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Automated Patch Management: An Essential Function for MSPs

For MSPs, effective patch management is one of the best ways to keep your clients secure, avoid easily preventable security incidents, and protect your reputation. After all, we live in a world where the CISA’s list of routinely exploited vulnerabilities is full of security issues with publicly available patches.

The tricky part is managing patches efficiently while spinning all the other plates required to run a profitable MSP business. Like many other aspects of IT service management, automation is essential in getting it right.

This article will explore automated patch management in detail, including best practices, benefits, common challenges, and how automated patch management software can streamline patch management for MSPs.

What does patch management mean?

Patch management is the process of identifying, prioritizing, testing, and deploying patches to systems. 

Patches are software or firmware updates that address security issues and bugs in existing products. For example, the updates Microsoft released for Exchange Servers that address ProxyShell are patches.

In some cases, patches also add new functionality to a system. Patch management is one of the activities in the broader vulnerability management domain.

While manual patch management is possible, automation is a key enabler of many patch management best practices and scaling patch management to ensure coverage. Tools that can automate the discovery and deployment of patches make patch management more efficient and less error-prone. In fact, the Center for Internet Security (CIS) indicates that using automated tools is required to reach level 2 and level 3 patching and vulnerability management maturity.

What are some common challenges in patch management?

Patch management can quickly become complex with all the different vendors, systems, and platforms deployed throughout modern organizations. Here are five common patch management challenges you should know:

  • Detection of available patches: To deploy a patch, you have to know it is available. That means manually or automatically checking for patches. It also means your asset management practices, such as maintaining an up-to-date asset inventory, will directly impact your patch management capabilities.
  • Prioritization: Patches can be disruptive and come with risks of their own (e.g., a failed deployment). Some patches can wait for a regular maintenance window, while others are urgent enough to require deployment as soon as possible. Knowing the difference requires context, such as the severity of the underlying vulnerability, the criticality of the affected systems, and what compensating security controls an organization has in place.
  • Deployment: Updating a single server is easy enough. But what about a fleet of servers? Or network devices from a mix of vendors? Scaling patch deployments can quickly become complex without the right tooling.
  • Failures and new issues: Patches aren’t foolproof and can create their own problems. Therefore, teams should have a plan to test patches before production rollout (at least for critical systems) and a mechanism to roll back changes if things don’t go according to plan.
  • Visibility: Making informed decisions about patch management requires quality data. Often, no single view or report provides an overview of patch status throughout an environment, which can lead to blind spots, errors, and systems going unpatched.

What are the best practices for patch management?

There is a lot of information available on patch management best practices. For example, NIST SP 800-40 is a popular enterprise patch management planning guideline. Similarly, publications like ISO 27001 help provide standard guidelines for security practices, including patch management.

However, all the different content available can make it harder to focus on actionable practices teams can implement. To address that problem, let’s look at four best practices MSPs can use to improve their patch management strategy.

Create policies

Standardization helps ensure uniform patch management throughout an environment. Policies that define guidelines for when patches are deployed, priority, and how a system can obtain an exclusion are great starting points.

Tooling that tracks patch status and deploys patches according to the policies you define is even better.

Key items to consider when creating a patch management policy include:

  • How frequently to check for patch availability and run vulnerability scans
  • Categorization of patch priorities
  • How frequently patches are deployed
  • Approval processes for patch deployment
  • Systems that require an exclusion and how exclusions are obtained

Assess risk level

Ultimately, vulnerability management is risk management. Therefore, it is important to consider the risk mitigation a given patch will provide, the criticality of the affected system, and the likelihood the vulnerability will be exploited. For example, there’s a big difference between a lab network and a production server. There’s also a big difference between a vulnerability that enables remote code execution (RCE) over the network and one that requires physical access to a system.

Regularly deploying security patches is typically an easy decision, but for systems with high uptime SLAs that would be affected by patch deployments or difficult-to-deploy patches, properly quantifying risk can help organizations make the correct business decision given the context.

Pro-tip: Don’t forget about the risk of drift! “Drift” occurs when a system’s configuration or version unexpectedly changes from a desired baseline. For example, a technician might change a system that reintroduces a previously patched vulnerability. Make sure your policies and detection mechanisms account for this risk.

Monitor patch releases

Knowing when patches are available is essential for timely deployment. Where possible, enable notifications and leverage tools that provide visibility into the latest patches available for your systems.

In addition to asset management and security tooling that can help you track patch status, vendors and organizations that provide information about threats and patches can help you stay up to date. Examples include:

Test patches

Patching isn’t a “fire and forget” activity. Sometimes, patches create more problems than they solve. In the ideal case, teams should test patches in a controlled environment before production deployment. However, real-world constraints often make pre-production testing impractical. For example, organizations might not have test systems comparable to production.

When multiple systems are in production, deploying a patch in stages can reduce risk. Additionally, post-patch testing to validate affected functionality can confirm the patch didn’t break anything, and continuous monitoring can help catch any problems the initial wave of testing missed.

As a contingency, you should always have a rollback plan if a patch goes wrong. Configuration management tools and reliable backup solutions can reduce the impact of a patch-related failure.

Why should MSPs automate patch management?

Automating patch management supercharges an MSP’s ability to address security issues across clients, saves time, and reduces the risk of manual errors. Simply put, it’s one of the primary areas MSPs can and should leverage automation to help scale their business.

Let’s explore four specific reasons why MSPs should automate patch management.

Enhance security

Manual patch management doesn’t scale. Even if your technician to assets under management ratio made manual patching possible, it’s impractical. With automation, you can enforce patch policies at scale, improve detection of vulnerable systems, and ensure patches are promptly deployed. As a result, you can drastically reduce the risk of a known vulnerability leading to a breach of your client’s network.

Improve productivity

Manual patching is time-intensive. Even with remote access, logging into individual systems, checking for updates, understanding if applying them is reasonable, and deploying the patch takes time. Scaling that process across multiple systems leads to technicians tied up with maintenance activities rather than focusing on other value-added work.

Minimize errors

Humans using spreadsheets to track patch status is a recipe for stale data, oversights, and undetected issues. As a whole, that means increased risk to your reputation and your client’s infrastructure. Automation reduces the risk of human error and enables uniform patch management across environments.

Streamline reporting

Understanding your overall security posture is important for prioritizing work and can be an excellent topic for quarterly business reviews (QBRs). Automatically collecting patch-related data for report generation helps MSPs obtain the necessary information without significant overhead. For example, generating a report on systems that haven’t been patched can help justify a maintenance window for a specific network.

A Missing Patches by KB report generator in Syncro.

How to implement automated patch management

There are plenty of options available for automated patch management. Integrating your automated patch management software with other MSP tooling, such as remote access and ticketing, can be a great way to streamline operations and limit tool sprawl. Syncro, an all-in-one integrated MSP platform, helps directly address this use case.

With Syncro, MSPs can implement automated patch management efficiently and save time and money without compromising on security. To help demonstrate how, let’s review key steps involved in patch management and how Syncro enables them.

  • Maintain a detailed asset inventory. Syncro has robust asset management capabilities that automatically sync asset data on a regular basis. This allows MSPs to centralize their assets and maintain visibility for other steps in the patch management process.
  • Detect patch status. MSPs can use Syncro to identify missing Windows patches and install them remotely. You can even view failed, rejected (Windows policy was set to reject), and recently installed patches.
  • Define patch policies and deploy patches. Automatic patch deployment helps ensure patches are applied when and how you want them. In some cases, you might not want to deploy patches at all, in others, they may need to be deployed rapidly. With Syncro, you can define Windows and 3rd party patch management policies that automatically enforce your preferences.

To try Syncro for yourself and explore what’s possible with automated patch management software, sign up for a free demo today.


Jillian Ho-Lung

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