Fix-It Fatigue - InformationWeek

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Software // Enterprise Applications

Fix-It Fatigue

Long after Bill Gates began the Trustworthy Computing campaign, the bugs keep coming

The problem of buggy code isn't limited to Microsoft software. And, at a congressional subcommittee hearing on the vulnerability of the country's computing infrastructure to worms and viruses--a hearing that was held, coincidentally, on the same day last week that Microsoft issued its security bulletin--Symantec Corp. president John Schwarz testified that software vulnerabilities "are being exploited faster and more aggressively than ever."

But Microsoft is at the center of the storm because its software is so widely used and a favorite target of the malcontents who write viruses and hack systems. At the same hearing, Microsoft senior security strategist Philip Reitinger described Microsoft's security-response program as "state of the art." He admitted, though, that "much remains to be done."

Just what is Microsoft doing to fix things? Last year, the company interrupted product development to train its Windows programmers in techniques for writing more-secure code. It has made some products harder to hack by turning off settings that raise risks, and it's screening old code for problems. And the automatic-update technology introduced in Windows XP is now available in Windows Server 2003 and Windows 2000.

Other steps are in the works. They include a hardware approach to creating secure systems called the Next-Generation Secure Computing Base, extending automatic updates to more Microsoft products, new "protective" software that guards systems even when patches aren't applied, and antivirus products and services.

Jeff Jones, senior director of trustworthy computing security, says Microsoft is making progress and points to the fact that Windows Server 2003 had half as many patches as Windows 2000 after 90 days of availability. "That's a clear improvement," Jones says.

Some customers are satisfied Microsoft is doing everything it can. "Their intentions are good," says Robert Egan, VP of IT at Boise Cascade Corp., which recently created a task force to respond to Microsoft's security bulletins. Egan says the work involved is "tolerable" but adds that the real issue is that "we'd rather be spending time enhancing our systems" than fixing them.

That's the rub. Another business-technology executive estimates his company's IT department has wasted more than 1,000 hours patching Windows systems. He's looking at thin clients and Linux as alternatives to Windows and, late last week, he was drafting a letter to Microsoft. The message: He'd like Microsoft to reimburse his company for all those hours of lost productivity.

Yet, business better get used to it. CIOs need to "literally put a line item" in IT budgets to cover the ongoing cost of patches, advises Kerry Gerontianos, president of systems integrator Incremax Technologies Corp. On the old goal of administration-free Windows, Gerontianos says, "that was a dream."

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