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Patch management vs vulnerability management: Feel the difference

As more and more organizations are transforming into digitized businesses, they have to struggle to protect their IT infrastructure from potential threats. Enterprise software becomes attractive to cyber criminals as it keeps a lot of sensitive data. Moreover, the functioning of key business operations is often fully dependent on the informational solutions integrated into it. In this way, it is crucial for companies that their software is secure and sustainable from any kind of cyber threats. Due to the rising cybersecurity concern among digitized enterprises, global spending on cybersecurity services and products is expected to reach $1.75 trillion by 2025 based on estimates.

An efficient cybersecurity strategy that is capable of safeguarding companies against any threats should necessarily involve patch management and vulnerability management. Though both procedures are important, they are often mistakenly defined as interchangeable. Thus, this article will help to see the differences between them.

Understanding the notions

Basically, a patch is a software update designed to fix bugs, address security vulnerabilities, enhance existing features, or add new ones to the program. Patching helps to keep the system secure, up-to-date, and compliant with privacy and security standards. In other words, patches guarantee that hardware is powered by the most recent operational systems, which are reliable and properly functioning.

As vulnerabilities may occur in any system, network, or set of endpoints, security teams have to utilize vulnerability management tools to identify security gaps and apply various methods to remediate them. Thus, vulnerability management is a broader process than patch management, as it aims to discover, assess, report, manage, and ultimately remediate weaknesses.

Comparing the processes

Resultative patch management and vulnerability management are complex systematic procedures that involve a scope of consistent steps. To see their principal differences and similarities, let’s look at the lifecycle of both.

Patch management Vulnerability management
Building an inventory

Making up a list of all devices, software, and third-party applications within an organization is a basic measure taken toward successful patching. Forgotten or ignored systems often become the reason for many breaches, so a thorough inventory gives insights into the missing and applied fixes.
Building an inventory

As seen from the context, this stage is similarly important in conducting both procedures under comparison. New sanctioned assets are regularly added to the organization’s network, and non-sanctioned ones appear as a result of staff’s misaction. So, keeping a record of each one is crucial for a more accurate outcome of the following step.
Prioritizing patches

After identifying all the company’s IT assets, they have to be prioritized based on the severity of the risks they represent. This process guarantees that systems at risk are paid due attention and, therefore, promotes more granular patching policies.
Scanning systems and networks

The components of the prepared inventory list are scanned with either manual penetration tests, automated tools, or external threat intelligence.
Creating patch management policies

This stage is designed to describe processes to be followed and reported on, the standards to be trialed and verified, and requirements for patches and updates. The policy should also outline patch management methods and recommendations.
Detecting vulnerabilities

Having received a massive amount of data as a result of scanning, security professionals have to analyze and organize this data. It’s important to consider the level of risk the identified vulnerabilities present as well as understand the resources to be impacted in case of vulnerability exploitation.
Testing patches

To ensure the operational efficiency of all systems and applications, patches have to be assessed and tested in a controlled testing environment. This procedure aims to predict any potential incompatibilities, disruptions, or unwanted effects of patching.
Prioritizing vulnerabilities

Similarly to patch management, vulnerability management requires a thorough analysis of weaknesses that allows organizations to see high-risk vulnerabilities to be addressed first.
Deploying patches

The next step towards successful patch management is downloading and deploying patches in the missing systems based on the identified priorities and policies. However, the deployment process requires seamless control that would allow for timely correction of any arising issues.
Remediating vulnerabilities

When vulnerabilities are detected and categorized by risk level, they go through remediation that may involve patching, software updating, configuring security settings, and deleting vulnerable assets from the network.
Auditing patches

It’s essential to conduct a patch audit using a patch management tool to make sure no patches have failed to install during the deployment process and that each of them functions properly.
Mitigating vulnerabilities

This step occurs if remediation is impossible and the vulnerability can’t be eliminated. Instead of this, the severity of its impact may be reduced or it can be made more difficult to exploit.

Documenting the state of systems and applications before and after patching makes it easier to identify if the issues arising later are related to the previously applied patches.

Security teams record the data on vulnerabilities found, remediation methods, and their results and share them with relevant stakeholders.

It’s hard to overestimate the necessity of patch management and vulnerability management in 2023 as cybercriminals are becoming more and more sophisticated in exploiting weaknesses for launching their attacks. This fact is proved by the recent estimates revealing that about 60% of breaches are caused by unpatched vulnerabilities. For this reason, many software development companies release patches on a regular basis. For example, Microsoft releases their patches every month allowing for addressing any security issues and enhancing system performance.

Wrapping up

The growing number of cyber incidents, overall technologization of enterprises, shift to remote work, e-learning, online shopping and payments make patch management and vulnerability management especially important in the 21st century.
Understanding the major differences between these two processes and the importance of their tandem functioning allows organizations to build a mature security posture, preventing data breaches, money and reputation loss.



Uladzislau Murashka, Penetration Testing Consultant
A Certified Ethical Hacker with 7+ years of experience, Uladzislau participates in vulnerability assessment, black box, white box and gray box penetration testing, security code reviews, infrastructure security audits, and compliance testing. He has a track record of 100+ successfully completed projects for 10+ industries.


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