The release of Service Pack 2 for Windows XP will mark a
milestone in the life of this operating system. Microsoft is pulling out all
the stops to improve security. So much so, in fact, that it will cause many
problems—because SP2 will de-emphasize backward compatibility with legacy
systems and code for the sake of security. Administrators need to know in
advance just what SP2 will mean for the Windows XP systems on their networks.

Based on Service Pack 2 RC1

The information in this article is based on Windows XP
Service Pack 2, Release Candidate 1. There could be a few minor changes to the
software in the final release, but nearly everything you read here will still


Windows XP SP2 will dramatically improve the default
security configuration for XP in nearly every area from e-mail to Web browsing to
increased protection against the ubiquitous buffer overrun. But, all of these
security improvements won’t come without some considerable pain. ZDNetUK reports that Microsoft admits that as many as one application in
10 will experience problems due to the upgrade (I consider that a conservative

Here are some of the most important security changes that
are part of XP SP2:

  • The
    Internet Connection Firewall is now enabled by default, which should
    improve security for SOHO users. However, in a corporate environment it
    could cause problems for users trying to connect to network resources. The
    firewall will also now activate much earlier in the boot cycle, even
    before the network stack is enabled. On shutdown, it will now remain
    active until after the stack is disabled.
  • The
    Messenger service is now disabled by default.
  • A
    pop-up ad blocker has been turned on by default.
  • A
    unified security application called the Windows Security Center has been
    added (for more information on this feature, see this article).
    It is supposed to bring all of the most basic security configuration information
    into one easy-to-manage place that will show whether your firewall is
    enabled, if your antivirus software is working, and if you have the latest
    software updates installed.
  • NX
    support is added to Windows XP. NX (no execute) will allow NX-enabled CPUs
    to mark certain areas of memory as non-executable; that is, any code
    pushed into those areas (perhaps by malware such as Blaster or other viruses)
    will just sit there, unable to run and therefore will be rendered
    harmless. This will harden the OS against the notorious buffer overrun
    threats. NX is currently only supported for AMD’s K8 and Intel’s Itanium
    processors, but 32- and 64-bit support for this important security feature
    is expected in most future processor releases.
  • DCOM
    (the Distributed Component Object Model) gets a new set of restrictions in
    the form of an access control list for nearly every action of any COM
    server. There will also be a more detailed set of COM permissions, which
    will allow administrators to fine-tune COM permission policies.
  • There
    is improved port management. It will no longer be up to the application to
    close ports after it is finished. Before, if a developer left out the
    closing routine or the application crashed, a port could remain open and
    leave XP open to attack. SP2 encourages port management with an application
    white list that only a user with administrator privileges can alter.
    Placing an application (such as a peer-to-peer program) on the white list
    causes ports to be managed automatically. Such applications can also now
    be run as a regular user rather than needing local administrator
    privileges to open ports in ICF.
  • New
    RPC restrictions help tighten communications. The XP SP2 changes in this
    area let administrators fine-tune RPC services. This granular control over
    RPC will allow you to specify that a port be used for RPC even if the
    application is not on the white list. There are a lot of changes for RPC,
    including a new RestrictRemoteClients registry key that by default blocks
    most, but not all, remote anonymous access to RPC interfaces on the
    system. The RPC interface restriction will require an RPC caller to perform
    authentication, which makes it much more difficult to attack an interface,
    and helps mitigate against Trojan attacks.

Potential problems

The NX protection mentioned above is an excellent example of
something that is definitely a powerful improvement from the security
standpoint. However, NX has already been reported to have caused considerable
problems (at least in the 64-bit version). The biggest problem will come for
applications that use just-in-time code creation. On the other hand, the .NET
Framework common language runtime code already supports NX as implemented in

RPC changes are the most likely to wreak havoc with existing
applications. In the pre-SP2 Windows XP implementation, there are literally
scores of RPC-based services running, all of which provide a window for attack.
That changes dramatically with SP2.

Because of the change in port management, if an application
needs to open ports but doesn’t use stateful filtering, administrators
installing it need to place the program on the white list. With the built-in
firewall enabled by default, IPv4-application inbound connections for audio and
video, such as for MSN or Windows Messenger, need to have their port opening
and closing managed automatically. Inbound services connections (IPv4) will
require some changes to configuration and/or code. Services that listen on
fixed ports should ask users if the service should be permitted to open the
port in ICF and, if so, the service should use the INetFwV4OpenPort API to
alter ICF rules.

Another problem is the fact that Microsoft won’t be offering
this service patch to those who hold pirated copies of Windows XP, which is
reasonable enough, but there are a lot of illegal copies out there, especially
in the Far East where a lot of worms get a quick foothold in the Internet. SP2
will apparently check Product IDs looking for known pirated copies and will not
install on systems with bad Product IDs. This is understandable, but will
reduce the overall effectiveness of the security upgrade.

A lot of the potential problems posed by SP2 are beyond the
control of administrators. Some programming code for custom applications will
have to be rewritten, but at least now you know what to look for when problems
come up, rather than deploying XP SP2 and finding out that it breaks your most
important line-of-business application.

Further reading

This report can only scratch the surface of such a major overhaul
to an operating system. For more information see:

Final word

I expect to hear screams of pain as people deploy SP2 and
discover that legacy applications no longer work, but those are probably the
same people who complain so loudly (and legitimately) that Microsoft doesn’t
deploy secure systems.

Nearly every security expert knew that, at some point,
Microsoft would be forced to bite the bullet and take a big compatibility hit
in order to solidify operating system soft spots—many of which are due to
legacy code support. Plus, the XP SP2 changes will force developers to produce
more secure applications and not just take advantage of a permissive Windows OS
to write code that doesn’t pay attention to security.

Of course, I would never recommend that anyone deploy such a
major upgrade widely the day it hits the street. You should install SP2 on a testing
network (or at least a single testing system) as soon as possible, and begin
compatibility testing for your specific applications.

Those of you who have the budgetary luxury of being able to
conduct even more extensive testing and want to get a leg up on evaluating XP
SP2 even before final release should check out the Technical Preview Program,
which makes SP2 RC1 generally available for testing by IT professionals (not
just those on the beta list). The initial download, which doesn’t include any
support other than some Microsoft-sponsored newsgroups, requires Windows XP to
be installed already. English and German versions of the update are now
available and are about 270 MB in size.

As soon as you feel comfortable that Windows XP SP2 will not
cause a significant interruption for users (or you have fixed the issues that
would lead to a potential interruption), then you should deploy SP2
company-wide. It is an important upgrade that can only improve the security of
your network.

Also watch for…

  • There’s
    one item to highlight this week.
    and other sources are reporting that Apple’s recent patch to fix a major
    threat in Mac OS X wasn’t completely successful, and that a highly
    dangerous problem still exists in the operating system. The threat is
    especially noteworthy because it is the first important vulnerability
    discovered in the Mac OS X operating system that was not due to a flaw in
    the underlying FreeBSD UNIX on which Apple based OS X. This problem lies
    in the part of the code created by Apple, and it appears that it is quite
    difficult to repair. This is the first real challenge to Apple, and it
    will be interesting to see how the company responds to this critical
    threat. Previous patches were simply carried over from the Linux/UNIX
    community. Apple is on its own this time.