With complex systems and the pressure of keeping everything
up to date, patch management consistently presents a challenge for IT-Ops and
infrastructure teams, even those that have a traditional patching solution in
place. For some systems, it can take months to install critical patches,
leaving open vulnerabilities that put organizations at risk.
So, why is it so difficult and why does it take so long
given the high risk to the organization? IT teams have to consider a number of
factors, including different versions of software, the impact of related
systems with dependencies, approvals and notifications, and post-patching
activities such as testing and verification to ensure the patch didn’t break
anything — all of which add to the challenges of patch management.
Some organizations are beginning to look to automation to
solve their patching woes. In fact, IT professionals rank SecOps among their
top 10 critical automation priorities. By automating the entire patching
process from end-to-end, they can reduce the risk of downtime, ensure change
compliance, enforce policy and controls, and provide a full audit trail. Here
are a few of the challenges with patch management today that automation can
help to address.
The Risks of Skipping Patching
Patching continues to be a thorn in the side of many
organizations and while it may be tempting to skip the pain of patching
altogether, organizations that opt-out of patching leave themselves and their
customers vulnerable to a preventable security breach. In fact, Gartner
predicts that 99% of the vulnerabilities exploited by the end of 2020 will be
ones already known by security and IT professionals at the time of the
Patch management issues are a major security risk, and in
the age of data privacy laws like GDPR and the proposed California Consumer
Privacy Act (CCPA), leaving an organization vulnerable to a cyberattack can
lead to business, consumer and regulatory backlash. Failure to patch regularly
makes it difficult for organizations to protect themselves from cyberattacks,
but oftentimes, when an IT-Ops team deploys patches, there is a significant
risk of service disruptions and patch installation failures since most patching
tools are only tasked with deploying the patch itself with no regard for the
With automation, organizations can automatically investigate
which patches need to be deployed on which systems and initiate a complete
patch management process, including critical checks pre- and post-patching to
ensure success. Patching multiple vulnerabilities at one time in a controlled
manner eliminates the risk of failure while exponentially speeding up the
patching process, saving IT-Ops teams time and reducing frustration.
Time Required to Patch
Patch management cycles are never-ending. For some systems,
it can take months to install critical patches, and some never get installed.
IT-Ops teams often find themselves in a catch-22 situation. If they patch,
things can break, or they might face pressure from executives around the
maintenance window. If they don’t patch, they could leave the company
vulnerable to a security breach. Either way, the process is risky and time
Patch management requires teams to make a series of
decisions, including identifying what patches are needed, investigating how
those patches will impact related or dependent applications, approving and
deploying a patch, and conducting followup tests. Running through this process
manually can cause severe delays as teams try to patch thousands of vulnerable
servers, with each one requiring manual logins on multiple systems.
Automation, however, can help organizations keep pace with
the constant onslaught of vulnerabilities. By automating the decision-making
process, including cross-checking which patches have been completed
successfully, IT-Ops teams eliminate the possibility of human error and need
for manual post-patching verification. This enables IT teams to patch
confidently and quickly by allowing automated systems to handle and orchestrate
the tedious patch management process, freeing IT leaders to focus their energy
on making critical business decisions for the organizations.
Testing and Verifying Patches on Sensitive Systems
Some of the most important components of patch management
include post-patch activities such as testing and verification of patches. Even
after completing a full patch, an already overtaxed IT-Ops team could face the
risk of patch installation failures, service disruptions, or the introduction
of new problems. The verification process is made worse by many organizations’
lack of comprehensive system testing tools.
Service disruptions result in poorly orchestrated OS and
software patches that can introduce instability into production environments
and have ripple effects on other related systems. Patches may be ignored,
skipped or fail due to asset database errors, misconfigurations or
dependencies, resulting in patch installation failures and security risks.
Automation enables a more reliable and resilient process. By
automatically verifying system health and automatically remediating issues
discovered during installation and testing, organizations can alleviate much of
the post-patching pressure on IT-Ops teams. Automated patch management can also
improve governance with automatic updates to asset inventory and configuration
databases that result in a robust audit trail of automated actions.
Where to Begin with Automation
For cybersecurity teams just getting started with
automation, prevention efforts like automated patch management can have an
immediate impact on the organization. Preventative measures like patching are
well served by automation, delivering significant returns in time savings and
improved security posture. It’s possible to automate every aspect of the patch
management process — from vulnerability discovery to patch deployment to
post-patching verification and health checks — and this ultimately allows
businesses to shrink vulnerability windows for reduced risk and compliance
while achieving maximum uptime and service delivery.
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