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Google is confusing safe with secure

Mac OS X and Linux are not completely secure

Article comments

On June 1, the Financial Times reported that Google planned to drop Windows as its primary desktop operating system and switch to Apple's Mac OS X and Linux, because the latter two are more secure than Windows. That's a pretty bold leap by any measure. Should your organisation follow suit? Not so fast.

No doubt about it, switching desktop operating systems across an enterprise the size of Google is a massive undertaking. There's just so much to take care of. It's a move that's far more complicated and disruptive than simply uninstalling one operating system and installing another. And the direct product costs are a mere drop in the bucket compared to the overall costs when you consider things like tech support, user training and so on.

I can only assume that Google was well aware of all this and made an informed business decision. If that is the case, should the rest of us consider it a warning sign that we should heed?

Let's take a rational look at some of the factors involved here. And I'll point out that I have absolutely no direct contact with Google on this, so I'm merely making some guesses from an outsider's perspective.

For starters, Google seems to be reacting at least in part to the recently publicised attacks it experienced. From those reports, it appears that the attackers were able to exploit old browser configurations (Internet Explorer 6) at Google to gain their initial access to the company. Of course, it sure shouldn't surprise anyone reading this column that running a vulnerable browser can lead to significant problems.

Aside from that, wouldn't it be cheaper to simply upgrade these vulnerable browsers, or even switch to a different browser, than replace the entire operating system? It's got to be cheaper to switch browsers than it is to replace desktop operating systems across an entire company.

Next, does anyone really believe that OS X or Linux are inherently more secure than Windows? Seriously? I believe I'm safer on OS X than I would be on Windows, but let's not confuse secure with safe.

Consider doing something that is inherently risky, say walking around with a wad of cash stuffed in your pocket that's so large it's obvious, and without anything to protect yourself. That's just crazy, right?

Now, if you're carrying that cash while walking down a quiet country lane, you're far safer than if you were walking through crowded city streets in a foreign land where you glaringly stood out. Safer, but not more secure.

That's the difference between secure and safe, but how does it apply to switching operating systems? You may feel that an operating system other than Windows is more secure because there have been fewer published successful attacks and malware for that other operating system. That could well be a legitimate concern. But I'd argue that neither Linux nor OS X is inherently any more secure than Windows. They tend to be safer because there are far fewer attacks and malware aimed at them, at least today.

So, what makes one operating system safer than another? Published 0days? Successful attacks? All of these things and much more factor into the equation, for sure, but it doesn't end there. At some level, we're kind of at the whim of the attackers. What operating systems are they attacking most today?

SecureIf we think of attacking systems as a business, then the folks writing the attacks face similar issues as the ones faced by any software developer. What platform do you write your code for? Market share, likelihood of success, cost to market and many other things are likely to factor into that decision. Well then, by all accounts, these things tend to be dynamic. Right now, they tend to favour Windows, but that may well not always be the case.

What is safe today may well not be the safest choice tomorrow. From where I sit, it's a pretty safe bet that we'll start to see more malware and attacks aimed at Apple's systems in the future, just because of their market success in the past couple of years. See where this is going?

My point is this: Today we have far more attack code that works on Windows systems than on OS X or Linux. That probably won't always be the case, and underneath it all, there are security weaknesses in all three of these operating systems. So, switching operating systems across an entire enterprise and bearing the resulting expenses might not be adequately forward-looking to be a sound business decision.

A far more compelling business justification will be found by looking at the business applications you need. Which platform best supports your business processes? What applications are available for those business processes? How about usability? How about ease of integration with other business infrastructure? Those are the sorts of things that should factor most in the decision process.

While I have my own preferences for what desktop operating system I want to be using personally, that's hardly a basis for a sound business decision for the entire enterprise.

So, if you're looking at Google's actions and trying to decide whether your enterprise should consider switching operating systems, security and safety should certainly be factors, but don't fool yourself. Be sure to see the big picture before you make that hugely important leap.


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Comments

Kevin said: More microsoft FUD Google is in direct competition with microsoft as is half the businesses in the world and microsoft likes to issue patcches that trash the competition Time to get off their OS if youre competing with them

Phil said: Google is basically a software engineering company Everything they do is centered around Linux Dont you think they know enough about Linux to eliminate the trumped up TCO claims made about training and the like They are also a Java shop along with other open platforms What makes you think they have a dependency on anything Microsoft or Windows That would be a pretty stupid mistake seeing as MS is their competition They can easily switch between Linux and Apple Theres not much lockin

TheChairman said: This article is a fine example of the pathetic state of journalism and the mass mediocrity in US collegesDid the author consider1 TimeCost to upgrade and license any Microsoft product for 20000 computers vs Linux2 All of Googles apps are now developed in-house using FREE open source software3 In light of 1 amp 2 who needs Microsoft in the cloudAs for me I have 3 computers in my office each PC is setup with dual-boot PCLinuxOS on all three just in case

Dan said: paid article by Microsoft

now dumber said: I have been left dumber by this article Did you write it because it was in your contract to or did you because you got paid to I am surprised you even put your name to it It is an appalling article with little research or statistics given or any facts stated but just going on hypothesis As a so called tech writer you need to up your game I havent mentioned anything about security of OSes because this ship has sailed The facts are all out there Google for answers not here though

anonymous said: Could he have written a more clueless articleIt amazes me that these non-technical pundits know whats best for googleCan you help us out and tell us what are these apps that google need M for And please dont be vagueUntil you get your bank account wiped out by using a Windows machine you just wouldnt understand google position

Dan Kegel said: Dont forget that they will probably be dogfooding ChromeOS which is locked down as tight as can be To the extent it displaces Windows laptops it will add both safety and security not to mention speed and charm - Disclaimer I used to work at Google

David Brown said: How many times is it possible to re-hash these old myths Linux and MacOS and other nix systems is more secure than Windows because it has a more secure system design at heartOn top of that Linux is more secure because it has an open development model that encourages people to identify problems and it is open and honest about issuesAnd even if your article was remotely accurate safe and insecure Linux is still a safer choice than unsafe and insecure Windows

Bruce said: How can anyone take the author seriously when he contradicts himself with the statement belowNext does anyone really believe that OS X or Linux are inherently more secure than Windows Seriously I believe Im safer on OS X than I would be on Windows but lets not confuse secure with safeWhy does he believe that he would be safer on OSX than on Windows when he claims that neither is inherently safer than the otherThis article is just foolishness

Ulrik said: Worth to remember about Linux is that in addition to low desktop-market-share its still been quick to adopt pro-active measures like stack-randomization and no-execute-bits long before existing attacks forced it to The same thing cant really be said for Microsoft products That said desktop-security is inherently difficult since the weakest link is always the user and the most effective attack angle is forms of social engineering

Reply-girl said: Due to the 500 character limit I had to break my comment into 5 parts Read in number order

Reply5 said: It also seems that you forgot that the entire core architecture of Google is built on linux so switching from windows would probably make the desktops work better What do you mean about usability Last I checked every single modern OS was pretty easy to use Basically click on a button or a drop down list and make the program do what you want it to do1 httpwwwcomputerworldukcom

Reply2 said: Then defend the swiss cheese by saying something like well it doesnt matter its only attacked because its popular so lets not change anything How intelligent is thatAt least it seems that you did a small amount of actual or would that be token thinking before parroting the popular FUD talking points There seems to be a modicum of actual thought sprinkled throughout

Reply3 said: Is it too much to expect that tech writers ignore press releases and look at the actual tech they are writing about The security through obscurity FUD is not as cut and dry as you make out Switching from IE 6 will cut down on a lot of old attack vectors but ask yourself which OS is vulnerable to drive-by attack on any un-configured browser that no anti-virus software can stop for a few weeks

Reply4 said: When doing a company-wide OS migration did you take into account what fixing a breach of security costs The city of Manchester England paid a higher price for one breach than all the costs of migration could ever be 1Maybe Google did look at its core business applications and see that it does not need a specific OS to run them on They did actually make Google Docs after all not to mention writing a new Linux distribution

Reply1 said: I suggest that you do some research on the actual structure and architecture of each operating systems kernel before you write an article You would have written this differently if you did This shows your amazing ignorance on this subject Yes nothing is 100 entirely secure but when you can get something that is actually designed from the ground up to stop unauthorized entry would you pick that or the one that is shoddily encased in band-aids

Jerry said: To say Linux Mac OXX and Windows all have security weaknesses is a tautology All software has bugs and many bugs create vulnerabilities However at its core Windows is designed as a single-user standalone non-networked OS Linux Unix and the BSDs underlying Mac OSX were designed from the get-go to be multi-user networked OSes Comparing Windows with the rest in todays environment one can only say that Windows is insecure by design in contrast to its rivals

Grant said: It is not the obscurity that leads to security It is on nearly 70 of the million busiest websites If those are not prime targets I dont know what is The increased security comes from many things but some of the main ones are1 Applications do not expect to be able to run with full machine access administrator rights2 Shared libraries are versioned3 Protected memory extends outside of kernel space4 Whether or not a file is executable is not based on file name



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