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In an ideal world, software developers would discover every vulnerability while creating their product and fix it before releasing it. Unfortunately, in the real world, patch management is the next best thing to take care of security vulnerabilities and fix bugs. It also ensures all devices run the latest software versions to access updated functions or new features.
In this article, we will explain patch management and provide an overview of the patch management process for Windows. We will also discuss the benefits of patch management, common challenges faced, and best practices.
What is Windows patch management?
Patch management refers to the notification, identification, deployment, installation, and verification of the operating system and software application to computing endpoints. The most common types of patches are security patches, bug fixes, and feature updates. Windows patch management, or Windows patching, is the process of managing patches for Microsoft Windows.
The patches are inserted into the code of an existing program as a stop-gap arrangement until a new full release of software becomes available. Since October 2003, Microsoft has released patch updates on “Patch Tuesday,” which falls on the second Tuesday of every month. Patch Tuesday lets system administrators prepare for the possible effects patching may have on Windows systems.
Patch management is important because it:
- Enhance security
- Supports bring your own device (BYOD)
- Detects outdated software
- Prevents interruptions in productivity
- Provides timely feature updates
- Drives innovation
Implementing a Windows patch management process
Patch management is a multi-faceted process. With centralized patch management systems, system administrators can streamline the whole process. It checks for missing patches and downloads and distributes them to the related Windows devices as per the organization’s patch management policy. A typical patch management process involves the following primary steps:
1. Create an inventory of devices
Establish a current baseline inventory of all devices running on Windows OS and applications. It is the first step to assess the current state of patching—what patches are installed and which might be missing. Creating an inventory of operating systems and applications can be done manually or automatically using IT asset management software.
2. Categorize each device by priority and critical status
Not all patches are equal. Installing all available patches immediately can result in a disaster. Instead, organizations should spend some time analyzing each vulnerability and then prioritize based on the potential impact on business. For example, would bad actors be able to gain remote access to computers with confidential data? Such Windows devices should receive patches first.
3. Check patches in a test lab setting
Any time a patch is deployed, there are chances it might cause undesirable changes to the system. Best practices suggest patches must be deployed in a test environment before applying in the production environment. Patch testing confirms the patch solves the vulnerability it was designed to address and does not interfere with mission-critical software.
4. Deploy patches
Once patches have been tested, they can be approved for deployment. A formal review procedure must be in place where teams in charge of managing the patching exercise take into account the outcomes of the testing procedure. Patches can be deployed using various methods, including manual installation or automated deployment tools. Windows patching tools can identify which desktops, laptops, or workstations need to be patched. After detecting, the tool deploys all approved patches on devices in the IT environment.
5. Monitor systems post-patching
Keep tabs on the state of the systems before and after patches have been applied. This involves performing post-deployment testing to ensure that systems are functioning correctly and that all vulnerabilities have been addressed. It is important to maintain documentation to record any system changes. This will make it easier to determine if any undesirable changes are caused by a buggy patch.
Common problems with patch management
One of the most common problems with patch management is the lack of visibility into patches deployed and on what devices. Another problem is compatibility. If patches are not compatible with existing software applications, it can lead to system crashes. “Patch fatigue” is another problem where IT staff become tired of the constant stream of updates and ignore them, leaving vulnerable systems exposed to security threats.
Patch management can be resource-intensive, particularly for small and medium-sized businesses with limited IT resources. It can be challenging to keep up with the constant stream of patches and ensure that they are deployed to all affected systems.
Best practices for Windows patch management
To overcome the challenges of patch management, organizations should follow the best practices that ensure an effective patch management process. The following are essential guidelines for the Windows patch management process:
- Use of automation – Automation can be used to perform regular scanning operations and generate reports based on findings. Automated tools can scan for vulnerabilities, identify necessary patches, and deploy patches to all affected systems, saving time and manual effort.
- Use of patch management software – Patch management for Windows software virtually manages all aspects of the patching process, from identifying and installing updates, hotfixes, rollups, and security updates. IT staff can use the software to test the patches before rolling them out to the production environment.
- Prioritize critical patches – Install critical updates in Windows devices and suspend any other rollups or optional updates to ensure computers or workstations have been patched with necessary updates. Optional patches can be deployed as per the regular patching schedule.
- Create patch summary reports – Generating reports is necessary for security auditing purposes as well as tracking compliance. Besides monitoring the patching status on Windows devices, reporting also helps IT staff track vulnerabilities mitigated by patching.
The key objective of patch management is to keep all systems in a network updated against security threats and vulnerabilities that may affect the performance of an organization. A good patch management process seeks to:
- Ensure complete visibility into the patch status
- Automate the process to save time and money
- Significantly increase the security posture of an organization
- Deploy up-to-date patches for users to access new Windows features
With a robust patch management process in place, businesses can reduce the risk of security breaches, system crashes, and downtime, ensuring the continuity of their operations.