Survey Finds Patch Management An Ongoing Challenge For Many Companies - InformationWeek

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3/3/2005
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Survey Finds Patch Management An Ongoing Challenge For Many Companies

Spyware and viruses are among the top concerns, and user downtime is a worrisome consequence when viruses spread.

Only about one in five companies is "completely prepared" for the next virus attack, according to the results of a survey of 150 IT professionals who manage software updates for their companies. The biggest problem when businesses are hit by a virus is user downtime.

The survey, completed last month by research firm InsightExpress and commissioned by SupportSoft Inc., a developer of software for managing software updates, portrays patch management as an ongoing issue that poses a variety of risks. For example, patching still takes a week or longer at about a quarter of companies. That compares with 19% of respondents who say their IT organizations distribute patches to all computers within hours and 57% that do the job in days.

When asked how well prepared their IT organizations were for a virus attack, three-quarters are only "somewhat prepared," compared with 21.3% that are completely prepared. "It shows companies are struggling to get a handle on patching," says Michael Cherry, an analyst with Directions On Microsoft.

The biggest concern among survey respondents is spyware, cited by 25%, followed by viruses and other kinds of malicious software. The most difficult part of patch management is an inability to update all systems with a single patch (24% of respondents) and the sheer number of patches that need to be distributed each month (21%).

Keeping up with Microsoft's monthly security bulletins and associated software patches has been a challenge for some IT departments. In February, Microsoft issued a dozen security bulletins that addressed 17 vulnerabilities in Windows or its other products. This month, Microsoft customers may get a respite. The company said Thursday it doesn't plan to issue any new security bulletins next week when it would normally do so. The last time Microsoft went a month without issuing patches was more than a year ago.

The negative effect most associated with viruses is end-user downtime, cited by 43% of respondents to the InsightExpress survey. Security holes created by a virus are a distant second at 13%.

Patching doesn't seem to be taking a huge bite out of IT budgets. Patch management accounts for no more than 10% of IT costs at 97% of companies surveyed.

Chris Grejtak, senior VP of products and marketing with SupportSoft, says the survey underscores that remote and mobile computers are particularly hard to keep updated. Three-quarters of respondents identified remote or mobile users as the main reason they couldn't patch all computers on the first attempt. "It gets back to the dramatic increase in the number of laptops in operation," he says. SupportSoft's Patch Plus helps IT administrators check the status of distributed PCs to ensure that they get patched.

Microsoft's Systems Management Server 2003 is used by some large companies to distribute updates to Microsoft products. Microsoft is scheduled to release this month an automatic update service called Microsoft Update that makes it easier for consumers and small businesses to update multiple products from a single location on Microsoft's Web site. A do-it-yourself patch system called Windows Update Services for midsize businesses is in testing now and due in the first half of this year.

Analyst Cherry agrees that reaching all PCs with software updates is a problem for many companies. "You do have the problem of getting it to all the end points."

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