Microsoft looks to spread secure software expertise

Slates free developer tools for November, hopes other vendors write more secure code

Microsoft Corp. said today it will export some of its expertise in writing secure code to developers outside the company with several new initiatives, including ones involving a pair of free tools it plans to unveil in November.

The company has distilled some of the experience gained during the past five years through its Security Development Lifecycle (SDL) process and philosophy into the Threat Modeling Tool 3.0 and the Optimization Model. It will make both available for free download in two months.

"We're put a lot of emphasis on tool developments to build more secure software," said Steve Lipner, senior director of security engineering strategy in Microsoft's Trustworthy Computing group and the co-author of The Security Development Lifecycle. "But as we've moved SDL more and more into the culture of our company, we've been watching what's happening on the outside."

And Microsoft isn't liking what it sees.

Microsoft, claimed Lipner, has nearly halved its share of the total disclosed vulnerabilities between the first six months of 2007 and the same period this year; Microsoft was responsible for 4.2% of all disclosed vulnerabilities in the first six months of 2007, and for 2.5% of those made public in the first six months of 2008. Credit, he said, goes to SDL and Microsoft's increased emphasis on writing more secure code.

It wants to share that knowledge, he added, and for a selfish reason. "We want to move toward a more secure Internet, and it's important that there is secure development not only for our software, but also for other software that our customers use," Lipner said, explaining why Microsoft is proselytizing SDL to outside developers.

Of the two free downloads slated for November, the SDL Threat Modeling Tool 3.0 has the longest lineage. According to Lipner, the tool has been in existence since 1998 or 1999, and it has gone through eight iterations within Microsoft, where it's been used by internal developers.

The 3.0 version has been in development for more than a year, said Adam Shostack a senior program manager on the SDL team; it's designed for developers who may not have a clue about the nuts and bolts of security.

"Threat models focused around attacks, or how attackers think, don't work for the typical software engineer," said Shostack. "They need to start from something that they're already familiar with."

With that in mind, Microsoft crafted the Threat Modeling Tool to focus on the software design process; it then built guidance and advice into the tool.

"It acts as an implicit trainer," said Shostack. "It will show them the [security] implication of their design, and give them a chance to learn about security in a way that's broader than just vulnerabilities."

This first public release of the tool may be followed by others, or it may be updated, said Shostack and Lipner. "We're working now to put drivers for other security processes into the tool, such as a fuzzing process," noted Shostack. That could give developers an idea of when they should be running code through fuzzing tools to stress-test their code for input vulnerabilities.

Microsoft will also roll out the Optimization Model in November. Another free download, it is designed to show an organization where it currently stands on the secure development front and then help it move toward a broader use of the SDL techniques.

"It really is a framework," said Lipner. "It can look at a company's practices and shows where it stands and how it can move up the quality process."

A third component of its new security crusade, said Lipner, is the SDL Pro Network, a partner-like initiative where several service providers that have worked with Microsoft to understand SDL go out and consult with businesses to help them apply the practices. Like the two tools, it will also debut in November.

That is the only program in the initiative that carries a price, Lipner said. The tools are available free of charge because Microsoft believes it's in its own interest to get them into other developers' hands.

"As far as Microsoft goes, this is about improving the security of the Internet and the Windows ecosystem," said Lipner. "If companies using Windows software have a more secure experience, that's good for us from a business perspective."

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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