IT Security and Vulnerability Patching for a Remote Workforce - Work Anywhere Safe Everywhere

As the old saying goes, a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. The same can be true for network security, where your data is only as secure as your most vulnerable endpoint. In our increasingly “work from anywhere” world, that endpoint could belong to Jim, a product manager who’s uploading a file with sensitive intellectual property across a coffee shop’s WiFi from his laptop. Jim just remembered that he needs to catch a ride, so he’s bypassing safety for speed. But Jim doesn’t remember the free PDF reader he downloaded two years ago.

In IT security management terms, Jim’s laptop is a soft endpoint that increases the company’s cyber attack surface. In everyday terms it is a security threat, and a bad one.

When it comes to servers, laptops and other internet-connected endpoints, it seems that people almost always prioritize convenience over security. This makes cybersecurity difficult for IT and SecOps teams, even if all their workers are in the same building. The events of 2020 accelerated the trend towards a dispersed workforce connecting remotely, so the challenge IT Operations and SecOps face today is helping people work from anywhere while keeping them safe everywhere.

Prioritizing cybersecurity now means having policies in place that consistently support your efforts to overcome the myriad, ever-evolving challenges of IT security, vulnerability patching, and network access. And it means having the right tools to achieve those goals.

What is IT Security Management?

IT security management is the process of ensuring the availability, integrity, and confidentiality of a company's information, data, and IT services.

To ensure the effort is effective, your approach must include the policies that define the scope of the process, the tools to achieve them, and the ability to enact them.

In the modern context, we talk about achieving effective IT security management by practicing good cyber hygiene. Cyber hygiene includes security best practices like virus scanning, password updating, patching, and configuration management. When applied consistently, these practices minimize device or user downtime due to breaches or attacks from malware and advanced persistent threats (APT). Effective cyber hygiene encompasses all data and endpoints in the IT environment, proactively managing them using automation rather than slow and fallible human intervention.

Know Your Endpoints

The need to reach all data and endpoints is absolutely critical. Let’s think back to our convenience-minded product manager from earlier, who is uploading a file to company servers from a two-year-old application. Is it reasonable to assume his company’s IT or SecOps team knows when that upload occurred? To take it a step further, do they have the tools to see what operating system and version the laptop was running? Do they know whether all the software on it was up to date and patched to protect it from cyber threats like hackers, malware, and other vulnerabilities?

This is the level of visibility that’s required to keep IT security management functioning properly and company systems safe. And because the number of endpoints SecOps has to manage is growing fast and increasingly distributed, the ability to patch vulnerabilities quickly and effectively is at the foundation of IT security management.

How to Patch Vulnerabilities

To patch vulnerabilities, you need software that can:

1. Detect and identify security threats found in software and hardware on all network endpoints

2. Deploy a software patch that remediates the threat and verify it was successfully installed

Up until even a few years ago—an amazingly long time in IT security management terms—it was common for vulnerability detection and patch deployment to be handled by separate software applications.

These security measures were on-premises and primarily designed to look at devices physically connected to the company network. This approach relied heavily on organizations always knowing what was deployed and maintaining those applications and devices.

Remote Workers Need IT Support Everywhere

Though we refer to this as being the way things used to be, many companies today still use this approach to patch vulnerabilities. Under this division of labor, vulnerability management is handled by security operations and patch management by IT operations. And very often, these on-premises solutions still use tools like Windows Server Update Services (WSUS) and Microsoft System Center Configuration Manager (SCCM), which are impractical at scale due to the amount of manual labor they require. Unsurprisingly, this traditional approach leads to significant time delays between vulnerability detection and remediation.

If this still describes your IT security management process, then the time to update your system is now. (See Automox’s Endpoint Hardening Maturity Matrix in this helpful guide to learn where your company’s security efforts rank.) A remote workforce needs cloud-native tools designed to support them where they’re at. If your workers can connect from anywhere, your IT security needs to be able to as well.

Think back once again to Jim, our product manager on a coffee shop’s WiFi. Here we can let them off the hook a little. This probably isn’t the first time he’s accessed the network on this device, and it’s possible there’s an open IT help desk ticket to remediate the security threat the device poses. The problem is that this particular ticket is behind dozens of similar ones that need time consuming manual tasks to resolve.

Server Patching at Scale

Patching servers is tedious. Kelly knows this because she is a server admin. She’s responsible for the updates and server patching for all the physical and virtual machines in her building and the server stacks at two more locations in different states, only one of which she’s actually visited. She’s as systematic as possible but has to rely on other admins and IT workers to help her keep track of the models, operating systems, and software that every server at each location is running.

This is the reality faced by many SecOps teams. And so it’s little surprise that 80 percent of CIOs and CISOs say that they have been shocked to discover that a patch or update they thought had been deployed across their entire network was not updated on all devices. Outdated systems are one of the most significant attack vectors for any company. Server patching adds further complexity because most companies run multiple OSes, like Microsoft Windows and Linux, concurrently.

Did a coworker partition a machine for a one-off project? Was the old server room completely cleaned out before it became storage? Without a dynamic inventory of each machine and what it is running, every server is a vulnerable point of access to launch internal or external attacks. Understandably, an increasing number of IT organizations are adopting cloud services like Amazon  Web Services (AWS) and Google Cloud in order to avoid these issues. However, these IaaS solutions still leave cloud server patching up to each organization.

Stay Updated, Stay Compliant

Compliance is another driver for the need to patch, whether your rules include PCI, HIPAA, FISMA or other regulations. High priority patches that must be pushed out within 30 days to stay PCI compliant, for example, understandably come before less urgent updates. Audits for cloud services are just as rigorous, so proving that they are secure and reliable is a prerequisite for doing business.

If your server patching schedule falls outside of these compliance windows, then the time you’re spending to address immediate, zero-day threats has to come from somewhere. This is how lower priority updates and patches get forgotten. Even if most of your endpoints are updated, impartially patched networks pose just as much of a security threat. These issues once again underlie the importance of cyber hygiene fundamentals like knowing all your endpoints and what they’re running.

Bad actors know the pressures that your admin staff are under—and they target vulnerabilities that are likely to slip through the cracks. Attacks that leverage known vulnerabilities such as these always appear inevitable and preventable in hindsight. However, without the right tools to prevent them, they are a natural consequence of forcing server admins and IT teams to choose among server patching, updates, and maintaining uptime.

Automated Patch Management Modernizes Cyber Security

Choosing an automated patching and configuration management platform like Automox allows IT and SecOps teams to stay continuously connected to all their local, cloud-hosted, and remote endpoints. It also frees them up to focus on the job they were hired for—supporting value-generating activities. Simply put, projects to increase bandwidth, improve processes and keep DevOps running at full speed can’t be done while important but labor-intensive work like patching and upgrades needs to be completed.

Servers, desktops, laptops, virtual machines, internet-of-things devices, mobile devices… The list of system endpoints that need to be monitored quickly becomes overwhelming. And each can represent a vulnerability if not properly patched and updated. In addition to data theft, even simple IoT devices can be hijacked by DDOS attacks, eating up valuable bandwidth. Without an automated system for patch and configuration management, it’s almost impossible to have full confidence in your IT security management.

Overcoming the limitations of traditional IT security and vulnerability patching requires modern tools built to handle modern threats. According to the Center for Internet Security, cyber hygiene best practices include having a living inventory of all endpoints on and off your network and the software they’re running. As a foundational component of your cybersecurity, an automated vulnerability patching platform proactively discovers and secures endpoints on your entire network, providing unmatched visibility while reducing your attack surface.

Though results like these are theoretically possible with traditional,  on-premises vulnerability patching methods, the amount of work necessary to achieve them simply isn’t possible for most IT teams.

Cloud Patch Management

Highlighting the actions of a single employee like Jim, our cyber-hygiene–deficient product manager, provides a clear example of how pervasive unknown vulnerabilities are. However, Jim’s case fails to accurately depict the scope of the problem. As workforces grow more dispersed, there will be dozens or even hundreds of people accessing your business systems and data from vulnerable devices every day.

The scale of the issue requires an automated patch management solution. However, if that solution itself needs to be updated, then it is a potential liability. And, as IT security grows more sophisticated to include Zero Trust frameworks (more on this later) for systemic security, increased agility is an absolute must. Cloud-native patch management solves these problems.

Cloud-Native Endpoint Security

Cloud-native patch management platforms like Automox provide continuous vulnerability management. This is necessary to keep pace with bad actors who can exploit publicized security vulnerabilities before most companies can remedy them. On average, newly disclosed critical vulnerabilities can be weaponized in 7 days, while the average organization takes 102 days to remediate them.

The number of endpoints connected to your system creates far too large an attack surface for human memory and follow-through to protect. Even systems that rely on VPN access to push updates still leave gaps for attackers to exploit. With a cross-platform, globally available cyber hygiene platform like Automox, only an internet connection is necessary for the agent to ensure network visibility and security.

Despite these advantages, many businesses resist “throwing it all out” and moving to cloud-native cyber hygiene. Often this is because of the large investment they’ve made in on-premises defenses. However, trying to stay on-premises only creates barriers to productivity and increases risk exposure.

Some leaders hesitate because they don’t want to experience hiccups or disruption during a transition. Or they fear that automated patching is going to break something along the way. These concerns are unfounded when you have an expert partner like Automox with you to guide your transition to a cloud-native IT security and patching platform. Given the choice between solving issues in a test environment under the guidance of your technology partner, or witnessing the failure of your current setup without a partner, the decision is obvious.

Zero Trust AND Full Productivity

A dispersed workforce connecting to company networks remotely is the challenge faced by security teams every day, and it’s only going to get more complicated from here. Whether they’re in the physical office or remote, product managers like Jim will always need to whenever and wherever they can. Server admins like Kelly will always be told to prioritize uptime. Companies need an IT security framework that meets their workforce needs wherever they are—and keeps them safe. For many IT and SecOps teams, enacting a comprehensive, unified IT security framework (such as Zero Trust) is their means of achieving this.

If your Zero Trust initiative—or any attempt to centralize IT security—is going to succeed, your cyber hygiene has to succeed first. Cloud-native endpoint security and management is a natural fit for any modern IT ecosystem. Comprehensive cybersecurity initiatives cannot succeed if they’re built on a foundation of poor security fundamentals. A strong security posture depends on visibility and controls to monitor and protect every device, user, application, and network.

A cloud-native IT security and vulnerability patch platform like Automox is one of the most valuable solutions available for meeting your larger cybersecurity goals. By giving your team the IT security management capabilities they need to succeed, you are removing the burden of manual labor and allowing them to invest in the initiatives that will drive your future success.

About Automox Automated Patch Management

Facing growing threats and a rapidly expanding attack surface, understaffed and alert-fatigued organizations need more efficient ways to eliminate their exposure to vulnerabilities. Automox is a modern cyber hygiene platform that closes the aperture of attack by more than 80% with just half the effort of traditional solutions.

Cloud-native and globally available, Automox enforces OS & third-party patch management, security configurations, and custom scripting across Windows, macOS, and Linux from a single intuitive console. IT and SecOps can quickly gain control and share visibility of on-prem, remote and virtual endpoints without the need to deploy costly infrastructure.

Experience modern, cloud-native patch management today with a 15-day free trial of Automox and start recapturing more than half the time you're currently spending on managing your attack surface. Automox dramatically reduces corporate risk while raising operational efficiency to deliver best-in-class security outcomes, faster and with fewer resources.