With a recent survey from the Ponemon Institute indicating 60% of breaches were caused by unpatched software, it’s clear that effective patch management is one of the biggest ways an MSP can add value for their clients.
Not only will patching protect your clients’ IT infrastructure and reduce security risk, it can also protect your reputation as a trusted advisor. After all, no MSP wants to tell their clients a breach occurred due to an unapplied update.
However, getting a patch management process’s strategic and tactical aspects right can be challenging. To help you execute, we’ve created a patch management checklist for MSPs.
The value of a patch management checklist
Before diving into our patch management audit checklist, let’s examine why it matters. Here are six key benefits of a patch management checklist.
Patch management is a key component of a broader vulnerability management strategy. Vulnerability management is the continuous process of discovering, classifying, and remediating vulnerabilities. Patch management enables MSPs to mitigate vulnerability risk across managed assets.
Reduce security risks
A key reason deploying patches is so important is that old vulnerabilities are one of the biggest threats facing organizations today. In fact, the threat is so significant that known vulnerabilities from previous years (2017-2021) topped the list in Tenable’s 2022 Threat Landscape Report ahead of newer headline-grabbing vulnerabilities like Log4Shell and ProxyShell.
Regularly applying patches can drastically reduce this security risk. In fact, I’d say regular patch deployment offers the biggest bang for your buck regarding security at small and medium-sized businesses.
Avoid latency and downtime
Regular patch deployment reduces the likelihood of a breach, reducing the risk of downtime due to compromised systems. However, patch deployment does more than resolve vulnerabilities. Patching can also address issues that improve performance, such as addressing memory leaks. For example, Windows Server patches often include performance improvements.
Remember that patches can cause performance issues too! As any experienced Windows admin can tell you, just because you deploy patches doesn’t mean all your problems go away. Immediate patch deployment without testing can be risky because sometimes patches can create new issues. For example, a 2022 Microsoft update (KB5017259) sometimes made AES operations up to two times slower. The takeaway? Patch testing is important.
Patching is an essential aspect of compliance with multiple regulatory standards. For example, requirement 6.3.3 of PCI DSS (Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard) 4.0 requires patching of critical and high-severity vulnerabilities within a month. Similarly, failing to patch vulnerabilities under GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) can lead to fines.
Identify process gaps
The rigor required to create a quality patch management process will often lead to MSPs identifying process gaps. For example, IoT devices and servers not currently in your asset management system will be more challenging to patch automatically. This begs the question: why weren’t they inventoried in the first place? Addressing that gap will improve your client’s security posture and potentially expand your business.
Create an audit trail
A robust patch management checklist can give MSPs a clear audit trail for all the activities related to patching. In addition to answering who and when for applied patches, an audit trail can also help quantify which patches don’t get applied. If there’s a legacy system your client doesn’t want to patch, create a record that includes your recommendations related to the asset.
12-Step patch management audit checklist
A practical patch management checklist must account for more than just the patch deployment process. It should cover the end-to-end process of regularly checking for, analyzing, testing, deploying, and evaluating patches throughout the environment.
The essential patch management checklist below gives you a practical reference you can use as-is or modify to meet your needs.
- Ensure your asset inventory is up-to-date.
- Audit your current patch management policy.
- Identify unpatched vulnerabilities.
- Assess risk.
- Define a rollback plan.
- Test the patch.
- Schedule a maintenance window.
- Communicate expected impact to end users.
- Deploy the patch.
- Monitor the affected systems.
- Notify end users when patches are complete.
- Update documentation.
✅ Ensure your asset inventory is up-to-date.
Your asset inventory is an essential prerequisite for an effective patch management process. If assets are missing from your inventory, you’ll generally have lower visibility into their patch status. Simply put, inventoried assets are more likely to fly under the radar and go unpatched.
✅ Audit your current patch management policy.
Even for MSPs with mature security practices, no patching process is perfect. Continuous improvement is key to growing your MSP business, and a patch management audit can help you get it right. Regularly assess your policies and perform a patch management audit to identify areas for improvement. For example, if an asset has an exception defined, be sure to reassess the validity of the exception regularly.
✅ Identify unpatched vulnerabilities.
Tools such as vulnerability scanners and RMM (remote monitoring and management) platforms can help you identify security vulnerabilities and quantify exactly what patches your assets are missing.
✅ Assess risk.
No patch management audit checklist is complete without a risk assessment. Once you’ve quantified your assets and vulnerabilities, assess the business risk associated with them as part of your patching process. In most cases, it will make sense to apply patches. However, sometimes businesses accept the risk of vulnerabilities to continue running legacy software. Whatever your choice, make sure to define risk and recommendations clearly.
✅ Define a rollback plan.
As with any change, new patches come with some risk. Ensure you have a rollback plan if the patch creates more problems than it solves. Like other aspects of vulnerability management, the sophistication of your rollback plan will vary depending on the asset and software involved. For example, a critical database may have a robust disaster recovery plan while the rollback plan for a simple software application may be “uninstall, then reinstall.”
✅ Test the patch.
For any mission-critical systems, test patches in test environments or in small batches before a large scale rollout. In addition to confirming that the update runs and the system comes back online, perform testing that confirms other aspects of the system work as intended. For example, if other systems depend on a server you update, check them to ensure they continue communicating post-update. Taking the time to verify patches this way can significantly reduce production risk.
✅ Schedule a maintenance window.
Changes always come with risk. Even if you’ve thoroughly tested a patch, plan to perform updates during off-peak hours if there’s risk of service disruptions.
✅ Communicate expected impact to end users.
If you expect the patch to impact end users, announce the scheduled maintenance in advance.
✅ Deploy the patch.
Once the patch is adequately tested and a maintenance window is scheduled, deploy the patch in production.
Tip! Automate patch deployment. While oversight and analysis are important in a patch management process, automation is critical for making patch management scalable. For more on getting patch management tactics right, check out The MSP Guide to Patch Management Best Practices.
✅ Monitor the affected systems.
Once the change is deployed, confirm the updated systems continue to work as expected and vulnerabilities have been addressed. Additionally, ensure no unintended consequences that may require a rollback have occurred.
✅ Notify end users when patches are complete.
If you send a notification indicating potential impact to end users, be sure to close the loop and notify them when maintenance is complete.
✅ Update documentation.
Patches often create enough change to warrant documentation updates. This is another aspect of the patch management process you can streamline with automation. For example, if your asset inventory list includes software versions, it will require a post-patch update. Manually updating a spreadsheet is tedious, but a monitoring platform like an RMM can keep the data current for you.
Automate patch management with Syncro
A Syncro report that can help enable effective patch management audits.
With a comprehensive patch management strategy, MSPs can help improve their clients’ security posture and reduce business risk. The patch management checklist we’ve covered here can help you ensure you consistently execute as you roll out patches.
Of course, there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to patch management. Exactly how you implement a patch management process will vary depending on your assets, industry, and risk profile. Syncro — an all-in-one MSP software platform — can help MSPs streamline and scale their patch management processes.
Key patch management features in the Syncro platform include:
- Automatic patching for Windows and third-party apps
- Patch scheduling to define when patches are deployed
- Patch policies to control which updates are installed or blocked
- Reports detailing missing patches
- Records of recently installed and failed patches
To see what Syncro can do first hand, sign up for a free trial today.