To patch or not to patch

Get lateral

We know one of the biggest security vulnerabilities is not technology per se but the implementation of technology, writes John McIntosh, Bloor Research. When it comes to security patches, we often find ourselves in a position where risk versus reward is uncertain.

Nowhere is this more prominent that with Microsoft's servers, as evidenced by Slammer.

Microsoft's UK Architects Council debated the patch management issue fairly recently, without a satisfactory outcome. Could do much better, was the opinion back to Microsoft. Though, to be accurate, not all of it was security-related.

Patching for security reasons is a tough call - is the threat great enough to warrant it. System maintenance should be a structured and methodical exercise but security patches can throw a spanner in the works and give unforeseen results. There should be a better way to solving such problems without, as many do, hoping for the best - either with or without the patch - until you know what the impact of the patch is likely to be.

It is intriguing when someone comes up with a piece of lateral thinking that could significantly change the way we do things. Not necessarily removing a problemm but giving us a more efficient and predictable alternative.

The Virtual Patch capability within Internet Security Systems, Inc.'s (ISS), Dynamic Threat Protection offering seems to be just that. The Virtual Patch process automatically updates all ISS network, server and desktop devices, enabling them to detect the exploitation of a newly discovered vulnerability before the requisite security patches are either available or applied. In so doing, Virtual Patch provides the protection without the need to directly apply the patch.

In many respects this is a major improvement to the way in which security maintenance is performed, as it means that security operations can be handled as part of a normal IT change management process. After all, would you rather continue to manage the fix and reboot alternative?

In addition to the more effective threat management that Virtual Patch offers, there are cost and time benefits that, when compared to current methods, should greatly assist in TCO reduction.

ISS is not alone in this thinking. AppSense has a similar capability, Although it does not make much noise about this.

Application Manager, part of the AppSense Solutions Suite, is a system management and application security product. It's "trusted ownership" security model integrates closely with the native filesystem security features provided by Microsoft Windows NT/2000/XP.

AppSense is designed to eliminate all user-introduced applications and scripts by controlling any application down to the level of an individual thread. This means that the security and integrity of the system is significantly enhanced as all unwanted applications and malware are prevented from executing. Software installation and configuration can be controlled centrally, eliminating the need to visit individual computers. It is this capability that offers a comparable approach to patch management as offered by ISS.

The most striking thing about the appliance market, generally and highlighted by ISS and AppSense, is that there are many ways in which vendors are tackling similar problems and many ways in which solutions can be tailored to extend their perceived capabilities.

No one vendor has all the pieces to the jigsaw. The logical development in this sector is consolidation driven by the demand for integrated, multi-layer appliances.

Both ISS and AppSense, along with many others, are still busy in the point solution space, improving what they have. It might be useful for them to start looking out beyond their current boundaries.

In the meantime, the patch or not to patch dilemma might just have got a bit easier to resolve. © IT-Analysis.com

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