Microsoft continues to nibble at security

ISA service pack leverages WAN links, while OneCare Live service tidies up desktop protection

We’ll have to wait for any revolutionary product announcements out of Redmond, as now just isn’t the time. But things rarely stand completely still in the rainy Northwest; each week Microsoft tends to announce tweaks to some portion of its product lines, and this week it’s security.

Aside from another Black Tuesday, Microsoft also announced changes to its enterprise and personal security offerings: a new service pack for ISA (Internet Security and Acceleration) Server 2004 as well as Microsoft's subscription-based OneCare Live offering.

Because this is Enterprise Windows, I’ll start there with the release of ISA Server 2004 SP 2, which just became available as I was writing this.

I'm also starting with ISA 2004 SP2 because the update has quite a bit of meat to it in terms of new features, although most of them are aimed at remote or branch office connectivity and management. Managing an ISA-based security infrastructure across a bunch of WAN links with varying sizes seems Microsoft’s main target with this release, and the company has addressed it fairly well.

First, you’ll find support for BITS (Background Intelligent Transfer Service) caching. BITS is a file transfer protocol that first reared its head under Windows Update. It’s Microsoft’s way of providing more efficient update rollouts by doing small-chunk data transfers, using all available bandwidth, and supporting breaks in bandwidth or transmissions. Under ISA Server, BITS allows for more easily managed server security updates and also manages the bandwidth usage of other servers behind the ISA machine.

Making even better use of WAN bandwidth is ISA’s new support for HTTP compression. This allows ISA’s proxy server functionality to serve up cached Web content much faster, especially across slimmer WAN pipes. Again, mainly a branch or telecommuter-type feature set is in this scenario.

Last, ISA now also supports QoS rules using DiffServ. By manipulating the DiffServ portion of a TCP/IP packet, ISA can lay down QoS rules that can be enforced over most of the router and switch firmware out in the wild. You still can’t manage QoS rules entirely across your network infrastructure, but at least ISA can understand and propagate QoS rules enumerated in your network management software — as long as it’s done via DiffServ, that is.

There are a few other tweaks in ISA 2004 SP2, but these are the major new feature implementations. For those using ISA Server 2004 as an internal security gateway, it’s a pretty solid feature set, especially for WAN-centric networks.

On the personal front, Microsoft finally released pricing and packaging information for its OneCare Live offering. The OneCare package is a combination of Microsoft anti-virus (which still isn’t true AV, by the way), anti-spyware, updated firewall features, and some new back-up features as well as some general tune-up tools for XP. This whole package gets updated constantly as long as you dish out the $50 annual subscription fee.

The only reason to mention it here is that it’s possible to configure a much more secure corporate desktop by subscribing to OneCare on a corporate basis and then making sure the right features are enabled and configured as part of your OS images. The only question is cost: Does this make sense from a bottom line bucks perspective?

For many businesses, most likely not -- as they’ll already have made investments in existing desktop security software. Additionally, it’s Version 1 of OneCare Live, so I’d have some reservations about deploying it across an entire company’s desktop portfolio at this stage. But if personal security is on your radar, I’d highly recommend configuring at least one machine using OneCare and see how it does when compared with your existing configuration in the next six months.