On April 8, Microsoft officially ended all support and ceased providing updates for their Windows XP operating system. This “end of life” (EOL) announcement is not uncommon with software platforms, where continued support of aging software (XP is more than a dozen years old) becomes too expensive or too impractical, and the user is thus encouraged to upgrade to a newer version of that software. This all makes sense on the surface. As we’ve seen time and time again, software–especially large, complex pieces of software like operating systems–tends not to age well. Due to the sheer complexity of systems like XP, retrofitting patches to fix errors and vulnerabilities can be quite difficult, and may even lead to unintended consequences (i.e., more bugs). Thus, over time, software companies may urge their customers to migrate to the (relatively) clean slate provided by upgraded versions of their software.
The XP EOL announcement came as no surprise. Microsoft has been urging customers to start planning for upgrades since it terminated all retail sales of the operating system in 2008. But according to recent statistics provided by Net Applications, nearly 28 percent of Internet users are still running some version of Windows XP. Even worse, this number does not include those computers running XP that aren’t used for web browsing, e.g., servers, point-of-sale (POS) systems, medical systems, industrial systems, security systems, and ATMs. This number includes large organizations such as banks and governments, which, due mainly to their size and conservative technology adoption policies, take more time to migrate away from software platforms, especially those that provide core services, such as operating systems. This has led to multi-million dollar agreements between these organizations and Microsoft in order to provide continued support for the short term.
But what about those companies and organizations who don’t necessarily have the wherewithal to negotiate individual support contracts with Microsoft? In addition, these smaller companies too often don’t have the depth of IT support required to keep up with these updates, and some organizations may not even be aware they’re still running XP within their network. For these companies, the fact that Microsoft will no longer be providing public patches for future vulnerabilities could prove to be a serious problem.
The first example of this problem showed up last week. On May 5, a new “zero-day” vulnerability in Microsoft’s Internet Explorer (IE) Web browser was announced. This vulnerability is quite serious, as it could allow for remote code execution on a user’s computer, and had already been detected as an attack being used in the wild. Technology news sources were referring to this bug as the first sign of the “XPocalypse,” where users and organizations still running the unsupported platform would be left to the wolves, so to speak.
Microsoft took the unusual step of issuing a patch for this IE vulnerability for all of its platforms, including the “unsupported” Windows XP. While this step may have averted disaster for XP users–at least for the time being–many technology experts are warning that providing retroactive support for EOL platforms will not solve the larger problem of a significant number of users running aging, vulnerable software. This should concern not only the companies still running XP, but the entire Internet ecosystem, since compromised computer systems are often repurposed as platforms for further attacks.
It’s still too early to tell whether any of the dire predictions presented by the so-called XPocalypse will come to pass. Some cynics have pointed out that we are not likely to see a sudden surge of attacks on XP, since XP has been quite vulnerable to attack for some time, even when it was supported. Either way, companies would do well to make software security a priority, from the C-Suite on down. Companies are coming to realize that many (or most) of them are actually in the software business, as so much of their operation depends on the software that sits behind the scenes. There may come a time that the FTC views the unsupported use of XP as failing to take reasonable security measures. Adopting a wait-and-see approach to software security is bound to make a potentially bad situation even worse.