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 incident.

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 downstream impact.

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 consuming.

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.