Patch/Configuration Management, Vulnerability Management

Microsoft: Upgrade from Windows XP or risk infinite “zero-days”

Microsoft is intensifying its efforts asking users to scrap Windows XP, the 12-year-old operating system for which the software giant is ending support next April.

Tim Rains, director of Microsoft Trustworthy Computing, authored a blog post last week reminding customers of the perils that could await them should they continue running XP, which debuted in 2001, once Redmond stops patching the platform. Users should upgrade to Windows 7 or 8.

"There is a sense of urgency because after April 8[, 2014], Windows XP Service Pack 3 (SP3) customers will no longer receive new security updates, non-security hotfixes, free or paid assisted support options or online technical content updates," Rains wrote. "This means that any new vulnerabilities discovered in Windows XP after its 'end of life' will not be addressed by new security updates from Microsoft."

Rains said that when a vulnerability is patched in one of Microsoft's supported operating system versions, attackers typically reverse engineer the fix in hopes of creating an exploit that could target users who failed to apply the update.

When Microsoft ends support for XP, it will be likely that such as vulnerability would affect even outdated Windows versions. And without any possibility for a patch, attackers will essentially have free reign on XP endpoints.

"Since a security update will never become available for Windows XP to address these vulnerabilities, Windows XP will essentially have a 'zero day' vulnerability forever," Rains wrote.

In addition, customers shouldn't rely on the hope that anti-exploit functionality will prevent a successful attack, he said.

"The challenge here is that you'll never know, with any confidence, if the trusted computing base of the system can actually be trusted because attackers will be armed with public knowledge of zero-day exploits in Windows XP that could enable them to compromise the system and possibly run the code of their choice," Rains wrote.

So what's holding up the migrations?

According to a study conducted in April by VMware, 64 percent of enterprise-size companies still haven't migrated off XP. The same goes for 52 percent of midsize firms and 61 percent of SMBs.

"Common challenges such as end-user downtime, data loss, migration failures and effort to upgrade remote employees can all be avoided if you plan ahead," wrote Sarah Semple, VMware's director of product marketing, in a blog post.

In addition, cost is an impediment. Gartner has estimated that, based on a 10,000-PC environment, the expense of migration is between $1,205 and $1,999 per machine. 

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