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Patch Management vs Vulnerability Management

Software when installed and put to use is not a once and for all affair. Software keeps evolving in terms of versions, capabilities, and security features, and hence, needs to be managed no matter how perfectly they are built. Patch management and vulnerability management together ensure security hygiene in an organization.

Patch Management vs Vulnerability Management

The terms patch management and vulnerability management are often misunderstood to be the same. Patch management is just one part of vulnerability management. To be precise, patch and vulnerability management are complementary to each other but not the same. You may think that security risks are completely taken care of just by having patch management in your organization.

But there is more to it, which means organizations must implement separate vulnerability and patch management policies and processes. Both processes are deeply intertwined with some similarities and overlaps in some workflows. Both use separate tools that operate independently and are managed by separate teams in an organization.

The latest report on organizations managing patches and vulnerabilities shows:

  • 60% of breaches happen because of a known vulnerability that was unpatched,
  • 62% were unaware that their organization was vulnerable to data breaches, and
  • 52% of respondents said they used manual processes that were not efficient enough.

Let us first understand the basics before making a patch management vs. vulnerability management comparison.

What is Patch Management?

Patch management is the process of identifying, acquiring, testing, and deploying patches for operating systems and applications to ensure systems are safe and updated. The patches are used to fix bugs, close security gaps and add feature updates. Patches are in the form of codes that are added to the existing software codes to remove vulnerabilities and prevent software from cybersecurity threats. Patches are narrower in scope.

What is Vulnerability Management?

Vulnerability management is the process of identifying, prioritizing, and remediating security vulnerabilities across an organization’s systems and endpoints. It gives an overview of security hygiene as a whole. With vulnerability management software, your IT teams can scan the entire IT infrastructure, including systems, networks, or servers, and prioritize the high-risk areas to remediate vulnerabilities by installing patches or reconfiguring devices.

Why is Vulnerability Management Important for Organizations?

In vulnerability management, the complete IT infrastructure of organizations is scanned for its entire lifecycle for security vulnerabilities and managed from discovery to remediation in the order of criticality from high to low. The software helps get a report listing all the systems or servers on a network, which are scanned and helps decide which one to pick up first. Thus, it helps keep risks to a minimum.

Vulnerability management regularly categorizes and ranks each asset based on the risks and vulnerabilities and remediates them based on urgency. Vulnerability management will also be able to predict whether there will be vulnerabilities with the software that is about to be installed, unlike patch management.

Here’s a deep dive into patch management vs. vulnerability management to understand the difference between them, their similarities, the tools they use, and the best practices for patch and vulnerability management.

Vulnerability Management vs. Patch Management: What is the Difference?

The major difference between the two management tools is in their use. Though patch and vulnerability assessment tools operate independently of each other, they support common workflows like assessing risks and prioritizing and mitigating vulnerabilities based on criticality and urgency.

A patch management software will notify you on your system or app that is running two or three versions older and needs an update. On the other hand, vulnerability management will be able to tell you if there are any vulnerabilities in the piece of software that is being installed. A vulnerability management system will only report on the vulnerabilities and the patch management system will fix the patches. 

Vulnerability management also gives insights into potential security gaps or loopholes that cannot be tracked with an outstanding patch list. Vulnerability management is the part taken care of by security teams, whereas patch management is taken care of by IT teams. That is why organizations need to have both processes to not miss out on security vulnerabilities, determine the cruciality with the help of reports, and have timely remediation to ensure systems across the organization are safe from cybersecurity threats.

Patch Management and Vulnerability Management: Similarities

They are similar because they collaborate and complement each other to reach their respective goals. They both aim to remediate security vulnerabilities and fulfill different roles in the process. The places where they overlap include the use of a comprehensive inventory list of all IT assets in the organization, knowing all the different operating systems used, and the software configuration and details of each asset.

Thus, though they follow the same workflows, the result of one is the beginning of the process for the other—reports. Vulnerability management addresses all types of security issues and patch management identifies the risks and applies patches to specific vulnerabilities.

Another area where they overlap is they can be automated using a centralized management solution like mobile device management (MDM) or enterprise mobility management (EMM). A solution like MDM makes it easier for IT teams to set policies such that the process patches vulnerabilities that could control device downtime.

Best Practices in Patch and Vulnerability Management

With organizations using multiple operating systems, servers, laptops, email, firewalls and endpoints, and cloud-based systems, they must follow modern best practices to protect the organization’s IT assets from security breaches and security threats.

To start with, the first thing that organizations need to understand is that the patch management process is not enough on its own. Having a good patch management process without vulnerability management would make the entire process unsuccessful.

Another best practice is to have both processes handled by the same team. Usually, organizations have two separate teams, which complicates the remediation process if there is a lack of coordination as both use separate tools. And suppose a situation like this arises, there can be multiple vulnerabilities not attended to, making the situation apt for attacks and exploitation. Organizations should understand that when the IT and security teams work together, they can provide end-to-end security.

The other benefits and best practices can be as follows:

Scanning systems regularly: This will give real-time visibility into security vulnerabilities to identify the risks involved and help take action on time.

Discover security vulnerabilities and gaps: The discovery step will help evaluate whether the software has the required security patch in place or needs an update. 

Prioritize vulnerabilities to be patched: Prioritize the patches that are critical and urgent, looking at the reports that list the vulnerabilities and outstanding patches. 

Pick up high-risk vulnerabilities first: Choose the high-risk vulnerabilities on priority and patch the security gaps in the smallest time frame possible.

Optimize patch deployment: Automate the patching process for those patches that are not more complex.

Conclusion

We have now established that vulnerability and patch management, although have similarities and overlap, are different processes that need to co-exist in an organization. They are both parts of an organization’s security management process to ensure safe and secure device operations.

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