Patch/Configuration Management, Vulnerability Management

Vista’s security features lack polish, but still an improvement

Though Microsoft has made drastic security improvements within its upcoming Vista operating system, there will be some usability hiccups within its new security features and plenty of room for security developers to sell aftermarket products, the Yankee Group said this week.

The Yankee Group released the report on Monday detailing its security assessments of Microsoft's most recent Vista build and predicted the effect it will have on the $3.6 billion Windows security software market.

"The genesis of the report came because we really wanted to ask two key questions," said Andrew Jaquith, who wrote the report. "First, what are the security features of Vista going to be and do we think they are going to be effective or not? And then second, based on that, what effect do we think its going to have on the Windows security aftermarket?"

Based on his review of the December Community Technology Preview (CTP) of Vista, Jaquith said that it is clear that Microsoft has taken remarkable steps to improve the security of its OS with this new iteration of Windows.

"The bottom line is that we think that Vista is going to bring about fairly dramatic security benefits to Windows users," he said. "They've really put a lot of effort into improving the operating system in a very basic way - meaning foundation level stuff related to the way user privileges are treated."

Microsoft is following the lead set by Linux distributions to run most programs in a lesser privileged mode by default, he said. When a user tries to run higher-level actions on the system, it will ask for the user's consent or ask for administrative credentials. The new control-  - called "User Account Control" (UAC) by Microsoft - is designed to stem off a lot of the malware troubles caused by programs that take advantage of default administrator settings.

While the changes made will be meaningful, Jaquith does moderate his praise due to what he views as a less-than-polished execution of these controls.

"It's tempered by the fact that like everything else, concepts and theories are one thing and implementation and execution are another," he said. "The challenges that we highlighted in the report are things we think are going to be a little problematic. Microsoft could have done a better job with its design and engineering."

As Jaquith wrote in his report, one of his key criticisms of the UAC is that "although the new security system shows promise, it is far too chatty and annoying for everyday use. Even simple tasks such as opening Control Panel applets required administrator credentials or consent."

The result is a control that users will try to circumvent in order to avoid inconvenience. Additionally, UAC has compatibility issues with third-party software, Jaquith said. Even its own Microsoft Money title is incompatible with the system and will likely require code rewrites. This is problematic so late in the development cycle, Jaquith said.

Nevertheless, he doesn't believe that these bumps in the road will stop the improvements from making a big difference in the overall security posture of the Windows world. In addition to UAC, Jaquith pointed to a number of other security improvements in his report. These include built-in anti-spyware, disk encryption, device access controls.

He believes that the inclusion of these features will have an effect on the Windows security aftermarket, though in a limited fashion. Most dramatic will be the accelerated decline of standalone desktop firewalls and anti-spyware software. Other markets to be impacted are disk encryption and device control. Jaquith predicted that some host intrusion prevention system vendors will see some degree of dampened demand, particularly when it comes to host-based firewalls and behavior blocking.

"It's going to be tougher for the specialists to carve out a meaningful niche in a world where the thing that they provide is going to be competing with a free offering," he said.

However, the market for anti-virus, network access controls and packaged security software solutions will largely be unaffected, he said.

"I think companies that need bigger, brawnier management infrastructures, those are things that Microsoft really isn't going to try to touch," Jaquith said. "So that's a better market and that's (the vendors' market) to serve.

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