Microsoft: We patch faster than Apple, Novell, Red Hat

Not so fast, says security analyst: 'Nobody gets a gold star'

Windows users were at risk for in-the-wild vulnerabilities fewer days on average last year than users of rival operating systems from Apple, Novell, Red Hat and Sun, a Microsoft executive claimed.

Jeff Jones, strategy director in Microsoft's security technology unit, has posted findings that show Microsoft released patches for vulnerabilities in Windows overall -- and Windows XP in particular -- faster than its four competitors did for flaws in their software. A Symantec executive acknowledged that Jones' data "reads accurate."

In two entries on his CSO blog, Jones laid out his analysis of "days-of-risk," a term that describes the time from when a vulnerability is announced or goes public, to when the vendor releases a fix. By Jones' calculations, Windows -- including 2000, XP and Server 2003 -- boasted an average days-of-risk (or DoR) last year of just under 29 days, compared to Mac OS X's 46 days, SuSE Linux Enterprise's 74, Red Hat Enterprise Linux's 107, and Sun Solaris' whopping 168.

That puts Microsoft 159% faster than Apple in preparing and distributing patches, 255% faster than Novell, and 579% faster than Sun.

When Jones focused on specific operating system clients -- Windows XP SP2, Mac OS X 10.4, Red Hat Enterprise Linux 4 Workstation, and SuSE Linux Enterprise Desktop 9 -- Microsoft still took first place, although the race was tighter. Windows XP was patched after an average of 53.3 DoR, just 1.6% faster than Apple's Tiger at 54.2 DoR. SuSE and Red Hat came in third and fourth, with 56.2 and 70.5 DoR respectively.

Alfred Huger, vice president of engineering with Symantec's security response group, said that Jones' numbers look reasonable. "Our latest ISTRs (Internet Security Threat Reports) had more or less the same." In its most recent report, Symantec's reckoning pegged Windows' average DoR for the last six months of 2006 at 21 days, Red Hat's at 58, Mac OS X's at 66, and Sun's at 122.

"We don't disagree, certainly [on the numbers]" said Huger. "[Jones'] reads accurate."

Some readers of Jones' CSO postings, however, had questions. "Where's your data?" asked someone identified as RJ Ryan. "It's hard to take you seriously otherwise." Others commenting on Jones' first posting wanted to know how many vulnerabilities were included in each count for a more detailed comparison. Jones responded to the latter by citing the number of vulnerabilities included in each OS's DoR in Monday's blog. During 2006, Windows XP was patched for 90 bugs, Mac OS X for 129, SuSE for 232, and Red Hat for 301.

But if history is any guide, it's unlikely everyone will take Jones at his word. In March, when Jones used other patch comparisons to claim Windows Vista deserved an A+ security report card, some Computerworld readers scoffed. "Microsoft touts the larger (by orders of magnitude) number of bugs in various Linux distros, but fails to mention that most (if not all) of those bugs were not in the core Linux OS, but in applications that are shipped with the kernel," argued a reader tagged as "Filker0."

Huger thinks everyone, Jones included, is missing the point. "Even [just] 21 or 25 days isn't great," said Symantec's Huger. "The bigger issue, I think, is how attackers are monetizing vulnerabilities, how it's more commercially-driven. They're competing for access to your computer, and that makes unpatched vulnerabilities even more valuable.

"Nobody gets a gold star on this," he said. "Everyone has to work a lot harder."

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Gregg Keizer

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