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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

Special to Dark Reading

There are Patch Tuesdays, and then there are mega-Patch Tuesdays like this month's, when Microsoft released a record-tying number of 13 security bulletins fixing 26 vulnerabilities. Handling this heavy load of patches -- many of them requiring system shutdowns and reboots -- with minimal disruption to business and the rare risk of the patches themselves causing problems is no easy feat.

Much of it depends on how well-prepared your business is for handling the lighter, more typical patch releases. Those releases can help prepare you for the "big one," like February's cycle.

Prep work for any Patch Tuesday cycle should include careful review of the Microsoft material that precedes patch releases, says Jason Miller, security and data team manager at Shavlik Technologies.

"Researching each bulletin is key. Microsoft issues advanced notification every Thursday before Patch Tuesday," he says. "The information can give administrators an idea of what is coming, and how it will affect their business. Reviewing this information can save time and allow for planning. In addition, Microsoft has been supplying more relevant information on these notifications that aid in this effort."

And when the release is a whopper like this month's?

"Large patch days require additional resources, but the same techniques used for light days are applicable," Wolfgang Kandek, CTO of Qualys.

These resources -- available IT personnel, test platforms that match company configurations for ensuring the patch won't cause more problems than it solves, and firm understanding and coordination of the effect of reboots on business and operations -- can themselves be configured in ways that make mammoth patch releases more manageable.

This largely depends on a company's existing patch strategy. Automated patching and reporting can ease some of the burden, Miller says. "Patch maintenance windows may expand, though, as companies deal with troubleshooting any patch that may have failed to deploy or caused issues with systems and business applications," he says. "Some patch strategies require each patch to be tested against machines that have business applications. This ensures the patches will not cause widespread issues that can cripple a business. With large releases, there are delays in patching because the testing takes more time."

As with trimming patch deployment time and other strategies for increasing the efficiency and safety of patch deployments, the key is to have a solid, thorough understanding of all of affected systems and operations, deploying and installing the patches in stages that match the specific needs and peculiarities of those configurations.

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