SP2 May Spell Trouble for Agentless Patching

The new Windows Firewall in XP Service Pack 2 is likely to gum up management in the short term.

Microsoft Corp.s Windows XP Service Pack 2 has thrown patch management vendors into a tizzy. IT managers should be interested because, in an ironic twist, SP2 will likely make it harder to keep desktops and laptops up-to-date with the latest patches.

/zimages/3/28571.gifClick here to read Labs review of XP SP2.

The chief cause of the patching dilemma is the new Windows Firewall, which will be installed by default when desktop and laptop systems get SP2 through Microsofts widely used update mechanisms. eWEEK Labs advises IT managers to factor Windows Firewall into their patch management best practices to avoid a patch meltdown—possibly one along the lines of the trouble expected with Y2K.

Patch management systems that use so-called agentless technology to roll out patches—for example, some offerings from Shavlik Technologies LLC (Shavlik also has agent-based tools)—will find themselves powerless to patch newly firewalled Windows XP systems.

Fortunately for some patch management vendors, Windows Firewall by default doesnt affect outbound traffic. This means agent-based patch tools appear in a more favorable light. This is especially the case with BigFix Inc.s BigFix offering because its agent can initiate contact with the patch-hosting server.

Even this advantage may be short-lived, however, if IT managers place broad restrictions on outbound traffic using Windows Firewall.

IT managers can delay the patch showdown by visiting www.microsoft.com/technet/prodtechnol/winxppro/maintain/
and downloading a tool from Microsoft that blocks delivery of SP2 via Automatic Updates for 120 days after Aug. 16. After the four-month break, however, Windows XP systems that use a Microsoft update tool will get SP2 unless IT managers take drastic steps now.

Most patch makers are already offering workarounds to Windows Firewall. One of these workarounds is to petition Microsoft to have the patch vendors product added to the Windows Firewalls built-in exception list. Symantec Corp.s ON iPatch, which is based on scanning and bulletin analysis technology licensed from Shavlik, is probably the best example.

Although being on the Windows Firewall exception list will make rolling out listed products easier for IT managers, we dont see it as a key advantage. For one thing, the patch management vendors we contacted already have workarounds that can be deployed to Windows XP systems that will enable their products to work in XP environments. Such suppositions arent just anxious wonderings. At press time, vulnerabilities were being reported in SP2.

Now that Windows XP SP2 is here, IT managers will have to make a decision about a range of asset management, software distribution and patch management tools that have depended on the wide-open nature of the Windows family of desktop operating systems. Using Windows Firewall means IT managers will likely have to consider placing more agents on desktop and laptop systems so that basic tasks such as tracking inventory or installing patches can happen in a secure environment.

IT managers who havent finished preparing for SP2 should take advantage of the 120-day grace period. However, we dont advise evading SP2 forever—or even for very long. IT managers should consider how many management agents they can tolerate on an increasingly locked-down Windows desktop operating system.

The good news is that patch management vendors have gotten much better at delivering modular tools that perform specific functions and that also work well with products such as remediation utilities and software distribution tools.

IT managers should look into coordinating the specialty tools, such as PatchLink Corp.s use of the Temporary Blocker Toolkit from Microsoft, the tool that delays SP2 installation. The next six months—a period that will include the two months when SP2 will be delivered via automatic update regardless of whether organizations are ready—will be a critical time for IT managers.

We further recommend that, beyond using patch tools to distribute temporary fixes, IT managers should rely on extensive inventory probes of their PCs to identify each system running Windows XP. Leveraging the patch management process with inventory tools should significantly reduce help desk calls and associated Windows XP remediation costs.

Labs Technical Director Cameron Sturdevant can be reached at cameron_sturdevant@ziffdavis.com.

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