Apple’s patch process a mess, say researchers

Editor’s Note: This story is excerpted from Computerworld. For more Mac coverage, visit Computerworld’s Macintosh Knowledge Center.

Apple’s patching process proves that the company isn’t serious about moving Macs into the enterprise, security researchers said Monday.

One dissenting expert, however, said it was unfair to compare Apple’s patching procedures with, say, Microsoft’s.

“You have to evaluate the patching performance of the company if you’re looking at Macs,” said Andrew Storms, director of security operations at vendor nCircle Network Security. “And the last two weeks hasn’t been a gold star for Apple.”

Unlike its operating system rival Microsoft, which schedules security updates for the second Tuesday of each month and typically limits other updates to twice monthly, Apple releases updates, security fixes included, on any day of the month. Apple, for example, has rolled out updates on five of the 10 business days since Sept. 9.

“You get an update from Apple and it’s always a surprise,” Storms said. “The first thing you do is sit down with your team, look at the update, set priorities and assign resources. And then the next day, another update arrives, and you have to do it all over again.

“If you can’t properly plan for this, you’re in a constant firefighting mode,” Storms continued. “Now it’s affecting the management of the IT team.”

And that has to spook businesses, whose administrators are used to pinning Microsoft’s updates to specific dates on the calendar. “Even if you realize that the Mac may be an effective tool, it’s going to have a greater impact on the infrastructure because of the way Apple patches,” Storms said. “The question is, can your infrastructure withstand it?”

Charlie Miller, a researcher at Baltimore-based Independent Security Evaluators who is well-known for his Mac and iPhone vulnerability work, agreed that Apple’s patching process makes it tough on corporate IT staffers. “Administrators rely on knowing what will happen,” Miller said. “If they know, they can plan their week around it.”

Posting patches without a schedule, Miller said, is an invitation for businesses to simply not patch. “For someone like me, it’s no big deal, but for professionals, it’s a whole different story,” he said. “The last they want is a patch that just shows up. They can’t patch without testing. So this is one more reason for them to go, ‘I just won’t patch.’”

Another researcher, Swa Frantzen of the SANS Institute’s Internet Storm Center, however, disagreed with Storms and Miller. Frantzen argued that it was, no pun intended, an apples-and-oranges comparison to pit Apple’s patching procedure against Microsoft’s.

“If Apple should be compared with other vendors, take the other Unix vendors,” Frantzen urged. “Sun, HP, FreeBSD, OpenBSD, the different Linux distributions—very few of them group together patches in a monthly cycle.”

In fact, argued Frantzen, Apple’s process of patching when the patch is ready reduces the window of vulnerability for users. “[Microsoft’s] monthly cycle adds an average of half a month of unnecessary vulnerability while the patch is fully finished and not being offered to customers,” said Frantzen said. “It’s like Ford would know your Explorer will have trouble and has a solution to prevent your tire from blowing up, but decides for the ease of the dealers not to tell you or give you the solution for another few weeks.”

“I think Apple is actually in a tough spot,” offered Miller, who blamed Apple’s patching problem on its having to maintain aging code and the company’s late start in following Microsoft’s lead in applying secure code development practices. “They are so far behind on that,” Miller said. “They’re doing things, but even on some of the basic stuff, they’re lagging behind Microsoft.”

If Miller had his way, Apple would invest in a Microsoft-like secure code process—which its Redmond, Wash., rival calls its “Security Development Lifecycle”—to make its operating system more competitive in the enterprise. “I think they should do that, but I doubt they will be forced to do that,” Miller said.

“Anyway, who am I to tell them what to do? Even if I’m right.”

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