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Updated Microsoft boffins are researching the possible benefits of distributing software patches or other content using the same techniques as computer worms. The mechanism, part of a fundamental research project rather than product development work, aims to reduce the load on servers handling content distribution functions including database maintenance, and streaming broadcasting and patching.

Milan Vojnovic his associates from Microsoft Research in Cambridge have come up with an approach for spreading "good worms" more efficiently by targeting groups of machines on the same subnet that are likely to have the similar security profiles, New Scientist reports.

A Microsoft spokesman clarified that the research, as in common with most of the work at Cambridge, is looking five years or so into the future. "We're certainly not intending to replace Windows Update with something based on this. The research is general computer science research looking at the question of what can be learned from epidemiology and applied to content distribution," he explained.

In a statement, Microsoft explained that Vojnovic's research is focused on "improving the efficiency of data distribution of all types across networks, and isn’t limited to certain scenarios or types of data, but investigating underlying networking techniques. Using understanding from the field of epidemiology is one of the methods that we’re investigating in this area, and we hope that our research will help inform future computer science research and networking technology.

"This project is basic research, and there no current plans to incorporate this into Microsoft products," it said.

Security experts expressed doubts about whether the research was going down a bit of a blind alley, at least in the case of patch distribution. The supposed benefits of Microsoft's "friendly worm" approach are not readily apparent while the possible disadvantages of the scheme are well understood in security circles.

Graham Cluley, senior technology consultant at Sophos, said its unclear how Microsoft's proposal deal with the known drawbacks of using self-replicating code for patching.

"Every few years someone comes up with the idea of using virus-like technology to fix a problem. Every proposal seen so far, however, has suffered from a number of drawbacks - the primary one being that viruses do not give you the benefits of control, consent and testing," Cluley explained.

"Computer networks and the internet are jammed up enough with Trojan horses, viruses and other malcode without having to add more self-replicating programs to the mix," he added.

The good virus idea, while appealing at first blush, is problematic. Security experts including Paul Ducklin of Sophos (here) and Vesselin Bontchev of rival antivirus firm Frisk (here) have waded in with responses pointing out that friendly worms create more problems than they solve.

A paper on Microsoft's research - entitled Sampling Strategies for Epidemic-Style Information Dissemination - is due to be presented at the 27th Conference on Computer Communications (INFOCOM) in Arizona in April 2008. ®

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