Better patch management could have slowed Slammer

The worm that slowed Internet traffic around the world and blocked some services over the weekend didn't come as a complete surprise, Symantec Corp. president John Schwarz said yesterday at an industry conference.

The failure of many organizations to apply a patch that had been available since the summer contributed to the worm's spread.

"We'd seen signals as early as early January that this thing was out there, finding its way through the ether," Schwarz said at the Comnet trade show in Washington.

Failure to prevent its spread is a reflection of the complex nature of network security and the lack of resources devoted to it, he said. The technology to secure systems is in place; the problem is in managing information.

"This environment is bloody complex," Schwarz said. "Many people have implemented the right techniques and tools to defend themselves," but "we have pretty much failed" at policy enforcement for security.

The Slammer worm exploited a buffer overflow vulnerability in the Microsoft SQL Server database that had been discovered in June. Microsoft made the patch available in July, but it had not been installed on large numbers of servers that had the vulnerability.

Symantec, of Cupertino, Calif., monitors data from intrusion detection and firewall devices for millions of customers worldwide. "We saw the first indications of attempts to exploit the buffer overflow start around the Christmas period," Schwarz said. "The first spike in activity occurred late Thursday night and early Friday. By Saturday morning it was an epidemic."

Eventually an estimated 250,000 servers were infected. Problems were created by traffic from the random generation of IP addresses as the worm searched for new victims. The worm carried no payload that did direct damage.

Patch management is a critical element in security, Schwarz said. The problem often is not ignorance of the vulnerability or of the fix. The cost in time and resources of deploying security patches for large enterprises can be prohibitive. Many organizations assign patching a low priority until the threat materializes as a real attack, he said.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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