Patch management is a critical process to address vulnerabilities in software, operating systems, firmware, hardware, and any other components that require updates. But as your business grows and all those components proliferate, it can be difficult to keep track of them all — much less their current patch status.
Fortunately, a solution is available in the form of automated patch management, which uses various tools and techniques to streamline the patching process at scale. This article will guide you through the basics of setting up automated patch management in your organization, as well as explaining how it works, its benefits and challenges, and providing a few recommended solutions to help you get started.
What is automatic patching?
Automatic patching is an IT management practice that employs specialized software tools to streamline the detection, download, testing, and deployment of updates and patches to software, operating systems, and other system vulnerabilities. It primarily aims to enhance system security by addressing known vulnerabilities as soon as they are discovered.
Automatic patching reduces the workload on IT teams by eliminating the need for manual tracking and deployment of software patches and updates.
Automatic vs. manual patching
Automatic patching involves the use of automated tools and processes to deploy updates and security patches. Manual patching, on the other hand, requires human intervention to initiate, download, and install software updates and patches.
The following table compares automatic and manual patching:
|Features||Automatic patching||Manual patching|
|Security||Offers a proactive approach to security by swiftly addressing known vulnerabilities.||Security may be compromised by delays or missed updates due to manual patching.|
|User intervention||Requires minimal user involvement, reducing the potential for human error.||Relies on manual actions, which may introduce errors or omissions.|
|Timeliness||Ensures updates are applied promptly, which minimizes the risk of vulnerabilities.||Updates may be delayed due to manual scheduling, potentially leaving systems exposed.|
|Consistency||Provides a consistent and uniform approach to patch management across all systems.||Patching may vary in consistency and thoroughness, depending on individual actions.|
|Efficiency||Optimizes resource usage and minimizes downtime by automating the process.||May result in resource wastage and extended downtime, especially for complex systems.|
How automated patch management works
When you deploy an automated patch management tool, the initial step is usually to scan the target environment for systems and applications that require updates and then deploy updates automatically, either when they become available or at predetermined rules or schedules.
Let’s consider an organization that uses an automated patch management system for its network of computers. The system, at predetermined intervals, scans all the computers in the network to identify outdated or vulnerable software.
When a critical security patch becomes available from a trusted source, the patch management system automatically downloads it and tests it on some of the computers to be sure the new updates don’t wreak havoc on any applications.
If the testing goes well, the patch is deployed across all the computers in the network during a maintenance window, usually set by the organization’s IT or system administrators for a time outside of normal business hours.
How to automate patching for your network
In order to automate patch management at your organization, you’ll need to select an effective tool, configure its settings, establish redundancies, audit and report on results, and continuously monitor your processes.
1. Select an automated patch management tool
The first step is, of course, to choose the automated patch management tool you want to go with for your devices. There are a few choices to get you started at the bottom of this article, or you can read our complete guide to the best patch management solutions for more advice on how to make the right selection for your particular use case.
2. Configure your settings
Once you’ve set up your patch management tool, it’s time to determine the settings that will guide your automations. These include:
- Patch sources: Indicate the sources you will want to receive patches from, including your operating systems, software, apps, and hardware. Ensure thorough scanning for missing patches and updates, as certain software vendors may not offer easily accessible patch information for automated tools. If needed, manually visit the vendor’s website to verify patch availability.
- Scan schedule: Determine how often you want the tool to scan the network for new patches for each of your software and hardware groups, and schedule the scans accordingly.
- Test groups: Name a few particular devices of each type to test each patch before deploying to the rest of the organization. This step is vital because patching can sometimes introduce compatibility issues with existing software. Test the patches in a safe environment (i.e., isolated systems) to ensure it is compatible with your current network setup.
- Maintenance windows: Decide what time patches will be deployed in order to minimize any disruptions or downtime.
- Prioritization levels: Assess system criticality and importance before patch deployment. Prioritize based on business needs and have a rollback plan ready in case of unexpected issues.
3. Establish redundancy and failover systems
Implement redundancy and failover for critical systems to provide backup in case of patching issues. This allows continuous operation of the software during problem resolution.
Although your test groups should catch any issues before they make it to this stage, delayed onset of failures and vulnerabilities is always possible — and in any case, when it comes to your data you can never be too careful.
4. Audit and report statuses and results
Automation can save your team a ton of time and effort, but it’s still not a fix-it-and-forget-it process. You’ll need to maintain detailed records of the patch management process, including patch type, application dates, and targeted systems. These reports aid in compliance and troubleshooting patch-related problems.
Many patch management solutions will create this documentation for you, but it’s still important to double-check it manually after each deployment to ensure all relevant information is present and accurate.
5. Monitor processes continually
Finally, you’ll want to keep an eye on all your automated patches, your settings, and those audits and reports that you’re keeping. If anything seems out of the ordinary, investigate immediately and thoroughly. Even if things seem to be going smoothly, regularly look for opportunities to tweak and streamline your settings for improved performance as you go.
Benefits of automating patch management
Automating patch management offers various benefits for organizations seeking to enhance their system security, from improved security and maintenance to reduced costs and response times.
- Enhanced security posture: Delayed vulnerability patching increases the risk of cyberattack. Automating patch management enhances an organization’s overall network security by reducing the risk of security breaches and data loss due to outdated systems.
- Simplified network maintenance: Automated patch management simplifies what can be an extremely complex and time-consuming network management task. This not only eases the administrative burden but also minimizes the chances of human error.
- Quick response to emerging threats: Automated patch management systems can promptly detect and deploy patches as they become available. This agility empowers organizations to quickly counter emerging cyberthreats and stay ahead of the evolving cybersecurity environment.
- Cost efficiency: Automating patch management cuts costs by reducing manual work and potential security incident expenses, not to mention the reputational hit from a data breach.
Common issues when automating patching
While the benefits of automating patch management are plentiful, there are some challenges that can’t be overlooked, including compatibility issues, bandwidth use,
- Compatibility issues: Patches can sometimes conflict with existing software configurations and lead to system instability. Companies should invest in patch management solutions that offer comprehensive compatibility testing and provide detailed reports on potential conflicts.
- Bandwidth and network impact: When running patch scans, downloads, and deployment automatically across many systems, it can strain network bandwidth and cause disruptions. This can slow down essential business operations and impact user experience, unless you are careful to schedule these processes for off-hours.
- Security tool integration: Integrating patch management software with existing security tools involves complex configurations and compatibility between different security tools. As a result, organizations may face difficulties aligning these processes with their broader security strategies.
- Dealing with legacy systems: Some organizations still rely on their old, legacy systems and applications. Automating security patches on these systems can be challenging, as vendors often discontinue support for older software.
Who should automate patch management?
Automating patch management is recommended for organizations of all sizes and across various industries. It helps maintain IT systems’ security, stability, and compliance and reduces the risk of data breaches and cyberattacks.
However, the specific tools and processes for patch management may vary depending on the organization’s size, industry, and regulatory requirements. The larger and more complex the organization, the more critical an effective automated patch management system becomes.
Top 3 automated patch management solutions
There are many automated patch management solutions in the market today. Here are a few of our top picks.
Atera is a cloud-based platform for IT management. It offers automation, custom scripting, ticketing, reporting, and patch management. It supports various software like Chrome and Microsoft Office. Administrators can create automation profiles and generate detailed patching reports.
Plans start at $149/mo. for an individual Professional plan and go up from there.
NinjaOne is a software management and remote monitoring platform. It supports patching for Windows, macOS, Linux, servers, virtual machines and networking devices. It works on and off the network, automating patch processes. Admins can approve, schedule, and customize patch deployments with real-time visibility and reporting.
Subscription fees are monthly per device, customizable upon inquiry.
SolarWinds Patch Manager
SolarWinds patch manager automates patch management for application software. It extends Microsoft WSUS and Endpoint Manager, automating patching with prebuilt update packages. Admins have precise control and can target systems by criteria, schedule, and define pre-/post-patch actions. It offers a centralized web interface for custom reports.
Licensing options depend on managed endpoints, with both subscription and perpetual choices available, starting at $2,187/yr. and $4,357, respectively.
Bottom line: Automated patch management
Effective patch management is a crucial element of contemporary cybersecurity. It allows organizations to rapidly address known software vulnerabilities with a minimum of investment and downtime. Automatic patching, in particular, plays a vital role in streamlining this process as it limits the need for manual input in the patch management process, which, by extension, reduces the chances of human error.
Though setting up an automated patch management solution can seem daunting, the steps in this guide will help you get started — and the effort will pay dividends down the line.
For more tips on automating patch management at your organization, see our guide to the best patch management solutions and how to select between them.