What You Need to Know to Survive Windows XP’s End-of-Life

After almost 13 years of Windows XP, Microsoft announced that the still-popular operating system (OS) has reached its end-of-life (EOL). This means that Microsoft will no longer provide patches to new vulnerabilities found in the OS. As a result, it is now impossible for users and organizations to address any new vulnerabilities; these vulnerabilities for which a patch does not exist are known as “zero-day vulnerabilities.” Since Microsoft will not provide any new patches for the Windows XP systems, new vulnerabilities will become perpetual zero-day vulnerabilities; the systems will essentially forever be vulnerable to zero-days.

The threat goes beyond the OS vulnerabilities. Now that the OS isn’t supported, most software vendors will drop support for legacy applications running on the unsupported OS. After all, why would vendors bother to maintain a product for an OS that is, for all intents and purposes, dead? This increases the attack surface, exposing XP systems to additional exploits targeting vulnerabilities that can’t be patched.

Zero-day vulnerabilities are extremely valuable to cyber criminals, who can exploit these to compromise the user machine and infiltrate corporate networks. Zero-day vulnerabilities in software applications provide hackers and cyber criminals with ample opportunities. By exploiting these vulnerabilities, the attacker can alter the behavior of the application and use it to download malware on the system. Once the system has been compromised, it enables the attacker to gain access to information on the system itself and to access corporate assets and sensitive information stored on the network.

Since no patch is available, it is almost impossible to defend against such exploits. It is very likely that attackers already knew of some zero-day vulnerabilities in Windows XP-based systems but were holding on to them until the EOL date to ensure that patches weren’t made available for these systems. Security researchers warn that we will soon experience an avalanche of new zero-days on these systems; and the implications will be colossal. Without patches to prevent their exploitation, the vulnerabilities become perpetual zero-days.

Technical and Operational Challenges Slowing Down Migration Projects

According to Microsoft, a full operating system migration project can take up to six months, depending on an organization’s size. This results from a number of complex decisions and technical challenges with which the IT group is confronted.

The top five concerns about the migration process are:

  • Concerns over the migration process itself: The complexities of the migration process may prolong or obstruct the migration. A failed migration process may impair the business and carries high costs.
  • Compatibility issues: If you have old legacy applications that ran on Windows XP, you may find that these applications have problems running on the newer OSs. Incompatible applications will require special handling during the migration process.
  • Stability issues: Windows XP has been relatively stable. IT administrators are happy with it, and it enables them to do their job. Windows 7 has been available for four years, so it is considered to be relatively stable. Windows 8 is a newer OS, so it might be less stable; it offers benefits to organizations that use tablet PCs, however, so organizations may prefer it.
  • Resource investment: A successful migration requires comprehensive planning and careful implementation. Many decisions must be made both before the migration process starts and as it progresses. Special tools might be needed as well. Depending on the size of the organization and the sensitivity of the migrated systems, this project may require a significant resource investment.
  • Additional hardware costs: Newer hardware may be needed to support the newer OSs. This adds to the migration costs.

As a result of these challenges, some organizations have delayed the initiation of the migration process. Others that have already begun a migration may have encountered unexpected complexities or technical barriers that delayed Windows XP system migration beyond its EOL date. Those systems and the organizations that use them are therefore exposed to the risk of perpetual zero-days.

Extending the Lifetime of Windows XP: The Need for a New Approach

Enterprises, now more than ever, need a new approach to protecting systems against advanced malware and preventing the exploitation of vulnerabilities for the purpose of end-point compromise. You need unique, in-depth controls that break the threat life cycle at strategic choke points. The bottom line is that you no longer can be dependent on patch availability or on advanced information about exploitable vulnerabilities or the malware that is used for compromising the end point. You need a more effective solution for protecting enterprise Windows XP systems after the EOL date.

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Dana Tamir

Director of Enterprise Security at Trusteer, an IBM Company

Dana Tamir is Director of Enterprise Security at Trusteer, an IBM Company. In her role she leads activities related to enterprise advanced threat protection solutions. With over a decade of real-world expertise in the security Industry, she routinely delivers advanced threat and security related presentations, blogs, articles, white papers and webcasts. Prior to joining Trusteer, Dana held various roles at leading security companies including Imperva, Symantec, Bindview, and Amdocs. Dana holds an engineering degree from the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology, in addition to a number of industry and vendor certifications.