Sponsored By

Microsoft Trustworthy Computing Turns 10: What's Next

10 years after Bill Gates famously declared a security emergency within Microsoft, the stakes are much higher. 'TWC Next' will include a focus on cloud services such as Azure.

Paul McDougall

January 12, 2012

5 Min Read

Windows 8 Upgrade Plans: Exclusive Research

Windows 8 Upgrade Plans: Exclusive Research


Slideshow: Windows 8 Upgrade Plans: Exclusive Research (click image for larger view and for slideshow)

Microsoft is marking the 10th anniversary of Bill Gates' game-changing security memo with a focus on new types of attacks that threaten businesses and individuals who are significantly more wired than when the company's chairman launched his now-famous Trustworthy Computing initiative.

"Today, information and communications technology (ICT) underpins every aspect of our personal and professional lives," said Microsoft chief research and strategy officer Craig Mundie, in an e-mail to employees Thursday.

"While it is indisputable that ICT has transformed for the better how we live, society still confronts some long-standing and evolving challenges," Mundie said. "We must protect the security of the electrical power grid, the global financial system, and the telecommunications system, even as determined and persistent adversaries set their sights on these and other critical infrastructures."

[ Malicious attacks accounted for 40% of disclosed breaches last year. Learn more: Hack Attacks Now Leading Cause Of Data Breaches. ]

Gates fired off his Trustworthy Computing memo to employees on Jan. 15, 2002, amid a series of high-profile attacks on Windows computers and browsers in the form of worms and viruses like Code Red and "Anna Kournikova." Code Red, which used buffer overflows to exploit a weakness in Windows Server's Internet Information Services (IIS), infected more than 300,000 PCs.

The onslaught forced Gates to declare a security emergency within Microsoft, and halt all production while the company's 8,500 software engineers sifted through millions of lines of source code to identify and fix vulnerabilities. The hiatus cost Microsoft $100 million. "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 said in his memo. "We must lead the industry to a whole new level of Trustworthiness in computing."

To accomplish that, Gates identified three principles that Microsoft products were to be designed around--availability, security, and privacy. In practice, that meant placing security on an equal footing with usability and speed-to-market in Microsoft's development cycles.

"Getting your product to market first and killing Netscape was how you got rich at Microsoft. After the Gates memo came out, having your product have fewer top-class bugs and security vulnerabilities and less patches became as important a criterion for measuring the product managers as making an early shipping date," said Gartner research fellow John Pescatore.

As a result, Microsoft products like Visual Studio and Windows Server gained built-in security features for guarding against vulnerabilities caused by errors like stack overflow and were hardened with architectural changes, such as library randomization and formal Secure Development Lifecycle procedures, and the company made many of its own internal safeguards available to third parties.

Windows 8 Upgrade Plans: Exclusive Research

Windows 8 Upgrade Plans: Exclusive Research


Slideshow: Windows 8 Upgrade Plans: Exclusive Research (click image for larger view and for slideshow)

Gartner's Pescatore said the changes inspired by Gates' memo have largely worked. "You cannot say today that Apache Web server is more secure than IIS; before the memo it was easy to say that."

In his e-mail Thursday, Microsoft's Mundie acknowledged that the threats facing the computer industry have changed in the past decade and that the stakes are higher, given IT's ubiquity in almost every facet of daily life. Massive amounts of data are now stored in the cloud and accessed through mobile devices. "'TWC Next,' the ensuing decade-plus of Trustworthy Computing, will focus on the new world of devices and services. Everyone at Microsoft and the entire computing ecosystem has a role to play," said Mundie.

A big part of TWC Next is securing cloud services like Azure, said Microsoft Trustworthy Security director Jeff Jones, in an interview. "The computing environment today is drastically different than it was 10 years ago," said Jones. Among other things, Microsoft is formulating secure development lifecycles "specifically related to cloud services," Jones said.

[ What should be tops on CEO Steve Ballmer's to-do list? See 5 Moves Microsoft Must Make In 2012. ]

Microsoft also is developing technologies and practices to guard against the changing nature of security threats. At the time of Gates' memo, worms that could infect hundreds of thousands of PCs in days were the big danger. Today's cybercriminals are more focused on stealing valuable data from individual users and corporate PCs.

"The threats have evolved. Now you have professional criminal organizations targeting credit card numbers and other data through methods like phishing. As exploits get technically harder, attackers have turned to social means," said Jones. "The idea that you can keep people out completely when you have persistent and well funded attackers--that's something the community has to think about."

Protecting against the newer threats has meant adding features that can limit the damage if a user is exposed to an attack. Internet Explorer 8 and IE9 defend against unauthorized Active X executions, and on the client side there's the addition of barriers such as BitLocker in Windows 7 and Secure Boot in Windows 8, which guards against BIOS level attacks.

"We have to keep raising the bar. We have to be as committed today as we were 10 years ago," said Jones.

InformationWeek is conducting our third annual State of Enterprise Storage survey on data management technologies and strategies. Upon completion, you will be eligible to enter a drawing to receive an Apple iPad 2. Take our Enterprise Storage Survey now. Survey ends Jan. 13.

About the Author(s)

Paul McDougall

Editor At Large, InformationWeek

Paul McDougall is a former editor for InformationWeek.

Keep up with the latest cybersecurity threats, newly discovered vulnerabilities, data breach information, and emerging trends. Delivered daily or weekly right to your email inbox.

You May Also Like


More Insights