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Corporate Patch Management Lags In Maturity

If one of the most important disciplines necessary for keeping systems secure is a systematic vulnerability management program, why have so few organizations reached a decent level of maturity in their patch management efforts?
If one of the most important disciplines necessary for keeping systems secure is a systematic vulnerability management program, why have so few organizations reached a decent level of maturity in their patch management efforts?According to data released this week by security research firm Securosis, 70 percent (out of 100 respondents) don't current measure how well, or efficiently, they roll out their software patch updates. In fact, 40 percent of respondents to Securosis' survey said they either have an informal patch process, or no patch management process in place at all.

The notion that 40 percent of companies aren't taking a formal approach to patching is scary in itself. But the news is actually worse that that -- the survey isn't based on a broad sample of organizations with varying degrees of IT maturity. No. Unfortunately, the survey was garnered by reaching out to companies engaged in security metrics and patch management groups -- so the survey is actually biased toward the more progressive companies, one could presume.

The survey results stem from Project Quant, an open initiative led by Securosis and Microsoft, that aims to understand the underlying costs associated with patch management and try to improve processes. Not surprisingly, participating organizations seem further along in their efforts to patch workstations and server operating systems -- but lag in keeping applications up to date. Unfortunately, it's the application layer that is under greatest attack.

In an effort to ease organization's patch burden, Project Quant has been working on a superset "process framework" that should encompass most patching activities within any organization, regardless of the systems they have in place. The framework consists of ten phases and forty steps. Because patching is often labor intensive, a substantial portion of the model is geared toward those types of detailed patching activities.

Patch management and the associated toolsets are relatively mature. That's why these results are so surprising, to me. Last fall, InformationWeek ran a feature, Vulnerability Management That Works that discussed how vulnerability management must be aligned with business values to succeed.

Securosis' Project Quant is just getting underway, and the survey results are already interesting. In the full report [PDF], there are also very detailed worksheets for measuring your organization's patch management effectiveness. It'll be a worthwhile exercise to go through, and most likely an eye-opener.

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