Deployment of security patches helps mitigate threats to your organization’s systems, ensuring ongoing cybersecurity protection. Patch management organizes and streamlines these deployment processes to minimize gaps in cybersecurity defenses. A NIST patch management policy can help strengthen your organization’s deployment efforts. Read on to learn more.
What are the NIST Patch Management Policy Recommendations?
The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) patch management guidelines help organizations define strategies for deployment that minimize cybersecurity risks. Patches are developed and released on a scheduled (e.g., updates) or as-needed basis (e.g., following newly discovered vulnerabilities). Therefore, established processes are needed to remain up-to-date on and deploy the latest patches released by vendors or develop your own.
A NIST patch management policy can help your organization address essential aspects of patch management, some of which include:
- Inventory of critical assets
- Patch deployment
- Management of risks to assets
Working with a managed security services provider (MSSP) can help your organization develop and continually execute an effective NIST patch management policy.
What is Patch Management?
Patches are software updates that rectify security or functionality issues. Software that typically requires patches include:
- Operating systems
Patch management refers to the process of organizing patch deployment processes, the most critical of which include:
- Identifying and prioritizing assets that require patches
- Acquiring and installing patches
- Verifying patch installation
- Applying ongoing updates to patches, as necessary
Why You Should Implement a NIST Patch Management Policy
Implementing a NIST patch management policy can help organizations achieve specific goals, including:
- Understanding of the role of patches in managing cybersecurity risks, especially at the enterprise leadership decision-making level
- Streamlining patch deployment decision-making across different departments within an organization (e.g., security, technology, business operations)
- Improving overall patch management processes and procedures for an organization’s internal IT security team
NIST patch management policy-driven patch management will help minimize risks to your organization’s suite of software assets.
Critical Asset Inventory
A NIST patch management policy helps organizations maintain inventories of software and assets, which helps schedule and track patching efforts.
Inventorying Computing Assets
The NIST patch management guidelines recommend organizations to keep updated inventories of all physical and virtual computing assets, including:
- Operational technology (OT) (i.e., programmable assets that monitor changes to IT environments)
- Internet of things (IoT) (i.e., networked devices connected to the Internet)
- Container assets (i.e., virtualized operating systems)
Specific strategies to maximize asset inventory efforts, based on a NIST patch management policy, include:
- Automating asset inventorying to:
- Maintain updated lists of assets
- Collect up-to-date information on assets
- Leveraging asset monitoring capabilities built into platforms
- Obtaining updated asset information based on vulnerability scans
NIST patch management recommendations can help organizations effectively track assets requiring patch updates and simplify overall patch management.
NIST patch management guidelines recommend that organizations patch inventoried assets based on technical or business characteristics.
Examples of computing asset characteristics that organizations can track include:
- Platforms used to host assets (e.g., OT, IoT, mobile, cloud)
- Administrators responsible for assets (e.g., internal IT team, third-party vendor, manufacturer)
- Network connectivity of assets (i.e., protocols, duration, bandwidth)
- Existing security controls to protect assets
- Primary asset users and allocated privileges
Examples of business characteristics for asset inventorying include:
- Role of assets in your organization
- Security policies on asset vulnerability remediation (based on compliance frameworks or legal stipulations)
- Contract-based restrictions on patching (e.g., manufacturer contracts)
- Mission-specific restrictions for patching (e.g., the timing of patch deployment)
Patch management policy NIST guidelines will help prioritize assets that require patching and streamline overall patch management.
Timely patch deployment minimizes the window of opportunity for threat actors to exploit security gaps. A NIST patch management policy can help your organization identify effective methods to deploy patches, minimizing any disruptions to business operations.
Minimizing Patch-Related Disruptions
Per NIST patch management policy guidelines, organizations should reduce the number of vulnerabilities introduced into IT environments. Minimizing the exploitable gaps ultimately reduces the amount of patching required.
Specific strategies for reducing security gaps and vulnerabilities include:
- Hardening software for critical system components by deactivating or uninstalling features used less frequently
- Obtaining software that is less likely to have vulnerabilities
- Contracting software development through partners less likely to introduce vulnerabilities
- Choosing managed services over in-house efforts when possible
- Using platforms likely to have the least vulnerability risks
Organizations should also deploy patches using processes less likely to disrupt business operations, some of which include:
- Running applications on platforms where patching is essential to the deployed technology
- Leveraging toolchains that develop applications with components that are updated and tested before release
NIST patch management guidelines on minimizing patch-related disruptions can help organizations mitigate vulnerabilities from poor patch deployment.
Defining Patching Metrics
Patching metrics can help organizations track the progress and effectiveness of patch management, ultimately guiding future patch deployment decision-making.
Based on NIST patch management policy recommendations, organizations should leverage low-level metrics collected from various data sources, which include:
- Software and asset inventories
- Technical and business characteristics
- Common Vulnerability Scoring System (CVSS) scores
- Operational threat intelligence about exploitable vulnerabilities
- Metrics collected from vulnerability management tools
Low-level metrics help define high-level metrics, which ultimately inform patch management decision-making.
High-Level Patch Management Metrics
NIST patch management recommendations suggest organizations develop actionable high-level metrics for vulnerability mitigation, based on:
- The relative importance of assets (e.g., low, moderate, or high)
- Vulnerability risk (low, medium, high, or critical)
High-level actionable metrics help guide the prioritization of patching and vulnerability mitigation. Since the data from low-level patching metrics drive high-level metrics, the accuracy of the low-level metrics is critical.
Patch Management Metric Accuracy
Specific NIST patch management considerations to improve data collection and the accuracy of metrics include:
- Appropriate data collection timepoints to accurately measure vulnerabilities, especially for low-level metrics
- Use of accurate methods to collect low-level metrics (e.g., authenticated vs. unauthenticated vulnerability scans) to:
- Minimize underreporting of vulnerabilities
- Prevent skewing of higher-level metrics
Well-defined patching metrics can help your organization increase the effectiveness of patch deployment.
Asset Risk Management
A NIST patch management policy also recommends organizations define preparedness to handle software vulnerability and risk response scenarios.
Specific scenarios include:
- Routine patching – Most patching efforts are considered routine (i.e., regular updates) and released as scheduled. Routine patching sometimes presents vulnerability risks due to:
- The potential to interrupt operations (e.g., reboots)
- A limited sense of urgency, where personnel will postpone or neglect patch deployment
- Emergency patching – Deployed during crises, emergency patches are critical to incident response protocols. Efficient emergency patching minimizes the exploitation of vulnerable devices or systems.
- Emergency workaround – In crises where emergency patching is unavailable, emergency workarounds help temporarily mitigate vulnerability exploitation. However, you should note that:
- Workarounds are variable based on specific patching scenarios.
- Rollbacks may be required after workaround deployment.
- Routine patches sometimes have issues, requiring workarounds.
- “Unpatchable” assets – Systems that are not easily patchable may need to be isolated to mitigate exposure risks, especially where timely routine patching is unavailable. Examples of cases where assets are not easily patchable include:
- Vendors not providing support updates for assets (e.g., “end-of-life”)
- Open-source tools with less active support communities
- Need for uninterrupted use of assets for mission-critical functions
Following NIST patch management recommendations for managing risk to patchable assets will help increase your security preparedness to respond to software vulnerabilities.
Strengthen Your Patch Management Processes
Unpatched systems present opportunities for hackers to exploit security gaps and vulnerabilities, risking your overall cybersecurity. Patch management helps protect your organization’s assets, especially when aligned with a NIST patch management policy.
Working with an experienced MSSP can help your organization refine patch management processes in accordance with NIST patch management guidance. A patch management service will also help your organization remain aware of new releases to reclaim team bandwidth.
Contact RSI Security today to learn about our patch management support services!