Gates pushed change in security culture at Microsoft

But how much of an effect did 'Trustworthy Computing' have?

Nearly six and a half years ago, in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and amid concerns about growing online threats, Bill Gates, then Microsoft Corp.'s chairman and chief software architect, sent out a companywide e-mail that some consider his most important ever.

The Jan. 15, 2002, memo was simply titled "Trustworthy Computing," and it stressed the need for Microsoft to focus on security and build more-reliable products that could withstand future threats.

"If we don't do this, people simply won't be willing — or able — to take advantage of all the other great work we do," Gates wrote. "Our responsiveness has been unmatched — but as an industry leader we can and must do better."

On Monday, when Gates retires officially from Microsoft, he will leave behind a company which, by most accounts has done just that, at least on the security front (see more coverage on our "Bill Gates Moves On" page).

"Gates set the vision" with his memo, said Khalid Kark an analyst at Forrester Research Inc. in Cambridge, Mass. According to Kark, Gates set into motion a series of fundamental changes at Microsoft and how it develops its products — changes that have helped the company make considerable progress in addressing security issues. Windows Server 2003, released in late 2003, became the first operating system to ship after the Trustworthy Computing initiative went into effect.

Gates' memo gave marching orders to then-Microsoft Chief Technology Officer Craig Mundie and led to the creation of a costly new process at Microsoft called the Security Development Lifecycle (SDL), which was meant to ensure that security flaws were caught during the product development cycle — not after products were released. Millions of dollars were spent to ensure that every single in-house developer went through an SDL training process.

The memo also yielded a new monthly patch delivery cycle, which despite the occasional hiccups, many consider a model in the software industry. Over the years, the memo also set the tone for a gradual thawing of the once icy relationship between Microsoft and the security research and bug-hunter community.

The memo was in many ways an acknowledgment by Gates that Microsoft's single-minded focus on ease-of-use and new features had trumped product security at a time when malicious attackers were using the Internet to lethal effect. "When we face a choice between adding features and resolving security issues, we need to choose security," Gates wrote in his memo.

"In the pre-2001 days, Gates was the biggest reason why Microsoft was having so many security problems," said John Pescatore an analyst at Gartner Inc. "He was a market-driven guy who said that consumers didn't want more security but more ease of use.

"When Gates had his epiphany and wrote his memo, he really forced a lot of changes at Microsoft," Pescatore said. Importantly, the changes were not just at the technical level but also in the manner in which Microsoft evaluated product managers, how it reviewed product performance internally and how it decided something was ready to be released. The focus was no longer just on product functionality but also on security, he said.

While Gates' memo may have set the tone at Microsoft, it did little immediately to change public perceptions about the insecurity of Microsoft's enterprise products, Kark said. In fact, the company has had a harder time than it probably expected convincing buyers that the changes it implemented have resulted in more-secure products, he said.

Much of that is the because of the numerous bugs that continue to be found in Microsoft products, even those that have gone through the entire SDL process, such as Windows Vista. Although there is a general agreement that bugs are inevitable and that Microsoft's massive user base makes its products a far bigger target than rivals' products, the monthly patch releases have tarnished serious efforts to beef up security, according to analysts.

"I think they expected an overnight shift in terms of perception. It didn't happen," Kark said. "It's been more than six years, and it's only now that we are starting to see Microsoft being recognized as a company that values and understands and is responding to security issues."

Ironically, looking ahead Microsoft's biggest security challenges aren't going to be on the enterprise front but in the consumer market, said Pescatore. The SDL process that Gates' memo spawned should help Microsoft better secure enterprise products but is probably not flexible enough to deal with emerging Web 2.0 and software-as-a-service models, he said.

"What we haven't seen them say yet is, 'Here's a lighter-weight version of SDL for products on a faster life cycle,'" he said. As it begins to compete more directly with the likes of Google Inc., Microsoft's challenge will be to show that it can do in the rapid application development arena what it has done with SDL for the enterprise market, Pescatore said.

Not everyone is convinced that either Gates or Microsoft has done enough to make its products more secure. David Rice, author of Geekonomics: The Real Cost of Insecure Software noted that while security went from being a "tertiary issue" at Microsoft in 2002 to an "ancillary issue" more recently, progress has been slow.

"Bill Gates leaves Microsoft with roughly 50% of the server market, over 90% of the desktop market and nearly 100% of the word processing market," Rice said. "The battle for market dominance was won on Mr. Gates' watch, [but] security was placed at the end with no apparent ill effect to Microsoft but with significant negative impact to consumers," he said.

Rice pointed to continuing security issues with Vista as an example of the work that remains to be done by Microsoft and said that even today security tends to be more of a bolt-on than an integral part of Microsoft products. "Assertions like 'Trustworthy,' or Oracle's 'Unbreakable,' or McAfee's 'Total Protection' are vacuous and cheap to make, because there is little, if any, meaningful consequence when these assertions are shown to be false again, and again, and again," he said.

See more coverage: Bill Gates Moves On.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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