Friday, February 24, 2006

Will monthly patch cycles survive the year?

Microsoft's regularly scheduled (once a month) security updates have received a great deal of criticism in the security community. The practice delays (in theory up to a month) the rollout of vital Windows patches and leaves customers exposed to worms, viruses, adware, spyware and outright hacking for more calendar days than the previous ad-hoc rollout of patches (e.g. as soon as they were ready). In today's world, where exploit code and worms show up within hours or days, these delays can be devastating. The monthly patch strategy has probably helped Microsoft with one key metric -- reducing the number of headlines per month about the latest vulnerability. In the months before Microsoft changed from ad-hoc security patch releases to a monthly schedule, negative security headlines were appearing almost daily. These headlines had begun percolating into the public unconscious, contributing generally to a vague but increasingly common perception that Windows is "insecure". Even though most people don't konw what that means, if you stop random folk on the street and ask about Windows, a significant percentage will tell you Windows is insecure. (RocketBoom dis this recently when they asked, Internet Explorer or firefox?) That torrent of negative headlines was perceived in Redmond as creating potential switchers (to Macintosh or to Linux) not among the unwashed masses, but where it counts -- the corporations on whom Microsoft has had a mind lock for more than a full decade now. The rapid growth of a tumor on the achilles heal of Windows may have contributed to the change in release policy, but that doesn't mean the change itself is entirely bad. By introducing some regularity into the patching lifecyle of Windows, Microsoft may have given IT shops everywhere the lever they needed to convince management to dedicate more resources to patching Windows, and to realize the true (substantial) expense involved. Regular monthly updates have also forced the IT community -- vendors and customer alike -- to get better at patching Windows systems. Prior to this regular and predictable delivery, most companies were still in serious denial about the need to rapidly deploy patches. They were typically going through painful gyrations to determine if every single patch applied to them or not, if they could skip deploying them, etc. in a futile effort to contain workload. They tended to lump the patches themselves into deliveries a few times each year. Now they've been forced by the regular delivery of dozens of patches at once, each month, to come to grips with more or less the non-stop patch deployment process. It can still take many days or weeks to deploy patches in a typical medium sized enterprises (say, one with more than 10,000 nodes), but that's down significantly from many months. Other vendors have been delivering patches in this regularly scheduled way, too, notably Oracle which has also been criticized by customers for untimely patch delivery (and poor documentation of patches). Despite this little ray of sunshine, it's been looking like the monthly patch cycle won't remain viable. Vendors will soon see their customers demanding weekly patch cycles, at least. What will drive this? The Patch Gap is too large in the era of the botnet and the zero day worm, driven by organized crime and state sponsored espionage. The problem with regular patch cycles is that the vendors and customers are both hoping that certain vulnerabilities have not yet been discovered by the cracker underground. Given the large number of vulnerabilities which are discovered each month, and the long period of time in which those vulnerabilities existed in widely deployed software (often years) it's almost certain that this hope is in vain. Crackers certainly know about some of these defects, and know how to exploit them, sometimes years before the script kiddies find them. Evidence that some cracker groups are well funded, probably state or corporation sponsored is mounting. Most recently a few stories have appeared which suggest that several well organized attacks have been traced back to China where state sponsorship is suspected, and industrial and governmental espionage is the motivation. Organized crime and state sponsored internet espionage rings can and do use the same techniques to explore production software for defects in a laboratory environment. The bad guys have the same debuggers and virtual machines and compilers and sniffers and Nessus plugins and documentation that are available to security researchers. The main difference is that the good guys often do this kind of research on a shoestring budget in their spare time, whereas the bad guys are increasingly making a full time job of it. The continual flood of high profile, high damage, automated exploitation of widely known and even long-patched defects which the script kiddies generate strains the security response infrastructure (trained admin and security staff, developers, testers, etc.) The enormous workload from the thousands of new viruses, worms, trojans, adware, spyware and keystroke loggers, combined with the endless stream of botnet attacks makes it more difficult for the industry to assess the real exposure to low-profile cracking from these industry practices of delayed (regularly scheduled) patch delivery. Microsoft, Oracle, and other vendors will be under increasing pressure to shorten their patch cycles, as the organized nature of botnet attacks becomes more apparent to their customers.

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