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Windows Vista: Security issues to consider

Windows Vista is now in the wild. With its myriad new security features, are enterprises foolish not to adopt right away? In this tip, contributor Michael Cobb examines the security-related pros and cons of Microsoft's latest operating system and factors to consider before installing Windows Vista on your systems.

Automakers are certainly clever. A consumer will be perfectly happy with the car he or she owns, and then automakers bring out new models featuring all the latest belles and whistles, luring buyers back into the showrooms. Inspired perhaps by that automaker savvy, Microsoft is hoping to inspire some OS envy with the release of Windows Vista. After five years in the making, Windows Vista's shiny new Aero interface will soon be found on home PCs everywhere. But the choice to upgrade enterprise machines has to be based on what's under the hood, not how it looks. While Microsoft touts hundreds of security improvements in Vista, are they really going to make life easier for system administrators?

Windows Vista features
Windows Vista is a different breed than previous Windows operating systems, as it's almost entirely new from the ground up. There are several features that should ease the burden of installing and maintaining Windows Vista. First, with Windows Imaging Format (WIM) system admins can reduce the number of desktop images, as multiple images can be combined into one file. I'm personally looking forward to using the User State Migration Tool (USMT) when I upgrade. Using the USMT tool, users can save state data and profile information to a hard drive, while cleaning and installing Vista, restore the information to the desktop later and then apply their existing settings once installation is complete.

More on Windows Vista

Our resource center has tips and tactics for securing Windows Vista.

One expert explains why corporations should wait to adopt Window Vista.
Organizations that use Active Directory and Group Policy to enforce policy standards on their desktops will be particularly interested in Windows Vista's extended Group Policy settings. While the hundreds of new settings may appear daunting, they should allow you to configure settings to match your specific environment. For example, administrators will notice settings to control and lock down USB devices. Vista's Network Access Protection (NAP) service is also a nice feature. With NAP, admins can set security standards stating, for instance, that all computers must have up-to-date virus definitions before a server connects them to the network.

Windows Vista: Adoption considerations
But, before deciding to adopt Windows Vista based on its features, there are other security-related factors to consider.

First, users should be prepared for the additional security alerts they'll encounter, since alerts now pop up whenever a security or policy enforcement event occurs. This increased exposure could lead to user-click fatigue. Even worse for admins, many of these warnings provide little help when trying to resolve problems. For example, permission prompts currently state that an application is doing something it shouldn't without explaining exactly what. Legacy software may encounter problems with permissions when trying to update supporting DDL files. Hopefully the revised event log and monitoring-notification system will help with problem diagnosis.

While Windows Vista doesn't appear to have any killer must-have features or functionality, it is clearly a better operating system than its predecessors. The kernel mode security enhancements are quite substantial, resulting in a dramatic reduction of its overall attack surface. Features like native support for IPv6 support, BitLocker Drive Encryption, USB device control, and the hundreds of other security features will, over time, make the day-to-day lives of many administrators a lot easier. In the meantime, admins should expect a few sleepless nights given the upgrade path complexities, hardware compatibility issues and user education needs. My advice to those considering early adoption: don't do it. Instead, wait and see if any exploits or flaws are found. Now that Vista is available to everyone, its security features are subject to the accelerated cycle of real-world vulnerability testing, and that will be telling. So don't be afraid to take the time to evaluate it and test just how beneficial it will be in your own environment.

About the Author:
Michael Cobb, CISSP-ISSAP is the founder and managing director of Cobweb Applications Ltd., a consultancy that offers IT training and support in data security and analysis. He co-authored the book IIS Security and has written numerous technical articles for leading IT publications. Mike is the guest instructor for several SearchSecurity Security Schools and, as a site expert, answers user questions on application security and platform security.

This was last published in February 2007

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