The importance of patching and why you need to do it regularly
Now that working from home has become the norm, we are sending more data between locations than ever before. Unfortunately, this ‘new normal’ is also showing us that many of the IT systems which organizations depend on have minor but crucial weaknesses. If these vulnerabilities are not corrected in time, those organizations are a prime target for cybercriminals like hackers or those wanting to disseminate viruses. Of course, we want to do everything we can to prevent organizations falling victim to cybercriminals.
Broadly speaking, hackers take one of these three possible routes to enter a network: by exploiting vulnerabilities, by misleading employees or due to misconfigurations. One way to reduce the vulnerabilities in your organization’s system is to patch regularly. This blog explains everything you need to know about the patching process.
What is patching exactly?
A patch is an additional piece of software code that is released by a software manufacturer. It is called a patch because it is designed to integrate with the existing software to eliminate a flaw or vulnerability. The patches need to be obtained, tested and installed. Once installed, the patch may resolve a vulnerability or error in a program, or add an improvement or extra functionality.
Why patching is so vital
Patching has always been important. Because so many people are now working from home, many IT systems need to be able to handle more connectivity with the outside world. But that also means that any vulnerabilities in those systems are on display, for all the world to see. So the need to apply patches is more urgent than ever. People are sending and sharing more data than ever before and as a result, many organizations are suddenly being confronted with the fact that their systems are not as secure as they need to be. And the timing could not be worse: cybercriminal activity has been rising, as criminals spot opportunities to sneak unnoticed into the system alongside employees working from home. Those criminals may be able to access the data they need to trigger a cyber incident, or they may sell the data other actors. They may also steal product information, intellectual property or other sensitive data from your organization. Clearly, this is something that you would want to avoid at all costs. And this is why the patching process is extremely important. The last thing you want is for cybercriminals to get into your systems and make off with your valuable data.
Potential problems with patching
Unfortunately, patching can be a headache for many organizations at the best of times, let alone when so many employees are working remotely. Patching is not always as easy as it sounds and requires thorough preparation and planning. Patching Windows environments is usually quite straightforward. But when it comes to Linux systems, network components and storage equipment, the risks are often considered smaller, the impact is bigger or it is the responsibility of another team.
In practice, IT departments often fail to approach patching systematically, put off the patching process to a later date or simply never get around to it at all. The list of systems that need patching can be overwhelmingly long when it is circulated to the IT departments by the IT security team. Those IT teams are often very busy and it can take months to test and install patches. There may also be occasions when it is decided not to install a patch. Research by CrowdStrike shows that the majority of organizations do not have a formal patching policy. This means that data security is not being taken seriously enough.
Tips for patching on time and in the right way
Patching is a complex process, because it can involve multiple IT systems. Implementing a patch can also destabilize a company’s IT landscape.
This means it is important to patch as early as possible, so that you can repair any serious holes in the software. The longer you wait to install the patch that is required, the greater the chance of a cyber incident.
Always make sure that you are aware of all the latest patches and set up the right processes based on the following guidelines:
- Choose a regular, recurring time for patching
Planning the patching cycle is essential. Choose a regular and recurring time at which to patch. This will prevent systems from going too long without being updated. Plan a regular maintenance window, for example, in order to install all the latest operating systems updates. Of course, you can set different cycles for different types of patches. Urgent or critical patches will require a different approach to regular patches.
- Subscribe to all relevant security mailing lists
That means more than just Microsoft or Linux updates. Make sure you have an overview of all the software used in the organization, including peripherals and IoT equipment. Subscribe to the relevant mailing lists for this software so that you are always up to date. Another option is to use a service such as Vulnerability Scanning and Management. That will give you a running overview of vulnerabilities, even when a patch is not yet available, so that you can take appropriate action proactively.
- Draw up a risk plan for unforeseen situations
Usually, it will be enough to apply updates in the regular maintenance windows. But if you notice serious vulnerabilities, it is advisable to patch in between times as well. So draw up a risk plan of what to do if you need to patch unexpectedly. This will help to minimize the inconvenience for your users and customers.