Windows configs late, but coming

Delays could mean agencies won’t have secure baseline installed by OMB deadline

It’s been 12 weeks since the Office of Management and Budget’s deadline to set a standard desktop configuration for Microsoft Windows XP and Vista. And although National Institute of Standards and Technology officials say they are close to releasing the test version, other experts say agencies are not likely to fully implement the baseline by February 2008.

“The February deadline is so unrealistic,” said an agency information technology manager, who requested anonymity. “To get down to a standard configuration, you have to test all your applications to ensure they will work against the standard configuration. If this is done by fiscal year 2009, it would be a minor miracle.”

In a March memo to chief information officers, Karen Evans, OMB’s administrator for e-government and IT, set an April 20 goal for “a means for information technology providers to obtain software images based on these configurations for test and development purposes.”

Evans also told agencies they must implement the security configurations by Feb. 1, 2008.

That date seems unrealistic because the complexity of the task has caused NIST, working with Microsoft, the National Security Agency, the Defense Information Systems Agency and other partners, to delay the test image’s release.

“We are not sure if this is technically more challenging or demanding than we initially thought,” said Tim Grance, manager of systems and network security at NIST’s IT lab. “There are a lot of facets to this issue, and we have to find the balance between security, interoperability and functionality.”

Grance said NIST and its partners have had to develop a testing process, an Extensible Markup Language schema to change desktop settings, a way to ensure software patches will not change the standard settings and a host of other pieces that still are coming together.

“It is not just desktop security settings, it goes way beyond that,” said Mark Belk, chief technology adviser at Microsoft’s Federal Civilian Agencies division. “Once the settings are enacted, the entire supply chain will have to operate on these settings. Preparing for that is one of the reasons for the delay.”

NIST plans to issue the test image for agencies and software vendors by August, Grance said. He added that agencies and vendors will download a virtual PC, and the properly configured operating system will run on it. Then agencies will test applications against that virtual operating system to ensure that mission-critical programs will work.

“This is an innovative thing to put it out in a virtual fashion,” Grance said. “Agencies and vendors will be able to test more easily because the settings already are there, and if it breaks, no problem. Just start over by relaunching the virtual PC. It really facilitates rapid testing for individual operational environments.”

Grance added that the virtual PC process could save the government millions of dollars and weeks of work of testing.

Belk said setting up the virtual PC has been challenging because Microsoft, NIST, OMB and others had to agree on several controversial settings, including the length of the log-on password, which was increased to 12 characters, and whether to require only NIST’s Federal Information Processing Standards algorithms.

Even when the testing image is ready, agency IT managers will have a lot to do before deployment. “Whether the image comes out in April or August, it is a minor inconvenience [compared with] what agencies will have to go through without money or resources,” the agency IT manager said. “Vista has something like 185 switches, and with all the combinations you can put together, it will take time to figure out which ones will impact your applications the most.

Once the security configuration is ready, Microsoft will offer a preset version to its federal customers, Belk said. The initial version of the security settings will not address all issues, including some of the challenges related to digital certificates. But Microsoft will issue a second version once some of those questions are answered by NIST, OMB and other agencies, he added.

“We also are looking to support agencies through our free business desktop deployment accelerator to accelerate how agencies build and distribute final images,” Belk said. 
NIST promises easy deployment for standard setupWhen agencies finish testing their applications against the desktop security settings for Microsoft Windows Vista and XP, deployment will be a matter of a simple push.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology, Microsoft and others are developing a group policy object, which will let network administrators push the security settings to all PCs through Active Directory or a similar application, said Tim Grance, manager of systems and network security at NIST’s information technology lab.

The key to this effort is developing an Extensible Markup Language schema to represent the recommended configurations that a PC can read and automatically install.

“Previously, agencies had to manually configure or find an automated tool to configure the settings,” said Clint Kreitner, the Center for Internet Security’s president and chief executive officer, which is helping NIST on the XML schema. “Agencies will just have to run a program to make sure the settings are in place."

— Jason Miller

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