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Linux, OpenBSD, Windows Server Comparison: Development Model, Bug Fixes, Security & Reliability

Looking at the respective development models of Linux, OpenBSD and Windows will help understand how they impact reliability and the closely related security issues.


OpenBSD is the smallest system with perhaps the simplest development model. Compared to Linux and Windows the number of developers is small. Compared to Linux they are closely coordinated. The opening lines labeled "Goal" on their Security web page is instructive:

OpenBSD believes in strong security. Our aspiration is to be NUMBER ONE in the industry for security (if we are not already there). Our open software development model permits us to take a more uncompromising view towards increased security than Sun, SGI, IBM, HP, or other vendors are able to. We can make changes the vendors would not make.

They tell us their goal but "if we are not already there" is as close as they come to stating their achievements. They do not claim to be secure or more secure than any competing system. They leave it to others, to say that they have accomplished their goal. Because they make no claims, every bug they find and fix quickly and publicly moves them closer to their goals, without calling into question the validity of previous claims already made. Nothing is absolute and they are fully aware that security is an ongoing process as discussed further down the page.

Though they continue to add new features and improve existing functions, given their goal, fixing problems that are found, is the most immediate priority as evidenced by the examples already discussed and one of the claims made further down the page: Statements like This problem was fixed in OpenBSD about 6 months ago'' have become commonplace in security forums like BUGTRAQ.' This suggests their auditing process is effective; as that's internal we can't know how quickly found problems are fixed. From the external examples of the Sendmail and IP Filter bugs, we know that their response is quick.

Both of these bugs illustrate an issue faced by both OpenBSD and Linux. Even a minimum install of either system includes many pieces that are provided by other parties. When you consider all the GNU utilities and TCP/IP servers that are actually not part of the core OS, it's possible a majority of the code comes from other sources. To the extent the authors of the code are responsive in responding to reported bugs, it's very much in the interests of the OpenBSD and Linux authors to wait for a fix from the original author. This eliminates duplicate work and diverging source trees. A product like IP Filter that is normally compiled into the kernel as a static module may require some modifications. The OS authors naturally want to limit their changes to those necessary to incorporate the product into the OS. My impression is that the original authors are typically highly responsive; many have built their professional reputations on the open source products they have created. The open source licensing model, does give the OS authors, the right to fix problems in other distributed products, if the authors are not responsive.

OpenBSD, unlike either Linux or the Windows family, is a single product developed by one group and upgraded every six months in June and December. Since I've used OpenBSD, every version has been released on time. All supported platforms, which are numerous given the NetBSD heritage, are released at the same time on the same set of CDs.

OpenBSD has an undisputed leader, Theo de Raadt, and an official web site at Between releases two source branches are developed and available for download. There is always a current branch, which includes whatever is the most recent, including possible new bugs and instabilities and partially developed new features. A separate patch branch is also available. This includes the last release, plus any bug fixes that were deemed important enough, that they need to be released prior to the next version release. Unlike the current branch, patches are tested before being released. A bugs mailing list includes bug reports and follow-up discussion and a security-announce mailing list announces the release of security related fixes.

For products distributed as part of OpenBSD, the security-announce list is the only source of security information you are likely to need. (Presumably if you are experiencing a bug in a component you are using, you'll check the site to see if a fix is available or report it if not.)

Security Notification Lists

If you add third party products to your systems, especially servers that expose ports to attack, you'll need to find another source for security news. The Bugtraq and NTBugtraq lists are rather comprehensive discussions of UNIX and Windows bug related issues in general. They are high volume lists with much technical discussion and argument regarding the importance of bugs under discussion. Though comprehensive, they are too distracting for most administrators who just want to know what they have that needs fixing. CERT Advisories cover the most important security issues but focus mainly on those issues that are likely to lead to the compromise of other systems. The SANS Institute's evolving security newsletter deserves consideration as a single source for security news.

IP Filter Bug

To return to an example I've dealt with elsewhere, let's review "IPF contains a serious bug with its handling of fragment caching." It was serious in that any client that could access a public service through an IP Filter firewall could construct fragmented packets that would allow that client to reach every port on the machine including even switching between TCP and UDP protocols. From a firewall perspective this is very serious because a machine that should be completely protected except one or more public ports, is "wide open" to any client that has established a connection to the public service.

From the perspective of what is necessary to exploit the bug, we might reach a different conclusion. To actually be exploited the following conditions must exist. A server must be running one or more public services and be protected by an IP Filter firewall. The same server must be running one or more private services (protected by the firewall) that contains a known and exploitable security vulnerability, e.g., a buffer overflow. Next, the operator of a client that can reach the public service, must know or guess that the public service is behind a vulnerable IP Filter firewall, and is running a protected vulnerable service. This might be guessed from the public service's headers but is by no means certain.

The remote client operator must be able to write fairly sophisticated custom code that first builds the necessary fragmented packets to bypass the IP Filter checks and then package within these packets, an exploit to take advantage of the private service's known vulnerability. Finally, the vulnerable private service should not also be protected by any additional security mechanism such as TCP wrappers or an Immunix (Linux) security system that provides generalized protection against buffer overflows.

Nothing in the descriptions of the bug that I read, suggested that it included any reliable remote method of gathering the necessary background information. Thus a potential intruder risks a lot of work for nothing if there is no vulnerable private service running or it's otherwise protected. They risk getting caught, if the firewall is not a vulnerable version of IP Filter, or lacking their own IP Filter firewall to test on, their fragmentation code contains a bug, that triggers even a vulnerable IP Filter to block and log the packets. Thus, I prefer to characterize this as in interesting theoretical bug, as exploiting it requires a very high level of technical skill plus the possession of multiple pieces of information that cannot be gathered remotely prior to successfully exploiting the bug.


Linus Torvalds wrote the original Linux kernel, owns "Linux" as a registered trademark, and is still Linux's leader. Unlike OpenBSD, Linux is not unified and it wasn't until I was writing this that I learned that the Linux kernel source, including the latest versions, is maintained at The home page states "Linux is a clone of the operating system Unix, written from scratch by Linus Torvalds with assistance from a loosely-knit team of hackers across the Net. It aims towards POSIX and Single UNIX Specification compliance."

There are dozens of web sites devoted to Linux. Aside from the kernel site, it's not clear that any is more "official" than the others. The kernel appears to be under pretty much continuous development and more than one version is being developed simultaneously. Versions 2.2.0 through 2.2.19 were released between Jan. 25, 1999 and Mar. 25, 2001. Versions 2.3.0 through 2.3.51 and 2.3.99-pre1 through 2.3.99-pre9 were released between May 11, 1999 and May 23, 2000. Versions 2.4.0 through 2.4.6 were released between Jan. 4, 2001 and July 3, 2001. All the distributions that I know of, used 2.2 kernels at some point. 2.3 kernels were not widely distributed and were the development precursors to 2.4 which included several major changes. Several distributions began using 2.4 kernels shortly after their release.

Linux is normally obtained as a distribution which is an installation routine that includes the kernel, various more or less standard utilities, and whatever else the distribution creator feels is appropriate. used to have links to the download sites for six different distributions: Caldera, Debian, Slackware, TurboLinux, Red Hat (Fedora) and SuSE. Now they list various ways that you can get or buy Linux. Other distributions include CentOS, Gentoo, Mandriva, Ubuntu, and variations on distributions, such as Trustix, which is a pre-hardened version of a Red Hat distribution which lags somewhat behind the current version of Red Hat.

EnGarde is a secure distribution of Linux not based on any pre-existing distribution. A detailed comparison between this distribution and OpenBSD would be interesting. Where OpenBSD has merely disabled by default, telnet, FTP, NFS and the RPC related services, EnGarde has removed them entirely. The entire install CD contents are only 134MB. OpenSSH and OpenSSL, built by the OpenBSD team, are provided as replacements for telnet and FTP for secure remote administration and file transfer. The standard UNIX standard mail transfer agent, Sendmail, which has had a history of security related bugs, has been replaced by the more secure Postfix. The system install process gives the user the option to automatically start web, mail, DNS, IMAP and POP servers but all are off by default. The IMAP and POP as well as httpd servers are automatically configured with SSL. An SSL web management interface is included so the server can be set up and run without ever having a keyboard or monitor connected.

There are no workstation options and it would be a major project to turn an EnGarde machine into one. Both network and host based intrusion detection are included. In some important ways EnGarde has moved beyond OpenBSD, and really is not a general purpose computer operating system. It would interesting to see how OpenBSD's higher quality code base offsets the more secure configuration choices of EnGarde. The services OpenBSD turns on and EnGarde leaves off and programs OpenBSD includes and EnGarde does not, can be removed from OpenBSD; that's precisely what my hardening page is about. When these steps are taken though, its not default OpenBSD.

Each different Linux distribution is faced with similar issues to those OpenBSD faces when it comes to dealing with security related bugs; fix themselves or wait for the product developers to provide a fix. The difference, unlike OpenBSD which maintains it's own kernel and core utilities, is that the Linux kernel and most programs are separate development projects. The only components that a distributor typically has a large role in developing or modifying, are the install processes that are normally proprietary. A project like EnGarde may add a significant component such as its web management interface, that appears to be proprietary.

The quality of the installation process, including the thoroughness with which an installation recognizes and correctly configures a wide variety of hardware components, the range and intelligence of the configuration options presented to the user during installation and especially the ease with which a working system can be set up is an important part of what distinguishes one Linux distribution from another. The resulting configuration of the installed system including what components are installed, where they are installed, and whether or not they are sufficient to use the system as it's likely to be used, also distinguish the various distributions. Early in 2001, all the major distributions, reached an agreement on a standard directory structure and the locations for the common system components.

I've checked the six distributions listed at and each has a list of security advisories somewhere on their web sit. SuSE has an easy to spot link "Security Announcements" as one of their standard navigation aids. The others required actively looking through the site to find their security lists. Some are only available as archives of a security-announce e-mail list. When I checked in July 2001, Slackware only listed 4 items for 2001 suggesting they may not be staying up-to-date. The others typically listed a few dozen items, but all are not necessarily security bug fixes, so it would take a great deal of research to equate these lists, and see how each distribution is doing, compared to all the publicly reported Linux security issues.

Linux kernel development is a purely volunteer, non-commercial activity. Though all distributions sell media, several appear to be not-for-profit. Some including Caldera, Red Hat and TurboLinux are clearly commercial enterprises, intending to make a profit by selling bundled support services with the sale of media or customer registrations. These vendors tend to have multiple offerings, typically configured to perform a fairly specific role in a commercial environment such as business desktop, development workstation, or server.

The GNU license under which the Linux kernel and most core utilities are distributed, requires making source code available if the products are modified or redistributed. Though there could be other ways to meet this requirement, all distributions currently have freely downloadable CD-ROM images of their install CD-ROMs. In any business environment, when staff costs are accounted for, it's typically cheaper to buy the CD-ROMs than to download them and burn CDs from them. All distributions typically include some additional components that may have different licenses. The commercial distributions may include additional commercial products included as trial versions, that may require separate license fees if used on a production basis.


In contrast to Linux and OpenBSD, which are fundamentally not commercial endeavors, Microsoft is the largest software company in the world and is purely commercial. It's unlikely Microsoft does anything without considering its bottom line impact including its philanthropic contributions which should be regarded as part of its marketing efforts, i.e., an attempt to improve its public image. Unlike OpenBSD which is reticent to make claims about its software or actively promote itself, Microsoft aggressively markets its products and is not shy about claiming a variety of advantages to be had by using Microsoft products. The Blue Screen Ad cited previously includes the following phases: reliable Microsoft, full control of large-scale system installations, total lockdown, business data is available to users either locally or remotely and is secure, the complete OS for the digital economy.

Each one of these is an unqualified absolute except perhaps "reliable" which is subsequently qualified with numerical data. Related to "secure", several features are listed. Readers are encouraged to believe that the possession of some security related features makes a system secure. Microsoft seems unaware of the concepts that no useable computer can ever be fully secure or of relative degrees of security in different contexts or of matching security to the resources that need to be protected. This may only be advertising copy, but it does create a public position that Microsoft subsequently needs to defend. Since the release of NT, Microsoft has been claiming that NT and its successors are secure operating systems. Despite hundreds or thousands of security related bugs found and fixed over the years, Microsoft continues to claim its systems are secure.

The general public and even most of the computer industry has little real understanding about computer security. Most want to believe that security is a state that can be achieved and then forgotten about. Few are prepared to believe that security is inherently an ongoing process that requires continued effort. Microsoft panders to this misconception, telling its potential customers that if they buy Microsoft products they will be secure. Though Microsoft customers who fail to patch their systems bear some blame when their compromised systems are used to attack other systems, Microsoft deserves most of this blame because they tell their customers, that if they buy a Microsoft system, it will be secure. Why shouldn't a customer believe the advertising that leads to the purchase of a system? If a system is secure, why should the customer need to check for security updates? Microsoft has no one but itself to blame for this state.

More than any other computer company in the world, Microsoft tries to convince the public and the computer profession that "one size fits all." They want us to believe that the different Windows operating systems are all basically the same whether intended for a consumer home PC or a multi processor server in a major e-commerce site. They are so desperate to keep us thinking about the "Windows" product line rather than its different incarnations, that after it was clear that the trade press was going refer to the NT line as NT and not Windows that they changed the name to Windows 2000.

XP is a development from NT and 2000 and with it's advent, the consumer line of 95, 98 and ME is supposed to end. Eventually there will be a single XP line from a consumer version, to business workstation and at some point servers, though for the time being Microsoft seems to be settling on a 2002 server line. They try to convince us that if you know one, you know them all. In different operating system products, specific features relevant to the intended market are added. Licensing and performance specific optimizations that allow more processors, larger memory space and greater disk capacity are all that separates them. To a large extent this is true, as the kernel code base and user interface are (or will be) largely the same code.

They try to scare computer professionals into believing that if you're not running Microsoft servers, you may not be able to get the next application or jump on the latest trend, as if that really should be an important factor in server selection. They don't want IT professionals thinking about: Should a server that performs a limited and very defined set of functions be based on a complex OS with a rich mixture of services that cannot be easily disassociated? Should a server on a LAN provide the same services and capabilities as one that provides public Internet services? Are the management tasks and skill sets on a server fundamentally the same as fleet of corporate desktop PCs or a home consumer PC? Can the most monolithic OS available today, really be the best solution for everything from a consumer home PC to a 64 bit multi processor dedicated web or database server? Can a system based entirely on proprietary code, hidden from public scrutiny, be reliably counted on to do exactly what the manufacturer claims and the customer hopes it will do and no more and no less?

Because of the public stance Microsoft takes in its marketing campaigns, every security related bug acknowledged, undermines its simple but absolute claims regarding security. Is it plausible that as of mid July 2001, across Microsoft's entire product line of operating systems, server applications, development tools and office products that there have only been 38 bugs with security implications? As of July 13, that's how many security announcements they made. In the same time frame, comparatively tiny OpenBSD has reported 14. This number includes all the products developed by other groups but distributed with OpenBSD. Are we to conclude that OpenBSD really has relatively a lot more security bugs than Microsoft? No. OpenBSD looks better, the more responsive it is to security related bugs; this may lead to a tendency to over report. Among the security related bugs were: "Programs using the fts routines can be tricked into changing into the wrong directory." "a non- exploitable buffer overflow was fixed in sudo(8)." "rnd(4) did not use all of its input when written to." I'm not saying that if these are understood, they don't have some security implications. I'm sure they do but doubt that they likely to have a significant practical effect on anyone, let alone a meaningful number of OpenBSD users. OpenBSD is very serious about security. If a bug could have security implications, regardless of how limited, they fix it and report it as security issue. Actually they fix all bugs that are identified. I recently read one version of Internet Explorer had at one point in time well over 100,000 unresolved bugs.

Microsoft responds in a reasonably timely fashion to reported and serious security bugs. It's primarily such bugs that their security alerts describe. This doesn't mean they necessarily get the first fix right. If Microsoft doesn't think a bug is a serious, and only they make that determination, they respond in whatever they decide is an appropriate manner. This may be to delay any fixes until the next Service Pack. Microsoft decides when to release a Service Pack and even then they may not get that right as shown by SP1 and the disastrous SP6 for NT 4. There was well over a year wait between SP3 and SP4, over which time there was a significant accumulation of hot fixes. Those with limited resources, who waited for SP4, faced a growing number of potentially serious security issues.

From a business perspective this may be entirely reasonable. After all, Microsoft's first obligation is to its shareholders. The only reason for a commercial enterprise to exist is to make a profit. It doesn't make good business sense to divert resources from the development of new features and products to unprofitable bug fixes unless the bug creates a real or highly visible vulnerability for Microsoft's customers. It doesn't even make good sense to delay the release of a Service Pack by expending resources on hot fixes that must be separately tested, documented, and deployed if Microsoft's assessment is correct, that the problem is not likely to cause any practical harm to its customers.

There can be little question that the computer market, even including businesses with significant security exposures, repeatedly choose functionality over security. In this environment, it cannot be profitable to pursue reliability and security at the expense of functionality. That's why only a not- for-profit can actually make reliability and security the true top priority and stick with this priority at the expense of others. To be fair and inclusive, we'd also have to consider the security specialty firms like Argus and their "trusted" operating systems; Argus' intent is to make a profit by building as secure an OS as practical with proprietary technology.

Setting priorities is about making choices and by definition, no organization can have two top priorities. By definition, any commercial enterprise must have the top priority of either surviving or making a profit. It doesn't make much difference which way you choose to put it. Over the long run the two are the same for a commercial endeavor, as no company that continuously fails to make a profit will survive indefinitely. Whether or not a company believes the best way to make profit is to deliver value to it's customers or perhaps sees business as a zero sum game that can only be won at the expense of others, these are strategies, the underlying goal remains making a profit.

Microsoft has been enormously successful for a number of years now primarily because it has understood what the computer software market valued most. This is functionality or feature lists, the ability to do whatever a customer asks and over time, for an ever larger number of customers. By understanding the market, it has successfully pursued its primary goal of making profits. What it hasn't done is build secure systems.

System Tradeoffs

Any system, including software systems, will include a number of factors which have various relationships to each other. There may be no apparent correlation between two factors or there may be loose or strong positive or negative correlations between different factors. This will depend on the kind of system being examined and the specific factors. For software in general and operating systems in particular, some of the factors are reliability, security, scalability, ease of use, ease of learning, functionality, performance, and cost of development. All the listed factors have some degree of positive correlation with cost of development. In other words to make a specific improvement in any of these areas will require the expenditure of some resource and thus increase the product's cost of development regardless of whether those cost are measured in money or time. The other listed factors are good but cost will usually be regarded as negative.

Reliability and security have some positive correlation because reliability is generally a prerequisite for security but there is by no means a one to one correlation. Reliability is not sufficient to assure security so they are separate factors. As soon as you start building security specific features (functionality) there may be a reduction in reliability. There may be some positive correlation between performance and reliability as some bugs may negatively impact both but after a point performance enhancements are going to come at the expense of some other feature. Reliability in terms of consistency of behavior will enhance both ease of learning and ease of use as unpredictable systems make both difficult. To the extent that lack of reliability is the result of bugs or mistakes or inefficiencies, correcting these deficits may benefit one or more different factors. As soon as reliability becomes a feature as in redundant fail over systems that requires specific development, it is just one other factor competing for limited resources.

Except for some of the limited positive correlations mentioned, after a certain point all the factors are going have negative or no correlation with each other. For example, both security and performance can be improved in a system but at a minimum this will increase development costs and may negatively impact other factors. For a set development cost you can optimize for a single factor at the expense of all others, which is likely to result in an unusable system, or you can attempt to balance multiple factors but beyond certain basics you can't improve any single factor without negatively impacting others. It is however, possible to make mistakes or include other inefficiencies in a system, which increase costs without improving any other factor.

One factor that cannot be ignored in Microsoft operating systems is Microsoft's desire to simply make them different than other operating systems to hinder porting Windows applications to other operating systems. This has had a clear negative impact on reliability, security, ease of use and even ease of learning beyond a superficial mechanical level.

What are some of the other factors that Microsoft emphasizes in its software development and or advertising? While I think their primary focus has been functionality, they've not pursued that to the exclusion of all other factors. It seems pretty clear that a secondary emphasis is ease of learning. Describing their software as easy to use, seems to be major marketing emphasis. They mean what I call ease of learning; I don't recall any Microsoft advertising focused on the automation of repetitive tasks. They have Visual Basic for Applications, which might have some uses in this area but I think this is primarily an application integration tool, that allows applications to use functions from other applications; it's primarily a means to enhance functionality.

At least in specific areas where it's generally perceived as important, Microsoft has pursued performance. Here I'm thinking primarily of database and web servers. I seem to recall SQL Server ads touting its performance. Since by at least some measures, their web server IIS has consistently ranked at the tops in performance and this is not achieved by accident, they've clearly expended resources to do this.

As long as I can remember, Microsoft has wanted it's customers to believe that its products provide value, that is, greater functionality relative to its costs than competing products. This used to be a relatively easy sell, because compared to competing UNIX products, it used to be true. Against PC competitors they'd typically tout longer feature lists. I wish I'd kept archives of old trade publications so I could quote specific language from their ads. As I don't generally save any of these, I have to work from memory and general impressions. (I clipped and saved the "Blue Screen" ad because I could not believe it when I first saw it.)

And finally, at least since they developed NT, Microsoft has been claiming its products are secure. As the Internet has grown in importance and especially in the last two or so years as the frequency of Internet based attacks has come to such prominence, everyone pays lip service to security. There is no question, Microsoft has included some significant security features in their NT and subsequent products and that's part of the problem. Microsoft's flawed view of security is that security can be achieved with a list of security features. The sales pitch is that user's merely need to activate the features Microsoft provides, and they will have secure systems.

Earlier this year, Steve Gibson of took exception with Microsoft's plan for including raw sockets in the consumer version of XP to be released in the fall of 2001. At the mid 2001 Def Con, Thomas C. Green of The Register interviewed Microsoft Security Program Manager, Scott Culp, who made the following statement:

What we're saying is, you're going to see them regardless -- raw sockets are utterly irrelevant to the question of DDoS attacks on Windows XP, because if someone can compromise a machine....they'll have every ability they want. Control of the machine is the hurdle; the availability of raw sockets is not the hurdle. Once you've got control of the machine, if you don't have the raw [socket functionality] there you can add it.

This echoes things said in Microsoft's discussions with Gibson. Regardless of who proves to be right regarding any quantitative impact of XP's inclusion of raw socket on DDoS attacks, Microsoft is taking a fairly clear, if shortsighted view of security. As far as they are concerned, once an intruder has control of your machine, the game is over. They are unwilling to consider any functionality compromises, that might make the intruders job more difficult. If they saw the potential value of disabling functionality, they would never have built NetBIOS as a collection of related services, that can't be disabled selectively, without disabling major chunks of the OS functionality.

As security has become important to a growing number of Microsoft customers, Microsoft has moved to comfort them. It approaches security like other product issues; it adds a new security feature. Specifically it adds a mediocre firewall and tells the press that the only real security issue is keeping intruders off the system.

Given the all of foregoing, the real value Microsoft places on security has to be rather low. It's clear to me that it ranks below profits, functionality, ease of leaning, differentiation from other systems and most likely performance. At best it's about fourth place and likely lower. In terms of software specific features, i.e., not considering costs and profit, security is less important to Microsoft than functionality, ease of learning and differentiation. There are probably no other software factors, that tend to be more mutually exclusive with security than functionality and ease of learning.

Like most of its customers, Microsoft pays lip service to security. It puts enough emphasis on security, to make somewhat plausible claims, so that the customers who have selected Microsoft products for other reasons, can repeat these claims to their bosses or auditors and appear to be doing their job with regards to security issues. Microsoft knows that it's not going to successfully compete for any business where security is the first or second factor in the selection process and not likely even if security is third and it does not try. Microsoft might believe and certainly wants its customers to believe, that the Microsoft Windows NT and now 2000 Server operating systems, are "secure enough" for their intended uses. Given the developments of the Summer of 2001, even this low standard might be questionable.

Previously a variety of factors were shown to be related to development costs. Factors could be improved by devoting more development resources to the factor. By significantly raising development costs several different factors can be improved. At some level of effort, it should be possible for Microsoft or another large company, to develop an operating system that is feature rich, easy to learn, performs well and is still reasonably secure. Microsoft is the largest software company in the world; is there reason to believe they have expended enough resources to achieve the functionality lead that they clearly hold while remaining competitive regarding security? My short answer is that I know of no such evidence.

Despite Microsoft's size, the only thing that really matters is how much effort has Microsoft devoted to Windows NT and 2000 development. Advertising, staff costs, distribution and many other corporate costs are not relevant to the discussion. OpenBSD and Linux don't advertise and the developers work for free. About the only costs incurred that in any way resemble Microsoft's are the very limited packaging costs. What matters are the number of developer hours devoted to the competing products. I've seen estimates that two billion dollars worth of time have been devoted to Linux development by early 2000. Like so many other numbers, I have no way of knowing if this is the Linux kernel and small number of Linux specific utilities only or is supposed to include the rather substantial GNU utilities that also come with OpenBSD and other open source systems.

Returning to Microsoft, no staff time spent on developing Office, IIS, SQL Server, Exchange, Visual Studio or even Windows 95, 98 and ME count at all. NT ("New Technology") was developed from scratch without use of code base from 95. It was full 32 bit from day one and 16 bit support was / is provided through emulation. That's why early versions of NT had such compatibility issues with older software. As the products moved forward, Microsoft was able to expose a larger set of common APIs, even thought the underlying code was different. This is what allows most, but not all products to run across the Win 32 line.

Windows 2000 is estimated to contain between 30 and 40 million lines of code This is a direct outgrowth of the NT project that began sometime in the early 90's. Both Linux and the BSD family have roughly contemporaneous origins. While NT attempted to be all new, BSD and Linux had much more modest goals. All they had to do, was develop new code to provide the same functionality, that existing and well documented UNIX systems already provided. OpenBSD contains something between 1.4 and 2.3 million lines of code necessary to compile the kernel (including all platforms). OpenBSD is modular in nature and it includes a variety of significant products such as Apache, the GNU development tools and utilities, Perl, the X Window system, most of which are optional. Without detailed knowledge of the source tree it very hard to make accurate estimates of how much source code is used to create OpenBSD or even what should be counted. Further, even if the Windows kernel could be separated from the GUI, this would be meaningless as the Windows kernel is not useful without the GUI where OpenBSD's kernel is fully functional without the GUI.

While OpenBSD began as a separate project in 1996, it started from the existing NetBSD project. NetBSD began as an organized project in 1993 but includes source code derived from the University of California at Berkeley, BSD projects through the 1980's. It appears that the efforts to develop a complete open source BSD operating system, that performs like UNIX but not containing any of the actual source code covered by the UNIX trademarks dates to the early 1990's.

Both Linux and OpenBSD code is subject to outside review by anyone who is interested. Though most users of these systems never review any source code, given the size of the communities that are interested in these projects, it seem likely that hundreds or even thousands of pairs of eyes, not part of the development team, have reviewed some part of OpenBSD and many thousands in the case of Linux. Obscure drivers may not be looked at by anyone but the author, but it seems likely that all the core pieces of both Linux and OpenBSD have been reviewed by at least several independent programmers.

The estimates of Windows 2000 code size (30 - 40 million lines) almost surely include IIS and other components that don't seem essential. Unlike Apache which is entirely independent of the OpenBSD kernel, some advanced Windows 2000 system functions rely on IIS which is why it's installed by default. Certainly some of Windows massive code base is not required but only Microsoft knows for sure what is or is not required. The whole of Windows 2000 is roughly twenty times the size of the core of OpenBSD. Keeping in mind that Windows NT and 2000 are rather monolithic and OpenBSD and Linux are very modular, the massive size of 2000, in addition to providing much more functionality, also provides much more complexity and interactions. The real complexity is not a simple linear ratio based on the differences in sizes of the code base, but some power of the ratio of size differences. However much time is spent on an average line of OpenBSD code, more would need to be spent on each line of Windows 2000 code to assure similar levels of reliability or security.

Another factor affects the apparent number of lines of code is what I call churn. For example some of the management utilities were added to NT 4 have been removed, being replaced by MMC modules in Windows 2000. If the older utility is discarded in its entirety, then any time spent on it should also be discarded. If some of the underlying lines such as registry maintenance as opposed to user interface are kept from one version to the next, then the time developing the preserved lines would be included in the time allocated to the project.

To the best of my knowledge none of the necessary figures are available from any source so it becomes pure speculation as to the resources that have actually gone into the development of these products. Because of the unknowns there is no way to quantify how the size or complexity of the systems affect security. What we do know is that OpenBSD is smaller and simpler than Windows, that it has a development history at least as long as Windows and is based on a model several times older than Windows. We know that security is an OpenBSD priority second only to quality which is a priority that significantly overlaps with security. In contrast, security in Windows is one of several mid level priorities competing with several higher priorities that are generally antithetical to security. The actual track record suggests Microsoft has put only a fraction of the resources necessary to create a secure system. Nobody really knows what the various viruses, worms and other intrusions have actually cost, but it's my recollection that for the past few years, all the security related incidents that have had large dollar figures associated with them whether they were simply cleanup costs or direct costs have been directly related to Microsoft products. I'm thinking of Melissa, LoveBug, SirCam, Code Red, and the East European hackers who stole credit information from approximately 40 sites exploiting well known IIS weaknesses. I can't remember a single comparable incident related to any UNIX or open source product. Does Microsoft even understand what security means?

We then return to the other factors in the development model. Nothing in the Microsoft model suggests security is a top Microsoft concern. Just about everything in the OpenBSD model suggests security is number one or two on their list. It would be as naive to think any Microsoft Windows operating system product is as secure as OpenBSD, as it would be to think OpenBSD provides the same level of functionality as does Windows.

While we don't have enough quantitative information to compare Windows and OpenBSD, we do have one key piece of information for Linux that allows at least a limited quantitative comparison. The Linux kernel is roughly 2.4 to 4 million lines of code which makes it roughly one tenth the size of Windows 2000. As the Windows 30 to 40 million lines almost certainly includes utilities and components that would correspond to parts of Linux that are not part of the kernel, a better estimate might be that Windows has roughly five times as much code for its core functions as Linux does in it's kernel. It seams reasonable, though possibly wrong to assume the 2 billion dollar estimate for Linux, which was made in early 2000, applies to the kernel and core components and not the peripheral servers and utilities such as Apache and GNU which are not actually part of the Linux project. Making no allowances for complexity increasing geometrically as size increases, the modular nature of Linux and the monolithic nature of Windows, or the more the ambitious Windows goals of an entirely new system rather than reverse engineering an established standard, Microsoft needs to have spent ten billion developing the core components of NT and 2000 to be on comparable reliability and security footing with Linux. This is a lowest plausible number; the correct number is probably several and perhaps many times that. Does anyone know what Microsoft has spent developing the core components of NT and 2000?

Little in the Linux development model suggests security is an especially high priority. Security should be about as important to Linux as it is to the UNIX model on which Linux is based. Given UNIX's long history, its simple but practical security model, its highly modular nature resulting in a system that lends itself well to a variety of hardening techniques, there seems little reason to expect that Windows NT or 2000 should provide comparable practical security.

Open Source Code Review

One other point applies to all open source products, in contrast to all proprietary products, where source code is not publicly available for examination by anyone who wishes to look at it. The proponents of proprietary code make the point that the bad guys can review open source code and that this gives them a road map to any weaknesses in the open source systems and that the bad guys don't have this advantage with proprietary source code. This is true but almost irrelevant.

Crackers build their reputations by finding new weakness and ways to exploit them. Few keep secret the bugs they've found. It seems very likely that source code for every service and the kernels of all the open source systems have been examined in detail by the would be intruders as well as the authors and some users. The bugs that existed have been found, exploited and permanently fixed. New products, features and continued development of existing products assure a stream of new bugs to exploit. The open source model pretty much assures that this code will be examined by a variety of individuals with very different interests and orientations.

Sometimes, possibly even frequently, the black hats will be first to find the security weaknesses. This gives them a window of opportunity to exploit the bug before its fixed. Given the speed with which knowledge about bugs spreads, this window of opportunity may be hours or weeks. Either way the bug will be fixed in relatively short order and thus permanently closed, at least until further development is done on the affected code. Given the slowness with which most systems are patched, the rapid release cycles of open source products compared to the slow Microsoft release cycle, from a security perspective, it's much more important that the bugs be found and fixed than who finds them.

Remember that Microsoft sold the same NT 4 install disks for approximately five years. Over time, the install procedure became more complicated as service packs, the option pack and subsequent service packs had to be applied in the correct order. New Linux kernels are available every few weeks or even days. Complete updated OpenBSD systems are available every six months and a stable patch branch free of significant bugs is available continuously. The major Linux distributions typically release one or two completely new packages each year without need to install growing lists of patches. One distribution, the security oriented Trustix, maintains up-to-date downloadable ISO CD images with all patches included, so if you install from their current version, you install a system free of known bugs.

Form NT 4's initial release through Service Pack 6a, over more than 4 years, there were a few feature upgrades but no fundamental changes to the product. Patches and mostly service packs are about problem fixes. I doubt anyone knows if Linux and OpenBSD users are better about applying patches than Windows users; they might be because there is never the fear that a Linux or OpenBSD patch will destroy a system as sometimes happens with Windows systems. During this time both Linux and OpenBSD were growing products that fixed existing problems and added new features. Given that Linux and OpenBSD upgrades come frequently and at no or very low cost, I'd bet that open source users upgrade their systems significantly more frequently than Windows users. When new Windows versions are available, there are significant upgrade costs.

There is some chance that a hardened criminal, who will keep secret any bugs they find so that they can exploit them to the maximum extent possible, will find an open source bug. As Microsoft products so amply demonstrate, no access to source is necessary to find and exploit major security bugs. How many major IIS bugs were found in the first half of 2001? I've lost track but the Index Server bug that may result in remote administrative compromise has already affected hundreds of thousands of systems. When was the last time a comparably serious bug was found in Apache? Four and half years. Jan. 1997 was the last time a bug that allowed arbitrary execution of code, which could result in root compromise, was found in Apache. In Jan. 1998, a less serious buffer overflow was found. According to eWEEK (no longer available):

In the three and a half years since then, Apache's only remote security problems have been a handful of denial-of-service and information leakage problems (where attackers can see files or directory listings they shouldn't).

Because so many have reviewed all but the newest open source, the odds of any significant security bug remaining in older products is small and obvious bugs nil. With proprietary products, the worst and most obvious (ease to find) bugs usually are found early but new bugs continue to turn up in products two and more years old. Where any open source product will be almost fully debugged within a few months of it's release, proprietary products can never achieve a comparable level of freedom from bugs because it is never subjected to a thorough review by any but a limited number of employees of the company which created the proprietary product and who are always working under pressure of deadlines imposed by the need to make a profit on products. The hardened criminal is much more like to find and exploit bugs in a proprietary system than an open source system.

Occasionally an entirely new type of bug is found. The Sendmail "signal handler" bugs were an example of this. When this happens, the open source model virtually assures that existing products are examined and fixed if vulnerable. The proprietary model virtually assures the reverse. Except for specific exploitable vulnerabilities that are found, can anyone honestly believe that Microsoft would get all the "stable" NT code out of storage and review it again in light of the new disclosures. Any responsible profit based company would add the new problems to any checklist for new software but one would have to be dreaming to expect the same company to engage in costly code reviews of already released products because someone found a new class of bugs that might be present in existing products. If there are no actual problem reports or specific vulnerabilities discovered related to security, no action will be taken by a profit based company, on old code.

As a general development model, I don't see how anyone who considers all the issues can possibly conclude that proprietary source code is more secure than open source.

Since the discussion of the impact of the development model on security has been almost entirely related to the security impact of bugs, as opposed to the development of new security features such as new access control mechanisms and encryption methods, all that has been said applies equally to reliability as impacted by bugs. Even assuming all the architectural defects inherent in Windows were absent, i.e. assume that Microsoft had independently reverse engineered UNIX as the basis of its Windows systems but within the framework of a proprietary commercial development model, it would still be less reliable and less secure than the open source UNIX like systems.

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