A Guide to Patching Vulnerabilities ASAP

Chris Tozzi
← Slim Blog

It's one thing to detect vulnerabilities. It's another to patch them quickly – and too often, the patching process takes too long, leaving organizations vulnerable to attack despite their ability to identify risks within their applications.

That's why having an effective patching strategy in place is just as critical as having a vulnerability detection routine. Just as data backups won't ensure business continuity if you can't recover data quickly, vulnerability detection won't protect you from cyberattacks if you can't patch quickly.

Keep reading for a look at why patching is so important, why it can take longer than it should, and how teams can ensure that they are prepared to patch as rapidly as possible.

What Is Software Vulnerability Patching?

In the context of security, software vulnerability patching is the process of installing an update that resolves a security vulnerability. For example, if you've determined that your application includes a component (such as a library associated with the Log4j vulnerability) that attackers can exploit, you could resolve the risk by installing a patch that updates the component to a newer, non-vulnerable version.

Patching isn't the only way to mitigate vulnerabilities. You can also modify the configuration of your environment in many cases in ways that make it impossible to exploit a vulnerability. You could also simply shut down a vulnerable application or service. However, patching is the most effective way to mitigate risks permanently and with as little disruption as possible to your users and business.

The Importance of Software Patching

The reason why software patching is so important is simple enough: until you patch a vulnerability, you'll be operating in a compromised state.

Even if you take steps to block a vulnerability from being exploited, the underlying vulnerability will still exist, and there's always a chance that attackers will discover a novel exploit technique that allows them to bypass whichever controls you put in place to try to prevent exploitation of the vulnerability.

As a result, applying patches as quickly as possible is paramount. Until your software is patched, you are at risk.

Why Vulnerability Patching May Be Slow

Most teams recognize the importance of patching. But for a variety of reasons, they may not patch as quickly as they should or would like to.

Common reasons for delayed patching include:

  • Security distractions: Scanning a single container image or application might result in dozens of security alerts. With so many different alerts to manage, teams may struggle to identify and apply all available patches as quickly as possible. They may also apply non-critical patches before patching more serious vulnerabilities because they are not sure which vulnerabilities pose the greatest risk.
  • Missing patch information: In some cases, scanners identify vulnerabilities but not the patches that are available to fix them. The only way to track down patch information in this scenario is to research it manually, which takes time and slows down the patching process.
  • Patch installation confusion: Even in cases where you do know where to find a patch for a given vulnerability, you might be uncertain about how to install it. This is especially true if you're dealing with a patch that needs to be applied in different ways to different types of operating systems or for different application versions.
  • Waiting for patch windows: Installing patches may disrupt application availability because applications in some cases have to be shut off and restarted in order to receive an update. As a result, teams may be forced to wait for a window of time (such as a weekend) when they can apply a patch with minimal disruption to users. This leaves their applications vulnerable in the meantime.

Again, the longer you wait to install patches due to challenges like these, the greater the degree of risk you'll face.

Accelerating the Software Vulnerability Patching Process

Fortunately, not all patching processes have to be slow. Although you may occasionally run into situations where you can't quickly obtain a patch for a known vulnerability or you are unable to install it, you can automate patching in many cases in ways that allow you to install software patches as quickly as possible.

One best practice to follow on this front is to ensure that your security scanning tools automatically identify known patches for the vulnerabilities they discover. Patch information is often recorded in the same databases that store vulnerability data, so good scanning tools will be able to offer guidance on how to patch an issue at the same time that they identify vulnerabilities.

Scanners should also be able to prioritize different types of risks so that you know which patches to apply first. Ideally, prioritization will be based not just on generic assessments of how severe a given vulnerability is, but also on how likely it is that a vulnerability can be exploited inside your particular environment. Readily exploitable vulnerabilities should receive priority when patching.

A third method for speeding the patching process is to design applications and the infrastructure that hosts them in ways that allow you to apply patches with minimal service disruption. A common means of achieving this is adopting an immutable infrastructure strategy in which you can instantly deploy a new, updated version of an application to replace a vulnerable version without having to shut down and restart the application.

Conclusion: Fast Vulnerability Patching as the Key to Secure Success

In short, software patching can be slow and tedious, especially if you rely on a manual, ad hoc approach to finding and installing patches. But by automating the patch identification process alongside the vulnerability detection process, and by adopting software architectures that make it easy to redeploy applications automatically as a means of installing patches, you can minimize the time between vulnerability detection and vulnerability resolution – and, in turn, minimize the time during which your organization is at risk.

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