Most Oracle database shops don't mandate security patch use

A continuing lack of corporate mandates to quickly install Oracle's security patches may be leaving many Oracle database installations exposed to vulnerabilities for extended periods of time, according to survey results released on Wednesday.

A continuing lack of corporate mandates to quickly install Oracle's security patches may be leaving many Oracle database installations exposed to vulnerabilities for extended periods of time, according to survey results released on Wednesday.

Database expert: Oracle behind Microsoft on patch management

In a pair of online surveys that were jointly conducted between May and August of last year by the International Oracle Users Group (IOUG) and Oracle, only 26% of the 150-plus respondents said that their companies required the software vendor's quarterly patch updates to be applied on all systems as soon as they're released.

Another 6% said they're required to install Oracle's Critical Patch Updates (CPU) on critical systems only, the IOUG and Oracle wrote in a report . Meanwhile, 30% said their companies didn't have any specific policies in regards to Oracle's patches, while 32% said their policies required database administrators to do either risk or cost-benefit analyses in order to justify the installation of patches in production databases.

In addition, the survey results showed that most of the respondents were months or even more than a year behind Oracle's patch releases. Only 30% said they typically installed patches before the vendor released its next CPU, according to the report. Twenty-five percent said they were one cycle, or three to six months, behind in installing the patches, while 26% said they were two to four cycles behind. Another 11% said they hadn't installed any of Oracle's patch updates on their systems.

Oracle, which initiated its quarterly patching schedule in early 2005, typically issues dozens of patches across its entire product suite as part of the CPUs. But applying patches to production databases is a complex and time-consuming task that can require months of labor and significant system downtime - leaving many companies slow to install CPUs or reluctant to do so at all.

While the new survey results are likely to raise some alarms from an IT security standpoint, they're actually better than the ones contained in a report released early last year by Sentrigo Inc., a vendor of database security tools in San Mateo, Calif. Sentrigo reported that more than two-thirds of the Oracle DBAs it polled over a six-month period - 206 out of 305 - said they had never installed an Oracle patch on their database servers, no matter how critical the vulnerabilities that were being patched.

Nonetheless, the apparent fact that many companies haven't even set policies for dealing with Oracle's CPUs is somewhat startling, especially considering that databases often are the most valuable corporate assets within businesses, said Ian Abramson, the IOUG's president.

"I think probably the feeling in those organizations is that since databases are a little more isolated than the desktop, there's less of a [security] concern," he said. "A lot of people feel they're more secure because they're behind firewalls and think they have good perimeter security." That probably explains why some of the companies surveyed by the IOUG and Oracle said they had formal patching policies for their Windows systems but not their Oracle databases, added Abramson, who is director of the enterprise data group at Thoughtcorp, a consulting and IT services firm in Toronto.

Amichai Shulman, chief technology officer at database security vendor Imperva Inc. in Woburn, Mass., also expressed surprise about the lack of Oracle patching policies at some companies. "It's one thing to have a policy saying you don't have to patch each and every database," he noted. "It's a different thing to have no policy at all."

By the same token, Shulman also was surprised that the number of surveyed companies with policies mandating the immediate installation of Oracle's patches was as high as it was. DBAs often need more than three months to test the patches thoroughly to make sure they won't disrupt production databases, he said. And companies then need to schedule times when they can bring down servers that are running business-critical applications in order to install the patches.

"It would be irresponsible for a company to deploy a patch in production without first running it through quality assurance," Shulman said. He also recommended that users do a risk analysis of the security vulnerabilities being patched by Oracle so they can decide which of their databases should be updated first.

According to Abramson, the survey results also show that the availability of better tools or documentation for testing Oracle's patches could have an impact on how quickly companies apply them. "Understanding what is contained in these patches is really the challenge for DBAs today," he said. "It's important for administrators to understand the context in which they're presented." Otherwise, he added, the DBAs might have trouble determining how relevant individual patches are to their IT environments.

Shulman said the information that Oracle releases about its patches sometimes simply isn't sufficient for DBAs to make quick decisions about deployments. Oracle has made some improvements in that area, he said, but he still thinks that its patch documentation doesn't provide the same level of information as that of other vendors, such as Microsoft Corp.

Oracle didn't immediately respond to a request for comment about the new survey results. But a posting on the company's Global Product Security Blog said that as a result of the surveys, Oracle will "explore ways" to enhance its CPU documentation to help make it easier and faster for customers to test patches.

The blog post, written by Eric Maurice, Oracle's director of software security assurance, also noted that the vendor and the IOUG would work together on efforts to promote the broader adoption of formal policies for deploying patches.

This story, "Most Oracle database shops don't mandate security patch use" was originally published by Computerworld.

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