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How To Handle Patch Overload

Tips for preparing for and applying patches that come in big batches -- like Microsoft's February release
Qualys' Kandek suggests a two-tier approach to large patch deployments, such as the February Microsoft Advisory. "By partitioning the organization's computers into fast and slow patch groups, companies can attack the problem in pieces," he says. "A fast patch group contains machines that essentially run standard software and do not have any special needs. In the fast group, the patch testing that vendors have performed before releasing the patch to the public should be sufficient, and longer internal testing of patches can be avoided."

More complex or custom configurations, which Kandek calls the "slow patch group," are where companies will take things more slowly and apply more of their resources preinstallation. "The slow group contains systems that have complex setups, run legacy applications, or are systems that have had problems in the past," he says.

And it's best to hold back on patching complex, difficult, or legacy systems too quickly. Gather information by monitoring public news sources for coverage of the patches, as well as following interest groups (i.e., patchmanagement.org) for notification of potential problems, and invest in internal testing in QA and staging setups for specific configurations, Kandek recommends.

Shavlik's Miller points to a trend in Microsoft's monthly security bulletins during the past three years, where a large patch release one month is followed by a smaller one the next month. "It is important to note what each bulletin addresses. The February patch day had 13 bulletins released; this was the same number of bulletins that were released last October, although October's patch day was much more difficult due to the number of products that were affected," he says. "The number of products affected will increase the amount of patching that actually needs to incur."

While the mountain of Microsoft patches this month is the exception rather than the rule, Miller advises that companies get used to increasing numbers of patches -- and not just from Microsoft.

"A bigger challenge for businesses will be addressing non-Microsoft patches. There has been an increase in active exploits for products such as Adobe Reader and Apple QuickTime. These products also need to be addressed, which can make patching systems very difficult," he says.

Kandek says the number of patches will continue to climb. "We are likely to see increases in patches in the near future," he says, the increase being one result of having more products installed on even "slow group" computers. "Attackers that in the past focused on the operating system have started to attack applications such as Adobe Reader."

Adobe, in fact, has been standardizing its own patch release schedule for the same reasons of efficiency and consolidation that led Microsoft to implement Patch Tuesdays. But like Microsoft, Adobe occasionally encounters surprises that must be dealt with immediately: Just this week, for example, the company released two emergency Reader patches out-of-cycle.

Attackers will continue to extend their reach as current applications become more robust and new applications become more common. "Think Twitter clients, music players, etc.," Kandek says. "IT administrators need to have an accurate picture of their installed software and monitor all applicable sources for their patching intelligence."

Doing so might not lessen the burden of large patch releases, but it can make managing their deployment less daunting and risky, as well as providing for emergency off-cycle patch releases and increasing the efficiency and effectiveness of dealing with normal patch release schedules that arrive on time -- and in small numbers.

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