Page Two

By Larry Seltzer  |  Posted 2004-04-26 Print this article Print

I didnt get an answer deep in specifics; the short version is that quality is Microsofts main concern in the patch process and that the company spends a lot of time testing. Toulouse said Microsoft could produce a patch in a shorter period of time, maybe a couple of weeks, but that if it causes a problem in even 1 percent of customer systems it could be millions of computers. Customers (which I assume means large customers) have insisted that Microsoft rigorously test patches.

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The ASN.1 bug is a good example. Few people had heard of ASN.1 before this bug, but it is used by a large number of drivers and subsystems in Windows, not to mention third-party products. Toulouse, who made sure to thank eEye for its help and scrupulousness in maintaining confidentiality, is correct that any complete test matrix for it would be huge and complicated. Two hundred days, I dont know, but it would take a long time.

And its also true that if circumstances changed and a patch were necessary in a hurry, Microsoft could release one out of its normal patch cycle. The company did this in February with the URL log-on syntax change.

While I had Toulouse on the phone, I asked about the issue of cumulative vs. separate updates. Once again I got the usual "customers have asked us to do this" and perhaps thats true, but he also said that they grouped the patches in their cumulative updates based on the files and dependencies in them. In other words, the 14 individual patches in the MS04-011 cumulative patch made changes to the same group of files with similar dependencies. So the individual patches would not be substantially smaller.

I still think theres an argument for having individual patches as well, but Im more convinced of the argument for cumulative patches as the main vehicle for patch distribution. It could be far more efficient and therefore facilitate patching in general, which is a good thing.

I understand eEyes frustration, but its not clear to me that Microsoft is being irresponsibly slow in releasing patches. I dont believe for a second that the company would do so intentionally; it has no reason to do so. And I do believe Microsoft takes the issue seriously. But if it really does take months to properly develop and test patches of this type, then Microsoft needs to do more to explain its process.

Security Center Editor Larry Seltzer has worked in and written about the computer industry since 1983. Check out eWEEK.coms Security Center at for security news, views and analysis.
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Larry Seltzer has been writing software for and English about computers ever since—,much to his own amazement—,he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1983.

He was one of the authors of NPL and NPL-R, fourth-generation languages for microcomputers by the now-defunct DeskTop Software Corporation. (Larry is sad to find absolutely no hits on any of these +products on Google.) His work at Desktop Software included programming the UCSD p-System, a virtual machine-based operating system with portable binaries that pre-dated Java by more than 10 years.

For several years, he wrote corporate software for Mathematica Policy Research (they're still in business!) and Chase Econometrics (not so lucky) before being forcibly thrown into the consulting market. He bummed around the Philadelphia consulting and contract-programming scenes for a year or two before taking a job at NSTL (National Software Testing Labs) developing product tests and managing contract testing for the computer industry, governments and publication.

In 1991 Larry moved to Massachusetts to become Technical Director of PC Week Labs (now eWeek Labs). He moved within Ziff Davis to New York in 1994 to run testing at Windows Sources. In 1995, he became Technical Director for Internet product testing at PC Magazine and stayed there till 1998.

Since then, he has been writing for numerous other publications, including Fortune Small Business, Windows 2000 Magazine (now Windows and .NET Magazine), ZDNet and Sam Whitmore's Media Survey.

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