Data shows that 99% of successful cyber attacks take advantage of vulnerabilities that have been public for at least a year. As we move towards our goal of digital transformation, in addition to the 2 million available apps, we write more than 111 billion lines of software code each year. The rate at which new applications, software, and websites are created is creating a huge increase in the number of security holes for attackers to exploit. Many of these vulnerabilities cannot be fixed or fixed immediately, which is the reason why we need virtual patching.
What is Virtual Patching?
Virtual patching (or hot patching) is an urgent measure to prevent attacks and urgently implement security policies. It creates a temporary layer of security to ensure that attackers cannot exploit a known vulnerability.
Also known as external patching, virtual patching by itself neither modifies the source code nor fixes vulnerabilities. It only provides a layer of security by analyzing web traffic, blocking early-stage attacks, and blocking malicious actors and bad requests that serve to exploit vulnerabilities. It basically acts as a shield between the traffic and the application and if effective, prevents attacks from happening.
Why is virtual patching important?
One of the most common questions is why don’t we fix the code and vulnerability instead of virtual patching?
In reality, it is not always possible to quickly fix the code or release an update in a timely manner. Data shows that it takes 50 to 140 days to fix critical vulnerabilities. Letting vulnerabilities persist for such a long time creates an opportunity for hackers to attack websites/apps.
There are also other reasons why vulnerabilities cannot be fixed immediately such as:
- The source code cannot be edited by the client; the developer has to fix the code. This is the case when the business is outsourcing coding or the organization is using third-party software or services.
- Vendors may not be able to release patches in a timely manner, and it may take longer to officially release the update.
- Not all vulnerabilities can be fixed due to budget and financial constraints. There are many vulnerabilities so fixing them all will be such a huge financial burden. So organizations tend to prioritize fixing critical and high-risk vulnerabilities first.
- The organization may be using old code or a product for which the vendor is no longer active, so a fix is impossible. Upgrading/migrating from legacy systems or applications can be expensive and time-consuming, and the disruption caused by that process is a huge loss to revenue.
Those are the cases where virtual patching becomes important. While it’s just an external layer of protection, it helps protect apps/websites from attacks, which gives organizations and developers time to fix vulnerabilities.
Advantages of virtual patching
- Limit “downtime,” keeping critical components online while the organization develops a permanent fix.
- Virtual patching is scalable because it does not need to be installed on all servers but only needs to be done from a few locations.
- In the case of low-risk vulnerabilities, virtual patching saves an organization time, money, and effort.
- It helps organizations maintain a normal patch cycle.
- Virtual patching provides a footprint of attack intent and can be a data point to further improve defensive posture for the future (permanent user blocking, IP blocking).
Disadvantages of Virtual Patching
- Virtual patching is a temporary and external repair method that does not completely fix the problem. It doesn’t fix the underlying vulnerability/misconfiguration/encryption. It only prevents the immediate crisis, giving developers more time to fix vulnerabilities.
- The virtual patch only addresses some of the ways the vulnerability can be exploited, it may not prevent all the different entry points. Which is in some cases, it only reduces the risk but does not completely block the vulnerability and hackers can still attack with different input.
In today’s dynamic environment where it is very difficult to keep up with and fix all the vulnerabilities, Virtual Patching is a lifesaver. However, it is also important to note that virtual patching is only an emergency solution to reduce risk and not an actual solution. Virtual patching needs to be part of a comprehensive security solution to keep your organization’s information secure.