Carry on Patching

There was an almost uncanny coincidence in the timing of Microsoft’s first ‘patch’ announcement for Windows Server 2003. We all knew that it had to come sometime and it managed to coincide with Gartner’s announcement that "2003 will be the first year in history in which most industries will spend 5% of their IT budgets on security”. Apparently, Enterprise security spending will have grown at a compound annual rate of 28% between 2001 and the end of 2003, while cash-strapped IT budgets overall will have grown only 6% in the same period. Security is no longer a hidden cost of business; it is rapidly becoming the principal cost of doing business in the 21st century, after staffing and other IT costs, which between them chew-up the lion’s share of business income.

Microsoft’s little piece of bad news held its own small silver lining because it illustrated how the company’s ‘Trustworthy Computing Initiative’ (analysed in my Computer Weekly special report last month) is starting to pay off.

‘Secure by design, secure by default and secure by deployment’ is Microsoft’s slogan and while Windows Server 2003 has, according to Microsoft VP Craig Fiebig, a “60% smaller attack surface”, which is a relief, there is that 40% gap remaining, which will be giving us regular, patches for some time to come.

In this case, Microsoft was quick to act in identifying two rather nasty vulnerabilities in Internet Explorer, which would have given real cause for concern in Windows Server 2003’s predecessors. However and because the product is locked-down ‘by-default’ the vulnerabilities, which might conceivably allow an attacker to execute malicious code on a user's system were moderate rather than critical.

Stuart Okin, Microsoft’s Chief Security Office (UK) commented that “Windows 2003 by default is not susceptible to the vulnerability in Internet Explorer" and Jose Lopez, an analyst with Frost & Sullivan, remarked that the arrival of a first patch for Windows Server 2003 had not come as a great surprise and that Microsoft are clearly handling the vulnerability issue better than they had in the past. He added, “The company need time to prove themselves” and that "The evidence is encouraging".

So while Microsoft is busy patching with style, its customers still need to make sure that the fixes are applied, rather than settle back into complacency over Windows Server 2003’s ‘Robocop’ image. More importantly perhaps, if, as many companies do, you are still on Windows NT or Windows 2000, then some serious thought has to be given to upgrading and this, of course is where Gartner’s costs of security start to kick in. Do you stick with an older platform that offers the chance of critical risk or move to one where the risks are classified as moderate? This is where the juggling of budgets arrives, because in theory, security should be a non-negotiable business argument but in practise, it is invariably a poor relation.


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