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Patch Management Policies: Key Considerations and Best Practices

Managing patching and updates for devices can often seem like a daunting task – one that can lead to potential business interruptions. However, failing to address these vulnerabilities can leave your systems exposed to significant threats. And in fact, research indicates that unpatched vulnerabilities account for an estimated 30-60% of all security breaches.

In short: Well-crafted patch management policies aren’t just helpful for your MSP – they’re essential. These policies set the groundwork for ensuring that all systems and software are updated promptly and should outline the necessary rules for patching, clear processes to follow, and standards for reporting and verification.

This blog will provide guidance on how to develop effective patch management policies, starting with an essential overview and a practical template.

What is a patch management policy?

A patch management policy outlines the plans and procedures necessary to implement an effective patch management process. Serving as a comprehensive guide, this policy enforces that patch scans and deployments are conducted accurately and efficiently. The implementation of these procedures is typically facilitated through the use of patch management software.

Additionally, these policies cover patching for a variety of assets. Examples of these include:

  • Operating systems
  • Software
  • Applications
  • Network equipment

Why do MSPs need patch management policies?

Prioritizing patch management policies helps to bolster the security and stability of your clients’ systems. On the other hand, neglecting to implement these policies could lead to increased security threats, potential data breaches, client dissatisfaction, and legal repercussions for your MSP – all of which are harmful to your reputation and business viability.

Greater efficiency

Patch management policies significantly enhance efficiency by providing clear, documented processes. Managing numerous scans and software updates can be complex, but with well-documented procedures, these tasks become repeatable and easier to master. This documentation not only facilitates smoother patch management but also streamlines overall IT operations.

Optimized time management is another benefit. Specifically:

  • Timely Application of Patches: Ensuring patches are applied promptly to mitigate security risks.
  • Minimizing Disruption: Planning patches to avoid hindering team productivity and progress.

Effective policies guide your team in identifying new patches, planning, and scheduling updates in a way that minimizes impact on daily operations. By doing so, they help establish efficient processes and workflows, ultimately boosting the productivity of your IT operations.

Improved accountability

By accounting for all systems within your environment, patch management policies help you manage them effectively. This structured approach provides peace of mind, knowing that patches are thoroughly scanned for and correctly implemented, thereby maintaining the integrity and security of your IT infrastructure.

Minimizing downtime

From disrupting client operations and incurring financial losses to eroding customer trust and satisfaction, downtime can be the kiss of death for MSPs.

By systematically scanning for and deploying software patches, patch management policies will help your systems run more smoothly and securely. Moreover, addressing potential risks and vulnerabilities promptly reduces the likelihood of operational disruptions. As a result, productivity is enhanced, and machine downtime is minimized or avoided, leading to more efficient and uninterrupted business operations.

Ergo, you can kiss the “downtime kiss of death” goodbye.

Streamlined deployment

A patch management policy brings structure to the patching process, including a more organized deployment of patches. This structured approach helps you efficiently manage and keep track of numerous patches, maintaining order in your IT operations.

With automated patch management software, you can effortlessly deploy scheduled patches. These tools automatically execute deployments as specified in your patch management policy, further streamlining the process and reducing the manual workload. This automation assures that patches are applied consistently and reliably, enhancing overall system stability and security.

Documenting compliance

Compliance with industry regulations is mandatory for organizations across every industry and is especially critical for MSPs and IT professionals – i.e., those who deal with large sets of sensitive data on a daily basis. Failure to adhere to these regulations can result in substantial fines. So, while investing time and money into patch management may seem costly, this expense is minor compared to the penalties for non-compliance.

A comprehensive patch management policy keeps your organization aligned with regulatory requirements. By documenting compliance efforts, you can demonstrate adherence to necessary standards, thereby avoiding costly fines and enhancing your overall security posture.

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How to develop a patch management policy

Developing a patch management policy involves several tasks and can feel overwhelming. But, not to worry. Below, we break down the steps involved.

Before we dive in, here’s a good pro tip: Leverage automated tools for tracking and applying patches when and wherever possible to increase efficiency and consistency while reducing manual errors.

Identify all assets

The first step in addressing vulnerabilities is understanding what needs attention. Manually inspecting each system to determine if it requires a new patch is inefficient. Thus, it’s crucial to keep an inventory of all systems covered by the policy.

To streamline the process, maintain detailed records of the products, software, and packages used on each system. This way, when a new patch is released, you can quickly identify which systems are affected by the vulnerability and address them promptly.

Document security controls

Create a comprehensive list of all security controls within your organization. This includes firewalls, antivirus software, and vulnerability management tools. Track their locations, what they are protecting, and the associated assets.

By documenting these controls, you’ll have a more thorough understanding of your security infrastructure, which is essential for effective patch management and overall system security.

Define priorities

You may be in a situation where you have multiple patches to apply across multiple systems at your organization. What should you do? Where do you focus your efforts first?

A robust patch management policy should include guidelines for prioritizing patches to ensure the most critical systems and patches are addressed first.

When multiple patches and updates are available simultaneously, the IT department must establish a hierarchy based on specific criteria. This prioritization can be guided by factors such as:

  • The Common Vulnerability Scoring System (CVSS) Score of the patched vulnerability: Assigns vulnerabilities a score between 1 and 10.
  • The Risk Value of the Asset: How valuable or critical the asset is to the organization’s operations.
  • The Likelihood of Exploitation: The probability that the vulnerability will be exploited.

By defining priorities based on these criteria, you can rest assured that your patch management efforts are both efficient and effective, focusing on the areas of greatest risk first.

Assign roles and responsibilities

Since this process is a regular organizational activity, it is essential to establish and document roles and responsibilities within your policy. This guarantees all stakeholders and teams are aware of their specific duties, promoting accountability and efficiency throughout the patch management lifecycle.

For example, when a patch or update becomes available, the IT department is responsible for verifying the validity of the source before downloading the update. A best practice when triaging roles and responsibilities is to assign specific individuals the tasks of researching, locating, and verifying the source of updates and patches to safeguard the security and integrity of the IT infrastructure.

Create a testing process

Since new patches can introduce security risks, it is essential to have a robust internal testing process in place. By designing your test environment to mirror your actual system, you can observe how a patch interacts with your specific settings and configurations.

In your patch management policy, include detailed procedures for patch testing, specifying how and where testing will be conducted and the duration required before a patch is considered safe for deployment.

After the patching and updating process is complete, the IT department should verify that the patches have been successfully applied. If any patches fail, they should be reported and promptly fixed.

Define system-restore protocols

One of the primary concerns in patch management is the potential for updates to cause system failures or reduced functionality. Therefore, it is crucial for patch management policies to clearly outline system restore procedures for rolling back an update in case of failure.

These protocols should include defining acceptable target mean time to recover (MTTR) and establishing service level agreements (SLAs) that set time and state expectations for restoring a failed system. Having these measures in place means your organization can quickly and effectively address any issues that arise from patching, minimizing downtime while also maintaining business continuity.

Set automation rules

This step involves configuring software to automatically identify, download, and install updates for systems and applications. This includes defining criteria for prioritizing patches based on severity, scheduling regular scans, and establishing timelines for deployment.

To set these rules, use a patch management tool or platform, customize settings to match your policy requirements, and integrate with your existing IT infrastructure. Regularly review and adjust the automation rules to confirm they remain effective and aligned with security needs.

Outline a reporting process

Effective patch management policies should include detailed reporting procedures to track and evaluate the patch management process. This includes monitoring key metrics such as the date of the last asset scan and the number of assets tracked, the percentage of systems covered by automated patch management, and much more.

Your IT department must issue regular reports to verify that patch management procedures are being followed correctly and that patches and updates are applied in a timely manner.

These reports can help eliminate the need for special compliance reports and ensure transparency in the patch management process.

The right tools for patch management policies

With Syncro, MSPs can implement automated patch management efficiently and effectively, save precious resources (aka time and money), and do so without compromising security, thanks to features like automation, custom rules, and more. Start your free trial today and see how it works!

Jillian Ho-Lung