By Jeremy Kirk
IDG News Service
24 April 2008
Companies are having more success in pressuring software vendors into
including security into their products, a trend that vendors are
resisting less, according to one security expert.
Before granting a contract, companies now are requiring that vendors
also test software patches on systems with the same configurations as
users are running, said Alan Paller of SANS, an IT training
Another new trend is groups of companies agreeing on base security
standards for applications and then passing those requirements onto
"It's using the contracts to shift the responsibility for security
upstream to the vendor where the economies of scale make it [security]
cost effective," Paller said.
Software makers have fought the initiatives "tooth and nail," but are
coming around, Paller said. "They don't like the users to take control,"
he said. "They want to control the buying process, so they don't like
this idea, but there isn't any other idea that's a good one for fixing
The requirement comes after companies have struggled with slow patching
cycles and rising risks that come with deploying insecure Web-based
Websites are rife with security problems: In 2006, the Web Application
Security Consortium surveyed 31,373 sites and found that 85.57 percent
were vulnerable to cross-site scripting attacks, 26.38 were vulnerable
to SQL injection and 15.70 percent had faults that could let an attacker
steal information from databases.
"This is a big problem," Paller said. "We've got to get it fixed in a
Vendors have typically only tested their software patches on machines in
default configurations, which isn't representative of the real IT world,
Paller said. Many businesses use custom applications with custom
configurations, which require rigorous testing to ensure a patch won't
break their applications.
The US Air Force was one of the first organisations that tried a new
approach when contracting IT systems with Microsoft and other
application vendors about two years ago to enable speedier patching,
The Air Force's CIO at the time, John M. Gilligan, consolidated 38
different IT contracts into one and ordered all new systems to be
delivered in the same, secure configuration. Then, he ordered that
application vendors certify that their applications would work on the
secure configurations, Paller said.
Then Gilligan took his case to Microsoft. At the time, it took the Air
Force about 57 days between the time a patch was released until their
450,000 systems were up-to-date. Gilligan wanted Microsoft to test its
patches on machines with the same configuration as the Air Force's,
shifting the cumbersome testing process back to the vendor.
The negotiations, which didn't start off well, culminated with a meeting
with CEO Steve Ballmer. "The story is that he [Gilligan] used a
four-letter word in the meeting," Paller said. "You know what the
four-letter word was? Unix."
Gilligan won. Now, the Air Force can patch in about 72 hours now, and
they're looking to cut that to 24 hours, Paller said. The idea was so
successful that as of 1 February, the US government implemented the same
conditions for all of its agencies.
Another sea-change is under way in security: Training application
developers in security. Traditionally, security has never been a part of
computer programming courses. Paller said he's been making the case for
stronger security training, but in many times received a cold shoulder
from universities, who have little incentive to change their ways -
Heavyweight IT companies are warning universities that they don't want
to have to send new hires to remedial security training. Mary Ann
Davidson, chief security officer at Oracle, wrote earlier this month
that she contacted the top 10 universities the company recruits from,
saying only those with security training would get preference in hiring.
That's an embarrassment to universities, which will now likely modify
their curriculum accordingly. Interestingly, developers want security
training. "The programmers want to know what they don't know," Paller
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