Microsoft's Windows Vista operating system brought home its first-year security report card today: Vista logged less than half the vulnerabilities that Windows XP did in its first year, according to the Microsoft report.
Report author Jeff Jones, security strategy director in Microsofts Trustworthy Computing group, compiled the number of vulnerability disclosures and security updates in Vista's first year, and compared them to Windows XP, Red Hat rhel4ws, Ubuntu 6.06 LTS, and Apple Mac OS X 10.4 in their first years.
According to Jones, Vista came out ahead of all of the other first-year OSes: Microsoft released 17 security bulletins and patches affecting Vista, versus 30 for XP in its first year, for example. And Microsoft fixed 36 vulnerabilities in Vista, versus 65 for XP, according to the report. There are 30 vulnerabilities in Vista that have not yet been patched, and 54 for XP in its first year.
"The results of the analysis show that Windows Vista has an improved security vulnerability profile over its predecessor," Jones writes in his blog. "Analysis of security updates also shows that Microsoft improvements to the security update process and development process have reduced the impact of security updates to Windows administrators significantly compared to its predecessor, Windows XP."
But he also admits that looking at vulnerabilities is just one facet of security. "Is there anything in this analysis which will prove one piece of software is 'more secure' than another? No, that is not my intention," Jones says in his blog. "This report is a vulnerability analysis, which may provide some elements that could be part of a broader security analysis."
Fewer vulnerabilities "make it easier to manage risk," he says. "All other things being equal, fewer patches mean more time to spend on other security projects to reduce risk."
Rich Mogull, founder of Securosis LLC, says exploits and criticality are two additional important vectors to measure for OS security risk. "I think a measure of vulnerabilities, with criticality, mapped to exploitability, mapped to active exploits, is a more interesting metric. Not to take away from Jeff's work. It would be a good follow-on," he says.
"[Vulnerabilities] are only one factor in a risk measurement, and alone [aren't] a true measure of risk," Mogull says. "That's what drives this 'my OS is better than your OS' pissing-match garbage."
In the Vista report, Microsoft notes that there were more vulnerabilities fixed in other OSes in their first years than in Vista: 360 in Red Hat rhe14ws (reduced) in its first year; 224 in Ubuntu 6.06 LTS' (reduced) first year; and 116 in Mac OS X 10.4's first year.
Jones also charted patch events for each OS and found that Vista required fewer patch activity than other OSes.
So what does the Vista report card really mean? "It proves that it [Vista] is quantitatively more secure, but not that it's quantitatively less risky -- what I call security versus safety," Mogull says. "IT managers need to know the overall risk assessment, which includes that data as well as other information sources."
Vista underwent more quality assurance and security testing than any other OS, Mogull says, and it paid off. "The Trustworthy Computing Initiative has resulted in material improvements in the operating system, and other OS vendors should adopt similar practices."
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