Microsoft is considering an external testing programme to improve the quality of its security patches.
Difficulty in applying patches and instances where fixes fail to work properly - or cause unfortunate side effects - have long been an issue in Microsoft shops.
Craig Fiebig, general manager of the Secure Business Unit at Microsoft, acknowledges this is an issue and outlined some of the steps Microsoft is taking to address the problem in the next phase of its Trustworthy Computing push.
"We need to think of the release of a patch in the same way we would the release of a product. There needs to be broader testing," Fiebig said, at the Infosecurity conference in London yesterday.
Particularly when vulnerabilities are actively been exploited, software vendors are under pressure to release fixes quickly - and this works against comprehensive testing.
Fiebig concedes this point and said Microsoft "had to be mindful" of the quality impact of the patches it produced. "There's a trade off and we need to be careful how we do this. Once a vulnerability comes to light the clock starts ticking," he said.
"First you have to apply a triage system, to access the impact of a vulnerability. You need to produce a patch and then test it. Greater testing needs to take place. Microsoft is considering introducing external testing with key customers."
Trustworthy Computing - next steps
Fiebel's comments reinforce a presentation by Mike Nash, MS corporate security veep, at the RSA Conference in California this month (see story).
Microsoft is working towards lowering the total cost of ownership for achieving secure systems, Fiebel said:
"Users shouldn't be taxed for achieving security."
Microsoft can reduce security overheads by making sure products ship with fewer vulnerabilities, simplifying patch management and reducing the amount of downtime needed to apply security fixes. This focus on security will not come at the expense of that favourits MS buzz-word - innovation - Fiebig claims.
"There will still be innovation, but we have to think about what the impact will be in terms of security. Security applies to everything we do at Microsoft: from recruitment and training to what we do with our products," he said.
For those who doubt Microsoft will ever get close to producing secure products, Fiebig points to Microsoft's success in redesigning its core products for the Internet.
Making its infamously flaky code secure is a much bigger challenge for Microsoft, but there are signs it is making real progress on this front, even though it has a long way to go.
With Windows Server 2003, Microsoft is beginning to apply secure by default, by design and deployment ideas. These, together with a re-architecture of IIS, will, hopefully, guard against repetition of the Nimda-style outbreaks, on Windows 2003 boxes, at least. According to Fiebig, by default Windows Server 2003 exposes 60 per cent less surface area to attack than NT4 SP3.
"If attacked a system will fail gracefully, rather than falling over," he said.
Microsoft also wants to make it easier for developers to build secure applications.
Visual Studio .NET 2003 includes improved tools to capture buffer overflows, that perennial source of security vulnerabilities, during build and run-time.
We're sceptical about the chances that this will get anywhere close to reducing security-related programming errors to zero, as Microsoft hopes, but once again this is a step in the right direction.
To simplify security management and operations for its customers, Microsoft will reduce the number of patch installer technologies used across the company and offer new security configuration wizards. Microsoft Baseline Security Analyzer 1.2, due later this year, is designed to make it easier for users to identify unpatched systems.
For IT admins, Microsoft Software Update Services (SUS) and Systems Management Server 2.0 Software Update Feature Pack 1 currently help automate patch installation for the Windows platform.
Later this year, Microsoft will release SUS 2.0, which will include update functionality for a broader set of Microsoft products. Later this year, Microsoft will release Systems Management Server 2003, which will include features such as the ability to automatically install patches during scheduled downtime. ®
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