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Beefed-up firewall, new version of Update for XP SP2

Details of security 'secret sauce' emerge

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The smart choice: opportunity from uncertainty

The nature of the mysterious components of the 'security update' to ship with Windows XP Service Pack 2 is becoming clearer, and SP2 itself could be becoming nearer. Steve Ballmer told us approximately what the update was supposed to do, but not how, in his security manifesto last week, but Paul Thurrott has some specifics, the most important being that the update to the built-in firewall will include features from Microsoft Internet Security & Acceleration Server, including outbound scanning capabilities.

ISA Server itself has an update in beta, but you can get an idea of the differences between it and the current XP Internet Connection Firewall (ICF) from here. Note that the two are described as complementing one another, but that's more a case of Microsoft product positioning for the business market, and clearly doesn't apply elsewhere. Note also that Microsoft categorises ICF as "limited baseline protection for a home or small business network," i.e. as it shipped in XP it was never seriously intended to do front line firewalling on its own.

Recent events however have changed the situation, and Microsoft is in the unusual position of being on the point of integrating something that there's a genuine need for. In addition, the firewall will ship with on being the default, and if the updating system isn't also on by default in this rev, it surely won't be much longer before it is. These changes will be accepted, possibly even applauded, although previously they'd have been categorised as predatory control-freakery.

But it's not all going Microsoft's way. To some extent its not putting a full spec firewall into the first version of XP can be explained by it being reluctant to start wars with firewall vendors, but it also can't have wanted to place itself directly in the firing line. If you ship a mini firewallette that by default is off and that is categorised as "baseline", then clearly it's not your fault if people are too dumb to get themselves proper firewalls. But if you ship something you call a proper firewall and then it turns out not to protect users as they thought they'd be protected, it is your fault.

In our estimation, if Microsoft could just not do firewalls and not get the blame, then that's what it would do. It now gets the blame anyway, so it's got to ship firewalls, which had therefore better work. It's tougher than you think, being a monopoly.

According to Thurrott, the codename for the security updates is springboard, and they'll be in the hands of beta testers "soon." SP2 is currently scheduled vaguely for first half 2004, but SP2 without the security stuff has been in beta for a while, and it may well be that the fairly large window Microsoft has given itself is intended to allow it to decide how much to put in and make sure from the testers' reactions that there's enough to have a visible impact. If all goes well, it would seem perfectly feasible for Microsoft to pull it forward to to December-January, and other reports suggest Microsoft execs may already be suggesting December.

Alongside the firewall, Thurrott says Springboard will also include a new version of Windows Update (which again could be a reason to be cagey about ship dates), and new memory management code intended to deal with common buffer overrun attacks. That last one falls into the category of enabling "customers to more effectively protect their computers and systems from malicious attacks even if patches do not yet exist or have not yet been installed" that Ballmer talked about last week. ®

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