In the current IT and networking environments, IT experts manage an increasing volume of devices and software due to the shift to hybrid and remote work environments.
Patch management for all network devices is often cumbersome, with thousands of endpoints to secure to avoid potential cyberattacks. Patch management automation is critical for businesses to keep their systems up to date and safeguard their data.
In this article, we will review patch management software, how to go about your unique patch management plan, choose a suitable patch manager, remote monitoring and management and more.
Let's dive in.
What is an automated patch management solution?
Software developers provide patches to fix issues or bugs or update the corresponding software. Automated patch management refers to applying said patches automatically. This removes the risk of human error and minimizes user interaction with the system.
Instead of your IT team spending tens or hundreds of hours distributing patches manually, an automated patch manager will do the job for them more quickly, securely and efficiently.
Benefits of automated patch management solutions
Automated patch management software provides an enhanced patching process, covers as many operating systems as needed, and includes detailed reporting. Automating your company's patching processes can save you time, resources, and money while minimizing data security risks.
Below are the most significant benefits of dedicated patch management tools.
Minimize endpoint security risks
Modern malware can spread quickly throughout a network after infecting even a single device. Organizations must keep all endpoints on a network secure. As most companies have thousands of endpoints connecting to the infrastructure remotely, securing those endpoints is easier said than done ... manually.
Cloud-based patch management software can ensure that any server (or client) accessing the company network remotely is protected at all times. With a robust solution, SysAdmins can track remote servers and clients for missing patches and patch them routinely.
Moreover, you can patch primary systems uniformly in an instant. Your patch manager can simultaneously schedule patch deployments for multiple systems and safeguard them from critical vulnerabilities.
Raise IT team effectiveness
Manual patch management can be highly time-consuming for IT teams. Your in-house experts should create a patch status dashboard, keep an eye on unsecured endpoints, and manually deploy patches to each endpoint.
As manual patch deployment isn't typically scheduled to the last second, that would mean pulling your IT team away from business-critical projects, which can, in turn, result in a frustrated team and suboptimal results.
Automated patch management tools remove most manual steps from the patching process. They will automatically perform regular system checks and download and deploy patches across your entire infrastructure.
A robust patch management solution can reduce time spent on patching by 90%, turning a tiring task into a routine activity. Moreover, once automated patching takes over, your IT teams will be free to focus on higher-priority projects.
Eliminate human error
Company IT infrastructure is a complex being. It comprises day-to-day processes, application portfolios, system configurations, and various enterprise management policies and procedures. Even a manual patching wizard may get confused and leave software vulnerabilities open to an attack.
The most common manual patching errors are:
- Overlooking a failed update notification from a patched system
- Skipping patching a system
- Deploying the wrong version of software patches
Automated patch deployment denies all of the above. A robust patch management service will let you schedule which systems to update, which patches to apply, and when to patch all endpoints on a system.
Ease compliance reporting
As data-handling regulations become stricter, patch compliance is essential for any organization. Failure to meet compliance can result in fines and legal ramifications; meeting all compliance requirements manually is incredibly difficult.
Automated patch management software helps companies be compliant and keep accurate, real-time records of compliance data without requiring multiple third-party applications to compile said data.
With a dedicated patch management solution, you will receive automatic patch management reports and benefit from granular visibility into all patched and unpatched software on the network.
Increase visibility and awareness
As your network grows, you will add new devices and apps regularly. Depending on the growth rate, situational awareness can become an issue. Your IT teams would need to process and store all relevant data across the entire network. This may lead to missing patches, untracked devices, and a swarm of unaccounted shadow IT applications roaming around your network.
Automated patch management software can comprise all new data into a system center configuration manager. It will keep track of all new devices and installed software patches, check for updates, and group patches based on security-level requirements.
Moreover, a dedicated patch management tool will provide full inventory visibility and in-depth reports. Your security teams can easily access said reports and calculate the risks associated with a potential attack.
Patch management solutions cons
Although incredibly beneficial, patch management software can pose some issues.
If the teams responsible for patch management fail to configure that solution correctly, it may lead to failed patches and system errors due to update misconfiguration.
Moreover, an improperly configured solution may initiate updates during business hours or apply untested patches that halt business processes, leading to unnecessary downtime. This is why it's best to use a comprehensive patch management tool or a hybrid patching approach.
Let's discuss the latter below.
Automated vs. manual patching
Although the automated patching process is convenient, manual patches can be the way to go in specific scenarios. The right strategy for your business depends on data complexity, system environment, on-site specialists, and more.
For example, automated patches are ideal for the following:
- Operating system updates that have undergone thorough testing and validation by software vendors
- Critical fixes to system flaws
- Updates that can be reversed if they have a negative impact on the network
On the other hand, manual updates can be beneficial for the following:
- System and server updates, critical to corporate operations
- Firmware and network switches updates (if your IT team feels that the above updates aren't reliable if deployed automatically)
The idea behind a hybrid approach is to automate risk-free updates via a patch manager. At the same time, you manually manage patches that could pose a risk to your network if automated.
An automated patch management solution typically works best for standardized desktop systems, single-platform server farms, and servers with similar configurations.
The best patch management tools can help companies manage more complex networks - multiplatform environments, older PCs, nonstandard desktop systems, unusually set-up computers, and more. Nonetheless, some operating systems and apps may not be supported by automated patching services - in such cases, you'd need to go for manual patch installation.
Importance of software patches
Companies patch operating systems and critical applications on PCs, tablets, and mobile devices to keep them running smoothly. Moreover, patching an operating system doesn't only improve functionality - it also lowers cybersecurity risks to the entire system.
While patch management processes evolve, so do the threats to company networks. Hacking attacks, data breaches, ransomware, and identity theft are all a constant in today's cyber landscape. Sensible software deployment is one step (of many) to add layers of protection to your essential data and prevent downtime.
Below are the most significant reasons to treat software updates accordingly.
Security flaws patching
The top reason to update software is security. If an operating system or an app is missing patches, it can lead to software vulnerabilities. Weak endpoints, in turn, are welcoming doors for cyberattackers.
Cybercriminals can exploit a vulnerability to infect your system with malware. Malware can encrypt files and programs, steal data, and pave the way for ransomware. Security patches ensure all endpoints are protected and ready to counter an attack.
People operating on a shared network should implement an even more diligent security patching process — a single infected device can spread pesky malware across the entire network.
Vulnerability management is critical for individuals and businesses. If threat actors infiltrate your system, they typically look for personal data (payment details, passwords, usernames, etc.) and business-critical information to monetize their efforts.
They can sell sensitive data on the dark web or hold it for ransom until you meet their demands. Sensible patch management reduces the risk of a successful attack on your system by safeguarding all potential entry points for attackers.
Installing updates is also about functionality. Application patches add new functionalities to a program while removing old, unnecessary ones. As technology is an ever-evolving field, software patches ensure the latest key features and improvements for your system.
Patches also focus on existing bugs in programs. Developers strive to fix performance issues and make the required enhancements for a program to run unhindered.
The same goes for electronic devices. As they need regular maintenance and continuous updates, having the latest patches can prevent devices and software from crashing and causing downtime.
Software developers issue updates to ensure their programs are compatible with modern technology. Without patch support, older software may quickly become obsolete in the latest-tech environment.
Why is automated patch management so important?
The rise of hybrid and BYOD environments presents cyberattackers with a larger attack surface. Each device added to your network is a potential entry point for malicious actors, and unless you implement stellar cybersecurity hygiene, your company can become an easy target.
According to an Accenture study, 43% of attacks target small to medium-sized businesses, with only 14% of those having adequate cybersecurity measures to counter a threat.
The ongoing rise in cyberattacks requires IT specialists to manage every device and app on the company network. However, the patch management process for hundreds (or even thousands) of endpoints is cumbersome, especially without automation.
On the other hand, robust patch management software can take up a ton of the workload. Smoother patch deployment supports real-time defense against threats, eases vulnerability management and remote monitoring, and can help with other automated maintenance tasks.
Let's explore the primary benefits of an automated patch manager for SMBs and larger companies.
Extensive patch volume coverage
Every year, software developers issue thousands of common vulnerability and exposure (CVE) reports. In-house IT must react quickly to every report and deploy patches as soon as they're available.
The sheer volume of patches can challenge every IT team, making patch management software a must for modern, complex environments. In addition to scheduled patching, a patch manager can detect missing patches, help with remote management, and cut down on security costs.
Device, operating systems, and app updates across the whole network
IT teams must patch security vulnerabilities for every endpoint on the network. However, they also must keep operating systems, software, and devices up to date and correctly configured to ensure top-tier performance.
A patch manager enables remote monitoring and management, which, in turn, can cut down update timers and increase efficiency.
Easier IT inventory management
Remote and hybrid environments make IT asset management a challenge for IT teams.
A sensible patch management system eases IT inventory management, with a clear view of all endpoints, patch management tasks, and third-party application patching required.
Key features of patch management software
In addition to the most primary, a robust patch management platform offers specific features.
- Automated patch management
You can automate patch management processes — scanning endpoints for missing patches, synchronizing vulnerability management details, and downloading and deploying patches from vendor sites while receiving regular reports.
- Multiplatform patch manager (Windows, macOS, and Linux)
A management platform to coordinate and automate the patch process for Windows, macOS, and Linux operating systems. This way, you will secure your entire infrastructure and ease compatibility.
- Dedicated Windows systems patching
A reliable patch manager automates cumulative Windows patches across all Windows OS versions to quickly fix vulnerabilities and mitigate cybersecurity risks.
This way, you won't need to assign an additional IT specialist to handle Windows server update services. (Microsoft WSUS patch management)
- Third-party applications patching
Manages and deploys patches to hundreds of third-party applications.
- On-site or remote office patch management
Manages and deploys patches to devices in multiple office locations or to remote-work users.
- Centralized update process
The best patch management software lets you patch Windows and handle third-party patch management from one centralized console.
- Software deployment policies
Lets you create custom patching policies to specify deployment features for your OS and third-party applications.
- Pre-built, tested, ready-to-deploy patches
Another crucial patch management feature — the software can use pre-built, tested, and ready-to-be-deployed packages for third-party applications. (Non-Windows)
- Uninstall patch options
Lets you easily uninstall a patch if it interferes with your network performance.
- Patch notifications
Lets you customize the notification settings to keep track of all ongoing patching processes.
- No-downtime features
Lets you schedule patch deployments to off-work hours to minimize downtime.
- Patching reports
Presents comprehensive reports, data filtering, and report sharing in various formats.
- Interactive patch management module
Presents a user-friendly patch management dashboard, accessible from various locations anytime.
What to look for in an automated patch management tool?
Selecting patch management tools for your business (or home network) requires extensive research. After all, you'd most likely benefit from a solution best suited to your company's unique needs.
We went over the key features in the last section. Now, let's explore what problems we can tackle using the best patch management software.
Manual patch deployment is virtually impossible for bigger businesses and managed service providers (MSPs). IT teams should handle various complexities concerning patches - patch types, operating systems, deployment without interrupting business processes, device lists to patch, and which patches to deny to optimize network performance.
A comprehensive patching tool can help with all of the above and also work as an asset management solution.
- Patch approval
Patch approval can mean different processes for different companies. Typically, patch approval processes comprise a dedicated period for patch testing, a delay between patch availability and deployment, and a device list utilized for mass deployment.
While the above are critical for an organization, some patches may raise conflicts with non-compatible business devices. (for example, when said devices are not designed to work with common or OS-level applications)
Such cases require all specific devices to be managed adequately.
Some patches will always fail. Patch remediation is inevitable.
Businesses and managed service providers must have a comprehensive plan to enforce via a patching solution. Otherwise, responding to failed patches can quickly turn from a basic checkup into a network-wide issue.
Patch reports are more than lists of missing patches. Management reporting typically includes compliance requirements, security trends, performance data, and accountability risks during manual remediations.
Patch management best practices
Automation is essential to deal with massive patch volumes. However, a well-designed patch management plan includes more than just automation.
Let's go over the building blocks of sensible patching below.
- Patch management policies
A patch management policy establishes procedures, routines, and timeframes for an efficient patching process. Here are three primary patching policies to include in your plan:
Knowing what, when, and under what specific conditions you will implement patches is imperative.
Patches deployed during off-work hours (breaks, weekends, and at night) can minimize downtime. You can deploy routine patches regularly, but it's also best to have a plan for emergencies.
Knowing if patches are deployed successfully during off-hours should any system failures occur is essential.
- Inventory and consolidation
Inventorization is crucial for a reliable patching process. Your company needs a complete list of all hardware and software dependent on patches. Knowing which devices and apps you must protect shows which patches are integral to your company systems.
Your inventory list should include software, operating systems, devices, legacy systems, security applications (antivirus, firewalls), program versionsand configurations.
- Calculating and assigning risk levels
Inventorization will enable asset categorization to determine the most critical patches to deploy. Assigning risk levels to each device / software category defines which systems demand immediate patching and which can be put on hold.
As a general security rule, it's best to patch the most critical systems first and then proceed to low-level concerns.
- Vendor patch monitoring
Vendor patch announcements are critical. Security patches are best utilized via ASAP deployment, so you should monitor issue dates (either manually or via a dedicated solution).
For example, you can use the Avast Business Patch Management tool to update devices on a Windows server on "Patch Tuesday" (the second Tuesday of each month brings important patches for Windows 10, 11, 7, MS Office, and other Microsoft software).
However, your company likely uses applications from different vendors. It's most efficient to rely on comprehensive patch management software to track all vendor patch announcements and enable notifications to your patch admins.
- Patch automation
We've covered patch management extensively throughout the article. Here, it's sufficient to reiterate that automation is the most efficient way to keep up with current patches.
- Patch exceptions anticipation
The most exposed devices or apps are the most crucial to update quickly. However, some patches won't be available for immediate deployment. Some apps would require alterations to comply with a specific patch. In such cases, securing the unpatched app or server against internet exposure is best to minimize the risk.
You can also consider limiting user access until you deploy all essential patches.
- Patch testing
Bad patches can affect your system and bring up new security vulnerabilities. Testing all patches before deployment ensures patches are correctly configured and won't interfere with system processes.
It's standard procedure to initiate production environment backups before making significant system changes. It's best to run full system backups to include all data (and customizations) made to operational software.
If an update deployment proves unsuccessful, you can restore all business-critical data to a safe state from the backup.
- ASAP patching
Once you've tested the patches and backed up your system, you can apply patches following the guidelines set during the inventorization and risk assessment steps.
Here, it's best to prioritize operating system patches, as system vulnerabilities can become a disaster for your business-critical data if left unattended.
- Patch reporting
Patch reports serve to categorize and document which patches have been deployed. It's advised to communicate system changes to all responsible staff and stakeholders.
Keeping accurate records will reduce patch confusion, ease compliance, and promote a more efficient work process.
Acronis Advanced Automation: The best automated patch management solution
The Acronis Advanced Management solution delivers efficient endpoint management services for businesses and MSPs.
You can benefit from full patch automation and integration across the Acronis Cyber Protect Cloud to build a proactive, responsive infrastructure to prevent most issues from occurring.
Companies can prevent downtime via vulnerability assessment and automated patching across 300+ applications.
You can also automate routine tasks via customized scripts, troubleshoot problematic patches in real-time via remote desktop support, and monitor automatically via machine intelligence features — anomaly detection based on profiling, predictive health monitoring, automatic response actions and customizable alerts.
You can manage all automated processes via a centralized console. The intuitive interface is easy to pilot, responsive, and allows quick remote access to efficiently manage workloads, troubleshoot issues and proactively patch vulnerabilities.
With Acronis Advanced Management, you can save time, effort, and workforce, while securing all endpoints against cyberattacks without overloading your network's performance.
Acronis is a Swiss company, founded in Singapore. Celebrating two decades of innovation, Acronis has more than 2,000 employees in 45 locations. Acronis Cyber Protect solution is available in 26 languages in over 150 countries and is used by 20,000 service providers to protect over 750,000 businesses.