Server Patching 101: Secure Your Business Today
“…recovery of a breached system will definitely be more expensive than doing the patching itself. To recover from an assault on an unpatched system and to catch up with patching if it has been neglected are the two major costs…”
What is Server Patching?
Server patching simply means updating your operating system (Windows, Linux, etc) with the latest fixes provided by the respective vendors. Just like how your cars would need regular maintenance and fixes to continue driving well, the same applies to your operating systems! `
An example would be when Microsoft pushes patches to Windows Operating System through a Windows update. However, there are times when the patches themselves might break certain functionality of the operating system and introduce a bug that affects the production environment.
We know this because we have done server patching for the thousands of servers that are present in all 6 of our data centres across Asia.
Now that you know what server patching is, let’s dive deeper into why it’s important and how it can help secure your business!
Why do servers need to be patched?
The reason is simple. As with any other updates to an operating system, patches are equally important as a preventative measure to keep it up-to-date and safe from malware injection and other threats. As the saying goes, prevention is better than cure!
Here’s a list of why server patching is important:
1) Addresses security vulnerabilities that could be exploited by attackers
Patches can address known security vulnerabilities, whether they have been found and exploited by attackers or discovered through other avenues such as white hat hacking or code reviews. For instance, threat actor Hafnium found previously unknown exploits in on-premises Microsoft Exchange Servers, prompting an emergency patch to be released to address the vulnerabilities in question.
If you don’t have an appropriate patch management solution in place and you wait too long to implement a patch — especially for high-profile vulnerabilities, you’re left open to the Hafniums of the world and other opportunistic attackers to take advantage of the known gap in security. How scary is that!
2) Addresses performance issues that may prevent servers from functioning well or at all
When you patch your servers, it can address server performance issues in several ways such as bug fixes that may cause servers to crash, hang or operate slowly, which can impact the user experience and business operations. By applying patches that address these bugs, performance issues can be resolved, and the server can function optimally.
Patches can also include optimizations like an improvement in memory management, disk I/O, or network performance. These optimizations can help servers operate more efficiently and can improve response times and throughput.
3) Enables new software to be installed
Server patching can enable new software to be installed by addressing the compatibility issues that may exist between the server software and the new software. Often, new software requires certain dependencies or software components that may not be present on the server, hence applying patches can directly update and install the necessary dependencies, making it possible to install and run the new software.
For instance, a new application may require a specific version of an OS component that is not on the server. By applying the necessary patches to the server, the missing component can be installed and the new application can then be installed and run successfully.
4) May address certain compliance requirements
Some patches specifically address compliance rules and regulations, such as the patches that addressed microprocessor vulnerabilities known as Meltdown and Spectre. When unpatched, systems were identified as out of compliance with GDPR regulations, leaving organizations at risk of fines and reputation loss.
Consequences of No or Delayed Server Patching
Now, what happens to your organization if you do not patch your servers in a timely manner?
1) Security vulnerabilities will be exploited
Some businesses decide to forgo updating because they believe their firewalls or antivirus software will detect serious threats before they can do too much damage. Yet, as malware becomes more sophisticated, firewalls and antivirus software become less effective in finding a breach.
This is evident through a few data breach cases that took place in 2022, such as the iPay88 data breach case and the AirAsia ransomware attack case. The consequence of the latter event led to a damaged company reputation and a total loss of 5 million customers’ and employees’ personal information. This leaked information could potentially be used for further malicious activities. As a result, the airline company faces revenue loss as many Malaysians question their safety with them.
As for the payment gateway data breach, many condemned the company for not investing more in its cybersecurity, which led to its users questioning the integrity and reliability of the organization. This will indirectly affect the company’s sales and future business partnerships.
Let these real-life cases be a lesson to all on the potential damage of not upping your cybersecurity, and that involves regular server patching.
2) Recovery will be expensive
Truth be told, recovery of a breached system will definitely be more expensive than doing the patching itself. To recover from an assault on an unpatched system and to catch up with patching if it has been neglected are the two major costs of postponing patching.
But the true cost of not patching is not just monetary, as a breached system will eventually lose customers’ trust, loyalty and more importantly a damaged reputation. What is a business without its customers anyway?
Unpatched servers cost = system recovery cost + catching up with patching cost + loss of revenue + damaged reputation + additional hidden costs
So, the next time you feel lazy about patching your servers, remember the price you have to pay for ignoring it.
What Kinds of Systems Require Patching?
No matter what systems there are in your IT infrastructure, they need to be patched regularly for the safety of your business.
1) Infrastructure that supports your product
What are the systems that support your customer-facing applications and services? These are your company’s most valuable assets, at the same time, they also carry the most risk to your organization if they are compromised.
For instance, point-of-sale (POS) systems are on the front lines of generating revenue, and as such, they’re often at very high risk of security vulnerabilities for retailers. As such, they need to be at the top of your list for patching.
2) Infrastructure that supports your organization
How about the other systems that your organization uses to get things done? Whether it’s your mail server, file servers, enterprise apps, servers, workstations, or networking equipment, these are the apps, systems, and services that keep your business afloat, and they should be prioritized as such.
3) Devices you use to do work
Beyond apps and services, you also have your set of corporate devices that are necessary for your employees to get work done. From laptops, desktops, and tablets, to networking equipment, IoT devices, and even personal devices — anything connected to the internet, whether they’re in-house or remote, should also be considered for regular patching as they might contain some sensitive or critical data. If these devices are compromised, they can act as the vehicle to further penetrate and launch an eventual data breach!
To ensure that everything in your organization runs smoothly, devices need to remain up-to-date, especially in the realm of security — which means that patches need to be applied in a timely manner.
If your organization is subject to compliance statutes or regulations, you will be required to update systems and applications on a regular basis and within a reasonable amount of time after the patch has been issued. Having excellent reporting and visibility of your patching status across systems, applications, and other IT resources is critical.
Types of OS Patch Management
Patch management works differently depending on the environment in which you’re applying the update. Let’s take a look at these approaches.
For Windows patch management, Microsoft regularly provides scheduled updates to its Windows OSs and other products like Office 365 on a day that has been nicknamed “patch Tuesday.” Once the update is released, stand-alone systems can leverage the Windows Update feature to automatically download and apply the patch.
Businesses, however, are more likely to use WSUS included in the Windows Server environment to manage and deploy Microsoft patches. You can also use third-party services such as the JumpCloud® Directory Platform to centralize patch management.
You can either deploy the patches manually or automate the process via a patch management tool in Linux. Because most Linux systems don’t have the friendly user interface you expect to find in Windows or macOS environments, IT admins have to issue system commands through the terminal manually.
Besides being tedious and error-prone, IT admins must have the necessary technical expertise to manually patch the Linux system. Automated patch management for Linux systems is more efficient because they can scan for missing updates, download them, and test the patches in non-production environments. If the tool discovers that the patch doesn’t cause any issues, it automatically approves and schedules it to be rolled out in the production environment.
Like Microsoft, Apple also releases periodic updates to its macOS software, including patches to apps and essential security updates. Once released, users can manually install the patches or use automated patch management tools.
However, unlike Microsoft, which releases its patches almost weekly, Apple updates are fewer and further in between. In some cases, the company doesn’t announce a new update until its release, complicating the patch management lifecycle. The company must arm itself with appropriate tools to optimize macOS patch management.
Add Server Patching to Your Best Security Practices
Now that you are equipped with all there is to know about server patching, it’s time that you include them in your list the next time you plan to execute your best security practices. Regular server patching goes a long way in making sure that your servers are safe from malware or other malicious intents. This way, your servers will remain hardened, data is secured and your organization’s reputation stays intact.
Check out the FAQs below for more information on server patching and if this article has helped you answer your questions, feel free to share it around!
General Server Patching FAQ
How often should you perform server patching?
The best practice is to install the patch immediately after the system vendor releases the update. However, this may not be possible if the application is required throughout the year and has a service level agreement (SLA) on its uptime. Under such scenarios, your response largely depends on the company’s risk tolerance, the system’s resilience, compliance responsibilities, and vendor recommendations.
What is the difference between server patching and vulnerability management?
Server patching is a process that distributes and applies updates to operating systems and applications logically. The primary goal of patching is to correct errors — also called bugs or vulnerabilities — in an operating system or an application.
In contrast, vulnerability management is a set of processes that organizations use to discover assets on their networks, categorize OS and applications on the assets, and report the weaknesses in the target systems. A vulnerability management solution usually scans the assets and reports known vulnerabilities along with remediation advice.
What is the server patching life cycle?
The server patching life cycle is a series of uniform steps that a patch undergoes before being implemented in an OS or application. These steps include:
- Updating vulnerability details from the system vendors, where IT admins keep an up-to-date record of all the patch-related information from various sources.
- Scanning the network, where IT admins identify the systems in the network that are likely to be affected by discovered vulnerabilities.
- Identifying patches for vulnerabilities, where IT admins assess the missing patches and what has already been installed.
- Downloading and deploying patches, where IT admins download and deploy the patches from the vendor’s website.
- Generating status reports, where IT admins create reports from various server patching tasks.
What does it mean to patch a server?
Patching a server or server patching is a process that updates the server’s software. You can undertake such a process to fix errors, update software versions, or enhance performance and security on the server.
What are the challenges in server patching?
Some of the common server patching challenges IT admins face include:
- Lack of visibility into network assets and software
- Difficult to prioritize which patches to apply and when
- Unable to remotely manage the process with traditional tools
- Insufficient time