Microsoft working on quick-fix capability for IT patch tools

Fix-it code would block malware until patch ready

Under the dark cloud of recent zero-day attacks, Microsoft is quickly working to update its enterprise patching tools to incorporate short-term, quick fix technologies to thwart malware that is already actively exploiting vulnerabilities.

Microsoft's goal is to add its Fix-it technology, introduced in January, into its overall patch management toolbox, which is anchored by Patch Tuesday. The idea is to streamline blockers for zero-day attacks into current patching best practices.

The Fix-it code provides immediate protection and can act as a placeholder until a patch is developed and tested. Fix-its are MSI files that once installed turn off vulnerable ActiveX controls by changing registry settings in the OS. MSI files allow administrators to install, maintain and remove software from the OS.

"We want to figure out how better to integrate Fix-it into the rest of the Microsoft patching story," says Paul Schottland, product unit manager in the product quality and online organization within Microsoft's support and services group. The group has been doing the majority of the work on the Fix-it technology.

Microsoft has released more than 300 Fix-its since January, mostly to correct issues that vex non-techies such as replacing an IE shortcut deleted from the desktop or fixing issues with the sound system.

But more recently, the majority of Fix-its have been for security vulnerabilities.

"The path we would like to take is a sort of best practices across the industry," said Schottland. "The path we are heading down is making sure the IT industry collectively can say this is a new tool and this is how it fits into the overall enterprise that we manage."

Microsoft plans to publish a white paper next month outlining that strategy.

Schottland says Fix-it technology is not applicable to every security vulnerability but works well when certain features need to be turned on or off rather than fixes that have multiple configuration options.

Earlier this week, Microsoft issued Fix-it "kill-bits" for an ActiveX vulnerability in Office Web Components. A patch is still being developed, according to Microsoft. The company also issued kill-bits for two other zero-day attacks exploiting ActiveX controls.

On Tuesday, Microsoft issued its first ever patch - MS09-032 - made up of a collection of "kill-bits" from previously released Fix-it code.

While the kill-bits are effective, the problem for companies is getting them deployed in an automated manner. Fix-it technology today is mostly done manually at each machine via Microsoft's Web site. The technology is mostly designed for consumers, although some vendors are beginning to provide corporate users with tools to centrally manage rollout of Fix-it code.

Microsoft for its part is recommending its System Center Configuration Manager or the group policy features associated with Active Directory for rolling out Fix-it code via a network. Schottland's group is working with the Microsoft Security Response Center and the Windows Update team to develop an enterprise solution for rapid deployment.

Microsoft is already allowing IT administrators to download the Fix-it MSI files and push them out from within their own networks as an install that does not require end-user action.

"They can use log-in scripts, Group Policy or Configuration Manager," he says. OEMs are also getting rights to distribute the MSI packages.

Those rights are in sharp contrast to patches, whose distribution is tightly controlled by Microsoft to ensure the integrity of the software. MSI files will be digitally signed, however, just like patches.

Schottland also says some Fix-it tools are coming out with more diagnostic capabilities but they require PowerShell, which runs on XP, Vista and Server 2003 and ships as part of Windows Server 2008 and Windows 7.

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