How NOT to do Patch Management for IT companies

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Man with SlegehammerThis week saw Microsoft Patch Tuesday, the second Tuesday of each month where Microsoft release security patches for their Operating Systems and Applications.

A number of IT companies have since mentioned that they’d observed peculiar behaviour with Windows 7 PC’s since they had been updated, where after booting up, Windows 7 failed to load the Desktop.

While this type of update, one which seems to cause more problems than it fixes, is now rare – it causes gnashing of teeth from clients, who perceive no benefit from such patches and see them as a obstruction to getting on with their work, and naturally it causes pain for IT providers who have to deal with irritated clients.

Let’s turn off Windows Update!

But the way in which some IT companies choose to deal with this challenge scares me. Their thinking goes along the lines of “If Windows Updates are causing my client, and me, a problem then I’ll turn off Windows Updates”.

As the former owner of an MSP I’ve seen examples of this myself when winning a new client away from an incumbent IT provider. PC’s and Servers haven’t been patched for months, if not years. Widely known vulnerabilities aren’t secured. Operating Systems and Applications lag Service Pack’s behind currently supported minimums.

This approach to using the virtual Sledgehammer to crack a Walnut isn’t restricted to patching alone.

  • That Line-of-Business Application doesn’t work. It requires write access to a folder on the C:\ drive, but I’m not sure which folder. I’ll grant Full access to the C:\ drive.
  • This application needs a port opening on the Firewall. We’ve opened the required port, but it still doesn’t seem to be working. Let’s just put the machine in question in a DMZ.
  • This employee needs access to this network folder. I can’t remember which Active Directory group I should add that user to to gain access, so I’ll give the employee’s user account full access to the folder directly.

In each case, instead of providing a best practice granular solution, the IT company is going for the quick fix. Sure, it gets the job done – but at what cost in the long-term?

So how to do Patch Management properly?

If you’re a Managed Service Provider, then you really, really need to be using an Remote Management and Monitoring (RMM) tool. For the purposes of this blog, I’m going to choose GFI Max – I used it in my own MSP, it’s easy to deploy, it’s cost effective and it does patch management very, very well. But you could also consider using any of the excellent RMM tools on the market.

With GFI Max, you deploy an agent to each workstation or server. Once deployed, you have full control over the patches you can deploy to that machine – and not just Microsoft patches, but patches from numerous 3rd Party companies too.

But this isn’t just an “on/off” switch for patches – it allows you to be much more granular in your approach. For instance, instead of automatically deploying patches you can be alerted to the fact they are available, and make a decision on whether to install those patches on a selective basis.

(BTW – GFI Max doesn’t just cover patching, it also highlights vulnerabilities. So you’re constantly being alerted to new weaknesses and how to resolve them).

GFI Max Patch Management Screen Shot

If you decide to automatically install updates, then you can do so on a more granular level. For instance you could choose to install Critical updates, but not Moderate or Low level updates.

GFI Max Patch Management Screen Shot

Naturally you can choose a schedule of when to install updates, and whether to reboot once those updates are applied.

GFI Max Patch Management Screen Shot

Which leads us to the common question that most MSP’s are comfortable with some PC’s being rebooted automatically, but not others – for example, Servers or Mission Critical PC’s.

This is where the granular approach in GFI Max really pays dividends. You could choose to automatically reboot Workstations, but not servers. Or you can tell certain workstations to reboot, but mission critical workstations not to. The benefit of being granular in the approach is that you can deal with Workstations, Servers, Client Sites and even individual machines in a very specific manner – all the while being centrally maintained.

GFI Max Patch Management Screen Shot

This granularity allows you to make choices over how you tackle patch management, not as a “one size fits all”, not as “Patches are on” or “Patches are off” – but in a sensible, intelligent way.

What if I’m a Break/Fix Provider?

If you are an aspiring Managed Service Provider, but most of your clients are still working with you on a Break/Fix basis, then Patch Management is the ideal way to help that client dip their toe into the Managed Services waters.

Let’s take the smallest of clients. One PC, works from home. You speak once a month or so when they need assistance. By installing GFI Max (or your choice of RMM tool) you can offer a secure Patch Management service. Cost to you – likely less than £1. Bill to client? Your choice. £5, £10/month?

Friends Don’t Let Friends Use WSUS!

Of course, the hard-core technicians amongst us will scoff at paying a RMM tool vendor to use their software. “You can do all this stuff for free!”.

You certainly can. You can leave Windows Update turned on automatically for free – but remember the start of this post? It doesn’t always work out for the best.

You can also use WSUS – Windows Software Update Services. It’s a free tool from Microsoft and a centralised way of managing patches. But there’s a phrase that many of us in the MSP market use – “Friends Don’t Let Friends Use WSUS”.

WSUS is fine for an internal IT department managing a single clients infrastructure. But it’s unwieldy, it’s time consuming and it’s noisy. Multiply the time you spend managing one WSUS installation by a dozen, or ten dozen clients – and as an MSP you’re wasting a lot of time and profit.

Conclusion

Turning off Windows Update as a way to solve your Patch Management headaches isn’t the answer.

You can use free tools such as WSUS to do Patch Management, but not effectively across multiple sites.

Or you can install an RMM tool and begin to realise that a Managed Service Provider looks to automate and centrally manage like Patch Management – knowing that their time is better spent undertaking tasks that clients perceive to add real value to the relationship.

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