XP SP2, which is due out in the first half of 2004, will be an important step in Microsoft's strategy to provide a secure IT environment. But the highest level of security offered through SP2 will require the use of "no execution" (NX) technology, which is currently only available on machines equipped with AMD's Athlon an Opteron 64-bit chips.
NX uses a feature of the processor to prevent a buffer overflow exploit, by stopping a hacker from running a Trojan horse program. Microsoft said NX should prevent worms such as MS Blaster from replicating.
Gartner research fellow Martin Reynolds said, "Buffer overflow will be a lot harder to exploit under SP2." But he pointed out that some applications might not be compatible with NX. "Some code may deliberately execute from the data area - for example, just-in-time compilers for Java - and require the NX feature to be disabled," he said.
Intel said its next Pentium 4 chip, Prescott, would not support NX. "There are compatibility concerns around NX. We would only introduce it once those are dealt with," an Intel spokesman told Computer Weekly.
Carla Arend, analyst on IDC's European security research team, said, "NX technology should be considered by companies as part of their upgrade plans." She said if NX processors are already available from AMD and if Intel is about to launch them, companies that can wait before immediately upgrading should do so to take advantage of the NX fix.