UNDER a new programme, Microsoft is paying for security assessments of its customers' networks to help improve policies in areas such as software patch management and assuage fears about the security risks posed by Microsoft products.
The Microsoft Patch Assurance Security Service began in late 2003. As part of the programme, Microsoft is offering free security audits to all of its enterprise customers and paying for the services of third party security consultants, including Internet Security Systems, to do the audits, according to interviews with those involved in the programme.
In many cases, Microsoft's patch management products and services, including Systems Management Server (SMS) and Software Update Services (SUS), are recommended to customers as part of the audit, interviewees say.
Figures on the total cost of the Patch Assurance Security Service are not available, but it is an extensive programme to reach out to Microsoft's entire enterprise customer base, defined as customers with 500 or more Windows desktops, says Peter Noelle, a partner account manager at Microsoft in Atlanta.
Microsoft has contacted around 75% of the 200 enterprise customers in the district that includes Atlanta regarding the programme and the "vast majority," more than 90% of those companies, have signed up for the free service. The company hopes to contact all its enterprise customers by the end of its fiscal year in June 2004, he says.
Microsoft is offering the same service in each of 17 regional districts in the US, using local and national consulting partners to perform the assessments, he says.
In the southeast district, Microsoft is working through Blackstone & Cullen, an Atlanta IT consulting company and Microsoft Gold Certified Partner, says David Sie, security practice manager and Blackstone & Cullen.
"We're an extension of Microsoft. Microsoft lets us know which of their customers they'd like us to help them perform the services...then they decide what the priority (of the customer) and the scope (of the security assessment) is for the customer," he says.
In turn, Blackstone & Cullen has contracted with Internet Security Systems, (ISS), also of Atlanta, to conduct vulnerability assessments for the Microsoft customers, Sie says.
Microsoft pays for the services of both companies on behalf of its customers, which are typically Microsoft-centric organisations using a "significant amount" of Microsoft technology, Sie says.
The purpose of the programme is to reduce the number of Microsoft customers who do not apply software updates from the Redmond, Washington company by promoting patch management best practices. Secondarily, Microsoft is hoping to boost its credibility in the enterprise space on issues of security, Noelle says.
Assessments can last from days to weeks and range from "best practices" cases where few recommendations are needed to "dark pictures" where a "very significant" amount of work is required, he says.
Typically, the assessment concludes with a set of recommendations and "actionable steps" that companies should take to improve their patch management processes, Noelle and Sie says.
Microsoft's sales organisation follows up on the recommendations with the customer. In addition, Microsoft's partner companies often land contract work stemming from the assessments they perform, Noelle says.
When patch management technology is needed, Blackstone & Cullen recommend Microsoft's SMS change and configuration management technology, Sie says.
"Naturally, Microsoft is recommending the use of their SMS, but it is up to the customer to decide," he says.
That limited product focus could be a problem for Microsoft customers, says John Pescatore, vice president at Gartner. "The problem is that SMS is not a strong product ... When people ask us about (patch management), we talk about SMS but we don't consider it a leader," he says. Products from Novadigm, Altiris and others outperform SMS and an independent assessment would mention such products in its findings, Pescatore says.
Microsoft is not the only company hoping to cash in on the recommendations that follow the assessments.
ISS is planning on Monday to formally announce a range of security assessment, remediation and management services for Microsoft customers.
ISS will offer a programme to perform "deep assessments" of Microsoft customer networks with the goal of improving software patching processes and systems, says Kerry Armistead , product manager for professional security services and education at ISS.
The ISS program will offer its customers three levels of assessment, "basic”, "gold" and "platinum”, that couple vulnerability assessments with patch management plans. The company will add services such as system policy design and best practices recommendations for customers that select the higher level offerings, Armistead says.
"The goal is to leave you with a system in place to keep up with patches -- give you change and release management processes so that as new patches roll out, you have a well-oiled machine to distribute them before malicious code is released," he says.
At CareGroup Healthcare System in Boston, consultants from Microsoft's Services group did a free security assessment at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC) in late 2003, says John Halamka, CareGroup's chief information officer.
That followed a series of critical security alerts and Internet worms concerning Microsoft products at that time, he says. "When Microsoft had all those security issues, we decided that we needed an enterprise view of things. It was getting too hard to deal with the daily patch routine," Halamka says.
Following the assessment, CareGroup launched a "hardening project" with Microsoft Services consultants to move the nonprofit health care organisation to the latest generation of Redmond's products including Microsoft Exchange 2003 and the latest versions of Windows XP and Microsoft Office. CareGroup will use SMS 2003 to apply patches and remotely manage 4500 Windows desktops, he says.
That project will be done by the end of 2004 and is going "very well," he says. However, not all customers have been receptive to the free offer, Noelle says. "We get all kinds of responses, some do it. Some just don't like Microsoft. There's all kinds of feedback," he says.
Microsoft's free patch assessment program is similar to previous Redmond efforts to smooth over big technology shifts by giving away consulting services, Pescatore says, citing programmes linked to the introduction of Active Directory and the Kerberos authentication protocol. The programme might succeed in improving patching procedures at some organizations. However, for most companies, faster patching will not solve the problem of insecure products, he says.
Most enterprises still need a month to fully test Microsoft patches, distribute them to their user desktops and servers, and troubleshoot following deployment. In the meantime, software exploit and virus writers have shortened the length of time between disclosure of a vulnerability and the release of malicious code that takes advantage of that hole to just a few days, he says.
"You can't just say 'Here's a new patch. Quick, push it out.' If it breaks an application, they're worse off than when they were unpatched," he says.