Sysadmin 101: Patch Management

A few articles ago, I started a Sysadmin 101 series to pass down some fundamental knowledge about systems administration that the current generation of junior sysadmins, DevOps engineers or "full stack" developers might not learn otherwise. I had thought that I was done with the series, but then the WannaCry malware came out and exposed some of the poor patch management practices still in place in Windows networks. I imagine some readers that are still stuck in the Linux versus Windows wars of the 2000s might have even smiled with a sense of superiority when they heard about this outbreak.

The reason I decided to revive my Sysadmin 101 series so soon is I realized that most Linux system administrators are no different from Windows sysadmins when it comes to patch management. Honestly, in some areas (in particular, uptime pride), some Linux sysadmins are even worse than Windows sysadmins regarding patch management. So in this article, I cover some of the fundamentals of patch management under Linux, including what a good patch management system looks like, the tools you will want to put in place and how the overall patching process should work.

What Is Patch Management?

When I say patch management, I'm referring to the systems you have in place to update software already on a server. I'm not just talking about keeping up with the latest-and-greatest bleeding-edge version of a piece of software. Even more conservative distributions like Debian that stick with a particular version of software for its "stable" release still release frequent updates that patch bugs or security holes.

Of course, if your organization decided to roll its own version of a particular piece of software, either because developers demanded the latest and greatest, you needed to fork the software to apply a custom change, or you just like giving yourself extra work, you now have a problem. Ideally you have put in a system that automatically packages up the custom version of the software for you in the same continuous integration system you use to build and package any other software, but many sysadmins still rely on the outdated method of packaging the software on their local machine based on (hopefully up to date) documentation on their wiki. In either case, you will need to confirm that your particular version has the security flaw, and if so, make sure that the new patch applies cleanly to your custom version.

What Good Patch Management Looks Like

Patch management starts with knowing that there is a software update to begin with. First, for your core software, you should be subscribed to your Linux distribution's security mailing list, so you're notified immediately when there are security patches. If there you use any software that doesn't come from your distribution, you must find out how to be kept up to date on security patches for that software as well. When new security notifications come in, you should review the details so you understand how severe the security flaw is, whether you are affected and gauge a sense of how urgent the patch is.

Some organizations have a purely manual patch management system. With such a system, when a security patch comes along, the sysadmin figures out which servers are running the software, generally by relying on memory and by logging in to servers and checking. Then the sysadmin uses the server's built-in package management tool to update the software with the latest from the distribution. Then the sysadmin moves on to the next server, and the next, until all of the servers are patched.

There are many problems with manual patch management. First is the fact that it makes patching a laborious chore. The more work patching is, the more likely a sysadmin will put it off or skip doing it entirely. The second problem is that manual patch management relies too much on the sysadmin's ability to remember and recall all of the servers he or she is responsible for and keep track of which are patched and which aren't. This makes it easy for servers to be forgotten and sit unpatched.

The faster and easier patch management is, the more likely you are to do it. You should have a system in place that quickly can tell you which servers are running a particular piece of software at which version. Ideally, that system also can push out updates. Personally, I prefer orchestration tools like MCollective for this task, but Red Hat provides Satellite, and Canonical provides Landscape as central tools that let you view software versions across your fleet of servers and apply patches all from a central place.

Patching should be fault-tolerant as well. You should be able to patch a service and restart it without any overall down time. The same idea goes for kernel patches that require a reboot. My approach is to divide my servers into different high availability groups so that lb1, app1, rabbitmq1 and db1 would all be in one group, and lb2, app2, rabbitmq2 and db2 are in another. Then, I know I can patch one group at a time without it causing downtime anywhere else.

So, how fast is fast? Your system should be able to roll out a patch to a minor piece of software that doesn't have an accompanying service (such as bash in the case of the ShellShock vulnerability) within a few minutes to an hour at most. For something like OpenSSL that requires you to restart services, the careful process of patching and restarting services in a fault-tolerant way probably will take more time, but this is where orchestration tools come in handy. I gave examples of how to use MCollective to accomplish this in my recent MCollective articles (see the December 2016 and January 2017 issues), but ideally, you should put a system in place that makes it easy to patch and restart services in a fault-tolerant and automated way.

When patching requires a reboot, such as in the case of kernel patches, it might take a bit more time, but again, automation and orchestration tools can make this go much faster than you might imagine. I can patch and reboot the servers in an environment in a fault-tolerant way within an hour or two, and it would be much faster than that if I didn't need to wait for clusters to sync back up in between reboots.

Unfortunately, many sysadmins still hold on to the outdated notion that uptime is a badge of pride—given that serious kernel patches tend to come out at least once a year if not more often, to me, it's proof you don't take security seriously.

Many organizations also still have that single point of failure server that can never go down, and as a result, it never gets patched or rebooted. If you want to be secure, you need to remove these outdated liabilities and create systems that at least can be rebooted during a late-night maintenance window.

Ultimately, fast and easy patch management is a sign of a mature and professional sysadmin team. Updating software is something all sysadmins have to do as part of their jobs, and investing time into systems that make that process easy and fast pays dividends far beyond security. For one, it helps identify bad architecture decisions that cause single points of failure. For another, it helps identify stagnant, out-of-date legacy systems in an environment and provides you with an incentive to replace them. Finally, when patching is managed well, it frees up sysadmins' time and turns their attention to the things that truly require their expertise.

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Kyle Rankin is senior security and infrastructure architect, the author of many books including Linux Hardening in Hostile Networks, DevOps Troubleshooting and The Official Ubuntu Server Book, and a columnist for Linux Journal. Follow him @kylerankin