Into the brier patch

The list of all-too-familiar names – Nachi, Klez, Lovsan, SoBig, BugBear, Swen, Blaster and Yaha – represents only a sampling of the most prevalent worms and viruses that slithered into corporate networks last fall.

But they all have one thing in common: patches were readily available before most damage had been done.

So why do these intruders continue to wreak such havoc? Because patch management is tough.

It’s tough because there are too many patches and not enough time, and because exploits to announced vulnerabilities are materializing faster. For instance, Blaster appeared only 26 days after Microsoft reported the vulnerability.

It’s tough because clients are becoming the attack targets as much as servers, fuelling faster propagation and the threat of reinfection from mobile workers reconnecting to the network. And it’s not just Microsoft vulnerabilities. Although Windows seems to get the bulk of the exploits and end-user animosity, the list of targets includes routers, switches, firewalls; Unix and Linux, too.

Patching chores likely will never go away, experts say, but there are ways to address the task proactively to minimize exposure. “Patching is the physical process,” says James Williams, information delivery manager for RBC Centura Bank in Rocky Mount, N.C. “But you have to manage that process, and to do that you need some structure.” Centura has an 11-person staff as part of a computer security incident response team that maintains what Williams calls a “very systematic and very organized” patch management process. That process utilizes inventory, change-control practices and automated deployment supported by tools from Ecora Corp., IBM Corp./Tivoli and others. “I might not have enough staff, but I have processes and organization that help me cover that issue,” he says.

How to patch

“We see people looking for a tool that will solve all their problems, but what you need is a process; it’s not just about the tool,” says Felicia Nicastro, senior network systems consultant for International Network Services, a consulting firm that kicked off a patch management service in September. Nicastro says the biggest mistake companies make is leaving out the processes, such as diligent monitoring for new patches coupled with detailed evaluation, testing, deployment and validation that a team or individual manages.

“This typically isn’t a task for one person. It has to involve the security group, the operations group and the developers,” she says. “So what also makes patching tough is a lack of resources.”

Nicastro says companies need to have several pieces in place before a patch management process can be installed: network inventory, change management, configuration management, asset management, formalized record keeping, an understanding of costs, prioritization guidelines and maintenance and communications plans.

“Getting a process in place can be difficult if you don’t have all these pieces together,” she says. Inventory, or documenting what machines run what software, is the first step. “This might be your biggest cost,” Nicastro says. “Inventory can take some time.” Inventory ties into asset, change and configuration management. “If you track configuration then you know what’s changed, and that can help with future patching,” she says. T

he process starts, Nicastro says, with monitoring for new vulnerabilities and available patches for everything in inventory. Once a vulnerability is identified and determined to be a threat, teams of IT, data and operations managers must work together to usher a patch through the established rollout process. A course of action and a timetable for execution, including lab testing, should be established.

“Many times companies don’t have the money to support a lab or duplicate environment, but at a minimum you should try to duplicate business-critical systems, say a Web server with a database back end,” Nicastro says. After testing, distribution of the patch, implementation, exception handling, tracking and reporting need to be done. Software and services for such tasks are available from vendors such as Altiris Inc., BigFix Inc., Computer Associates International Inc., ConfigureSoft Inc., Ecora, Hewlett-Packard Co., IBM, Loudcloud, Microsoft Corp., Novell Inc., PatchLink Corp., Shavlik Technologies LLC and St. Bernard Software Inc.

Nicastro says in times when patching becomes a fire-fighting exercise, companies should quarantine the worm or virus on network segments and patch using their documented processes. “The number of vulnerabilities, their exploits and the serious damage that they can do is why having a process is so important,” she says.

Patching in action

Those words ring true for Williams at Centura Bank, whose organized process includes assigning a value of critical, high, medium or low to each vulnerability. “If it is critical, each manager on our (computer security incident response) team has to respond (with their course of action) in 24 hours,” Williams says. The vulnerabilities are compared against an inventory of everything on the network, including 250 servers and 1,800 desktops. The inventory is updated weekly.

Once the team managers decide a patch is needed, a five-step program Centura calls release management is followed. The first step is to develop the change process, which is then logged and audited as part of Step 2. A series of tests are done at Step 3, and if the results are inadequate the process starts all over again. If the test is successful, Step 4 includes distribution from a pilot to full-scale production deployment. And Step 5 mandates follow-up and validation that everything is complete and working.

“It’s not the tools or the people, it’s not having the time,” Williams says of why such a regimented process is needed. It’s the same for John Engates, CTO for Rackspace Managed Hosting, which has data centres in San Antonio, Tex., Herndon, Va., and London, England. The company has 4,000 Windows servers, 4,000 servers running either Linux or Unix, 50 routers and 500 firewalls it maintains for customers.

“Software will never be perfect and will always require diligence and good security practices to maintain it,” Engates says. He says patching routers and firewalls is more like updating versions of software, but there is still a formal process that begins with network engineers who monitor discussion boards and security sites. “They eat and breathe this,” Engates says.

After a new patch is identified, a lead engineer is notified. If the patch is for a critical flaw, notification is sent straight to the vice-president of engineering, who decides if the patch is needed and structures the process toward deployment, if necessary. If the patch is for a router, the lead engineer carries out the patching plan, from calling in the right people to building automated deployment scripts.

The patch is tested in Rackspace’s lab, a scaled replica of its network. “The testing length depends on how big a patch it is,” Engates says. The patch is rolled out within a pre-scheduled maintenance window, and the engineering team does a postmortem, gathering documented changes and evaluating the process.

“When we feel like we are in danger of being exploited, then we will open an emergency (maintenance) window and do the patching,” he says. On the server side, Engates says the process is a bit different because customers are responsible for some patching chores. He says Linux also is a unique platform because it doesn’t have as many user-friendly tools as Windows, although Microsoft’s tools have their own consistency issues. “We have no formal (Linux) configuration management tool. There is more human interaction with these servers than on the Windows side,” says Engates, who notes the Windows platform sees a larger percentage of exploit code.

When Rackspace identifies a vulnerability on its Windows servers, a process similar to that for routers and firewalls is followed. Testing is done for a minimum of 48 hours to make sure there are no problems. If problems arise, the patch is put on hold and Microsoft premier support is called in. “We pay for this service, and it is very important we maintain this relationship,” Engates says. The operating system team is ultimately responsible for giving the go-ahead to install the patch, and Microsoft’s SMS is used to roll it out to the live network.

“We maintain an internal knowledgebase, which documents the changes, processes and procedures so we don’t make mistakes,” he says. “Mistakes are bad.”

Open season on clients

David Giambruno, director of strategic infrastructure and security for Pitney Bowes, says the big patching challenge now is scale. “In the past (six months) there have been new types of attacks that go after the clients,” he says. “It’s not just the servers anymore, and it’s increased the scale of the problem.” He says Pitney Bowes has thousands of servers and clients to go along with hundreds of routers and switches. Giambruno says patching clients used to be a natural result of the client upgrade cycle. That no longer works.

“The problem is the speed and the propagation of the worms. We can’t just shut off Port 135 or other networking ports because you shut off your client networking,” he says. Early in the Blaster attack in August, Microsoft advised shutting off Port 135 to stop the spread of the worm. “If I turn off the port, it’s a denial-of-service attack either way,” he says.

Giambruno says the company’s processes for automatically patching servers has been extended to clients. In the wake of Blaster, the company deployed software from BigFix that provides a holistic view of the entire network, which stretches across 18 countries.

“If someone turns off anti-virus software on their desktop, BigFix turns it back on. If it’s not installed, BigFix installs it,” says Giambruno, who says automating processes is the only way to make patch management economical. Pitney Bowes categorizes all its network assets and their relevance to the company. Client desktops are given a risk profile from one to five, with five being the clients that must be the most secure.

“Everything we report on has to be actionable,” he says. For instance, desktops rated a five must be patched in less than 24 hours. “Inventory is immensely critical. We built a network-detection tool, and we know everything plugged into our network. Network creep is the enemy,” he says.

Pitney Bowes has a hierarchy to its patch process that includes global and regional patch delivery teams. The global team consists of representatives from the regional teams. When a vulnerability is identified, Pitney Bowes assesses the potential impact by using its data catalogue to identify vulnerable systems, where they are and what they support.

After the assessment, the global team or a regional team will take responsibility for the patch, depending on the systems it effects. Then the process of testing, deployment and documenting begins. “

We are getting really good at this,” Giambruno says. He says the worst security incidents have taken from 1,000 to 1,500 hours to correct. That time is now down to 75, with a goal of ultimately reducing it to 20. He says success comes from many fronts but includes senior management acceptance, maturation of the delivery teams and the fact that people have bought into the philosophy.

“Viruses don’t care who you are. They will infect you and take down your entire network,” Giambruno says. “You’ll make some errors, but you have to develop some processes.”

Would you recommend this article?


Thanks for taking the time to let us know what you think of this article!
We'd love to hear your opinion about this or any other story you read in our publication.

Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

Featured Download

Featured Article

ADaPT connects employers with highly skilled young workers

Help wanted. That’s what many tech companies across Canada are saying, and research shows that as the demand for skilled workers...

Related Tech News

Tech Jobs

Our experienced team of journalists and bloggers bring you engaging in-depth interviews, videos and content targeted to IT professionals and line-of-business executives.

Tech Companies Hiring Right Now