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What is patch management and what are the benefits?

Read our blog to find out what patch management is, why organizations need it, best practices & some commonly asked questions.

patch management

In a constantly evolving landscape of cybersecurity threats, one thing remains certain: prevention is the best cure. As attacks continue to grow in sophistication and frequency, organizations must adopt proactive strategies to safeguard their digital assets.

Patch management can play a key role in defending against known vulnerabilities and is an approach that ensures software and systems are protected against potential vulnerabilities before they become exploitable.

In this blog, we will explore: 

  • What is patch management?
  • Different types of patch management
  • How does the patch management lifecycle work?
  • What are the benefits of patch management?
  • Are there any challenges of patch management?
  • Patch management best practices
  • How to choose the right patch management tool or service
  • FAQs

What is patch management?

Patch management is the process of identifying, deploying, and verifying patches for hardware and software across an organization. 

Patches are released by vendors to update and improve software, address security vulnerabilities, or fix bugs. However, updated patches can even introduce new vulnerabilities, which adds an additional layer of complexity to the patch management process.

By applying patches, organizations can protect their systems from cyber attacks and ensure that their infrastructure is functioning properly. It’s an essential part of any cybersecurity strategy that allows organizations to reduce their risk of being successfully attacked and improve the security of their systems.

Different types of patch management

The most appropriate type of patch management for an organization will depend on its size, complexity, and budget. Here are some of the most common types: 

Manual vs automated 

Patch management exists on a sliding scale. On one end, IT administrators can manually identify, download, and install patches for each system, providing direct control but at the cost of being time consuming and prone to human error.

Alternatively, organizations can rely on specialized software or tools to identify missing patches and automatically deploy updates. For optimal results, organizations should strike a balance, opting for mostly automated procedures and retaining manual control over critical systems when needed.   

Centralized patch management

This approach involves using a centralized server or console to manage and distribute patches across the organization’s network. It provides a single point of control and allows IT teams to push updates to multiple systems simultaneously.

Decentralized patch management

In contrast to centralized patch management, this approach allows individual departments or teams to manage their patching independently. While it provides more autonomy, it may lead to inconsistency and difficulties in maintaining a comprehensive view of patch status across the organization.

Cloud-based patch management

Some organizations opt for cloud-based patch management solutions that use cloud infrastructure to handle patch distribution and management. This approach is beneficial for distributed environments and remote systems.

Vendor-specific patch management

Certain software vendors offer their own patch management tools or services tailored to their products. Organizations can use these tools to ensure proper updates and patches for specific applications or systems.

Third-party patch management

Third-party patch management tools can cover software and systems from various vendors, providing a unified approach for patching multiple applications and platforms.

How does the patch management lifecycle work?

The patch management lifecycle is a systematic approach that organizations follow to efficiently manage software updates and security patches. The patch management process typically entails:

  1. Audit/scan: monitor if patches become available for assets in the organization or if a vulnerability is identified, determine where patches are needed. 
  2. Acquire: procure the necessary patches from known sources.
  3. Test: thoroughly test the acquired patches in a controlled environment to ensure compatibility and system stability. 
  4. Deploy: carefully implement the approved patches onto affected systems, following established practices and procedures. 
  5. Validate: verify that the patches are successful, ensuring all systems operate as intended and without any disruptions. 

What are the benefits of patch management?

Patch management offers several benefits that contribute to the overall security, stability, and performance of an organization’s IT infrastructure. Here are just a few: 

Security enhancement

Regularly applying patches helps close security vulnerabilities in software and operating systems. By promptly addressing known flaws, organizations reduce the risk of cyber attacks, data breaches, malware, ransomware, and unauthorized access to sensitive information.

Legal and industry compliance 

Many industries require organizations to maintain up-to-date software and protect against known vulnerabilities. Patch management helps organizations comply with such requirements, reducing the risk of penalties and legal consequences.

System stability and reliability

Applying patches can improve system stability and performance by resolving software bugs and glitches. This, in turn, leads to reduced system crashes, improved uptime, and enhanced user experience.

Productivity and efficiency

Minimizing the time and effort spent on managing security risks allows IT teams to focus on other critical tasks and projects, leading to increased productivity and efficiency. 

Cost savings

Proactive patch management reduces the likelihood of costly attacks and data breaches. Investing in patch management can help organizations save money in the long run by preventing potential damages and recovery expenses.

Are there any challenges of patch management?

Patch management comes with its own set of challenges that organizations must address. For example: 

Patch prioritization

With the constant stream of patches released by various vendors, it can be challenging for organizations to prioritize which patches are most critical and require immediate attention. Some patches may have a higher impact on security or functionality, and determining the order of deployment can be complex.

Complex IT environments

Organizations often have diverse IT environments with a wide range of software applications, operating systems, and hardware. Managing patches across this complexity can be difficult, especially when dealing with legacy systems or third-party applications that may not have automated patching mechanisms.

Patch testing

Before deploying patches to production environments, thorough testing is necessary to ensure compatibility and stability. However, testing patches on various systems and configurations can be time-consuming and resource-intensive, potentially delaying the deployment of critical security updates.

Downtime and disruption

Applying patches may require system reboots or temporary service disruptions, which can impact business continuity and user productivity. Finding suitable maintenance windows to minimize the impact of downtime can be a logistical challenge.

Vendor release schedules

Patch release schedules from different vendors can be unpredictable, leading to uncertainties in planning and coordinating patch deployments. Organizations may need to quickly respond to critical vulnerabilities without ample time for preparation.

Resource constraints

Smaller organizations or those with limited IT staff may struggle to keep up with the continuous patch management process. The lack of dedicated personnel or expertise can lead to delays in patching or missed critical updates.

Legacy systems and end-of-life software

Some systems may be running on outdated software or operating systems that are no longer supported by vendors. Patching such systems becomes difficult, and organizations may need to invest in alternative security measures to mitigate risks.

Remote and mobile devices

Managing patches on remote or mobile devices, especially those outside the corporate network, can be challenging. Ensuring these devices receive timely updates and remain secure is crucial, particularly with the rise of remote work.

False positives/negatives

Automated patch management systems may occasionally flag legitimate software as a security threat or miss critical updates, leading to potential false positives or negatives that impact system functionality and security.

Patch rollback

In some cases, patches may cause unforeseen issues or conflicts. Having a robust rollback plan in place is essential to revert to the previous state in case of patch-related problems.

Patch management best practices

Here are some of the best practices for patch management and how organizations can make the process more efficient:

  • Establish a patch management policy: create a clear and comprehensive patch management policy outlining roles, responsibilities, and procedures for deploying patches.
  • Automate patch deployment: use automated tools to streamline and expedite patch deployment across the IT infrastructure.
  • Prioritize critical patches: identify and prioritize critical patches based on severity and potential impact on security and operations.
  • Test patches thoroughly: perform testing in a controlled environment to ensure patches are compatible and won’t disrupt critical systems.
  • Educate employees: educate employees on the importance of patching and security awareness to promote a security-conscious culture.
  • Utilize vulnerability scanning: employ vulnerability scanning tools to identify systems that require urgent patching.
  • Apply zero-day patches promptly: act swiftly when zero-day patches are released to protect against active exploits.
  • Use a configuration management database: CMDBs track the software installed on systems and the patches that have been applied.

How to choose the right patch management tool or service

When choosing a patch management service or tool, organizations need to consider several factors, including:

  • Compatibility: ensure the tool works with your existing IT infrastructure and software.
  • Automation capabilities: look for automation features to simplify patch deployment.
  • Security features: verify if the tool has robust security measures to protect patch data.
  • Vendor support and updates: check if the vendor provides regular updates and responsive support.
  • Cost and licensing: evaluate the total cost, including licensing fees and additional charges.
  • User-friendliness: choose a tool with an intuitive user interface for ease of use.
  • Patch testing capabilities: look for the ability to test patches before deploying them.


What’s the difference between patch management and vulnerability management?

Patch management and vulnerability management are two essential processes in cybersecurity, but they serve different purposes. Patch management is the process of identifying, deploying, and verifying patches for software, which may include  vulnerabilities.

Vulnerability management, on the other hand, is the broader process of identifying, assessing, and mitigating vulnerabilities. This includes patch management, but it also includes other activities such as vulnerability scanning, penetration testing, and risk assessment.

Here’s a table illustrating the key differences: 

How can patch management help to prevent cyber attacks?

Regularly applying updates and patches ensures that security flaws are fixed, which reduces the attack surface and makes it more challenging for cyber criminals to exploit weaknesses.

By keeping software up to date, organizations can significantly improve their defense against common attack vectors and maintain a more secure IT environment.

What are the risks of not patching software?

Unpatched systems and applications contain known (and unknown) vulnerabilities that cyber attackers can exploit to gain unauthorized access, steal sensitive data, or disrupt operations.

These risks include increased susceptibility to malware infections, ransomware attacks, and data breaches. Neglecting patch management can also lead to reputational damage, loss of customer trust, and substantial financial losses. 

How can organizations ensure that they are patching software in a timely manner?

Organizations can ensure timely software patching by implementing a robust patch management process that includes regular vulnerability assessments, automated patch deployment, monitoring for updates, and clear communication channels for coordinating patching efforts across the organization. 

What is the difference between a patch and a hotfix?

A patch is a more comprehensive update that includes multiple fixes and improvements and is typically released on a regular schedule.

In contrast, a hotfix is a targeted and urgent update specifically created to address a critical issue or vulnerability and is released as soon as possible, often outside of the regular update cycle.

How can organizations automate patch management?

Organizations can use patch management tools to streamline and automate the process of discovering, deploying, and monitoring software updates.

They can also use a configuration management database to track what software is installed on systems and which patches have been applied.

Alternatively, they can use a vulnerability scanner to identify hidden vulnerabilities caused by omitted patches and address these issues. 

Final thoughts

No matter how large or small, how hidden, or exposed, every vulnerability must be accounted for when it comes to cybersecurity. Patch management helps organizations fortify their security stance by ensuring all software flaws are promptly patched.

By staying proactive and keeping software up-to-date, organizations can effectively thwart hackers’ attempts to exploit weaknesses, securing their digital assets and sensitive data. 

If you have any further questions about patch management, don’t hesitate to contact our team.

Our swarm of experts can emulate potential threats, test your infrastructure from top to bottom, and advise on where improvements can be made to improve your organization’s overall security posture.