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Windows systems are notorious for requiring frequent patching, but in some ways, Linux patch management is even more complicated due to the distributed nature of the OS.
Desktop patching has become a routine maintenance chore for admins, and enterprise networks increasingly include a mix of desktop OSes. Therefore, it's important for all desktop administrators -- even those who focus on Windows -- to learn Linux patch management best practices and how this process works.
Thankfully, there are a variety of tools and resources available to help administrators educate themselves on this topic. IT admins should learn these three Linux patch management best practices before they perform Linux maintenance.
Identify the Linux systems and versions that IT needs to patch
At a high level, Linux patch management best practices are actually similar to Windows patch management best practices. The process involves scanning the Linux desktops for missing patches, downloading those patches from the vendor's site and then deploying the patches. While this process sounds simple, it can be anything but for admins.
After all, each vendor distributes its own patches, and the patches designed for one distribution will not work with another. Similarly, patches are OS version-specific, so IT professionals will have to ensure they apply the patches to the proper version of the correct distribution.
Choose a Linux patching tool with the proper native support
One of the most essential Linux patch management best practices is to match a Linux patching tool with the appropriate systems. Each Linux vendor and distribution has its own method of distributing patches. While there are similarities across the most common Linux distributions, there are countless nuanced differences.
For example, Red Hat enables live kernel patching, which doesn't require a reboot, using a tool called Kpatch. Kpatch is available on GitHub and designed to work with other Linux distributions, such as Fedora, Ubuntu and Debian. However, these Linux distribution vendors may not support Kpatch -- and for good reason. GitHub provides a warning for admins that they should use Kpatch with caution. The site indicates that "kernel crashes, spontaneous reboots and data loss may occur."
There are two Linux patch management best practices to follow that will help admins avoid these issues. The first is to only use native tools that officially support the specific Linux distribution vendor, such as Red Hat officially supporting Kpatch. The other option for Linux desktop admins is to adopt a reputable third-party patch management tool, such as Automox, ManageEngine Desktop Central or GFI LanGuard.
One of the greatest benefits of adopting a Linux patch management tool is that it can automate the processes of determining which patches are required. It also automates the process of acquiring those patches and deploying the patches to the correct systems.
It is also worth noting that many third-party patch management tools are designed to work in cross-platform environments. In addition to supporting the various Linux distributions across an organization, some of the third-party tools can also patch Windows and macOS systems.
Always test and audit Linux patches before distributing them
Regardless of which tool an organization ultimately decides to use, it is important for organizations to adopt a regimented patch management plan. One of the key components of such a plan is to develop a procedure for testing new patches. This typically means applying those patches to a few test Linux systems to ensure that the patches do not cause any problems. This can save IT admins from rolling out a faulty patch that causes issues with all the Linux desktops across the organization.
Patch auditing is another key component of a good patch management plan. It's not enough to simply trust the patch management tool to download and distribute Linux patches. Linux administrators must have a way to verify that the patches have been installed and identify any systems that are not up to date. Most third-party Linux patch management tools natively include these types of reporting capabilities. However, if a tool is missing this capability, then the IT professionals must come up with their own auditing system.