Wherin Carroll trashes Schneier a bit...



CCIA Microsoft report--the core issues
By John Carroll
Special to ZDNet
October 6, 2003, 5:13 AM PT
URL: http://zdnet.com.com/2100-1107-5086379.html

COMMENTARY--The Computer & Communications Industry Association (CCIA) has
been a long-time Microsoft opponent.  The lobbying group filed numerous
friend of the court briefs during the antitrust trial in America, and is an
active participant in the antitrust investigation being conducted by the
European Commission.  It is composed of a number of Microsoft?s fiercest
competitors, among them AOL, Sun Microsystems, Oracle, Intuit and Nokia .

Since the end of the American trial, however, the CCIA has pretty much
fallen off the radar screen. Recently, however, they?ve managed to generate
a bit of noise with " CyberInsecurity: The Cost of Monopoly ," which is
presented as " a wake up call that government and industry need to hear "
regarding security issues in Microsoft's near-ubiquitous operating system.
The report has garnered an unusual amount of attention, possibly because
Bruce Schneier, author of Applied Cryptography and generally recognized
expert in the realm of cryptography, was included as one of the report?s

My respect for Mr. Schneier?s work, however, doesn?t extend to ignoring
flaws in reports to which he contributes.  This is part one in a three part
series which rebuts the arguments made in the CyberInsecurity report.
Today?s installment deals with the core issues, namely, the risks
associated with software "monoculture" and complex systems.  Part two is a
collection of general criticisms relating to the report?s content, and
details its uncanny ability to put a negative spin on practically
everything Microsoft does.  Part three is my treatment of the proposed
remedies, and closes with some parting thoughts.

Do note that you can read the entire report yourself by going to
http://www.ccianet.org/papers/cyberinsecurity.pdf .

The risks of a software monoculture
"Protection from cascade failure is instead the province of risk
diversification--that is, using more than one kind of computer or device,
more than one brand of operating system, which in turns assures that
attacks will be limited in their effectiveness. This fundamental principle
assures that, like farmers who grow more than one crop, those of us who
depend on computers will not see them all fail when the next blight hits."
(Page 11)

In other words, by having a diverse operating system environment, you
prevent a virus that targets one platform from bringing down the entire
infrastructure.  The targeted platform might be laid low, but other
platforms will live on to propagate the species...or just continue

It?s true that a monoculture has certain costs from the standpoint of
shared risks which lead to a larger pool within which a computer virus
might thrive.  On the other hand, there are also real costs to the lack of
a standardized computing architecture, which is the flip-side of the
monoculture detailed in the report.

The benefits of standardization
As I discussed in my Tunney comments , software lacks the inherent
standards found in other industries.  Software APIs can take practically
any shape imaginable, which means that the initial state of a young
software market is extreme fragmentation.

This is a tremendous inhibitor to development, as a particular software
product can only reach a small, platform-specific market.  This attracts
less developer attention, leading to higher software costs and fewer users.
As a result, the market?s natural tendency has been to standardize on one
provider. That one provider might start with only a slight lead over its
competitors, but that slight lead will cause more developers to target the
favored platform, leading to greater economics of scale and lower costs,
which attracts more customers and gives rise to the virtuous cycle which
gave companies like Microsoft, and IBM before it, a dominant share of the

With Windows, consumers have the most hardware and software choice, lower
costs due to economics of scale, and are guaranteed compatibility with
practically any product on the market.  Companies have a large pool from
which to draw technical staff, all of whom benefit from the deeper
knowledge which comes with the ability to specialize in one platform (Adam
Smith would appreciate this).  Employers also benefit from the fact that
potential employees, if they have computer skills, will have those skills
on Windows.

It?s not just the Windows? market, however, that realizes cost savings in
this fashion.  Increasingly, the UNIX market is organizing around an open
source operating system named Linux.  It is my opinion that this
consolidation will continue, making Linux THE standard for the UNIX
development domain.  Few would say this consolidation is a negative thing,
nor suggest that government use its influence to stop that consolidation on
the basis of national security concerns.

Similarly, Java?s "Write Once, Run Anywhere" (WORA) promise is based on the
ability to run the same executable on any platform that has a Java runtime
installed.  Though Java is certainly safer from a security standpoint than
native development (no more buffer overflows), Java programs can still have
coding flaws that have security implications.  Such a flaw would exist,
therefore, on every platform the application is run on.  Sun Microsystems
certainly hopes to make Java the de facto standard for application
development.  Yet, no one is suggesting that these ambitions should be
curtailed in order to preserve platform diversity.

Stan Liebowitz , a professor at the University of Texas at Dallas,
estimated that just the break-up of Microsoft would have cost as much as
$300 billion over 3 years .  I expect that the cost to the industry from
government-enforced operating system diversity would be much higher.  The
"cure" in this case might be far worse than the disease.

In short, though monoculture has its own set of risks, the costs of those
risks can be outweighed by the benefits of commodity operating systems.

Regarding Software Complexity
The report argues that complexity is the enemy of secure software.  As a
piece of software grows more complex, the code becomes harder to
understand, and thus securing the code becomes that much more difficult.

There is certainly truth in this.  An application with lots of "extras"
creates more places where bugs with security implications might hide.
Standard practice for critical-path systems is to remove extraneous
components, leaving only what is needed for a particular task.  This is
what Google has done with the Linux operating systems that run on its
custom hardware, creating a lean and fast environment that minimizes the
surface area upon which viruses might gain traction.

On the other hand, it is likely that most users of desktop systems will
have networking, a user interface, a browser, media playing and other
features installed.  Microsoft provides defaults for these features, and
these defaults tend to be quite popular.  However, the issue isn?t that
these defaults add more complexity-derived risk than otherwise would exist,
since most users would reject a "lean but secure" desktop system in favor
of one with more features.  The only risks created are those posed by
software monocultures, and as I explained in the last section, the "costs"
associated with those risks are often outweighed by the benefits of
standardized APIs and economics of scale.

The report argues, however, that the complex system created by Microsoft?s
integrated platform makes it harder to iron out bugs. If no one can
understand more than a fraction of a complex system, then, no one can
predict all the ways that system could be compromised by an attacker .
Though correct, this analysis is not directly applicable to Microsoft.

Microsoft, like most software companies in the world today, practices
object oriented principles in their software design, a fact clear from the
near universal adoption within Microsoft of COM.  Granted, this isn?t a
silver bullet that magically slays all software bugs, but it does imply
that the CODE is separate for each component within Windows, whether or not
the distribution of compiled code is scrambled with other system dlls
(something that is done, in my opinion, in order to satisfy the
"integration" requirement of past settlement decrees).  In other words, I
doubt that a programmer on the Internet Explorer team has to slog through
GDI code to find the parts that relate to Internet Explorer. The IE
development team likely deals EXCLUSIVELY with IE code, a division of labor
that adds no more complexity to Windows OS maintenance than Microsoft
Office adds to it.

Of course, applications might interfere in such a way as to create a
security issue, but in this case, the advantage goes to a standardized
system.  With a standardized system, you can predict what configuration
will tend to exist on a given computer. This standard system, therefore,
will respond in a more predictable fashion than a system with a
configuration that can?t be predicted in advance.

OEMs tend to prefer standard configurations, as standard configurations are
well understood and easier to fix.  The same applies to operating systems.
An operating system with standard interfaces and components is a standard
base that can be updated as needed.  Patches are a reality for Linux as
much as Windows, and I would argue that the higher levels of
standardization on Windows systems will make it easier to patch more fully
a wider swath of systems than a fragmented and diverse system where
security bugs can hide within applications an update detection tool knows
nothing about.

On a different tack, integrated features are what enable regular users to
perform a number of advanced functions they would be unlikely to have
discovered on their own.  Windows consumers can, out of the box, log onto
the Internet, browse Web pages, play music and streaming movies, and create
home movies using just the features that come with Windows.  Call these
training wheels for the non-technical user, but just as training wheels
lead to increased proficiency in riding a bicycle, Windows defaults provide
entry to areas of technology that the non-technical might not have used on
their own.  I would suggest that Microsoft?s decision to turn Media Player
into a competitive product (versus just the stripped-down tool of days
past) has done more to boost the fortunes of digital media than any action
on the part of third parties with a vested interest in the market.  This is
market-building, and enables new companies to offer services in areas of
technology that, previously, lacked a market of sufficient size as to
justify the expense of entry.

Default features also present a standard base that non-technical users can
expect will always be present on every Windows system.  Why has "vi"
managed to persist as a text editor, even though its interface (IMO) is
about as much fun as making a transatlantic all using tin cans and a very
long piece of wire? Quite simply, UNIX administrators and programmers have
come to expect that every UNIX OS they come across will have it.  Such
standardization matters to technical users, who have the wherewithal and
interest to investigate new technology.  It matters all the more for
non-technical users, as such standardization is what makes it possible for
them to navigate the computing universe.

Complexity in the form of more integrated product can make it easier for
bugs with security implications to hide.  However, the costs are not as
severe as they might appear at first glance, given that most computers
users would have little use for a stripped down, but highly secure,
product.  Likewise, there are benefits derived from a product with a
high-feature, standardized configuration which may outweigh the remaining
costs associated with complexity.

This is the first of three parts. The second part will publish on
Wedenesday and part three will appear on Friday.

biography John Carroll is a software engineer now living in Geneva,
Switzerland. He specializes in the design and development of distributed
systems using Java and .Net. He is also the founder of Turtleneck Software .

R. A. Hettinga <mailto: [EMAIL PROTECTED]>
The Internet Bearer Underwriting Corporation <http://www.ibuc.com/>
44 Farquhar Street, Boston, MA 02131 USA
"... however it may deserve respect for its usefulness and antiquity,
[predicting the end of the world] has not been found agreeable to
experience." -- Edward Gibbon, 'Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire'

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