Addressing Legacy System Patching Neglect

By Joao Correia
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By Joao Correia

The persistent neglect of patching legacy systems has long affected critical infrastructure as well as nearly all major industries. At a time when the cyberthreat environment is teeming with new malware variants, cybercriminal groups and data-hungry hackers, the consequences of failing to properly and consistently patch vulnerabilities has often become detrimental to organizations and has forced many to face costly security breaches, increased compliance risks, and experience expansive operational inefficiencies. And unfortunately, the avoidance of proper patch management is deeply rooted in a fear of change and the overwhelming complexities that outdated software brings into the process.

The Challenge of Legacy Systems 

A legacy system is any outdated computer system, hardware or software that is still in use but no longer supported by the original vendor. These systems remain in operation for a variety of reasons, the biggest being that the cost of replacing a system of that magnitude is a financial burden and stands as an extensive and time consuming migration task. Banks and other financial institutions are a prime example of this – but by no means the only – where old systems are kept running because those systems are resilient and replacing them would incur considerable operational and financial risk. Additionally, most legacy systems still in operation today are single-handedly supporting core company operations – and the benefits of keeping things as is outweigh the risky and time-consuming process of reconfiguration.

However, it is not a secret to anyone that using outdated systems presents a variety of challenges for cybersecurity professionals. From increased security risks when they fail to no longer receive updates, to roadblocks when trying to pass compliance audits, the use of legacy systems can bring headaches for Sysadmins everywhere.  Because of this, legacy systems become a treasure trove for malicious actors and a prime target for repeated attacks.  Hackers know that outdated technology lacks the necessary threat intelligence tools needed to provide instant detection and prevention capabilities for discovered vulnerabilities. These open-door vulnerabilities then go unpatched for long periods of time and ultimately create the perfect cover for cybercriminals to enter and repeatedly exploit on a large scale.

Prioritizing Critical Systems

Aging technology combined with a failure to patch is a recipe for disaster. so properly addressing the neglect of legacy system patching requires a proactive approach. The first step is to prioritize critical systems. Identify which legacy systems are mission-critical or contain sensitive data and require immediate attention. Next, conduct a thorough risk assessment to understand the potential consequences of a security breach involving your legacy systems. By continuously enforcing vulnerability scanning and threat monitoring IT teams can better understand risk and determine the urgency of patching.

Newer technologies like automated patching software can help legacy sysadmins seamlessly step up their security posture.  For organizations of any size, manually patching vulnerabilities can appear to be a time-consuming and difficult task, especially if the network contains a mix of different software and applications that need ongoing updates. The downtime and maintenance windows required are even longer than normal and trying to manually squeeze in time for patch management can cost an organization significant time and money. .

Enhancing Patch Management Efficiency Through Automation 

Patch management has always been viewed as a disruptive yet necessary process. But striking the right balance between a labor-intensive task or accepting elevated risk has been a conundrum for many security teams and Managed Security Service Providers (MSSPs). Managing patches effectively is crucial in maintaining the security and integrity of systems, but it often requires substantial time and effort to implement patches across a network, making it a challenging task for organizations to navigate.

However, with advancements in automation and more streamlined patch deployment methods, finding a solution that minimizes disruption while reducing risk is becoming increasingly attainable. Live patching streamlines the process for overworked security teams significantly. It alters and intercepts code during runtime, without interrupting or modifying the system’s regular operations. As a result, security teams can confidently ensure that patches are automatically applied to running software systems without disrupting their functionality.

Opting to safeguard legacy systems through a live patching approach is proactive in addressing vulnerabilities as soon as patches become available. This significantly reduces the window of opportunity for attackers, minimizing the risk of successful exploitation. Applying live patches also minimizes the risk of system crashes, network failures and extended downtime that result from ignored vulnerabilities. Not only does this quickly close exploitable gaps, but it also ensures smooth operations and increased customer confidence. Lastly, the process of live patching eliminates the need for scheduled maintenance windows in which a system gets rebooted or serviced. Rolling reboots and restarts can be risky to a business, especially if daily operations are forced to shut down temporarily.

Legacy systems can be your best ally or biggest security risk. But by properly and proactively maintaining a regular patch management routine, outdated technology can continue to operate as a valuable asset.

Joao Correia currently serves as a technical evangelist at TuxCare (www.tuxcare.com). 

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