling patches based on priority
Even with the most thorough plan, it’s necessary to recognize that issues can occur when patching, and operations or responses to emerging risks may be impacted as a result. But rather than trying to eradicate this possibility, acknowledging and preparing for these cases will make for a more successful patch and vulnerability management program.
Simplify and Automate
Identifying, assessing, and responding to each emerging vulnerability and patch release one by one is unsustainable. Your patch management policy should comprise a plan for responding to new vulnerabilities to simplify decision-making. And because of the speed at which new threats emerge, automation also plays an essential role in sustainable, scalable patch management.
Your patch management policy should outline:
- Which processes to automate
- Approved tools to automate processes
- Guidelines for utilizing automation during emergency responses
Minimizing the number of vulnerabilities within the environment is the best way to mitigate threats and reduce the need for patching. Ways to approach this include:
- Defining standardized configurations
- Hardening assets and components
- Evaluating and considering vulnerabilities when procuring software
- Using managed services
- Defining response times
The patch management policy should also detail approaches and pipelines for approaching patch management that aim to minimize the disruption of operations.
Inventory Assets and Resources
Keeping an up-to-date inventory of technical assets and resources is crucial to any organization’s cybersecurity policies, and the patch management policy is no exception.
Having an accurate, detailed inventory is necessary to ensure things are kept up-to-date, but the frequency of updates and patch releases can make this challenging. Utilizing automation will make this more manageable and help prevent errors.
Consider Potential Risk Scenarios
A thorough patch management policy must consider the different scenarios your organization may face and create procedures for each one. Patch management policy examples include:
- Routine patches – This scenario calls for a procedure that will define the processes for regular maintenance patches. Since these patches are usually not high-priority, they can easily be neglected, resulting in compounding issues down the road. Creating a set schedule for these patches will keep risks lower and keep maintenance more sustainable.
- Emergency patches – Emergency patch procedures will detail the response to zero-day vulnerabilities, active exploits, and other emergencies. Prompt response is crucial in these cases, as is being prepared for the possibility of a vulnerability being exploited.
- Emergency mitigation – As with emergency patch scenarios, emergency mitigation procedures will address how to handle cases where there is no patch available for a vulnerability.
- Unpatchable assets – Software that has reached end-of-life, doesn’t support updates, or is otherwise unsupported may not ever be patchable through official avenues. The procedure for this scenario will require an alternative risk response since patching won’t be an option.
Again, it’s essential to remember that perfection is unattainable, and response may not always go according to plan. Therefore, a thorough patch management policy will also address areas like backing up and archiving assets and resources or incident response and disaster recovery.
Utilize Maintenance Groups
Make use of the internal inventory, goals, and needs of the organization, and the risk scenarios that your organization must consider to create maintenance groups. Assign assets to these groups accordingly and prioritize and define patching and other maintenance needs for each group. This approach will help make patch management more granular and sustainable.
Evaluate and Improve
Optimizing your patch management policy won’t happen overnight, nor will it be a static endeavor. Development can be gradual and ongoing, and even a fully-developed policy should be regularly evaluated and improved upon to remain relevant and effective over time.
Implement a Vulnerability Management Life Cycle
Implementing a vulnerability management life cycle will create a sustainable, reliable framework for addressing risks through patch management, but it can also be applied on top of any other approach to risk response. The key stages of the vulnerability management life cycle are:
- Staying informed – Know what vulnerabilities may affect your organization by maintaining an accurate inventory, monitoring systems, and tracking vulnerabilities.
- Planning a response – Perform risk assessment, choose the most appropriate risk response, and
- Execution – Make any necessary preparations and implement the processes defined in the policy. Verify the successful execution of the response and continue to perform ongoing monitoring to ensure its efficacy.
Implementing a policy that iterates through these steps will provide a reliable cycle with room for evaluation and adaptation as threats continue to evolve.
Apply Patch Management Policy Best Practices to Risk Response
Patch management policy best practices establish a framework for developing an internal policy, but what do they look like applied to a patch management plan? The response plan in a sample patch management policy will include details for the following steps:
- Prepare – Carry out any tasks required to prepare for the patch, including triaging and prioritization, scheduling, acquiring and validating patch files, and performing testing.
- Deploy – The steps required to deploy may differ from one patch to the next but could include distribution, validation, installation, reconfiguration, and troubleshooting.
- Verify – Ensure that a patch has been installed properly and had the intended effect.
- Monitor – Continue monitoring to ensure that the patch remains effective and unadulterated until the next patch or update is available.
These steps closely parallel those in the vulnerability management life cycle and can serve as a starting point for outlining your own organization’s needs.
Implement Your Patch Management Policy with RSI Security
Each organization’s patch management policy will be unique, and applying the best practices detailed in this guide will help clarify the requirements of your own organization’s policy. Contact RSI Security today to get help with applying patch management policy best practices to your organization’s vulnerability management plan.