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Mission-Critical You Say? Yes, You Can Patch It
Operational technology (OT) requires protective cybersecurity measures just like any other system – and even more so given that some OT supports mission-critical environments such as power stations and air traffic control systems.
However, OT has unique characteristics that make some security practices – such as vulnerability patching – tough to accomplish. This is due to a combination of factors including legacy systems, real-time constraints, availability requirements, complex environments, and cybersecurity risks.
In this article, we’ll look at the challenges behind patching OT, and what organizations can do to ensure that their mission-critical operational technology remains safe and secure against vulnerabilities.
Some Technology Just Can’t Go Offline
OT, which commonly includes things like industrial control systems (ICS) are critical systems used in various industries, such as manufacturing, energy, and transportation.
While in the past, the recommendation was to isolate these systems from the internet to enhance security and reduce the risk of cyber-attacks – it has become increasingly impossible to achieve isolation because so much of OT is connected to the internet, thanks in part to the proliferation of connected devices and the Internet of Things (IoT). OT and ICS are found in places like:
- Nuclear power plants: ICS controls and monitors various aspects of the plant’s operation. These systems are highly critical, and taking them offline completely can disrupt power generation and impact the stability of the power grid – as well as risk nuclear safety,
- Air traffic control systems: The air traffic control infrastructure relies on complex OT to manage and monitor aircraft movement, communication, and navigation. Taking these systems offline for patching can severely impact the safety and efficiency of air traffic management.
- Water treatment facilities: Water treatment plants employ ICS to manage and optimize the treatment process, monitor water quality, and control the distribution of clean water. Shutting down these systems for patching can disrupt the water supply and potentially affect public health.
In each of these examples, the goal is to balance the need for security updates with the requirement of uninterrupted operations. After all, if you don’t briefly interrupt operations to achieve security objectives, you risk that a threat actor causes an extended, catastrophic interruption to your operations.
Organizations employ a combination of risk management strategies, including patching, network segmentation, redundancy, and other security measures, to maintain the availability and reliability of critical OT and ICS systems while addressing security vulnerabilities.
It Isn’t Easy to Patch Either
As part of that process, companies can find that patching is one of the more difficult objectives to achieve. Securely patching OT and ICS presents several unique challenges:
- Inability to take systems offline: These systems are designed to run continuously without interruptions. Taking them offline for patching or maintenance can disrupt operations, leading to significant financial losses or potential risks to public safety.
- Physical inaccessibility: OT and ICS systems are frequently located in remote or hard-to-reach areas, such as oil rigs, mines, or wind farms. These environments may lack proper network connectivity or have limited access for IT personnel.
- Legacy technology and lack of patches: Many OT and ICS systems were developed and deployed several years ago when security concerns were not as prevalent. These legacy systems were not designed with modern security features in mind, often running on outdated or proprietary operating systems that are no longer supported.
Given these challenges, organizations adopt a risk-based approach to OT and ICS security. This involves implementing compensating controls, such as network segmentation, intrusion detection systems, and continuous monitoring, to minimize the risk posed by unpatched systems.
It is also essential to prioritize regular security assessments, vulnerability management, and incident response planning to mitigate the potential impact of security incidents in these critical systems.
But what if an organization could effectively, and consistently, patch instead?
Consider Automated, Rebootless Patching
Automated, rebootless patching, also known as live patching, can be a valuable solution for companies dealing with difficult-to-patch OT and ICS.
The ability to implement a security update on an active, operational IT service without needing to reboot is a game-changer because it means that OT and ICS systems can stay online during the patching process.
Given that OT plays such a crucial role in the functioning of critical infrastructure, and that traditional patching methods that require system rebooting can introduce operational risks and downtime, here’s how live patching can help:
- Continuous system availability: Live patching allows companies to apply patches to OT and ICS systems without interrupting their operation. Critical services can remain online by eliminating the need for system reboots, minimizing the impact on overall operations.
- Reduced downtime and disruption: Traditional patching methods often require scheduled maintenance windows, which can result in significant downtime and disruption to operations. With live patching, companies can apply patches on the fly, reducing or eliminating the need for planned downtime.
- Compliance and regulatory requirements: In industries such as energy, healthcare, and transportation, compliance with strict regulatory standards around patching is essential. Live patching helps by keeping systems consistently up to date with the latest security patches and software updates without disrupting critical operations.
- Enhanced patch management: Live patching systems often come with centralized patch management capabilities. This allows organizations to streamline their patching processes, track patch deployment status, and manage patches across many OT and ICS devices – all from a single console.
Overall, live patching improves efficiency, reduces human errors, and ensures a more watertight approach to security patching.
Consistent vulnerability patching – thanks to live patching – is even more powerful when combined with a robust cybersecurity posture. Organizations that live patch while also applying carefully considered network segmentation, access controls, and monitoring will stand the best chance of protecting OT systems from potential threats.
To find out more about how live patching can help your organization protect your OT you can read our page on live patching for critical infrastructure here.