64-bit Windows safer, claims Microsoft

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Windows users running 64-bit versions of the operating system are less likely to get infected by attack code, Microsoft’s security team said yesterday. But that doesn’t mean they won’t, countered an outside security researcher. “64-bit Windows has some of the lowest reported malware infection rates in the first half of 2009,” said Joe Faulhaber of the Microsoft Malware Protection Center in a post to the group’s blog yesterday. “64-bit malware is still exceedingly rare in the wild.”

Faulhaber cited statistics gleaned from Microsoft’s Malicious Software Removal Tool (MSRC), a free malware detection and deletion utility the company updates and pushes to users monthly. According to Microsoft’s data, the 64-bit version of Windows XP was 48% less likely to be infected than the 32-bit edition during the first half of 2009; PCs running Vista 64-bit, meanwhile, were 35% less likely to be infected than Vista 32-bit.

Windows 7, which was not included in the data for the first half of this year because it had not been released in final form, also is available in both 32- and 64-bit editions. Faulhaber noted that Windows 7 64-bit is the dominant flavor of that new OS as he touted its security. “Most PCs shipping with Windows 7 come with the 64-bit versions of Windows,” he observed.

Windows 64-bit is safer to run, he argued, in large part because malware, which is written for the much more widely used 32-bit versions of Windows, is “confused by 64-bit.”

That’s not necessarily true, said Alfred Huger, formerly with Symantec and currently vice president of engineering at security start-up Immunet. “There’s a lot of 64-bit malware,” said Huger. “They can run their code in compatibility mode, or they can compile it for 64-bit. The reason they’re not is that there’s still not a lot of 64-bit deployment. There’s 64-bit malware out there, just like there’s Mac OS malware out there. But right now, [64-bit] is just not as opportune a target as 32-bit.”

It’s relatively simple for criminals to customize their attacks against 64-bit systems, Huger maintained. “We almost never see just one [piece of malware] on a machine. It’s almost always eight or ten or a dozen,” he said. “Most malware gets on your system because you put it there, and one of the things most attacks do is download a bootstrapper that then downloads other malware. It’s easy for attackers to have their bootstrapper check whether the OS is 64-bit, then grab 64-bit malware to download onto the PC.”

In the end, said Huger, there just isn’t a “compelling reason” for hackers to bother with 64-bit, but there’s nothing inherently more secure about a 64-bit operating system. “Malware is just software,” he observed. “It can execute on 64-bit just like other software.”

Faulhaber argued that 64-bit Windows was safer by design than the less-powerful 32-bit version, ticking off such measures as PatchGuard, which makes it more difficult for malware to tamper with the operating system’s kernel. PatchGuard is included in the 64-bit versions of XP, Vista and Windows 7. He also mentioned WOW64 (Windows On Windows 64), the lightweight emulation mode that lets 64-bit versions run 32-bit code. “The additional protections built into 64-bit Windows will make it harder for malware to make the 64-bit jump,” Faulhaber said.

While Faulhaber trumpeted 64-bit XP’s and Vista’s — and by extension, Windows 7’s — ability to sidestep more malware, the bi-annual Microsoft Security Intelligence Report he cited said that some of the lower infection rates might have nothing to do with the OS, and everything to do with the user.

“Infection rates for the 64-bit versions of Windows XP and Windows Vista are lower than for the corresponding 32-bit versions of those platforms, a difference that might be attributable to a higher level of technical expertise on the part of people who run 64-bit operating systems,” the report concluded. “This difference may be expected to decrease as 64-bit computing continues to make inroads among mainstream users.”

Nor did Faulhaber go so far as to claim that 64-bit Windows, even Windows 7, was stout enough to do without security software. “64-bit Windows needs 64-bit anti-malware software like Microsoft Security Essentials to protect the whole computer,” he acknowledged, touting his company’s free security suite, which shipped in late September.

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Windows 7 Adoption Nudging Out Vista, Not XP

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Windows 7 is surging. After an insanely popular beta cycle, Microsoft’s latest and greatest has exploded out of the gate, grabbing more than 4 percent of the real-world usage base as tracked by InfoWorld’s Windows Pulse service — after only a few weeks of general availability. More tellingly, Windows 7 is grabbing a sizable chunk of our new users. Fully 10 percent of the most recent registrants are running some version of Windows 7, which is remarkable since, after three years in the market, Windows Vista still barely registers above the 30 percent level.
[ How to choose between 32-bit Windows 7 and 64-bit Windows 7. | Get InfoWorld’s 21-page hands-on look at the new version of Windows, from InfoWorld’s editors and contributors. | Find out what’s new, what’s wrong, and what’s good about Windows 7 in InfoWorld’s “Windows 7: The essential guide.” ]
And even that number is beginning to erode: As Windows 7 picks up user share, it seems to be making most of its gains at the expense of Vista. In fact, there seems to be a direct correlation between Windows 7 adoption and Vista abandonment, with the latter losing a percentage point and the former gaining the same in a little over a week.
Of course, the lion’s share of our user base remains on Windows XP. And with this legacy OS holding steady at just under 64 percent, it seems clear that the fence-sitters in the Vista-versus-XP debate remain firmly seated on their perches. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise anyone to see this early Windows 7 surge taper off as the enthusiast euphoria fades and is replaced by the slow, steady grind of the corporate refresh cycle.
Still, this is an encouraging result for Microsoft and shows that there is indeed pent-up demand for something better than Vista — even if much of that demand seems to be coming from Vista adopters themselves. It will be interesting see if this one-for-one user share correlation continues in the coming weeks. Will anyone still be using Vista a year from now?
Another interesting angle to consider: How many new Windows 7 users are coming to the new OS via direct upgrades from Vista? One of the advantages to having a living repository of over 21,000 active sites is that we can conduct all sorts of cross-tabular analysis. If, for example, we want to compare OS upgrade rates, we can simply compare the current records for a given PC (identified by its NetBIOS machine name and make/model/BIOS details) to those from an earlier snapshot of the exo.repository, which hosts the data shown in Windows Pulse. (You can add your system’s data — anonymously, of course — by signing up for InfoWorld’s Windows Sentinel and OfficeBench tool, which also lets you moniutor your own PCs’s performance.)
In fact, we’ll be doing exactly this sort of analysis in the coming weeks. Similarly, we’ll be looking at changes in memory configurations to see if users are upgrading existing PCs with more RAM as part of a move from the less demanding XP to the more top-heavy Windows 7.
Of course, the big question is whether XP shops will finally migrate away from this nearly nine-year-old OS. So far, Vista is seeing the bulk of the user share erosion. If this trend continues, it’s quite conceivable that Microsoft could see Windows 7’s growth stall as the flood of Vista converts runs its course and the XP holdouts stand their ground.
Such an outcome would be disastrous for Microsoft. It desperately needs to regain control of the Windows release cycle with Windows 7, and simply swapping out the Vista community — which, by all accounts, is ready to move almost immediately — isn’t going to do the trick.
For more IT analysis and commentary on emerging technologies, visit InfoWorld.com. Story copyright © 2007 InfoWorld Media Group. All rights reserved.

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Microsoft patches critical hole in Windows kernel

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Microsoft on Tuesday issued six security bulletins fixing 15 vulnerabilities, including a critical patch for holes in the Windows kernel and other Windows and Office components that could allow an attacker to take control of a computer. The critical bulletin affecting the Kernel-Mode Drivers was publicly disclosed and could be used to create a Web page with malware designed to exploit the hole on systems that visit the page, Microsoft said in a blog posting.


“MS09-065, a bug in the Windows kernel, is this month’s most serious issue,” said Andrew Storms, director of security operations at nCircle. “The vulnerability allows for remote code execution, and the attack code can be embedded inside MS Office files or be hosted on websites. Simply browsing an infected website will compromise unsuspecting users — not great for all the holiday shoppers looking to get a jump on their shopping. The novelty value of this bug is likely to attract many researchers. A lot of people will try to be the first to publicly post exploit code.”

The two other critical bulletins fix holes in Web Services on Devices API and in License Logging Server. Two bulletins ranked “important” fix holes that pose risk of remote code execution if a user opened a maliciously crafted Excel or Word file.

“It is interesting that a new service that helps with the ‘user experience’ can cause so much harm,” saod Jason Miller, data and security team leader at Shavlik Technologies. “The WSDAPI service allows users to easily find devices such as printers and cameras on their network. This vulnerability is also not publicly known at this time.”

Software affected by the patches includes Windows 2000, XP, Server 2003, Vista, Server 2008, Office XP, Office 2003, 2007 Microsoft Office System, Office 2004 for Mac, and Office 2008 for Mac, according to the bulletin.

Meanwhile, the Microsoft Malware Protection Center team added two rogue antivirus families to the Malicious Software Removal Tool — Win32/FakeVimes, which calls itself “Windows System Defender” and “Windows Enterprise Suite,” and Win32/PrivacyCenter, which calls itself “Safety Center.”

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Windows 7’s claim to fame: better than Vista

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Pros: Easy to install, easier to use, fixes a lot of problems, XP Mode is handy. Cons: Preferences are still difficult to navigate, Windows Update is still annoying, versions still confusing. Upgrade process flawed, at best.With the end of October comes the beginning of holiday shopping season. What better way to kick that off than to introduce a new version of Windows? Windows 7 is the hotly anticipated sequel to Windows Vista, which was a colossal flop in terms of performance and bugs. Thankfully, this latest revision has fixed a lot of problems that Vista had.   First and foremost, Windows 7 is much less demanding of your computer’s resources, which makes it usable on netbooks, those tiny, low-power laptops that have been gaining popularity in recent years. It also means you’ll have a smoother computing experience than with Vista. You also won’t have all of the driver compatibility problems that plagued Vista’s launch. The new XP Mode emulates a Windows XP environment for the purposes of running older applications that you might be holding on to. This is particularly useful for businesses who rely on antiquated software, but also for the average consumer, because it means that if your application ran well under XP, it’ll do just fine with Windows 7. Unfortunately, Windows 7 has a bunch of flaws to it. First and foremost in my mind are the different versions of the operating system. As a consumer, you need to choose the right flavor of the OS for you, and with such unhelpful names as Home Premium, Professional and Ultimate, it’s hard to tell what’s right for you. Students can get a special discount on Home Premium, but that doesn’t pack all of the features of the Professional or Ultimate versions. Of course, if you want to be able to do everything, you’ll need the Ultimate version, which retails for a whopping $220. Demonstrating Microsoft’s usual gracelessness, they released an upgrade chart that demonstrates the sheer ridiculousness of the upgrade system. To summarize, if you’re using Windows XP or Windows Vista Starter, you have to erase all of your data and restore it after the Windows 7 install. The same goes if you’re switching between a 32- and 64-bit version of Windows, or from the various different flavors to one another. It’s very complicated. Far too complicated, in my opinion. Then we come to the topics of the Control Panel, and Windows Update. Compared to Mac OS X’s System Preferences App, the Control Panel is a clunky substitute, at best. It’s very difficult to figure out where the preference you want to find is, and even harder to parse through the layers upon layers of menus to get to whatever it is that you need. All of this adds up to a confusing, bewildering, and generally annoying user experience, unless you have an extensive knowledge of exactly how to work the back-end of the OS. The bottom line is: Windows 7 is a much-needed upgrade. If Vista is sucking up your hard disk space and processor time, make a move for 7. Just don’t expect it to be a cure-all for each and every one of Windows’ ills.

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