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A Security Pro's Guide To Patch Management

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Deployment of critical software updates and patches used to be a relatively simple proposition that didn't require much thought or strategy. The conventional thinking was that if you simply patched Windows, Internet Explorer, and Office based on Microsoft's recommendations, you were essentially immune from the most destructive attacks that were propagating in the wild.

That patch management approach presents two increasingly significant problems. First, it leads the vast majority of companies to deploy every critical patch fed to them, without first assessing or testing what those patches might break once deployed. Second, and more important, many applications exist outside the traditional core operating system realm, and those applications often represent an even larger threat vector than Windows or IE.

Consider all the applications on a traditional fat-client PC that supports dynamic code execution: Java, Acrobat Reader, Flash, Shockwave, QuickTime, Windows Media Player, iTunes, RealPlayer ... We could go on, but you get the point. Each of these applications is an independent threat vector whose unique capabilities have been exploited by malware developers.

Further, patch management is no longer just PC-focused. OS and application patches arguably may be the most vulnerable applications in the enterprise, but security professionals also must consider the patches published by email security gateway vendors, firewall vendors, routing/switching vendors, and so on. You also need to factor in mobile devices, along with any key systems located in the Internet cloud.

Given that the threat landscape is vastly more complex than it was just a few years ago, it's vital that IT managers rethink overly simplistic patch management strategies that address--maybe, if you're lucky--25% of the problem. For those of us in the trenches, it's disingenuous to tell our bosses we're addressing the entire patch management problem when we're really only deploying Microsoft patches.

With that said, patching every application in your company with every update available isn't a viable solution, either. The application inventory for the typical large business ranges from the hundreds to the thousands. In a perfect world, IT would have the resources to track, test, and deploy patches for each and every application, but that's not reality--and often is not even necessary.

Read the rest of this article on Dark Reading.