Five tips for effective patch management

According to data from the FBI and Carnegie Mellon University, more than 90% of all security breaches involve a software vulnerability caused by a missing patch that the IT department already knows about. Even the SQL Slammer worm, which caused IT managers across the globe plenty of headaches, could have been avoided if a patch that was available six months earlier had been applied. Just ask the Bank of America and the U.S. departments of Defense and Energy, among many others, about the pain it caused.

If IT departments know about these risks ahead of time, why do these vulnerabilities exist? It's because the manual process of patching the thousands of workstations and servers in their environments is nearly impossible. Gartner estimates that IT managers now spend up to two hours every day managing patches. And when Microsoft alone issues a new security patch about every fifth day, how can anyone keep up?

Alex Bakman

Although IT managers fully understand the need to patch their systems (servers, workstations and desktops), the tediousness, staff dedication and deployment risks can affect when and how often systems get patched. Having some systems patched while others aren't can lead to an unstable and unsecured IT infrastructure.

Organizations are quickly finding that automating the enterprisewide patch analysis and remediation process is the only way to tackle this issue and provide a standardized patch environment.

Here are five tips to practicing effective patch management:

  1. Automate. These days, IT managers are expected to do more with less. Patch management is time-consuming. With an automated system, analyzing and deploying patches can be as easy as clicking a mouse from a single workstation and can provide a significant time savings.

  2. Plan your approach. Even with automated systems, you should plan out your approach to patch management. Group systems by department, location, etc., to get a better handle on your environment and to more productively manage patches.

  3. Test patches. Don't just push out patches before testing them. All patches should be thoroughly lab-tested. Even though patching is necessary to securing the IT infrastructure, patches can cause problems if not applied properly.

  4. Know the configurations. One configuration difference between your lab server and production server, even at the most minute level, can cause a server to fail. By making sure your production servers' configuration settings are standardized with your test lab server, you should have the confidence to deploy the patch.

  5. Maintain patch levels. With automation, patch management no longer needs to be a reactive process. Be proactive: Schedule scans on a daily or weekly basis to analyze the environment and deploy all critical patches. An environment that's up to date on current patches is more secure and stable.

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