Raising Standards for Device Drivers

Opinion: It's always been easy to write Windows device drivers-well, it's easy to write a bad one. And too many vendors are satisfied with that.

About 10 years ago I was in a meeting with Bill Gates and he said that, for security purposes, Microsoft would probably have to require digital signatures on device drivers at some point.

It finally has set rules for such a system, although it has been optional to sign device drivers and other executables for many years. Device drivers—at least some of them—are special. They are software from third parties that runs in the kernel, where they have essentially unfettered access to the system, with the ability to subvert privacy and stability. They have to be trusted.

If youve had the misfortune to have a device driver crash, you have seen the Online Crash Analysis system, which in some cases can report back a solution to you, perhaps to upgrade your driver. OCA feeds into a system called Winqual through which vendors can participate in the process, seeing real-world feedback on their drivers.

This system, and other systems for reporting errors to Microsoft, have been in place for years, so they have a great deal of data (at least from users willing to report it) on what is crashing and the state of the system at that point. To the best of my knowledge, no other operating system has a system like this in place, accessible to users, but please correct me if Im wrong.

Microsoft needs to do this because it really does have to be held to a higher standard. Its the vast majority of the market and its platforms are subjected to a variety of third-party products that dwarfs that of all its competitors. Im actually in the middle of resolving a conflict between two third-party products on Windows (the Cisco VPN client and F-Secures anti-virus software). When everyones working in user mode things work smoothly almost all the time, and damage from conflicts and bugs can be limited. But with kernel mode code the potential is there, as I have seen with my problem, to reboot the system or blue-screen it.

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Now, starting with higher-end Vista systems, Microsoft is instituting a system to help users determine how trustworthy specific device drivers are (80-page Word document). There will be a Premium Logo Program so that customers will know which drivers have demonstrated a high level of quality in the real world. The DQR (Driver Quality Rating) system is designed to take feedback from OCA reports and rate drivers for their performance in the real world.

The scale will be from 1 (really bad) to 9 (really good). Drivers rated 7-9 will be rated "green," 4-6 rated "yellow," and 1-3 rated "red." If a driver falls out of the green zone, the driver manufacturer or OEM, whoever is responsible, has to address the situation within 90 days or bad things will happen.

What could happen? Systems using non-green software will not be eligible for Windows Logo certification. This specific pressure falls on the OEMs, like Dell, who will then have a serious incentive to pressure driver manufacturers to maintain high quality and to design and test their own systems more thoroughly.

Or will they? Maybe the answer for OEMs who dont come up green is to run the red light, as it were, and see if they get away with it. Im sure there are plenty of people and companies who are influenced by the logo and might change purchasing habits as a result, but maybe well see for sure real soon.

Security Center Editor Larry Seltzer has worked in and written about the computer industry since 1983.

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