Is There a Solution to Buggy Computers?

Is There a Solution to Buggy Computers?
By Reid Goldsborough

As I was writing this, Microsoft issued three more updates for Microsoft Windows XP and Microsoft Internet Explorer 6 — one “critical” update, one security update and one patch.

Recently a security vulnerability in Microsoft’s database program SQL Server 2000 enabled a computer “worm” known as Slammer to temporary take down hundreds of thousands of computers around the world, causing an estimated $950 million to $1.2 billion in lost productivity worldwide.

Among the reported damage, 13,000 automated teller machines temporarily stopped working, some airline flights were canceled, and the emergency 911 system in at least one city temporarily stopped working.

Most of the problems caused by Slammer could have been avoided if all system administrators, the computer professionals responsible for overseeing the high-powered computer servers that were targeted, had installed a security update that Microsoft released six months earlier.

Nonetheless, the chronic need for security and other fixes for critical software points to a disquieting reality: Computers are buggy. They always have been, and there is no sign that this will change any time soon. Still, the situation doesn’t have to be this bad. And there are ways you can help.

First, some context. The term “computer bug” came about, according to popular mythology, when a moth flew into a U.S. Navy computer in 1945. But “bug” was used back in Thomas Edison’s day to signify a glitch in a mechanical system.

Many computer bugs have raised their ugly heads over the years. The most widely talked about, ultimately more of a dud than a bug, was the Year 2000 problem, which was caused when software engineers didn’t anticipate that their programs would still be in use when the new millennium rolled around.

Fortunately, the Millennium Bug didn’t cause the worldwide disruptions in the electric power, financial, transportation and other industries that some had feared, largely because massive efforts were made to correct it.

But other bugs in large computer systems have led to failed space missions, airplane crashes and the death of hospital patients.

Most computer bugs are caused by insufficient product development cycles. Companies feel compelled to introduce new features and release new versions at a dizzying pace to maximize quarterly earnings. Product testing is sacrificed.

To be fair, many “bugs” aren’t software or hardware glitches at all but instead are malfunctions caused by users failing to follow directions. And many genuine bugs are inevitable. It’s a Sisyphean task making today’s complex software, with millions of lines of code, totally bug free. Add to the equation all the other software and the hardware that have to work together, and there are billions of opportunities for conflict.

Nonetheless, the computer industry could be doing better. Microsoft gets much of the blame because it’s such a big target. But the reality is that Microsoft has an awful track record with reliability. Releasing buggy software and then trying to fix it with an endless stream of updates is inefficient for everybody.

Applying software patches is time-consuming. What’s more, installing a patch to fix one problem can create other problems.

That’s why it’s good practice for system administrators to test patches on isolated machines to ensure that they don’t break critical functions of the system they are supposed to protect. But this is even more time-consuming. Some companies are beginning to experiment with using software that automates the installation of patches.

Microsoft blamed computer users for the problems caused by the Slammer worm because they didn’t install a software patch, but reports indicate that Microsoft’s own system administrators didn’t install the SQL Server 2000 patch on all of its machines either, which led to problems with its own internal network.

To prevent another Slammer-type attack, Microsoft has made available free database-security tools at its Web site to let system administrators check SQL Server 2000 for vulnerabilities.

But the ultimate solution might be more radical change. “Some companies are considering a move away from Microsoft,” says Jaclynn Bumback, an analyst at In-Stat/MDR, a market research firm in Scottsdale, Ariz. “At some point you say, ‘Enough is enough.’ “

People have been complaining about computer bugs for years. Making a statement with your wallet would send a signal to companies in a way they would clearly understand. Linux, the Mac and other computing platforms aren’t immune to bugs, of course. But all manufacturers have to realize that creating reliable products should be the goal from the outset, even if it slows down the release of those jazzy new products.

Computer reliability is, or should be, paramount.

Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at reidgold@netaxs.com or .



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