Hackers have many sophisticated attack methods, but one of the most effective is the exploitation of outdated software. Software patches are supposed to prevent this from occurring. In theory, a new patch is released whenever a new vulnerability is discovered. But many organizations fail to install them fast enough and this leaves them open to attack.
One solution to outdated software is patch management. So how does it work, and why is it so important?
What Are Software Patches?
Software patches are small modifications to existing software products. They are typically released for the purposes of fixing bugs and security issues.
When software is first released, there are usually problems that the developers haven’t thought of. These problems are typically only discovered after software is heavily used and/or studied by hackers.
Patches are responsible for fixing these problems. They make software easier to use and more secure.
Why Aren’t Patches Always Installed?
Software patches are supposed to be installed immediately after they are released. But there are many reasons why this doesn’t happen.
- Most organizations use a wide range of different software products. It’s not always easy to keep track what’s been updated, what needs updating, and which should take priority.
- Patches are not released according to a set schedule, so new patches are often missed.
- Some organizations are reluctant to make changes to any software that they depend on. Outdated software is therefore often used on purpose.
- Some patches require that software be updated to a new version. This can potentially cause compatibility issues.
What Is Patch Management?
Patch management is the process of distributing and installing software patches. It involves an organized approach to a problem that is otherwise handled without very much attention.
Patch management can be automated and there are many software packages designed to help. But it is typically performed manually according to various best practices.
Why Is Patch Management Important?
Patch management is important because outdated software essentially puts a target on an organization.
Hackers search for organizations using outdated software and then attack accordingly. This typically occurs in this sequence:
- A hacker finds a vulnerability in a popular software product. A vulnerability is a weakness that is potentially useful to a hacker.
- The hacker creates an exploit. An exploit is a tool that uses the vulnerability to do something malicious such as access a secure network. Exploits are often released as software products but may also be a set of written instructions.
- The hacker publishes the exploit for other hackers to use. Hackers all around the world are now aware of the vulnerability and have a tool to exploit it.
- A patch is released that removes the vulnerability and prevents the exploit from working. Most organizations install the patch.
- Hackers start searching for any organization that uses the software product but hasn’t installed the patch.
What happens next depends on the type of vulnerability that’s being exploited; some allow the theft of data or allow hackers to otherwise control the software product.
Other exploits allow hackers to gain remote access to entire networks. This opens the door to ransomware.
How to Implement Patch Management
If you want to prevent outdated software being used in your business, it’s important to create a specific plan for dealing with patches as they are released. Here are eight best practices for doing so.
Take an Inventory
Take a detailed inventory of all software and hardware used in your business. This should include any software applications, operating systems, and hardware which may require driver updates. Pay particular attention to security software.
Assign Priorities to All Components
Every component should be categorized according to the potential risk of an update being missed. All components should eventually be patched, but items which are most likely to be attacked should be your highest priority.
If your initial inventory shows that patches are already overdue, you need to to start with those.
Read All Patch Announcements
Make sure that somebody in your business is receiving patch announcements as they are released. You might set up a dedicated email address or social media account for this purpose. All patches are announced, but many software users don’t read the announcements.
Automate Patching Where Possible
If a software product offers automatic updates, turn this feature on where possible. Some patches obviously need to be tested before they are installed. But many products can be set to update automatically without anything potentially breaking.
Consolidate Software Products
Review all software products and consolidate where possible. Avoid using different versions of the same software. Don’t use multiple software products that perform the same task.
The fewer products in use, the easier it is to keep them updated.
Test Patches Before Installing
Installing patches without testing can be just as harmful as using outdated software. If a software product has the potential to cause downtime, patching should be performed on a single computer first for testing purposes.
Protect Outdated Software
Sometimes patches cannot be installed immediately. For example, the new version of a software product may not be compatible with the underlying OS. When this happens, the software or server in question should be kept offline until the patch is installed. You may also want to limit user access.
Perform Backups Before Patching
Before an important patch is installed, a system-wide backup should be implemented. This ensures that if a patch causes a compatibility issue, the entire system can simply be rolled back. It’s worth noting that regular system-wide backups should be performed regardless.
Patch Management Is Important for Any Business
Patch management is an important part of keeping any network secure. Outdated software is one of the easiest security issues to avoid and yet many businesses fall victim to it every year.
Establishing a patch management plan for the first time can require a bit of time and effort. But once established, it actually makes software patches easier to keep track of. In doing so, it prevents any patches being overlooked and keeps your business safe from a variety of different hacks.
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