November 30, 2023

How to Systematize Vulnerability Protection with Patch Management and Software Updates

Patch management, a key part of vulnerability management, is about finding a balance between cybersecurity and a CPA firm's operational needs. Hackers exploit vulnerabilities in a business's IT system to stage cyberattacks. Vendors release updates, called "patches," to fix these vulnerabilities.

However, the patching process can interrupt accounting operations and create downtime for an agency. Systematized patch management aims to minimize downtime by streamlining updates and patch deployment.

Benefits of Systematic Patch Management

Maintaining a centralized process for applying new patches to IT assets makes vulnerability protection easier and more effective. Patches can increase security, boost performance, and enhance productivity.

Security Updates

Patches are updates designed to address particular security risks, often by remediating certain vulnerabilities. Conversely, unpatched target systems are frequent targets of hackers, so neglecting to apply security updates can expose vulnerabilities the hard way.

Vulnerability exploitation impacts all kinds of companies, no matter their technological pedigree. The 2017 WannaCry ransomware attack spread via a vulnerability for Microsoft Windows for which a patch had already been issued. It was in systems whose admins had neglected to apply the patch that the infection hit, impacting more than 200,000 unpatched computers across the world. 

New Features

Patches aren't always purely security-oriented updates. Some developers add new features to their software or devices. These updates can improve performance, increasing end-user productivity. 

Bug Fixes

Bugs don't typically cause security problems but can affect asset performance. Patches may feature bug fixes that seek to remedy minor software errors. Like feature updates, this is good news for reducing potential inefficiency or downtime caused by unexpected system behaviors.

Reduced Downtime

Systematic patch management is effectively mandatory for any CPA agency in the modern era of technology. With many different software and hardware systems operating in tandem, it is enormously impractical to install and apply every patch individually as soon as it's available.

That's because patching requires system downtime. Employees must stop what they're doing, end their session, and reboot key systems to apply patches.

A formal patch management process allows IT admins to prioritize important updates. An accounting agency can gain the benefits of these patches with minimal disruption to employee workflows.

Ensuring Compliance

Under regulations like the new FTC Safeguard Rule, larger organizations working with sensitive customer data - such as accounting firms - must follow certain cybersecurity practices. Systematic patch management strategies can help CPA agencies maintain compliance for critical systems.

Treat Patch Management as a Lifecycle

To begin systematizing patch management, it's useful to view it as a continuous lifecycle. Vendors release new patches regularly, and a firm's patching needs may change as the IT environment changes.

Admins should outline the patch management best practices that both they and end users will follow throughout the lifecycle. A good step is to draft formal patch management procedures.

An update and patch management system should account for every stage in the lifecycle. These include:

1. Managing Assets

To monitor IT resources, admins can create inventories of network assets. This could include third-party applications, mobile devices, active operating systems, and remote or on-premises endpoints.

IT teams may also set parameters on which software and hardware versions employees must use. Standardization can prevent employees from using outdated or incompatible apps. It can also help simplify patching by reducing the number of different asset types on the network. 

2. Monitoring Patches

Once the asset inventory is complete, IT teams can watch for available patches, track the patch status of assets, and identify assets that are missing patches. Making this automatic where possible, such as through non-disruptive automatic update configurations for the most fundamental operating systems, may be desirable at this stage.

3. Prioritizing Patches

It's important to recognize that not all updates are as important as others. There are systems that admins may decide should not receive automatic updates, or that simply cannot be updated automatically, 

Resources like threat intelligence feeds can help pinpoint the most critical weaknesses in systems. Patches for these vulnerabilities should receive priority over less essential updates.

Prioritization is one of the key component of vulnerability management. Smart patch management policies aim to cut downtime by rolling out critical patches first. IT teams can protect the network while shortening the time resources spend offline for patching.

4. Testing Patches

While automatic updates can sometimes prove useful, it's important to remain mindful and proactive toward testing all new patches. Updates can occasionally cause problems, break overlapping systems, or fail to remedy the vulnerabilities they aim to fix. A flaw in Kaseya's VSA platform even allowed a rare instance of patch exploitation, allowing cyber criminals to spread ransomware to customers under the guise of a legitimate patch. 

By testing major patches before applying them, problems can be detected and fixed before they impact the entire network.

5. Deploying Patches

Now, it's time to release the patch into the IT environment. Timing windows should be set for times when few or no employees are actively working. Microsoft patch releases often occur on "Patch Tuesdays" associated with their systematized patch deployment schedule. This is an example of how the timing of vendors' patch releases could also influence patch scheduling.

It is sometimes more feasible to "batch patch" certain sets of assets incrementally, rather than deploying them across the network at one time. That way, some assets (and their users) can keep working while others end their sessions to allow patching. Group patches also provide a last-chance opportunity to detect problems before they reach the entire network. 

Schedules for patch deployment may include plans to monitor systems after receiving patches to undo any changes that cause unanticipated problems. 

6. Documenting Patches

Any parties involved in deployment should also document the patching process, including deployment results, testing results, and any assets that still need to be patched. This documentation helps keep the asset inventory up-to-date, and can prove compliance with regulations in the event of an audit.   

Use Managed Service Providers

Many accounting firms look for ways to streamline the complex lifecycle of patching. Some try to handle patching in-house using patch management strategies. A better approach is often to outsource the process entirely to managed service providers (MSPs), who have access to enterprise-tailored patch management tools and can help integrate them with the existing tech ecosystem.

A MSP monitors a firm's assets for new or missing patches. If they are available, the provider can set up automatic configurations to apply needed updates in real-time or across a set schedule. The MSP may download patches to a central server and distribute them to network assets from the cloud, saving resources. The service provider's specialists can also automate documentation, testing, and any needed rollbacks in the event of malfunctions.

Another advantage of a MSP is that many implement vulnerability management and attack surface management solutions that can patch easily take inventory of assets and automate update deployment. Endpoint detection and response (EDR) solutions can sometimes install patches automatically. Some organizations use unified endpoint management (UEM) solutions to apply patches across devices.

Cetrom: The Right MSP for CPA Firms

With systematized patch management, accounting firm IT teams no longer need to engage in the laborious task of manually monitoring and applying each patch. This can increase the security of the system, as patches are less likely to go unapplied because employees can't find a convenient time to install them.

Managed service providers make patch management easier and more comprehensive. Cetrom is the perfect MSP for accounting firms, offering proactive managed services for powerful monitoring of patches, performance, and more, all through the cloud.

Make vulnerability management for your firm more reliable and easier than ever!

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