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Patch Management Explained

Patch management is the process of planning, testing, and applying updates to software systems and applications to address vulnerabilities, fix bugs, and improve overall system performance.

Wiz Experts Team
6 minutes read

What is patch management?

Patch management is the process of planning, testing, and applying updates to software systems and applications to address vulnerabilities, fix bugs, and improve overall system performance.

A software patch is a piece of code designed to fix existing vulnerabilities, introduce new features, and boost the operating performance of the system. Once software patches are deployed and installed, they are then validated to check high patch compliance.

Why it matters: Five benefits of patch management

Patch management can significantly impact your business by providing the following key benefits: 

1. Improved securitySecurity is the main goal of patch management: applying the latest patches is the best way to avoid cyberattacks that look to take advantage of known security vulnerabilities. Hackers often target unpatched software or software with failed patches or security updates. Regular patching and auditing your existing installed patches can significantly help reduce your overall security risk.
2. Bug fixesAnother integral goal of patch management is to address software bugs. These bugs may not  cause the security problems that patch management is also concerned about, but they can cause unexpected system crashes and significantly impact your systems’ productivity.
3. Feature enhancementsIn a continuously evolving business world, you need to be on top of the latest technology and functionalities to stay competitive. Patch management comes into play here as it isn't only about bug fixes or security updates: patches also introduce new or enhanced features that are crucial to improve end-user experience and overall productivity of the system. If you forget to install, the benefits pass you by.
4. Prevent downtimeIf you’re patching responsibly, it means the system isn’t going to be compromised by system downtime that can come along with cyberattacks and software bugs.. Downtime can impact your overall productivity and hurt your business’s bottom line. Efficient patch management prevents that kind of system downtime and keeps things running smoothly.
5. ComplianceWith the increasing threat of cybercrime, many regulatory bodies have passed laws that make patch management mandatory for companies to follow.  Your patch management strategy needs to stick to these regulatory standards, reducing the risk of legal penalties and leading to satisfactory audit results.

How it works: The patch management lifecycle

So, you’re ready to start your patch management regimen, but you’re not exactly sure where to start. There’s a cadence to how your patch management process will work. This section will outline the entire patch management lifecycle.

1. Develop inventory

Regularly updating inventories of assets—such as your remote and on-premises devices, operating systems, and third-party applications—is integral to monitoring your organization’s IT ecosystem. Once you have your full inventory, you’ll know what will need to be included in your regular patch regimen.

IT teams will often standardize the asset inventory by restricting employees to specific hardware and software versions they can use. Standardizing this way not only helps make the patching process simpler and more efficient, it also promotes a better security posture, as it prevents employees from accessing and using outdated and unsafe apps or devices.

2. Identify patches

Once the security and IT teams have updated and completed the asset inventory, they can start finding available patches for everything on the list, track the current patch status of assets, and identify assets with missing patches.

Many vendors have a set schedule for releasing patches. For example, Microsoft releases updates and patches for its systems on the second Tuesday of every month, a tradition they call Patch Tuesday. Along with this, it’s important to identify and assess existing vulnerabilities for assets in your ecosystem, so a patch can be found or developed for those vulnerabilities.

3. Classify and prioritize patches

Prioritizing patches and assets that need to be patched is yet another key step in the patch management process. There are some patches that are too important to wait, such as an urgent security update to address a recently discovered vulnerability in a critical system. Obviously, that patch shouldn’t wait for the patch that introduces a cool new feature to install first. You need to establish these rules of priority.

Utilize various threat intelligence and vulnerability management tools to detect the most critical vulnerabilities and assets of your ecosystem. Prioritizing patches can also reduce the chance for downtime. If critical patches roll out first, there’s less chance a security risk will take your system offline. According to Gartner, cyberattackers exploited only 1,554 vulnerabilities out of 19,093 reported vulnerabilities. Prioritizing critical and security patches first will make you less susceptible to attack.

4. Test patches

Patches can sometimes cause problems, break a few functionalities, or even fail to address the vulnerabilities they were deployed to fix. In some exceptional cases, hackers can even hijack the patches and break into the system. 

In 2021, Kaseya’s VSA platform became a victim of a cyberattack where attackers did a ransomware attack on Kaseya’s customers under the guise of a legitimate software update. That’s why it’s important to test patches before you deploy them to your whole ecosystem. These problems can be identified before they have an impact. 

Ideally, you would want to test the patches on a group of sample assets in the lab environment which is a representation of your actual production environment. If that isn’t possible, test out the patches on a small, non-critical group of assets to make sure those patches won’t cause any problems.

5. Deploy patches

Once you’ve prioritized which patches need to be deployed first, the next step is to deploy the patches to  the risk in your environment. 

Part of effective patch deployment is deciding  when patches will be deployed. Patching is usually done during time periods when no or very few employees are working, to reduce risk and the general inconvenience. Vendor patch releases can sometimes hamper the schedule of patching, so be mindful of this.

6. Document the patching process

The last step in the patch management lifecycle is to document the patching process. You’ll want to have a way to record all of the test results, the schedule, how the roll out was implemented, and list any unpatched assets that still need followup. This documentation helps IT teams both keep the asset inventory up to date and stay on top of compliance, as some regulations require such records be kept for audits.

A few simple patch management best practices

Now that you’ve seen the steps involved in the patch management process, here are some of the best practices that you can adhere to along the way.

1. Have accountability and expectations for teams

It’s important to know which team is responsible for which task of the patching process. 

Information Security and IT managers need to work together so that they agree on how vulnerabilities are evaluated, their risks, and the prioritization process of patches. This plan should be reviewed by senior leadership teams to keep teams accountable. Have some SLAs (service level agreements) within teams to track the status and keep teams in check

2. Have emergency patch procedures in place

Sometimes there will be emergency patches that need to be installed for certain burning vulnerabilities that possess immediate security risks. This is outside of your normally scheduled patching regimen, and you need to have a plan in place for it. 

Emergency patches are installed outside the regularly scheduled windows for patching. There should be clear processes and procedures for both types of patches. Your teams should also define a backup plan in case the patch management process fails for any reason and causes issues.

3. Good collaboration between technical teams

Security teams and IT teams often have different priorities and terms for software errors. Patches usually are released by vendors so they sit high on the priority list for the security team, however, IT teams may prioritize system operations over security patches. Which one of them gets to have it their way?

Ensuring that everyone on the team recognizes the importance of patching and is on the same page regarding security is integral to effective patch management.

4. Automate the patch management process

Manually identifying, testing, and deploying patches is a tedious, time-consuming, and error-prone process. Automating the patch management process not only makes the patch deployment easy but also fast and accurate. 

Automated processes can detect assets with missing patches, critical vulnerabilities, and newly available patches, and install them on respective endpoints.

Patch management vs. vulnerability management

Since both patch management and vulnerability management processes aim to mitigate risks, these terms are often used interchangeably, but it’s important to understand the difference. 

Patch management is an integral part of the vulnerability management process with an operational approach of applying patches or software updates to software. However, vulnerability management aims at a broader perspective of identifying and remediating security risks and vulnerabilities of all kinds.

When a vulnerability is detected, the vulnerability management process comes into action, where it either triggers a patch management strategy to install a patch to the vulnerable software or implements a temporary fix to mitigate the risk (not every issue can be fixed with a patch, afterall). This means that the patch management process isn't enough to secure your system—you still need to consider other effective vulnerability management strategies to address every kind of security risk.

Pro tip

A typical vulnerability management process features a five-step lifecycle: discover, prioritize, remediate, validate, and report. Vulnerability management can strengthen your overall security posture, prevent data breaches and leaks, enhance operational efficiency, empower developers and other teams, and improve compliance for cloud-based businesses of all scales and backgrounds.

Learn more


Patch management is indeed a complex process and due to this organizations often outsource this to external entities. There are a lot of vendors providing patch management solutions but mostly combine them into larger vulnerability management solutions. One of the common issues with these solutions is that most of them require the solution’s agent to be installed on the assets so that it can gather information, analyze it, and generate results. 

Wiz’s vulnerability management solution helps you in detecting vulnerabilities in your environment without the need of deploying any agent and works on agentless scanning of vulnerabilities and blind spots in your workloads. It also helps you in prioritization of vulnerabilities based on various factors such as external exposure, misconfigurations, malware, and more, thus allowing you to prioritize the patches that address these vulnerabilities.

Contextual risk-based vulnerability prioritization

Learn how Wiz helps prioritize remediation by focusing first on the resources that are effectively exposed or have the largest blast radius.

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