Why Are We Slack About Patching Servers?

Keeping systems patched is one of the most basic security protections available. However, ongoing scanning of web hosts in Australia and New Zealand suggests that many servers are not being regularly updated or using basic security mechanisms.

Patchwork picture from Shutterstock

In a presentation at in Canberra today, which I’m attending as part of our World Of Servers coverage, Joh Pirie-Clarke discussed some of the findings from an ongoing project scanning servers in .au and .nz domains for information about the software and services they use.

As Pirie-Clarke emphasised, judging the state of a server purely through this kind of analysis won’t always produce precise results. “It’s not a perfect way of checking that the box is on someone’s radar,” she said.

Identifying strings can vary from a basic Apache identifier to a very detailed description of what is in place. Nonetheless, one trend is very evident: many machines continue to use old and unpatched software, never updating after they are initially installed.

Testing connections to port 443 also suggests that many of these servers are not using SSL. “The older the version of Apache or IIS that you’re running, the less likely it is to have an SSL component,” Pirie-Clarke said.

“Patching is like our version of simple passwords or backup. We know it’s important but it doesn’t happen.”

The growth in machine-to-machine connections is only likely to make the problem worse, Pirie-Clarke suggested. “I strongly suspect that when an embedded system goes in, it will never get patched again. And these devices are going to be around forever because people think of them as an appliance.”

Lifehacker’s World Of Servers sees me travelling to conferences around Australia and around the globe in search of fresh insights into how server and infrastructure deployment is changing in the cloud era. This week, I’m in Canberra for, paying particular attention to the systems administration mini-conference and sessions on virtualisation and best practice.

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