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Microsoft exec gives his company a B+ on security

But some users aren't convinced it's really making the grade

September 7, 2006 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - BOSTON -- Since Microsoft Corp. launched its Trustworthy Computing (TWC) initiative in January 2002, the company has substantially improved the overall security of its products, a company executive said yesterday at The Security Standard conference being held here.

But some users at the show were more skeptical in their assessment of the company's progress and said it is too soon to deliver a definite verdict.

Ben Fathi, corporate vice president of Microsoft's security technology unit, gave the company's products a B+ for security during a panel discussion at the conference. Five years ago, he said, that grade would have been a C- or even a D.

The improvements are the result of a "cultural shift" at Microsoft sparked by Chairman Bill Gates' TWC memo of nearly five years ago, Fathi said. Since then, the company has completely overhauled its product development processes, and it has trained developers on how to write secure code, he said. The changes resulted in the development of a Software Development Lifecycle (SDL) process at Microsoft that every product has to go through.

"Last year, we had over 300 products that went through this and, with three exceptions, they all passed," he said. The products that failed were blocked from release while the development team fixed the problems or found a way to mitigate them, he said.

"Vista is the first product that has gone through SDL from inception to end," Fathi said. As a result, "there are a whole lot of improvements to security in the product."

Users took a cautious attitude to that claim, saying it is something that will be clear only with time. Mark Olson, manager of information security at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, said that so far at least, Microsoft appears to be on the right track with its TWC initiative. But Beth Israel Deaconess has yet to deploy any products that have emerged from the SDL process, he said.

"Till [such a product] is deployed and we have a solid 18 months of runtime, I won't know for sure if they have gotten any better," he said, adding, "It's wise to be wary of sales pitches."

Still, he said Microsoft's patch release processes and its efforts to develop tools such as its rootkit detector have been positive steps forward.

Marcin Czabanski, chief security officer at Medical Network One, a Rochester, Mich.-based provider of managed health care services, said he is taking a "wait and see" attitude toward Microsoft's claims of improved security.

"There have been a lot of improvements of their processes, and their products are more stable," Czabanski said. Even so, he plans to hold off on deploying Microsoft's upcoming Windows Vista operating system across his enterprise until there is reasonable evidence that it's secure. Microsoft also needs to improve the reliability of its patches, he said, noting that there have been a few occasions in the past where his company has had to reinstall patches from Microsoft that were initially faulty.

"They have been going in the right direction, but there's room for improvement," said Randy Bachman, information security principal at Lockheed Martin Information Technology in Newington, Va. While Vista, for instance, appears to be more secure than its predecessors and integrates useful functions such as data encryption, he said, there is still room for improvement in areas such as integrated spyware detection and antivirus functions.

Read more about Security in Computerworld's Security Topic Center.



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