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MS exec gives company B+ on security

Improving, but could do better

Since Microsoft launched its TWC (Trustworthy Computing) initiative in January 2002, the company has substantially improved the overall security of its products, a company executive said this week at the Security Standard conference being held in Boston.

But some users at the show were more sceptical in their assessment of the company's progress and said it is too soon to deliver a definite verdict.

Ben Fathi, corporate vice-president of Microsoft's security technology unit, gave the company's products a B+ for security during a panel discussion at the conference. Five years ago, he said, that grade would have been a C- or even a D.

The improvements are the result of a "cultural shift" at Microsoft sparked by chairman Bill Gates' TWC memo of nearly five years ago, Fathi said. Since then, the company has completely overhauled its product development processes, and it has trained developers on how to write secure code, he said. The changes resulted in the development of the SDL (Software Development Lifecycle) process at Microsoft that every product has to go through.

"Last year, we had more than 3,000 products that went through this, and with three exceptions, they all passed," he said. The products that failed were blocked from release while the development team fixed the problems or found a way to mitigate them, he said.

"Vista is the first product that has gone through SDL from inception to end," Fathi said. "There are a whole lot of improvements to security in the product."

Users took a cautious attitude to that claim, saying it is something that will become clear only with time. Mark Olson, manager of information security at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, said that so far at least, Microsoft appears to be on the right track with its TWC initiative. But Beth Israel Deaconess has yet to deploy any products that have emerged from the SDL process, he said.

"Until [such a product] is deployed and we have a solid 18 months of runtime, I won't know for sure if they have got any better," he said. "It's wise to be wary of sales pitches."

Still, he said Microsoft's patch release processes and its efforts to develop tools such as its rootkit detector have been positive steps forward.

Marcin Czabanski, chief security officer at Medical Network One, a provider of managed healthcare services, said he is taking a 'wait and see' attitude toward Microsoft's claims of improved security.

"There have been a lot of improvements of its processes, and the products are more stable," Czabanski said. Even so, he plans to hold off on deploying Microsoft's upcoming Windows Vista OS (operating system) across his enterprise until there is reasonable evidence that it's secure.

Microsoft also needs to improve the reliability of its patches, he said, noting that there have been a few occasions in the past where his company has had to reinstall patches from Microsoft that were initially faulty.

"Microsoft has been going in the right direction, but there's room for improvement," said Randy Bachman, information security principal at Lockheed Martin. While Vista, for instance, appears to be more secure than its predecessors and integrates useful functions such as data encryption, he said, there is still room for improvement in areas such as integrated spyware detection and antivirus functions.


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