Opinion: Viruses -- Easily Avoidable

Most virus attacks and intrusion exploits can be prevented beforehand without too much difficulty. Why then, aren't all network administrators updating their systems each time there's a new security hotfix? John Jones, CEO and president of St. Bernard's Software, shares his thoughts.

By John Jones | Posted Oct 5, 2001
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Here we go again. Another computer virus is reeking havoc on home and business computers throughout the United States. Guess what folks, this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Computer viruses like Nimda and some of its predecessors, Code Red and the Love Bug for example, have caused a great deal of damage and generated some of the more notable media coverage in recent memory. But for all the fear, uncertainty, doubt and damage caused by these hacker-initiated business killers, in 90% of the cases, the potential fallout could have been easily avoided.

When a security hole is discovered, Microsoft usually releases fixes which enable network administrators to "plug" the very holes hackers exploit (holes like Nimda that wreak havoc on businesses). These fixes, commonly referred to as hotfixes, are nothing more than software updates designed to correct security flaws and/or other glitches inherent in Microsoft operating systems and the most popular business-critical applications.

To Microsoft's credit, the timely release of these updates makes it possible for network administrators and others to protect servers and workstations from damages associated with security intrusions. Those who update their software with the latest hotfixes and service packs (a collection of hot fixes) are generally unaffected by viruses and intrusions. And, again to Microsoft's credit, these updates are generally available before the security holes are broadly exploited.

Despite the availability of free updates, which easily solve these problems, most companies fail to take the steps necessary to secure their systems. Let me alarm you even further with the following fact. According to U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, worldwide damages associated with Nimda are estimated to be higher than last month's Code Red worm which was estimated at $2.6 billion in clean-up costs. This figure illustrates just how serious the problem has become and the costs are sure to rise as new security threats to firms appear.

So why aren't all network administrators updating their systems each time Microsoft releases a new security hotfix?

While some individuals choose to look the other way and incorrectly assume that their systems are relatively safe to such attacks, the largest culprit in this war against hackers is lack of time and resources. And don't kid yourself; installing updates takes huge amounts of time and resources. Since administrators do not plan on deploying hotfixes, they cannot predict when their resources are needed.

More often than not, network administrators are first into the office and last to leave. In most organizations, the regular workday is dominated by "sneaker-net," running from one office to the next to keep users' workstations up and running. There just isn't enough time in the day to stay on top of the latest updates and deploy the right ones at the right time.

It takes a great deal of time to inventory each machine on the network, identify the operating system, determine which update applies and then individually install the right update on all machines. It also requires programming skills, and these highly skilled employees and service providers are deploying these updates as unplanned activities. In other words, they have to drop everything and install these fixes on the applicable machines. Until recently, it was not possible for a network administrator to perform the above activities in a reasonable amount of time, let alone from one central location.

Regardless of the tool used to keep systems up to date and secure, the only "silver bullet," which will ensure survival the next time a hacker exploits a security threat, is to establish processes for deploying appropriate and timely updates while using technical resources in the most efficient manner. In the case of Nimda, if your business was infected it is too late to deploy the hotfix. If your IT manager makes it a standard to update and maintain your software with the latest and appropriate hotfixes, avoiding problems like Nimda is a snap.

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John Jones is the president and CEO of St. Bernard Software.

St. Bernard Software's UpdateEXPERT* software is an automated research, inventory, deployment and validation tool that enables systems administrators to fix security vulnerabilities and stability problems inherent in many popular Microsoft operating systems and business-critical applications. For more info on how to avoid security intrusions and receive the latest security updates, visit www.stbernard.com.

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