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GCN : April 2014
CYBEREYE BY WILLIAM JACKSON AFTER 12 YEARS of dominat- ing the market for Windows operating systems, more recent Windows versions finally are beginning to replace the popular and venerable XP. But a surprising number of critical systems are still running this workhorse OS in the govern- ment enterprise and will need to be protected after Microsoft ends support in April. Upgrading to Windows 7 or 8 would seem to be the logical solution, but as is so often the case with legacy IT, it s more complicated than that. "There are some people who don t have an option to change," said John Stubbs, director of software channels for Unisys. Many times the OS is running in automation and process control systems that run business and mission- critical systems, both in private sector and government enter- prises. "We were surprised by the percentage of XP devices that are still controlling those types of activities," Stubbs said. Pinpointing the number of devices running a particular operating system is di cult, but large-scale trends indicate that XP is not disappearing any time soon. A 2013 study by software vendor Softchoice found XP running on 58 percent of a sample of 500,000 devices across 7,200 enterprises, down from 68 percent the year be- fore. Most of the di erence was made up by the adoption of Windows 7, with only a small uptake of Windows 8. The prevalence of XP in critical systems is likely to be higher than throughout the enterprise in general because once critical systems are up and running they often are left alone until they break, and upgrading them can be expensive. Critical control systems are certified for operating in government as a whole, and a $1,000 XP machine might be running a $1 million system. Upgrading that controller could require a recertification and upgrading of the entire system, which means the soft- ware tends to be left in place for as long as possible. This is fine as long as the OS does not have to work with new apps and protocols, but eventually it exposes the system to increased risk if it no longer is being supported and patched by the vendor. Not surprisingly, Unisys says it has a solution for that, its Stealth suite of software. Stealth "hides" protected devices by ignoring tra c that is not from an approved Stealth source, so that devices cannot be reached by attackers. The need to isolate and hide vulner- able XP devices is opening a new market for the Stealth suite. Microsoft is also o ering an expensive custom sup- port service for XP, and there are third party subscription services that block exploits of unpatched XP vulnerabilities. These are not permanent fixes for XP, but they can help buy time to upgrade critical systems with an operating sys- tem that has more of a future. • STILL RUNNING WINDOWS XP? HERE ARE SOME OPTIONS FOR YOUR CRITICAL SYSTEMS 18 GCN APRIL 2014 • GCN.COM MICROSOFT ENDS SUPPORT FOR XP. ARE YOU READY? Life will not end on April 8 for procrastinating users of Windows XP, but it is likely to change as Microsoft ends most of its support for the popular OS. So be ready to adapt. First of all, what does end of support mean? According to Microsoft, the company no longer will offer technical support, automated updates or patches for vulnerabilities. However, antimalware signatures will continue to be provided until July 2015, and existing updates will continue to be available for download. "If you continue to use Windows XP after support ends, your computer will still work, but it might become more vulnerable to security risks and viruses," the company warned. How should agency IT managers protect themselves? Microsoft (not surprisingly), recommends getting a new operating system or a whole new PC. That is not bad advice, but the odds are they won't be able to accomplish that across the enterprise by April 8. But IT managers can and should protect machines running XP while planning an orderly transition. Some initial steps: • Know what machines are running XP. • Know why users are running it, what apps or services are they supporting. • Plan not only the transition from XP, but what transitions, changes or updates will be necessary to the apps and services it is supporting. In the meantime, protect the network. Isolate XP machines as much as possible, hide them from the Internet and closely monitor traf c to and from and all activities within the system. One option --- an expensive one --- is Microsoft's Custom Support, which will continue to provide automatic updates for "critical" vulnerabilities for at least a year for a subscription of about $200 per machine. "Important" patches are extra. -- William Jackson