Windows v Linux security: the real facts

Nicholas Petreley stacks them up


Report Considering the publicity that has surrounded - and, despite super new security-focused Service Packs, continues to surround - Windows security issues, Microsoft's determination to demonstrate that Linux is less secure than Windows shows a certain chutzpah. The company has however had some support here; Forrester, for example, provides some numbers that can be used to support the contention that Microsoft flaws are less severe, less numerous and fixed faster. And although there's a general readiness among users to believe that Windows is a security disaster area, there's also a reasonable amount of support for the view that Linux would get just as many security issues if it had anything like Windows' user base.

But what's the truth? For every claim there is, somewhere, a counterclaim. But until now there has been no systematic and detailed effort to address Microsoft's major security bullet points in report form. In a new analysis published here, however, Nicholas Petreley* sets out to correct this deficit, considering the claims one at a time in detail, and providing assessments backed by hard data. Petreley concludes that Microsoft's efforts to dispel Linux 'myths' are based largely on faulty reasoning and overly narrow statistical analysis. Even if you think you know this already (as we fear may be the case for numerous Register readers), we think you'll find it useful to be able to say why you know it, what the facts and the numbers really are, and where you can get the document to back up what you're saying. Appropriately enough, we're offering the report for free. You can browse through it here, and you can download it in PDF format here.

We encourage you all to grab a copy and give it a good read, but as a service for the fast fact junkies, we've produced a few bullet points of our own. All of these are clearly supported (unlike some similar efforts you might find elsewhere) by Nicholas' report, but don't just take our word for that, check it against the full report.

Myths and Facts

Myth Windows only gets attacked most because it's such a big target, and if Linux use (or indeed OS X use) grew then so would the number of attacks.
Fact When it comes to web servers, the biggest target is Apache, the Internet's server of choice. Attacks on Apache are nevertheless far fewer in number, and cause less damage. And in some case Apache-related attacks have the most serious effect on Windows machines. Attacks are of course aimed at Windows because of the numbers of users, but its design makes it a much easier target, and much easier for an attack to wreak havoc. Windows' widespread (and often unnecessary) use of features such as RPC meanwhile adds vulnerabilities that really need not be there. Linux's design is not vulnerable in the same ways, and no matter how successful it eventually becomes it simply cannot experience attacks to similar levels, inflicting similar levels of damage, to Windows.

Myth Open Source Software is inherently dangerous because its source code is widely available, whereas Windows 'blueprints' are carefully guarded by Microsoft.
Fact This 'inherent danger' clearly has not manifested itself in terms of actual attacks. Windows-specific viruses, Trojans, worms and malicious programs exist in huge numbers, so if one gives any credence at all to this claim, one would do better to phrase it 'Open Source Software ought to be more dangerous'. But the claim itself hinges on the view - rejected by reputable security professionals - that obscurity aids security. Obscurity/secrecy can also make it more difficult for the vendors themselves to identify vulnerabilities in their own products, and can lead to security issues being neglected because they are not widely-known. The Open Source model, on the other hand, facilitates widespread review and makes it easier to identify and correct flaws. Modular design principles support this, while the overall approach is far more in line with security industry thinking than is 'security through obscurity.'

Myth Statistics 'prove' that Windows has fewer, less serious security issues than Linux, that Windows issues are always fixed, and that they are fixed faster.
Fact Quite a broad collection of 'facts' exist in this category, but what they have in common is the (actual) fact that they are usually based on single metrics, on a single aspect of measuring security. Claims that all Windows flaws get fixed are baffling when we consider that there are Microsoft Security Bulletins saying some flaws will never be fixed, and the existence of these also makes it tricky to understand how the fix rate could ever get to be 100 per cent. In the case of Forrester, which produces the 100 per cent as the Windows result for one of several metrics, it is arrived at through tallying flaws and fixes within a specific period. In the same metric Red Hat 'comes second', on the basis that one flaw was not fixed within the period. This is a rickety base for Microsoft (not, note, Forrester) to build a security campaign on.

This aside, simply claiming that Windows is more secure than Linux because the time from discovery of vulnerability to release of patch is greater for Linux skips consideration of the importance of what gets fixed. A comparison of 40 recent security patches with reference to Windows Server 2003 and Red Hat Advanced Server AS v3 shows that Windows experienced the most severe security holes, while Red Hat had only a handful (four) which rated as critical. It is also arguable that Microsoft understates vulnerabilities in Windows Server, because some flaws are deemed not critical for Server on the basis of system defaults which are in many operational scenarios impossible to adhere to. For Red Hat, on the other hand, there is an argument that in Petrelely's analysis we have overstated the extent of critical vulnerabilities (Red Hat does not assign severity levels), and very few of them would allow a malicious hacker to perform mischief at administrator level.

If we reality-check these conclusions against another scale, we find that vulnerability metrics used by the US Computer Emergency Readiness Team (CERT) return 250 results for Microsoft, with 39 having a severity rating of 40 or greater, and 46 for Red Hat, with only three scoring over 40. So simply making claims based on that one metric (as Steve Ballmer did, again, earlier this week) is like judging a hospital's effectiveness in dealing with emergency cardiac care from its average speed in dealing with all patients.

Reliance on a single metrics is a major feature of Microsoft's Get the Facts campaign, and this is perhaps understandable if we consider what the campaign is. It is essentially a marketing-driven campaign intended to 'get the message across' with data used to back up the message (note that Microsoft would not necessarily disagree with us here). However, by their nature marketing campaigns push specific, favourable headline items and magnify their significance. They do not necessarily (even usually) accurately reflect the underlying data, and frequently outrun it by some distance. And this process is actually easily illustrated by the Forrester report we linked to earlier on. Get the Facts pulls out the 100 per cent fix and fewest vulnerabilities bullets, while the report itself talks of its use of three metrics and (if we're doing headline items) also says: "ICAT classified 67% of Microsoft's vulnerabilities as high severity, placing Microsoft dead last among the platform maintainers in this [high severity] metric."

So here right on the front page of its 'data-backed' campaign, Microsoft has stripped a single metric out of the underlying data, paraphrased it and put it in the headline. You don't want to be doing this, so you really do want to read the report.

Security: Linux versus Windows (HTML)
Security: Linux versus Windows (PDF)

* Nicholas Petreley's former lives include editorial director of LinuxWorld, executive editorial of InfoWorld Test Center, and columns on InfoWorld and ComputerWorld. He is the author of the Official Fedora Companion and is co-writing Linux Desktop Hacks for O'Reilly. He is also a part-time Evans Data Analyst and a freelance writer.


Other stories you might like

  • Florida's content-moderation law kept on ice, likely unconstitutional, court says
    So cool you're into free speech because that includes taking down misinformation

    While the US Supreme Court considers an emergency petition to reinstate a preliminary injunction against Texas' social media law HB 20, the US Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals on Monday partially upheld a similar injunction against Florida's social media law, SB 7072.

    Both Florida and Texas last year passed laws that impose content moderation restrictions, editorial disclosure obligations, and user-data access requirements on large online social networks. The Republican governors of both states justified the laws by claiming that social media sites have been trying to censor conservative voices, an allegation that has not been supported by evidence.

    Multiple studies addressing this issue say right-wing folk aren't being censored. They have found that social media sites try to take down or block misinformation, which researchers say is more common from right-leaning sources.

    Continue reading
  • US-APAC trade deal leaves out Taiwan, military defense not ruled out
    All fun and games until the chip factories are in the crosshairs

    US President Joe Biden has heralded an Indo-Pacific trade deal signed by several nations that do not include Taiwan. At the same time, Biden warned China that America would help defend Taiwan from attack; it is home to a critical slice of the global chip industry, after all. 

    The agreement, known as the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF), is still in its infancy, with today's announcement enabling the United States and the other 12 participating countries to begin negotiating "rules of the road that ensure [US businesses] can compete in the Indo-Pacific," the White House said. 

    Along with America, other IPEF signatories are Australia, Brunei, India, Indonesia, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, New Zealand, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. Combined, the White House said, the 13 countries participating in the IPEF make up 40 percent of the global economy. 

    Continue reading
  • 381,000-plus Kubernetes API servers 'exposed to internet'
    Firewall isn't a made-up word from the Hackers movie, people

    A large number of servers running the Kubernetes API have been left exposed to the internet, which is not great: they're potentially vulnerable to abuse.

    Nonprofit security organization The Shadowserver Foundation recently scanned 454,729 systems hosting the popular open-source platform for managing and orchestrating containers, finding that more than 381,645 – or about 84 percent – are accessible via the internet to varying degrees thus providing a cracked door into a corporate network.

    "While this does not mean that these instances are fully open or vulnerable to an attack, it is likely that this level of access was not intended and these instances are an unnecessarily exposed attack surface," Shadowserver's team stressed in a write-up. "They also allow for information leakage on version and build."

    Continue reading
  • A peek into Gigabyte's GPU Arm for AI, HPC shops
    High-performance platform choices are going beyond the ubiquitous x86 standard

    Arm-based servers continue to gain momentum with Gigabyte Technology introducing a system based on Ampere's Altra processors paired with Nvidia A100 GPUs, aimed at demanding workloads such as AI training and high-performance compute (HPC) applications.

    The G492-PD0 runs either an Ampere Altra or Altra Max processor, the latter delivering 128 64-bit cores that are compatible with the Armv8.2 architecture.

    It supports 16 DDR4 DIMM slots, which would be enough space for up to 4TB of memory if all slots were filled with 256GB memory modules. The chassis also has space for no fewer than eight Nvidia A100 GPUs, which would make for a costly but very powerful system for those workloads that benefit from GPU acceleration.

    Continue reading
  • GitLab version 15 goes big on visibility and observability
    GitOps fans can take a spin on the free tier for pull-based deployment

    One-stop DevOps shop GitLab has announced version 15 of its platform, hot on the heels of pull-based GitOps turning up on the platform's free tier.

    Version 15.0 marks the arrival of GitLab's next major iteration and attention this time around has turned to visibility and observability – hardly surprising considering the acquisition of OpsTrace as 2021 drew to a close, as well as workflow automation, security and compliance.

    GitLab puts out monthly releases –  hitting 15.1 on June 22 –  and we spoke to the company's senior director of Product, Kenny Johnston, at the recent Kubecon EU event, about what will be added to version 15 as time goes by. During a chat with the company's senior director of Product, Kenny Johnston, at the recent Kubecon EU event, The Register was told that this was more where dollars were being invested into the product.

    Continue reading
  • To multicloud, or not: Former PayPal head of engineering weighs in
    Not everyone needs it, but those who do need to consider 3 things, says Asim Razzaq

    The push is on to get every enterprise thinking they're missing out on the next big thing if they don't adopt a multicloud strategy.

    That shove in the multicloud direction appears to be working. More than 75 percent of businesses are now using multiple cloud providers, according to Gartner. That includes some big companies, like Boeing, which recently chose to spread its bets across AWS, Google Cloud and Azure as it continues to eliminate old legacy systems. 

    There are plenty of reasons to choose to go with multiple cloud providers, but Asim Razzaq, CEO and founder at cloud cost management company Yotascale, told The Register that choosing whether or not to invest in a multicloud architecture all comes down to three things: How many different compute needs a business has, budget, and the need for redundancy. 

    Continue reading

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2022