If you’re in any software sector, you’re dealing with bugs. But you need patch management when each patch is a piece of software, another place for bugs to hide.
Whether you’re maintaining an e-commerce site or a SalesForce CRM integration, you have businesses relying on your software to serve their customers. You need to keep as close to 100% reliability as possible, and patch management is the way to stay there.
With the cost of fixing those bugs being 10x higher after release than in testing, it’s crucial to use patch management to catch them early. This article will cover patch management and how you can set up a successful patch management process for your company.
What is patch management?
Software gets more complex every year; with the rise of AI, grasping the data ingestion meaning leads to more of the action happening in “black boxes” we can’t examine. As web3 – the blockchain-based internet – becomes more important, money is moving around “unstoppable” code like smart contracts. All this software is inherently flawed, and hackers can exploit those flaws.
Patches are software updates sent out from the developer to users. Where an “update” might add anything from a new setting to a suite of new features, a “patch” is an update focused on fixing glitches, and security issues.
Why don’t all companies do this?
Companies might fail to manage patches because of a lack of resources. That could be a lack of qualified IT staff who aren’t already putting out fires all day.
They might resort to only patching the most critical issues and, even then, not doing formal change-management work. And if that patch causes problems in testing, it might get delayed until the IT staff have time to figure it out.
In an older organization, especially in government, there might be a legacy system that can’t be updated. In this case, a proper fix would require replacing huge chunks of infrastructure, so the team might just try to isolate the old system as much as possible from potential threats.
It’s easy for companies to keep everyone on the latest version of Microsoft Word, and maybe they don’t even need actual patch management processes. But if they included third-party plugins in their asset inventory, they’d find their situation is very complicated, and requires automated patch management tools.
Benefits of patch management
The benefit of patch management is that your software is more secure. By keeping your software up to date, you keep up in the arms race of a changing cybersecurity landscape. If hackers manage to compromise your software at all, it won’t be because of an old, and well-known bug in one of your plugins. Patches to protect yourself and your customer could be anything from implementing 2FA authentication to using machine learning in fraud detection.
A good patch management system allows you to combat bugs while staying productive. In a constantly-changing supply chain, the top inventory management software will be the one that gives businesses a steady stream of new features, and upgrades. But you can’t afford to spend much time on bug-squashing in any industry when you have an ambitious product roadmap.
If you rely on third-party plugins to run your business smoothly, patch management software can highlight old plugins or dependencies that aren’t updated. You can work in total confidence that you don’t have to check on many plugins, and all their dependencies every quarter.
The risks of not doing patch management
There are many risks of not doing patch management properly. If you’re running anything to do with enterprise hybrid cloud, your whole brand relies on the assurance that you can keep businesses’ data secure.
There are also plenty of direct financial consequences. Not only will a cybersecurity breach lose your business, but you might be fined by one or several regional authorities for failing to protect user data. In light of that, the upfront cost required of a patch management system is more than worth the investment.
A strategy for patch management
Patch management can seem daunting, but approaching it with a good strategy will ensure everything goes right the first time.
Patch management for cybersecurity is about managing risk. Since no software is bug-free, since you can never be 100% safe, it’s about prioritizing what risks you want to tolerate.
In an ideal world, you’d patch every possible issue as soon as possible. But with limited time and resources, much of which will be spent on testing, you have to have a protocol for giving issues different threat levels.
You can assign issues into different categories with varying timelines for patching. Critical issues could be patched within 24-72 hours, while you could give less urgent issues a 7/14/30-day timeline for patching. It depends on what your company does and how the specific issue would affect your customers, and your brand if exploited.
Since issues might be tricky to fix correctly – maybe the problem is with a third-party plugin – you should go into each patch with a backup plan. If you’re using an open-source plugin and your patch isn’t accepted by the deadline, you should have a plan to switch to another provider or issue a temporary fix that just lowers the risk.
The threat-level protocol and processes for testing and applying patches should be documented, and specified in one place. This will enable the whole team to work quickly and independently, which is critical in cybersecurity.
Part of good patch management is change management. So all stakeholders impacted by patches are informed about what’s happening before it happens.
Internal teams don’t have patches that break things unexpectedly. If they can read patch notes ahead of time, they can raise issues around stability or compatibility with the tools they need to work.
Problems like this can be mitigated with a staggered rollout, where different network parts will be patched at other times. If the patch is urgently needed, it can be agreed upon in advance that it can be implemented immediately, and then flagged as needing review by the teams later. A patch management plan should cover the protocol for that, and what happens next.
Once you’ve satisfied all the requirements of your governance and change management processes, including testing, you’re ready to roll out your patch.
Manually rolling out a patch is acceptable for small teams, but you need automatic updates at scale. Not only does this save IT teams time, but it also frees them up to address any issues that come up while the patch is rolling out across systems.
Automated patch management doesn’t just speed the process up; it also collects detailed analytics on how the patch spreads throughout the system.
This means the team can quickly spot if some hardware, like a server, isn’t responding to the update. It could be an issue with the specific machine or point to a more widespread issue affecting other machines. It also enables the team to track KPIs like the % of installations that worked perfectly or the “mean time to remediate” (MTTR), tracking the time from spotting an issue to fixing it.
Best practices for patch management
A few best practices will ensure everything runs smoothly.
As logistics companies can only grow with automated product matching to maintain inventories, patch management at scale can only happen with automation. By reducing the manual sysadmin work your team has to do, you can focus on quality code, and catching security issues.
Automating your patch management system is a massive gain if you work on a cloud platform like SageMaker with servers in different locations. Automation tools can gather the information you need on those servers as patches go out, allowing you to quickly diagnose any problems with individual computers.
Analyze the problems
It’s crucial to analyze the impact of your patches to figure out what issues to tackle first.
If your customers rely on your software for their affiliate marketing tracking methods, a lot of very granular data is being processed through many moving parts. Many services are integrated, and data must be carefully managed to make sense.
If your patches aren’t applied correctly, you could see issues with that data. And it doesn’t stop there. If your system is spread around different states or countries, you could find that different servers need to be patched sooner than others.
Additionally, good patch management ensures your software development work is aligned with business goals. While there might be plenty of issues your perfectionist coders are annoyed by, you have to focus their time on the solutions that will grow the business in the short term. Making a plan for what needs to be patched, and when will help with this.
When cybercrime is on the rise, it’s important to patch your software regularly. Many apps publish updates monthly, getting all low-severity patches out at once. Keeping to a schedule ensures that patches are being worked on regularly.
While sticking to a schedule is a good idea, you must test patches thoroughly before they go out. If more lines of code mean more bugs, then every patch has the potential to cause a new issue. Perhaps your patch for a low-severity issue could introduce a critical-severity problem that poses a risk to your customers.
Testing patches at scale can only happen automatically, with a suite of automated unit-test to make sure your software’s critical functions are all working as expected. You should test your software on all the hardware your customers are running to prevent new bugs.
Secure it with a Code Signing Certificate
Security should always be a very important factor when allowing your customers to download patches. You want to make sure they get the patch you release without any interference from malicious actors. If someone was able to perform a man-in-the-middle attack on your patching solution, which caused your customers to download a milhouse patch instead of yours, it could cause havoc for you customers and your business.
It is a good idea to sign your patches with a digital certificate. So when the patch is downloaded, the signature can be verified before it is applied, to make sure it was indeed you that released it. This can be done with a code signing certificate which is a small cost for the benefits it provides. We use ourselves and highly recommend the team over at SSLTrust which provides Code Signing Certificates at some great prices, along with a very helpful team. You can find their Code Signing Certificates here. It can be a good idea to buy a 2-3 year one if you’re active in your development and patches, so you can keep pushing them out without interruption.
Make recovery plans
A lot can go wrong in software development, which is why version control is so important. Similarly, your patch management process should have a recovery plan if something goes wrong.
For a start, you should be backing up your servers regularly. This will protect you in the event of a power failure or a ransomware cyberattack. In those cases, you can revert the whole server to its previous state, and undo what’s happened. Like version control on GitHub, you can revert the condition of your test or production servers if a patch causes a problem.
The patch management process
The patch management process can – and should – look different for every company’s needs. But in any case, there are a few steps that you’ll see followed everywhere.
1. Asset inventory
You can start building a patch management process by listing all the software you rely on just now. Before you choose the tools you’ll use to manage the whole process; you need to know every piece of software those tools will need to be compatible with.
Keeping a single list of all your software vendors will help you with patches. Still, it’s also necessary for you to keep an eye on those vendors for security vulnerabilities, and issues. Every third-party plugin you use adds that vendor’s entire attack surface to your own.
It will also make it easy to build a test network that mimics your actual “production” network. This enables you to uncover issues with your patches that you would overlook until they were sent out.
2. Choosing tools
Then, choose the patch management tool that suits your software stack best. Now that you have a list of your vendors and can prioritize them based on security risk, you’re in a position to shop around for patch management tools.
This tool can listen for available patches on your software and help you decide which patches are necessary, and which you should hold off on for security reasons. Then at the push of a button, it can apply those patches across your system, and monitor for issues.
3. Setting policy
Once you have the tools, you need to establish policies for patch governance. This is important to ensure that best practices are followed consistently, especially across a big organization with IT teams in different offices.
The policy should specify how to use the tools, what should and should not be automated, appropriate timelines for patching, and protocol for security issues. All of these processes should be documented, and you can create a pre-recorded webinar to explain the stand procedure that must be followed, including some documentation of the outcome of patches. This ensures any mistakes aren’t repeated, and that you can improve your patch management process over time.
The importance of patch management
Patch management is essential for cybersecurity. With hackers innovating all the time, companies need to stay on top of software updates. At scale, the only possible way is with a robust, highly-automated patch management process. It allows even a small IT team to monitor all the software a company uses and push priority changes out quickly and efficiently.
Pohan Lin – Senior Web Marketing and Localizations Manager #1:
Pohan Lin is the Senior Web Marketing and Localizations Manager at Databricks. Databricks ML pipeline is a global AI provider connecting the features of data warehouses and data lakes to create lakehouse architecture. With over 18 years of experience in web marketing, online SaaS business, and ecommerce growth. Pohan is passionate about innovation and is dedicated to communicating the significant impact data has in marketing.Pohan Lin also published articles for domains such as SME-News. Here is Pohan’s LinkedIn.