Software Upgrade Compliance Should Be Your Top IT Priority

In order to do business in today’s economy, companies must meet regulatory upgrade compliance. You need PCI DSSS compliance to handle payments. You need GDPR compliance to have European customers. In the medical field, HIPAA is the leading regulatory order. Every aspect of your business must uphold or fall into compliance, especially your software. Today, software handles most aspects of a business that can be regulated. 

How you store, protect, and secure data are all now mandated by multiple regulating bodies. Compliance with these regulations hangs on your software configuration, and often how your stack works together. Your admin team likely worked hard to ensure that the entire software stack is in compliance with the strict data handling standards we are held to. However, when a software upgrade or patch comes down the line, that is all put in jeopardy.

For the many types of software upgrade compliance required, personal data protection is the most prominently featured. So we will use this as our primary example.

The Balance of Software and Compliance

Keeping your business in compliance is a matter of combined systems. Your servers may only be secure if your firewall is properly configured. Your PHI documents may only be securely stored when all permissions are locked down. Your remote work platform may only be secure when the multifactor login plugin is working. Regulatory standards may even require the integration of specific programs or non-standard modules to be in compliance.

In other words, compliance is a machine and if even one cog (in this case, a configuration) falls out of place, the entire business network could become non-compliant.

Example: Patient data is stored in an encrypted file server. An upgrade to the encryption software causes all new files added to be stored without encryption, which breaks personal data protection regulations.

Software Upgrades Rock the Boat & Reset to Default

When a software upgrade comes down the pipeline, it changes one piece of your in-compliance stack. One element of your business software has its code rearranged, features updated, and quite possibly its settings reset. New features and data have the possibility of throwing off compatibility with other compliant software, but the biggest problem is settings changes.

Cropped shot of a female doctor working on a computer in her office at the hospital doing a software upgrade compliance for  HIPAA protected personal health information (PHI).

Configuration is essential to business compliance, especially for handling HIPAA protected personal health information (PHI). When a software update resets your configuration ‘back to default’ or changes even one setting, there’s no guaranteeing if your business will still be in compliance. In some cases, it may not even still be compatible with other essential elements of the stack.

Example: Your firewall and router work together, only allowing secured channels on custom chosen port numbers. An update to the firewall resets the port permissions to default, closing your custom ports but opening common unsecured ports.

The Risk of Data Loss or Corruption

There is also a small risk of data loss with every software upgrade. Sometimes, features are changed significantly, which results in data reorganization during the upgrade process. Upgrade bugs, process interruptions, and unique use-cases can all cause corruption during the software update. Data can be lost or, worse, entire sections of the software may be corrupted. In rare but not uncommon cases, the entire installation may corrupt.

This is why both backups and professionally managed software updates are essential to business tech best practices.

Example: You upgrade your patient records software, but the variable name for patient age has changed from $age to #age_years. All records of patient ages and functions that rely on this variable are corrupted and patient data is lost.

To Upgrade or Not to Upgrade: The Risk of Skipping Updates

In the tech world, we tend to see software updates as a good thing. They mean the developer is alive and pushing bug fixes – maybe even adding useful features or polishing the UX.  When dealing with individual programs, an upgrade is almost always the smart choice. Working with the latest version (usually) means working with the fastest and most capable version of the software. So we tend to install an upgrade as soon as it’s available. 

But if updates can break your compliance stack, maybe it’s better not to upgrade, right? Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Legacy software grows progressively riskier as updates leave your current version behind. Should you choose to skip the updates coming out for your business software, you will eventually meet the ‘support’ window. That is, the oldest version still supported by the developers and other compatible programs.

Falling behind the curve also means missing out on the latest security features and adaptations to the latest hacker tactics. While you may be fine doing without new software features, the security updates that come with upgrading will eventually become necessary to maintain data-security compliance.

Example: You choose not to upgrade your core document manager to maintain compatibility with an old website feature. However, a recent security hole was discovered and then patched with an update. You do not install the upgrade and a hacker uses this vulnerability to steal patient files from the document manager database.

Leaving Upgrades to Employees

Another serious and very common risk is when employees upgrade the business software on their own devices. Even if their device was configured initially, or the team configured their devices into compliance together, every upgrade puts that compliance at risk. Individual upgrades are dangerous because most employees are not trained in software stack management. Even IT admins who know their stuff are not all trained in the layers of software configuration needed for both stack-compatibility and compliance.

The two things most likely to go wrong are upgrade configuration-resets and compatibility errors.

Update Configuration Compliance

The average employee does not know how to check the program’s settings and ensure the right compliance-critical settings are in place. They may not even know this is necessary – assuming that “company software” will take care of compliance issues for them. Even if that software is developed by a third party.

Example: An employee casually updates their data entry software, which resets the idle time-out feature. They do not realize and leave their device logged in, allowing a coworker or family member to gain authorized employee-level access to patient documents.

Breaking Compatibility with Updates

Compatibility issues occur because not all software in your stack is updated simultaneously – or in ways designed to mesh. Sometimes, an upgrade will render two programs in your stack incompatible – or their settings will need to be adjusted to make them compatible again. As we’ve mentioned, when your stack stops working together, your entire stack may fall out of compliance until the issue is resolved.

Neither of these issues are things that an employee managing their own work computer is prepared to resolve.

Example: Your team uses a collaboration platform with an essential file-converter plugin installed. However, after your team installs the new platform upgrade, the plugin no longer works because the settings are not compatible.

What is Required to Perform Compliant Software Updates?

We have covered how software upgrades pose a threat to compliance, and how they are unavoidably necessary. So how do we resolve this imbalance? This is a question businesses across the world are tackling. The solution will come from understanding what is required to both update your software and keep your entire business-stack working in functional compliance.

Awareness of Regulations

First, we must be aware of the regulations that are to be maintained. In today’s landscape, there are more than a few regulations to manage. Where regulations overlap, naturally choose the highest necessary standard to meet. Whoever conducts software updates will need full awareness of what compliance means and how it might be broken in the course of the software update.

Stack Compatibility Maintenance

Next, we need awareness of stack compatibility. How does it all fit together? Which settings make the fully-functioning software stack possible? The answer to these questions is essential because every upgrade means ensuring backward or lateral compatibility before installing the changes.

Checking and Restoring Compliant Settings

Once the update is installed, every setting needs to be checked and secured in the compliance-necessary position. Default settings must be restored to custom settings. Apps that lose compatibility must b reconfigured to work together again. This is where awareness of regulations comes back into play, re-checking the updated stack to ensure it remains in compliance.

Backups and Test Environment

Lastly, we need a test environment. Never push an update to your live servers without running compatibility and compliance tests in a test environment. Take backups of your system before making changes. Run a full simulated upgrade to identify all problems before they happen. This way, any real risk of corrupted data or a security breach is minimized.

Centralizing the Software Upgrade Process for Uninterrupted Compliance

The best solution available through modern technology is to centralize the upgrade process. Put the responsibility of researching, testing, and pushing software updates in the hands of an expert or team of experts who understand the risks. When a skilled software admin approaches a version upgrade, they examine the changelog, weigh the possibilities, and build a test environment.

The company’s software stack is then duplicated in the test environment and the upgrade implemented. Changes are identified, good and bad. Positive changes are noted so awareness is maintained. Negative changes are corrected so that security is restored, defaults are reloaded to custom settings, and compliance is not put at risk.

Only then will a centralized update be pushed to employee devices. This push will include not only the software upgrade, but also the necessary immediate follow-up process to restore compliance and compatibility. All without employees having to worry about the details.

Put Upgrade Compliance Into Effect

If you are building a software upgrade compliance solution, we can help. Here at NetTech, we understand how vital it is for modern businesses to stay in compliance with software and data security regulations. We can help you build a centralized upgrade process managed by pros who know how to handle a compliant software stack. Contact us today to consult on your upgrade compliance solution.