Is Linux security a myth?
Time will tell
Comment There are rare occasions in IT when a particular architecture reaches a point where it stops being purely IT driven and takes on a life of its own.
The last year has seen the open source movement reach such a cult status; and at the vanguard of open source fashion can be found the Linux operating system. While the platform appeals at several levels for potential users, some of a philosophical nature and others far more concrete, it is noticeable that a couple of its qualities have recently been called into question.
Microsoft, a supplier of operating systems with which Linux competes, has recently taken to the press to question two of the pillars upon which Linux and Open Source have made their names - cost of ownership and security. Now questions concerned with the cost of ownership of any system, Linux, Windows or otherwise, are incredibly complex to resolve and, frankly, very few organisations have any idea regarding how much they spend on IT ownership at a system, application or platform level.
However, when it comes to the question of security regarding Linux as a platform, Nick McGrath, head of platform strategy for Microsoft in the UK, has been quoted as saying: "The biggest challenge we need to face centres on the myth and reality. There are lots of myths out there as to what Linux can do. One myth we see is that Linux is more secure than Windows. Another is that there are no viruses for Linux."
In one respect, McGrath is correct and this concerns the lack of malicious code threats to Linux. Over the last few months, several instances of malicious code have been discovered that target Linux explicitly. However, the number is extremely small compared to the number of attacks launched against Microsoft Windows, and indeed against several other operating systems.
There are several factors behind there being a far smaller number of attacks against Linux. Not the least of these is the fact that the platform, whilst it is gaining traction fast, is still relatively small in the world of business critical production systems. It will be interesting to see how the attack threat develops as Linux continues to move into everyday business use, although the open availability of the code base on which Linux is built should help to minimise the number of security holes that exist in the code.
However, some people are also questioning whether the open source model itself can provide organisations with both the security and the comfort that they require to run Linux in vital operations. Once again, McGrath asked the question: "Who is accountable for the security of the Linux kernel? Does Red Hat, for example, take responsibility? It cannot, as it does not produce the Linux kernel. It produces one distribution of Linux."
Missing the point
In this area McGrath is completely missing the point. In the vast majority of circumstances, when a customer builds a solution on the Linux operating system, they do so using a distribution of the operating system, not the kernel alone. And when a mission critical system is deployed, it is almost unknown for the organisation concerned not to take out support cover for the operating platform. With major IT vendors such as IBM, HP, Novell (SuSE) and Red Hat offering to support Linux, there is no shortage of suppliers willing to provide as good a security guarantee, in terms of patch management, as that provided for any other operating system, including Windows and the leading Unix platforms.
Using Linux is itself no guarantee of "security". The same is true for all operating systems. Each platform needs to be managed actively. Bugs, viruses and other malicious threats to a system will occur. This is why it is vital that every IT system be supported with excellent management procedures to ensure its long term availability and security. Technology alone is never "secure".
However, there are no obvious security issues visible today to indicate that Linux is not ready for enterprise deployment. The code base is managed by all of the distributors and enjoys the active backing of many of the largest IT vendors. Security and Linux may be a myth, but no more so than for any other operating system. A Linux platform needs to be managed in the same way as any other. However, at the moment, the number of threat notices that the operating system attracts every day is relatively small.
Linux does have an active role to play in business and the platform continues to mature rapidly on all levels, including security. Is it perfect today? No. Is it perfectly secure? No. But then no operating system available today is perfectly secure, although zOS on the IBM mainframe gets pretty close. Is Linux "Security" A Myth? Yes, but then all "security" is a myth; people and processes secure systems, not technology alone. However, Linux is usable, relatively secure and enjoys support enough to allow its use in mainstream business where appropriate. Oh, and it is being used.
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