On Beyond Monoculture
Make system diversity a goal for 2004, writes Peter Coffee.Over the course of this year, the biggest change in my IT environment has been more frequent updates to system software. Not only have there been a larger number of critical software updates, but Ive also been much more inclined to find and apply them quickly. My growing acceptance of these patches is driven by two factors: the more rapid spread and greater malevolence of malware and my growing use of technology diversity to put my eggs in more than one basket. Ive gone to new lengths this year to have not just backup systems but actual alternative systems with few shared failure modes. The result is that Im less exposed to downtime because of any single mishap during a system update or any single success that an attacker might have in exploiting a system loophole. I urge you to consider the diversification of your own technology portfolio as a defense against the twin threats of accident and malice. Some diversity strategies are the residue of inertia. For example, I know people who still use Netscape Navigator 4.5, accepting the occasional nuisance of Web content that they cant use in return for being ignored by new attacks. Personally, I had the gloomy satisfaction this summer of telling our long-suffering sysadmin that no matter what his log might say about my systems behavior, there was no way that it could be infected by the Blaster worm because I was using a Windows 98 laptop and Blaster could not affect it.
I wont attempt to turn this into an argument for keeping Windows 98 on corporate desktops, though, because Win 9x doesnt need the help of a worm or other malware to become a fragile and unreliable way to do ones work. When I think about how well Ive learned to watch on-screen alerts of low resource levels on the several 9x machines that I still regularly use, I realize that tools like Symantecs Norton System Doctor are at least as much a symptom as a cure. I dont really want an excellent resource-pool monitor; I want a rock-solid operating system that runs whatever I can throw at it, subject only to gross limitations on memory, CPU speed and disk space.