WinXP SP2: stop moaning and get downloading

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Opinion At long last, Service Pack 2 for XP has arrived. Like many in the security community, I'm excited about this, as it represents real, true progress for Microsoft and their commitment to security. This is not just a Service Pack - it really includes functionality, usability, and core changes in the underlying code extensive enough to be called "XP2". In fact, I think I'll just call it that from here on out.

In addition to code changes, XP2 also represents a tangible shift in the way Microsoft is embracing security: they are putting security concerns before functionality, and in some cases, this will actually break existing applications. Though it will make some developers out there continue to work overtime, this too is a very, very good thing.

XP2's feature set is a veritable laundry-list of security enhancements, as well as new functionality: Windows Firewall, new IE security features, wireless provisioning, memory protection schemes, and even new peer-to-peer functionality... The list goes on and on.

With that in mind, it is important for you to deploy XP2 with a plan. While no one should ever deploy a service pack without planning and testing, some IT folks do it all the time. In the case of XP2, that will probably cause some problems.

For instance, in our shop we use Remote Desktop all the time as a secure means of remotely administering clients and troubleshooting issues. By default, Windows Firewall blocks remote desktop (TCP 3389) connections, even if the system was configured to allow remote desktop connections when SP2 was applied. While WF is very easily (and extensively) customizable both through Group Policy and via the Netfw.inf file during install, one should know this type of thing going in.

Another example is the difference between the default WF settings on domain members versus workgroup systems: File and Printer Sharing is enabled by default on domain members (allowing TCP 139, TCP 445, UDP 137, and UDP 138 from other IP's in the same subnet), while it is not on non-domain systems belonging to a workgroup. While these options may be intuitive, they are far more intuitive when you know them up front.

If you are part of the IT staff, it is highly recommended that you spend time at the XP2 site. If you manage the IT staff, then give your people the time and resources they need to deploy XP2 correctly. You'll be happy you did. More importantly, you'll be really put out if you don't.

Everyone's a critic

Now, even with these tremendous advancements in XP, some people are going out of there way to find fault with it, as they seem to do with all things Microsoft. In fact, some of this is just downright hypocritical. Security researchers and analysts continually blast Microsoft for security issues, and have done so forever (I've even done it.) But now that the company has responded in a significant way, it gets bad press for releasing a Service Pack that might break ISV applications.

The truth here is that if an application breaks, it really did need fixing anyway. And it's not like XP2 snuck up on us, either: most development documentation has been around since last year. Its just that some are waiting until now to get on board. We as a security community have to embrace and support XP2 if we want to continue to make headway in this space.

And for heaven's sake, stop with the "Microsoft should backport XP SP2 into SP's for earlier OSes". Even if you still consider Windows 2000 "current," the fact is that it began development over 9 years ago, and there is no way any backport of a Service Pack will ever bring Win2k to the level of XP/2003. People who think it can clearly don't understand the development model or the code base. Fortunately, there is a front-port for Win2k: it's called "XP." If you care about security, and want a powerful platform that is easily to manage while maintaining extremely granular controls from an administrative standpoint, then upgrade to XP. XP2 really makes this the way to go.

In an earlier column I identified old software as a contributing factor to security issues, prompting a flood of "Who the hell do you think you are telling me I have to upgrade?" emails. Well, I'm someone who cares about computer security. I'm not telling anyone they "have" to upgrade, but I will say that if you make the choice (or your company does for you) to maintain older, less secure software when you know something far better is out there, then you must take responsibility for your security posture.

Not withstanding that rant, XP2 is really worth the upgrade. The firestorm of debate among security professionals over whether Microsoft should withhold XP SP2 from users with pirated copies of XP demonstrates the importance of this upgrade. Regardless of your views of this from a policy standpoint, if we are to accept that the Internet as a whole will be in dire peril from worm and virus attacks launched by systems without SP2, then we must also accept that XP/SP2 is an absolute requirement for everyone else. It's somewhat ironic that the more outspoken against Microsoft on this issue actually ended up making a rather compelling argument for upgrading.

But my point here is not to bust on other people. (Did I really say that? I must be getting old.) My point is to bring to your attention the vast improvements that XP2 offers, even in the face of some continued bad press. It really is "all that," and you should take a serious look at what benefits your company can gain from its deployment.

Copyright © 2004, 0

SecurityFocus columnist Timothy M. Mullen is CIO and Chief Software Architect for AnchorIS.Com, a developer of secure, enterprise-based accounting software. AnchorIS.Com also provides security consulting services for a variety of companies, including Microsoft Corporation.

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