Thought for the day: Catching the computer virus

Businesses, like people, are developing an immunity to the viruses going around, says Simon Moores.

Simon Moores  

Businesses, like people, are developing an immunity to the viruses going around, says Simon Moores.




Biology teaches us that species with little genetic variation called monocultures are the most vulnerable to catastrophic epidemics.

Populations that share a single fatal flaw, such as the lack of immunity to smallpox, can and have been wiped out by a virus capable of exploiting that flaw.

Genetic diversity in the population increases the chances of survival, and the same can be said of software in today’s increasingly connected but hostile environment.

A PC sneezes in China and 12 hours later, 100 million computers decide to call in sick with the flu.

When copies of the Windows source code escaped into the wild last week, observers started to worry that the stolen code would provide a potential springboard for even more serious virus and worm exploits than those we have witnessed over the past 12 months.

A great many people are showing remarkable interest in the code, but Microsoft’s so-called "proprietary code" isn’t as close a secret as many people think it is. After all, it’s been shared with partners and governments for a long time now and this is, of course, how some of the code entered the public domain this month.

Unless you happen to be using a Mac or have hand-coded and installed your own Linux PC, then the end of the world is near, or to quote Dad's Army's Private Frazer, "We're doomed."

But are we? I am not sure.

Information security is not just a simple matter of increasing biodiversity in the software industry. If we remember back to the 1980s, biodiversity was a problem in its own right, particularly among network operating systems. The industry has a habit of moving towards a tighter and smaller set of standards and protocols that everyone eventually subscribes to, which in turn, creates its own Achilles heel.

If we concede that all software is vulnerable to attack, and some software is more vulnerable and more popular than others, then the biological model should, in theory, have Windows superseded by another and more resistant strain of software, and when that one catches cold another follows.

But life doesn’t work quite that way. Security represents a complex mixes of processes, technologies and human factors.

Neither Windows or Linux are standing still. Patches and products such as Windows Server 2003, are the equivalent of antibodies. Over time, what we are likely to witness is the arrival of a living operating system which responds to threats through anti-virus software and patches until the arrival, of the perfectly secure software environment, the foundation, at least, for Microsoft’s own Next Generation Secure Computing Base (NGSCB).

Let’s face it, Windows is getting hammered by one attack after the other, but talk to most chief security officers and they’ll tell you that since Blaster, most attacks are bouncing off much better security processes that have locked down the Windows environment.

This month, Netcraft reports that the number of host names found by its web server survey running Windows Server 2003 overtook Windows NT 4.0 and that more than 1.25 million hostnames are now running on Windows 2003, a 283% increase since August of 2003.

Compared with September last year, this also shows the majority of the sites to have migrated from Windows 2000 (534,000), but also 55,000 of the sites to have migrated from Linux, 56,000 from FreeBSD and 8,000 from Solaris, with 272,000 of the host names running Win2003 new sites not previously running a different operating system.

So, while viruses and worms proliferate, businesses are not standing still and are taking their own evolutionary approach towards better security.

The Microsoft monoculture may prevail, and faced with this fact of life, businesses are growing a much thicker skin to protect their information assets, which makes the presence of a software monoculture less of a doomsday threat than we might think it is.

What do you think?

What do you have in place to keep the viruses at bay? Tell us in an e-mail >> reserves the right to edit and publish answers on the website. Please state if your answer is not for publication.

Setting the world to rights with the collected thoughts and opinions of leading industry analyst Dr Simon Moores of Zentelligence.

Acting globally, Zentelligence (Research) advises governments, suppliers, business and the media on the evolution, application and delivery of leading-edge technologies and specialises in the areas of eGovernment and information security.

For further information on Zentelligence and its research, presentation and analyst services visit


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