Microsoft took the unusual step today and skipped patching one of the vulnerabilities addressed in its monthly security update, saying that crafting a fix was "infeasible."
The omission leaves users running Windows 2000 Server Service Pack 4 (SP4) vulnerable to attack.
Earlier today, Microsoft delivered five critical updates that patched eight vulnerabilities in Windows, including one that the company won't bother fixing in Windows 2000 Server SP4.
The operating system's support doesn't end until July 2010; until then, Microsoft was supposed to provide updates.
"That's really strange," said Jason Miller, Security and Data Team Manager, Shavlik Technologies. "I haven't seen them do this before."
Miller was referring to MS09-048, the security update that patches a trio of vulnerabilities in Windows' implementation of TCP/IP, the Web's default suite of connection protocols.
One of update's three vulnerabilities -- the only one marked "critical," in fact -- was patched in Vista and Server 2008, but not for Windows Server SP4.
"Microsoft is not issuing a patch for the vulnerability," continued Miller.
"They're stating that creating a patch to address the vulnerability is 'infeasible to build.' With this in mind, a vulnerability that affects Windows 2000 is about to be made known and administrators cannot simply patch their machines."
In the MS09-048 bulletin, Microsoft spelled out why it's not fixing the flaw in Windows 2000 SP4.
"The architecture to properly support TCP/IP protection does not exist on Microsoft Windows 2000 systems, making it infeasible to build the fix. To do so would require re-architecting a very significant amount of the Windows 2000 SP4 operating system, not just the affected component. The product of such a re-architecture effort would be sufficiently incompatible ... that there would be no assurance that applications designed to run on Windows 2000 SP4 would continue to operate on the updated system."
"Oh, my goodness," said Andrew Storms, director of security operations at nCircle Network Security. "[That's] more proof that Windows 2000's network stack was not in good shape," he added, noting that when Windows XP was released, rumors circulated that Microsoft contracted with Cisco Systems to write that operating system's TCP/IP stack.
Miller urged companies to put MS09-048 at the top of their patch to-do list.
"This one's critical if you're looking for some business interaction," he said. "Plus, there's no user interaction required for this."
Although Windows 2000 accounts for a very small slice of all Windows machines, client or server, Miller said the flaw -- and the fact that Microsoft's not bothering to fix it -- could be disastrous for some firms.
"Anyone who has a machine they haven't migrated to, for example, Windows Server 2003, is in a lot of trouble," Miller said. "And there are companies out there that haven't, perhaps because they have applications that won't run on anything but Windows 2000."
Others joined Miller in recommending that the TCP/IP update be applied immediately. "Once you get a [malicious] packet, the machine can be compromised," said Amol Sarwate, manager of Qualys' vulnerability research lab. "Simple port blocking won't work as a defense."
The only silver lining, said researchers, was that hackers will need a relatively high level of expertise to craft exploits for the TCP/IP bugs. "Users may have more time to patch MS09-048 than some of the others," said Wolfgang Kandek, Qualys' chief technology officer, "because it will take [hackers] some time to get an exploit working.
While all currently-supported editions of Windows are affected by the TCP/IP vulnerabilities, including Vista and Windows Server 2008, the not-yet-released Windows 7 and Windows Server 2008 R2 are not.
"That's pretty interesting," said Wolfgang Kandek, the chief technology officer for Qualys. "Microsoft must be doing something special in those operating systems that prevents such attacks."
Another Qualys researcher speculated that the newest operating systems have been tweaked to provide better infrastructure-based protection. "I'd say that Microsoft has implemented things like ASLR," said Richie Lei, director of the Qualys research team.
ASLR (address space layout randomization) is a defensive mechanism Microsoft debuted with Vista that prevents hackers from being able to easily predict target addresses -- places they could inject malicious code to compromise a computer.
"That may make Windows 7 and Server 2008 RS distinctive in some way," Lei said.
September's updates can be downloaded and installed via the Microsoft Update and Windows Update services, as well as through Windows Server Update Services.