MSP Patch Management Process: Best Practices for 2019

Patching is more important — and more challenging to keep up with — than ever. Here’s how MSPs can make their patch management process more efficient, eliminate disruption, and keep their clients secure.

What this post will cover:

  • Why efficient patch management is increasingly critical
  • What an effective patch management process looks like [10-step workflow example]
  • 3 key patch management best practices and guidelines for MSPs heading into 2019

Why is patch management important?

Patching not only keeps systems and applications running smoothly, it’s also one of the core activities involved in keeping today’s organizations secure. Leaving machines unpatched makes them vulnerable to cyber attacks, and the risk is anything but theoretical. In fact, according to the Ponemon Institute, 57% of data breaches can be be directly attributed to attackers exploiting a known vulnerability that hadn’t been patched.

A quick scan of security-related headlines offers plenty of examples, from Equifax (culprit: a two-month-old unpatched Apache Struts vulnerability) to SingHealth (data for 1.5 million patients exposed thanks to an outdated version of Outlook). All resulted in highly publicized security incidents and data breaches that could have otherwise been avoided with more rigorous and efficient patch management.

The challenge for small and medium-sized businesses

If some of the largest, most well-funded organizations in the world are having difficulties with patch management, what chance do small and medium-sized businesses with limited IT support have?

Author: NinjaRMM’s Jonathan Crowe

Some of the biggest difficulties with patching center around the fact that the process can be time-consuming, complicated, and disruptive to end users. As a result, it’s easy to put patching off or simply have important updates get lost in the shuffle. And with more than 15,500 CVEs published in 2018, it’s no surprise many organizations have difficulty keeping up.

Unfortunately, the risk unpatched systems pose is increasing. Once a vulnerability has been disclosed and a patch has been released it’s a race for organizations to apply the patch before attackers begin actively exploiting it. That window of time is shrinking dramatically, with numerous examples in 2018 where attackers were able to launch attacks abusing new vulnerabilities just days following their disclosure.

Once working exploits have been developed they gain widespread adoption quickly. Scanning tools like Shodan, nmap, and masscan then make it trivial for attackers to identify vulnerable systems and launch targeted campaigns.

The big problem: The average time to patch is 102 days, according Ponemon. For many small businesses, the solution to staying on top of patching cycles is to outsource the burden to MSPs. But how are the most effective MSPs tackling the problem?

What does an effective patch management process look like?

Below is a 10-step template that highlights the fundamental considerations that need to go into any patch management plan. Before diving into this workflow you’ll want to make sure you’ve worked with your client to establish clear roles and responsibilities for each step, and that all key stakeholders are fully on board.

Step 1: Discovery

First, you need to ensure you have a comprehensive network inventory. At the most basic level, this includes understanding the types of devices, operating systems, OS versions, and third party applications. Many breaches originate because there are neglected or forgotten systems that IT has lost track of. MSPs should be utilizing tools that enable them to scan their clients’ environments and get comprehensive snapshots of everything on the network.

Step 2: Categorization

Segment managed systems and/or users according to risk and priority. Examples could be by machine type (server, laptop, etc.), OS, OS version, user role, etc. This will allow you to create more granular patching policies instead of taking a one-policy-fits-all approach.

Step 3: Patch management policy creation

Create patching criteria by establishing what will be patched and when, under what conditions. For example, you may want to ensure some systems/users are patched more frequently and automatically than others (the patching schedule for laptop end users may be weekly while patching for servers may be less frequent and more manual). You may also want to treat different types of patches differently, with some having a quicker or more extensive rollout process (think browser updates vs. OS updates; critical vs. non-critical updates, for example). Finally, you’ll want to identify maintenance windows to avoid disruption (take into account time zones for “follow the sun” patching, etc.) and create exceptions.

Step 4: Monitor for new patches and vulnerabilities

Understand vendor patch release schedules and models, and identify reliable sources for timely vulnerability disclosures. Create a process for evaluating emergency patches.

Step 5: Patch testing

Create a testing environment or at the very least a testing segment to avoid being caught off guard by unintended issues. That should include creating backups for easy rollback if necessary. Validate successful deployment and monitor for incompatibility or performance issues.

Step 6: Configuration management

Document any changes about to be made via patching. This will come in handy should you run into any issues with patch deployment beyond the initial test segment or environment.

Step 7: Patch roll out

Follow your established patch management policies you created in step 3.

Step 8: Patch auditing

Conduct a patch management audit to identify any failed or pending patches, and be sure to continue monitoring for any unexpected incompatibility or performance issues. It’s also a good idea to tap specific end users who can help by being additional eyes and ears.

Step 9: Reporting

Produce a patch compliance report you can share with your clients to gain visibility into your work.

Step 10: Review, improve, and repeat

Establish a cadence for repeating and optimizing steps 1-9. This should include phasing out or isolating any outdated or unsupported machines, reviewing your policies, and revisiting exceptions to verify whether they still apply or are necessary.

What are patch management best practices for MSPs heading into 2019?

As the demand for effective patch management continues to become more integral, MSPs need to improve on their own process and offerings or risk falling behind. Here are three keys to MSPs providing smarter, more efficient, and more effective patch management services in 2019.

1) Automate as much as possible

Patching is a game that’s extremely easy to fall behind in, especially if you’re still relying on identifying, evaluating, and deploying patches manually. Cloud-based, automated patch management solutions allow MSPs to schedule regular update scans, and ensure patches are applied under specific conditions or automatically.

How NinjaRMM can help:

  • Automate patching for Windows and third-party software from over 120 vendors.

  • Easily configure patch scanning and update schedules for specific segments of devices or users. Get granular control or set it and forget it.

  • Less time combining through new update releases and vulnerability disclosures, more time growing your business.

2) Mitigate the need to constantly validate patch deployment

Despite patching automation becoming increasingly popular, MSPs unfortunately can’t always assume automated patching solutions are working as promised. That means time-consuming, manual validation. Developing scripts or processes to ease that burden (or, better yet, utilizing solutions that don’t require double-checking) is a worthwhile investment.

How NinjaRMM can help:

  • Gain access to detailed patch audit reporting.

  • Eliminate the guesswork by ensuring you have access to reliable real-time information.

3) Streamline reporting

Everything you do as an MSP should be communicated as value-add to your clients. Patch management should be no exception, but delivering patch management audit reports should be as automatic as possible. After all, the more time reporting takes, the less time you have for providing additional services and growing your business.

How NinjaRMM can help:

  • Generate patch compliance reports that highlight the number of patches you’ve applied.
  • Give your hard work more visibility with your clients.

See NinjaRMM’s top-rated patch management for yourself. Get started with a 30-day free trial.

“The patch management feature blows all other RMMs out of the water, and the ease of use is what all other RMM products hope for.” — Matthew Anciaux, Monarchy IT LLC

Jonathan Crowe is senior content manager at NinjaRMM. Read more NinjaRMM blogs here.

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