VMware or Hyper-V? Part 3: Virtualization Licensing Costs

In the last post we looked at the cost for licensing Microsoft operating systems on virtual machines – and noted that the licensing costs were the same regardless of the hypervisor used. The cost difference for hypervisors is primarily based on licensing advanced features – so to determine your licensing costs, you need to determine which advanced features are required in your environment.

If you look at the features available in the free hypervisors versions, Hyper-V provides more functionality than ESXi. For example, Live Migration and Failover Clustering are available with Hyper-V, and the corresponding features in VMware – vMotion and VMware HA – are not available until you purchase a VMware “Essentials Plus” license. It is possible that all the virtualization features you require are available in the free version of Hyper-V or VMware. However VMware and Hyper-V implement features differently, and you may find paying for vMotion to be a better fit than free Live Migration. Or that free Failover Clustering works just as well for you as paying for VMware HA. Fortunately, both VMware’s vSphere and Hyper-V’s System Center Virtual Machine Manager (SCVMM) provide trial versions so you can test feature implementation for yourself and decide if free is good enough, or if a licensed feature is worth paying for.

Once you have your trial environments in place, it can still be difficult to compare “advanced” features not only because similar features have different names, but also because functions don’t overlap completely, and it is not possible to do an apples-to-apples comparison. The agnostic hypervisor comparison application at Virtualization Matrix does a very good job of normalizing virtualization features for comparison without biasing the feature descriptions – and it also provides a useful outline of which features are provided by each licensing model.

Hyper-V Licensing

Hyper-V advanced features are available through the Virtual Machine Manager (VMM) component in Microsoft’s System Center (SC). SC uses a Management License model that charges based on the number of processors and managed operating system environments (OSEs). Much like the Windows 2012 Standard and Datacenter Editions described in the previous post, System Center has Standard and Datacenter Management License Editions:

Hyper-V without System Center System Center 2012 R2
Standard Edition
System Center 2012 R2 Datacenter Edition
Cost Free $1323 $3607
Maximum number of processors No processor restrictions 2 physical processors 2 physical processors
OSE Management Licenses No OSE Management licenses required 2 OSE Management licenses Unlimited OSE Management licenses

In addition to the base licensing above how you manage the combination of processor/OSE count in System Center Standard/Datacenter Editions can have a significant influence on your licensing costs. For example, the following comparison shows the cost for System Center to manage 12 OSEs on either 2 or 6 processors, using both Datacenter and Standard licenses:

# Managed OSEs # Physical Processors # Datacenter licenses needed Datacenter License Cost # Standard Licenses needed Standard License Cost
12 2 1 $3607 6 $7938
12 6 3 $10821 6 $7938


Datacenter licenses are more cost effective in environments where you are running more than 2 OSEs per physical processor, while Standard licenses become more cost effective at 2 or fewer OSEs per physical processor As a result, Standard licenses can be less expensive if your VMs are assigned multiple virtual processors, while Datacenter licenses will be less expensive for VMs provisioned with fewer processors.

vSphere Licensing

“vSphere” is the name for the overall VMware management environment, including the ESXi hypervisor, the vCenter management server, and any other VMware virtualization components (e.g. vSan storage, or VMware NSX virtual networking).  vSphere licensing is available as Essentials or Essential Plus Kits for small business environments, or Standard, Enterprise and Enterprise Plus Editions for larger environments. The Essentials Plus Kit and Standard Edition provide the bulk of the functionality needed for small business environments (vMotion, High Availability, vSphere Replication, etc.), while higher end performance tuning features like Flash Read Cache are only available at the Enterprise and Enterprise Plus level.

vSphere Essentials Kits have pricing targeting smaller organizations. Essentials Kits include a vCenter license which can be applied up to 3 servers with 2 processors each. The vSphere Standard, Enterprise and Enterprise Plus Edition licenses are per processor, and each processor license requires at least 1 year of initial support and at least 1 vCenter license :

vSphere Edition Cost # Physical Processors Basic Support Production Support
Essentials Kit $495 3 servers / 2 processors each $65 $299/incident
Essentials Plus Kit $4495 3 servers / 2 processors each $944 $1124
Standard (requires vCenter) $995 1 $273 $323
Enterprise (requires vCenter) $2875 1 $604 $719
Enterprise Plus (requires vCenter) $3495 1 $734 $874
vCenter Foundation $1495 N/A $545 $645
vCenter Standard $4995 N/A $1049 $1249


Comparing Costs

If Hyper-V without SCVMM provides all the virtualization features you need, and works in your environment, it’s hard to argue with a price of “free”. However, if Hyper-V doesn’t work well when you test it in your environment, or if you need features that aren’t available in the free Hyper-V install, then vSphere licensing costs may well be comparable to System Center Virtual Machine Manager costs.

Previous posts in our VMware or Hyper-V series:

Part 1: Which hypervisor will work best for your environment?
Part 2: VM Operating System Licenses

VMware or Hyper-V? Part 2: VM Operating System Licenses

In our last post we looked at some of the environmental factors that play into a choice between VMware and Hyper-V: required OS support, hardware compatibility, and ease of use. This post and the next will look at what is often the deciding factor in selecting a hypervisor: Cost.

Software costs can be broken down into the cost for advanced hypervisor features and the cost for licensing virtual machine operating systems. The basic ESXi and Hyper-V hypervisors are free, but you will pay for advanced hypervisor functions – and that will be the topic of the next post. In this post, we’ll take a look at the cost of licensing Windows operating systems running on virtual machines.

As of Windows 2012, Microsoft has changed its licensing model for Windows virtual machine operating systems (OSEs) in Standard and Datacenter edition to a processor based model. The previous model was per-server licensing – your agreement included a specified number of licenses or multiple activation keys, and you could install as many operating systems as you had licenses. You can still apply per server licenses for Windows 2012 Essentials Edition to virtual machine OSEs, but Windows Server 2012 Standard and Datacenter Editions now also include licenses specifically for virtual machine OSEs. The three Windows Server 2012 Editions which focus on virtualization are:

Hyper-V Server 2012 Windows Server 2012 Standard Edition Windows Server 2012 Datacenter Edition
Hyper-V installation Console install (command line only – no GUI) Installed as server role in Windows Server 2012 Installed as server role in Windows Server 2012
Cost Free $882 $4809 or $6155, References vary
Maximum number of processors No processor restrictions 2 processors 2 processors
Available licenses for virtual machine operating systems No VM OSE licenses 2 VM OSE licenses Unlimited VM OSE licenses

Please note – prices will vary depending on your licensing agreement and reseller.

Hyper-V Server 2012 is the Windows equivalent of VMware’s ESXi: it is free, and can be used for basic VM management functions. It is a console installation, with just a command prompt as an interface, so management is done either remotely, or through the command line. There are no licenses for virtual machines OSEs provided with Hyper-V Server 2012, so an OSE license will need to be provided for every Windows virtual machine run on Hyper-V Server 2012.

Windows 2012 Standard and Datacenter Edition provide two advantages over the minimal Hyper-V 2012 Server Edition. First, with Hyper-V installed on Standard or Datacenter, you have access to Hyper-V management tools directly on the same server running Hyper-V. Second, both Editions include licenses for virtual machine OSEs: Standard Edition provides licensing for 2 VM OSEs, and Datacenter Edition provides licensing for an unlimited number of VM OSEs.

However, the virtual machine OSE licenses provided by Standard and Datacenter Editions are not restricted to using Hyper-V: they can be used with any hypervisor. Standard and Datacenter licenses are assigned to hardware – specifically they are assigned to processors. It doesn’t matter if the hypervisor running on the processors is Windows 2012′s Hyper-V, or VMware’s ESXi, or Red Hat’s RHEV – the virtual machines managed by the hypervisor can use the licenses provided by Standard or Datacenter Edition.

There are, of course, additional rules as to how Standard and Datacenter Edition licenses can be applied. Microsoft provides a pricing information and FAQ PDF that outlines the basics of Standard and Datacenter Edition licenses:

  • The Standard/Datacenter Edition licenses are processor based and each will apply to 2 processors. If your server has more than 2 processors, you will need to apply enough additional Edition licenses to cover all the processors
  • There is no limit on the number of cores per processor
  • You cannot mix Standard and Datacenter licenses
  • If a virtualization host has multiple Standard Edition licenses, you get 2x VM OSE licenses for each Standard Edition license
  • If a virtual machine moves from one virtualization host to another, the virtual machine OSE license does not move with it – since the OSE licenses for the virtual machines are tied to the processor, the new virtualization server must also have a license for the OSE for that virtual machine. This is not an issue if both virtualization hosts have the unlimited Datacenter Edition licensing for VM OSEs.

Licensing is a spectacularly confusing topic, and you need to carefully read the fine print of your current licensing agreement to determine exactly which and how many Windows operating systems you’re allowed to run as virtual machines. However, the costs will be the same regardless of the hypervisor in use. When comparing overall software costs between Hyper-V and VMware, licensing for advanced virtualization features will be the primary factor – and we will look at that in our next post.

Additional posts in our VMware or Hyper-V series:

Part 1: Which hypervisor will work best for your environment?
Part 3: Virtualization Licensing Costs

VMware or Hyper-V? Part 1: Which hypervisor will work best for your environment?

If you’ve gone through the comparison of Cloud vs Virtualization, and decided that Virtualization is the best fit for you – you’re still not done. The next step is deciding which hypervisor to use for your virtualization. If a significant portion of your environment is Windows, then your primary choices are VMware or Hyper-V.

Comparing VMware and Hyper-V is less of a “which is better” question than a “which would be better for you?”   You can start by looking at a Hypervisor comparison chart, and while that might narrow the differences between the two, it will not rule one out unless you need to run an OS specific to VMware or Hyper-V.

Considerations when choosing between VMware and Hyper-V include:

    1. Which operating systems do your Virtual Machines (VMs) need to run?

      If you’re mostly Windows, with a few Linux installs, either will work for you. If you need to support a wide variety of operating systems on your VMs, VMware has much more breadth – see the Hypervisor comparison chart for more details.


    1. Hardware compatibility

      If you’ve already got a significant investment in server hardware, it makes sense to continue to use as much of that hardware as possible for Virtualization hosts. VMware’s Compatibility Guide provides a search that will let you enter your existing server, and tell you which versions of VMware are supported. Got a Dell PowerEdge T110? You should be able to run ESXi 5.5 on it.

      Hyper-V is installed on Windows 2008 or Windows 2012 and it has the same basic installation requirements as the OS. Installing the Hyper-V role does require additional processor support for virtualization. Microsoft also maintains a Windows Server Catalog to identify servers that are compatible with Windows 2012 and Hyper-V.


  1. Ease of use

    Hands-on comparison of VMware and Hyper-V are often biased due to the loyalties and experiences of the reviewer. Additionally, updates to management tools and version capabilities change frequently – for example, one major complaint about the free ESXi 5.1 hypervisor was that it was limited to 32 GB memory – as of 5.5, that limitation has been removed. So, keep those factors in mind when you read through the following sample of hypervisor comparisons:

    Hyper-V 2012 versus VMWare vSphere 5
    Real Hyper-V vs. VMware comparison: What you actually get for free
    Setting up your Hacking Playground – VMWare vs HyperV
    Hyper-V R2eality: VMs not so hot after all…
    Additionally, take a look at the instructions for the same task for each of the platforms. For example – implementing High Availability (HA) in VMware vs. configuring HA in Hyper-V .

Most reviewers find it easier to implement complex virtualization features with VMware, and these features tend to work better with VMware – provided you’ve paid for the VMware licenses and you’re running on supported hardware. Hyper-V wins points for a wider range of supported hardware, and the ability to configure advanced features without requiring license fees – but it may not be able to do everything VMware does and is more difficult to configure.

In our next post, we’ll take a look at how costs for VMware and Hyper-V compare – including the free editions of both, and what you get when you pay for the licenses.

Additional posts in our VMware or Hyper-V series:

Part 2: VM Operating System Licenses
Part 3: Virtualization Licensing Costs

Should You Get Rid of Your Server Room?

A Spiceworks survey of SMB IT professionals in 2013 had 60% of the respondents currently utilizing the Cloud, and projected that the number would reach 66% in the next 6 months. In addition, 72% of the respondents were using server virtualization and that number was increasing to 80% in the next 6 months.

Online surveys are not based on a strict random sampling methodology. If you’ve got a Cloud or Virtualization environment and receive a survey you are more likely to respond – that inherent bias is going to push the resulting values higher. This does not mean that Cloud and Virtualization implementations aren’t useful or worth considering. All it means is that marketers spin results. There are valid reasons to move some (or all) of your applications to Virtualization or the Cloud beyond whatever marketers are telling you, but you’re not necessarily flirting with disaster if you are not part of this movement. Local bare metal servers, storage arrays, and networking equipment will continue to be a valid, secure and reliable infrastructure model, and one that will still be in widespread use many years from now.

That being said, Virtualization or Cloud Computing can increase uptime, maximize resource usage and minimize the number of servers you have to maintain. As local servers age out and hardware is replaced in the future you will probably use one or both technologies as part of your hardware replacement strategy. There will be certain servers that won’t work with virtualization or the Cloud – for example, Microsoft clusters, I/O sensitive databases, and that one server in the back closet with your last remaining fax card – but some portion of your servers will work as virtual machines.

For those servers that can be virtualized, you will be faced with the question – which is better, virtualization or Cloud IaaS? And the answer to that is – it depends. Sometimes local Virtualization will be the best option, and sometimes Cloud computing will be the answer. The two technologies can both provide virtual machines, but have distinct use cases, advantages and drawbacks. In order to help you decide which technology better fits your needs, we’ve put together a new White Paper, Which is Better – Virtualization or Cloud IaaS?, that describes key factors to consider when planning a migration to either Virtualization or Cloud IaaS, and the differences inherent in the technologies.

So – should you get rid of your server room? Definitely “Not right now”, but probably “Yes, eventually we’ll get rid of some of our servers”. And to get to that “yes” , take your time in developing your strategy, and remember that a hybrid mix of local bare metal servers, local Virtualized servers, and remote Cloud servers may well be the best model to best fit all your IT needs.

Is the Cloud Still a Secure Option?

One of the fundamental prerequisites for any IT Infrastructure is that it is secure, and doubts about security have plagued Cloud vendors for as long as they’ve existed. While there have been data breaches, Cloud computing has proved secure enough over the past few years for it to be considered a valid option for many organizations. However, the destruction of Code Spaces on June 17th at the hands of hackers who gained access to their Control Panel at AWS was a worst case scenario brought to life, and brought Cloud security questions back into focus.

The hack at Code Spaces wasn’t targeted toward collecting confidential data, but rather to the control of the client’s Cloud resources. The hackers gained control of Code Spaces management utilities, demanded ransom, and then deleted data when Code Spaces tried to regain control. We’ve known these details since shortly after the incident occurred – what we don’t know is exactly how the hackers were able to get control of Code Spaces resources. Was there a flaw in Amazon’s security, or in Code Spaces implementation, or was this simply inevitable due to the intrinsically public nature of the Cloud?

We’re not likely to get a detailed answer for how this happened until investigations have been completed. What we do know is that management utilities in a public Cloud are by definition publicly accessible, and that they must be locked down to be secure. Amazon specifically states that security is a shared responsibility, and they provide detailed guidance on security practices for their public Cloud. Amazon provides the equivalent of an isolated IT environment in a locked room, and provides access to administrative tools for controlling that environment – it is up to the user to lock down administrative access using the provided role assignment and multifactor authentication (MFA) tools.

Building an environment in the Cloud is relatively easy – that’s one of the selling points. For new Cloud subscribers with very basic admin needs, a complex security model may seem to be overkill – but as sites grow in scale, complexity, and number of admin users, the need for locking down administrative access becomes more acute. In a small, relatively basic security model, roles may be configured too broadly, and administrative roles may have far more permissions than needed for basic daily tasks. If the security model is not updated as the site grows, a set of compromised administrator’s credentials could cripple the Cloud infrastructure.

Using MFA should prevent a hacker from accessing control tools even if they gain access to administrator credentials. The hacker should only be able to obtain an MFA access code if they had the device that generated the code. But, in a scenario where an administrator keeps password information on a device that is also used as an MFA device (e.g. a smartphone), all it would take would be one stolen phone to provide access to Cloud Management tools.

But even with roles defined properly and MFA in use, and administrator’s laptops and smartphones properly secured, there is always the possibility that something could go wrong with your Cloud environment. Maybe not through hacking – maybe through administrator error, or natural disaster, or a hosting company closing its doors. That’s where backups come in, and that was the fundamental flaw in Code Spaces infrastructure. They had backups in multiple locations, but the multiple locations were all within AWS, and under the control of the compromised control panel. Backups to an outside location would have allowed them to rebuild. There would have been downtime, and some lost data, but they would still be in business.

Keep in mind that while the data was deleted, it was not compromised. The hackers were able to delete the S3 buckets, but they didn’t read them. Code Spaces and AWS did succeed in maintaining the confidentiality of the data, if not its continued existence. In those terms, the Cloud did successfully maintain security. However in terms of maintaining data integrity, some as yet unidentified portion of the shared security architecture failed. The moral of this story will likely end up that the Cloud can indeed be used securely, but that both Cloud users and vendors need to pay strict attention to security guidelines. In the case of Code Spaces a detail was missed somewhere and they paid the price.

Can Ransomware Devastate your Data in the Cloud?

Security concerns have always been an issue in Cloud adoption. Any time your servers and data are not physically under your control, you have to ask questions about how access to those servers is handled, and how the data on those servers is secured.

For applications that aren’t hosted in the Cloud data breach problems exist as well, Cloud based applications didn’t seem to have any significant vulnerabilities beyond those of other web based applications.

At least, that was until last week. On June 17th, Cloud based service provider Code Spaces had an intruder gain access to their Amazon control panel. On the Code Spaces home page, they provided the details of the attack, and outlined the repercussions for their company. Basically, an intruder gained access to Code Spaces’ Amazon EC2 control panel and demanded ransom in order to leave the site. When Code Spaces tried to lock the intruder out, the intruder began deleting customer data. By the time Code Spaces had removed the intruder, most of their data and backups had been partially or completely deleted.

It took only 12 hours from the time the DDOS attack began to the time it ended with Code Spaces regaining control. Given that DDOS attacks are not uncommon, it was certainly less than 12 hours before they realized they had an intruder and formulated a plan to deal with the intruder. Since this is a fairly new security scenario, it is unlikely that the company’s backup plans (retrieved from the Internet Archive) included dealing with intentional malicious deletions, and they also trusted that redundant Cloud based backups would be sufficient.

Code Spaces provided SVN and Git hosting, and Project Management to its customers, and stated that their priority was to get as much data back as possible. They went on to state:

Code Spaces will not be able to operate beyond this point, the cost of resolving this issue to date and the expected cost of refunding customers who have been left without the service they paid for will put Code Spaces in a irreversible position both financially and in terms of ongoing credibility.

As such at this point in time we have no alternative but to cease trading and concentrate on supporting our affected customers in exporting any remaining data they have left with us.

In the company’s twitter feed, they say that they will publish a “full detailed report” soon. Until then, this incident brings up a lot of questions for Cloud users. How exactly did the intruder gain access to the control panel? Was there a security hole on Amazon’s part, or a user error on Code Spaces part? If someone does gain unauthorized access to your Cloud control panel – how can you lock them out before they cause any damage? Is there a safe way to keep all of your backups in the Cloud, or is an offsite backup still a necessity?

In the midst of the marketing hype surrounding Cloud based computing, Code Spaces will serve as an example of a worst case scenario. Hopefully Cloud users will pay enough attention to the details of how Code Space was hacked to avoid similar problems, and look more closely at whether the Cloud is sufficient for their needs.

Monitoring the Cloud for End User Experience

Using the Cloud for all or part of your computing infrastructure doesn’t mean you can ignore monitoring. If you’re using Cloud based SaaS applications, or you have web applications hosted in the Cloud, you still need to verify that those resources are available and responsive. This doesn’t mean you have to do a deep dive into DevOps optimization – but you should verify the applications are performing for your users.

From the perspective of a Cloud user, how often a backend server needs to be migrated, or when a noisy neighbor slows an application down doesn’t matter. The Cloud obscures the details of the problem, and the user just cares that your web page took longer to load than they were willing to wait – and, oh, look – another cute kitten video.

The minimal areas you should monitor for Cloud performance from a user perspective are:

  • Verification of SLA agreements
    We’ve discussed Cloud SLAs before, and pointed out that the compensation many vendors offer is typically not enough to offset losses and is only available if you notice the outage, plus excludes maintenance windows. If your application needs to be available 24/7, you should be checking that you can access it 24/7, and check with the vendor if it’s not available when it should be. And, of course, documenting your outages so you can cash in on the SLA agreement if needed.

  • Application responsiveness
    SLA agreements only refer to uptime. If the application is available, but too slow for users to wait for, then it is effectively unusable. A responsiveness check should involve whatever functionality your application provides. If your users can log in, enter data, search, update records, etc – that is what you should be testing. You can create macros that will automate this, and then archive the data for trend analysis.

  • Optimizing resource reservations
    One of the draws of the Cloud is that you pay for what you use. However, if you reserve resources beforehand, you can pay a lower rate than you would for ad hoc resource requests. If you’re using IaaS to host your requests, keep an eye on the basic server monitoring metrics – CPU, disk, network and memory – and use your observations to fine tune the basic resources you request from the Cloud provider.

  • Pinpointing application problems
    Just because you can’t get to a Cloud application doesn’t mean it’s the vendor’s fault. The internet is between your users and the Cloud servers. If your DNS provider’s servers go down – or are attacked – users won’t be able to find your application. If your ISP has an outage, the application will be there, but users inside your organization won’t be able to get to it using your network. Or, the problem could just be that a switch or a router has died, or your network bandwidth usage is too high.

    Chart out the points of failure between your local network and your Cloud, and monitor them so that you can keep track of the cause of application failures. You can fix problems on your internal network but for external problems, keep track of when and where they occur, and of the vendor’s response.

Getting Locked Out of the Cloud

I am in no conceivable way a designer, and admittedly don’t understand most of the features available in Adobe’s Creative Suite.  If asked to edit an image, I’d be more likely to load it up in GIMP than Photoshop, and would probably get it kicked back for a re-edit because someone with a better sense of aesthetics found the end result lacking.  With that disclaimer out of the way, I can empathize with those who rely on Creative Suite for a living.  Putting together a visually appealing product is exacting, time-consuming work even for the talented, and that work is made much easier with the right tools.  I have been assured that Creative Suite is usually the correct tool for whatever design project needs to be done.

Up until the release of Creative Suite 6, the software followed a traditional model:  pay for the software, install it, license it, and then use it locally.  The most recent release of Creative Suite has taken this model to the cloud with “Creative Cloud” – the software is still installed locally, but the licensing fee is paid on a monthly basis, with an internet connection required to validate the license at least once every 30 days.  An annual option is available as well, with a 99 day validation interval.  If the license is not validated in the allotted time, you’re locked out of your software.

In theory, this is an ideal model for Adobe.  Creative Suite is expensive, and monthly licensing fees can be more economical for users who only need the Suite for a short term project.  Also, by controlling the licensing, you can control access to the product rather than policing software installations to combat piracy.

For customers who rely on Creative Cloud, the Cloud model has not been as advantageous.  While having a Cloud based repository for projects can help with portability and collaboration, the overall cost for the software has increased, and customers must provide at least intermittent internet connection to validate the software license.  Complaints over cost, required internet connectivity, and various bugs notwithstanding, the model mostly worked, and designers continued to use Creative Suite in its Creative Cloud form.

However, on May 14th the Cloud model came to a grinding halt when routine database maintenance caused Adobe logins to be unavailable for 24 hours.  During the outage, the Twitter account for Adobe Customer Care advised customers to take their computer offline, access the software, and then go back online.  After the outage was resolved, customers who were still having problems were advised to sign out, reboot, and then reconnect.

Social media being what it is, there were many unverifiable but plausible tweets during the outage complaining about missed deadlines and resulting financial losses.  Creative Cloud is, after all, professionally designed software used by professionals with deadlines and reputations to maintain.  Tweets asking about compensation were told that none was available (as per the terms of service), but a later report by Reuters quoted Adobe as saying that compensation would be considered on a case by case basis -  with no details about exactly what that compensation might be, or how users might be asked to verify that they deserve compensation.

Cloud outages are not uncommon, and every user has a different definition of what they consider to be a “critical” application, which requires very careful consideration before being migrated to a Cloud.  Based on tweets on the AdobeCare Twitter feed and posts in the Adobe forums, many Creative Cloud customers would have preferred locally installed software to avoid this exact problem.  Adobe users who have been bitten by this will be justifiably reluctant in the future to opt for any form of Cloud based application.

Can you still get patches for Windows XP?

Were you using XP in Feb. 2010?  If you were, you might remember a patch issued by Microsoft that caused a blue screen on many computers.   That incident should serve as a reminder that even patches that are explicitly intended for the exact OS version you’re running can still end up rendering your system inoperable.  It’s also something to keep in mind before installing patches that “should be” ok on your version of XP.

Home and Pro XP patches do exist – Microsoft is still creating them – but only for large organizations that have paid for extended support.  Outside of extreme circumstances like last month’s IE advisory from US-CERT, Home and XP Pro patches are out of reach for most XP holdouts.

However, Microsoft is continuing to publicly distribute patches for embedded versions of XP up to 2019, and Windows 2003 up to July 14, 2015.  Embedded XP is under the covers of gaming consoles, cash registers, ATMS, etc., and shares the same basic underlying code as the 32 bit Home and Pro XP editions.  64 bit XP shares basic code with Windows 2003.  It was probably inevitable that someone would figure out a way to try to substitute patches that are almost the right version and available, for patches that are the right version, but are not available.

Enter  a German message board  detailing registry edits and patch hacks to make embedded XP and 2003 patches available to Home and Pro XP users.  The hacks work by making Microsoft Update think that the patch is being installed on a supported system. The 32 bit XP hack is done by altering a registry value to make Microsoft think that embedded POSReady2009 is installed.  The 64 bit hack is more complex and involves downloading Windows 2003 patches manually and modifying them to work around the OS version check.

The author of the original post includes the following disclaimer:

ATTENTION: Use it you [sic] own risk! These updates are not tested on a regular XP system and could damage your system

ZDNet reported on the hack a few days after it was posted, and included a statement they received from Microsoft:

We recently became aware of a hack that purportedly aims to provide security updates to Windows XP customers. The security updates that could be installed are intended for Windows Embedded and Windows Server 2003 customers and do not fully protect Windows XP customers. Windows XP customers also run a significant risk of functionality issues with their machines if they install these updates, as they are not tested against Windows XP. The best way for Windows XP customers to protect their systems is to upgrade to a more modern operating system, like Windows 7 or Windows 8.1.

This isn’t just a case of a pro forma “don’t do this, spend money on the new version” warning from Microsoft.  Microsoft doesn’t know what would happen if you apply the wrong version of a patch to your XP system, and they aren’t going to test that scenario because it’s not something they support.  It is possible that the patches might work perfectly fine using this hack.  Or you could hit a BSOD and end up needing to reinstall the OS.  They don’t know, and they aren’t going to help you rescue your box if the patches fail.

Ultimately, almost the right version of a patch can be worse than no patch at all.  XP can run without patches, but you will need to be more security conscious, keep everything backed up, and be ready to completely rebuild the system.  Or, better yet, try rebuilding the computer as Linux.

Users are the Weakest Link in Cloud Security

On Monday, Dropbox confirmed a security vulnerability with Dropbox files shared via hyperlink.   In the confirmation, they described the vulnerability as follows:

  1. The user uploads a file to Dropbox that contains a link to a 3rd party website.
  2. The user sends a link to the Dropbox file to a recipient, who uses the link to access the file.
  3. The recipient clicks on the link in the file to view the 3rd party website.
  4. The 3rd party website owner checks their access logs and sees the Dropbox link as the “referrer” to their site – and can then click on the Dropbox link and gain access to the file.

Dropbox reacted by disabling access to all previously existing file links, examining and re-enabling access for links that were not vulnerable, and patching the vulnerability in future links.  Users were told that they could re-create links, but the effect was that pre-existing links suddenly broke.  Website links, presentations, cloud based documents – either needed to be recreated, or re-enabled if they were judged not vulnerable.  (Which of course begs the question of how do they judge whether or not the Dropbox content is vulnerable without examining it?)

Dropbox could have handled this better.  By disabling links across the board with little notice, users were left to clean up the mess rather than being given the opportunity to fix the problem for themselves, if they even considered it a problem.  It was yet another demonstration that Cloud services are not yet 100% foolproof or reliable, and are ultimately subject to the business needs of the vendor.

Dropbox updated the post the next day to confirm a second vulnerability in which the user inadvertently pastes the URL for the Dropbox file into a search engine:

  1. The user uploads a file to Dropbox and sends the link to a recipient.
  2. The recipient (inadvertently) pastes the link into a browser search engine rather than the browser URL field.
  3. The search engine makes a best guess for keywords in the URL and displays ads based on those keywords.
  4. The owners of the displayed ads check the search terms for which their ads were displayed, and see the Dropbox URL.

Dropbox’s reaction to this was:

This is well known and we don’t consider it a vulnerability. We urge everyone to be careful about providing shared links to third parties like search engines

Yes – I agree – while the first vulnerability was up to Dropbox to fix, this second vulnerability is the user’s fault.  Many users have become accustomed to using the search engine as an address bar without knowing or caring that anything they paste there is subject to becoming part of data analyzed by the search engine.  The convenience of having one place to type what you want (url or search term) becomes habit, and habit takes precedence over conscious thought.  That becomes a security vulnerability waiting to happen when you use the internet to access confidential data.

Should Dropbox make their links utterly secure and idiot-proof?  In the first case, that’s probably overkill for most Dropbox items, and in the second case it’s not possible, because there will always be ways to use things that were never intended or imagined.  Dropbox and similar Cloud services provide a convenient way to make your data accessible over multiple devices.  Cloud services can provide encryption and access control, and the vendors are responsible for making sure that those services are not vulnerable, and patching any Heartbleed type vulnerabilities that are detected.

What is done with security after it has been established is up to the user.  Users control who they give access to, and allowing access to confidential data by creating and distributing an unsecured URL to that data is a security failure on the part of the user, not the vendor.