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Is life getting easier or worse for admins given the job of patching Microsoft products or is it perhaps just the same as it’s ever been but gradually changing in nature?

Is life getting easier or worse for admins given the job of patching Microsoft products or is it perhaps just the same as it’s ever been but gradually changing in nature?

Judging from an overview of 2014 released last week by security firm Tripwire, the answer depends on which data is picked out as important.

Objectively, the number of critical software flaws patched on the first Tuesday of every month dropped markedly during the year, with Microsoft releasing 28 bulletins marked ‘critical’ in 2014 compared to 42 in 2013, all good news.

Set against this is the fact that the firm broke its all-time monthly record for Common Vulnerability Exposures (CVEs) in June, posting more than sixty, way above the previous historic high point in April 2012.

As it happens (as others have also noticed), 43 percent of the critical flaws in Microsoft software were in only one program, Internet Explorer.

The easy assumption is that finally pulling the plug on XP in April reduced the number of critical flaws somewhat. If so, that was an easy win for Microsoft that doesn’t offer much patching promise for mainstream business users no longer running the OS.

“It’s interesting that there was such a massive drop in critical patches from 2013 to 2014,” said Tripwire security researcher, Craig Young, who was unsure about the effect of XP.

“Windows XP wound down in April 2014, but I don’t see any drop-off in the trend data specific to its end of life. Dropping Windows XP support could have led to the reduced number of critical bulletins due to the improved security measures of newer versions.

“However, it’s possible that the overall bulletins did not decrease because a lot of Windows XP code continues to be used in Microsoft’s newer systems,” he said.

Going forward, the deeper trend could be the effect of third-party researchers and bounty programs on the number of zero-day flaws that aren’t great in number but cause problems when they do appear.  A topical example would be Google’s contentious Project Zero which has caused a degree of chaos with three zero-day disclosures in January that is too recent to show up in the 2014 numbers.

The result? Out of band patches, once seen as exceptional events, could become a regular occurrence this year and next.

“First, I don’t foresee an abrupt change in the CVE per bulletin density over the next year," said Thanes. "Second, it’s possible that we will see an uptick in the number of out-of-band Microsoft security bulletins due to Google’s Project Zero.

"On average, Microsoft will only have 70 to 80 days to fix, test and deliver patches for vulnerabilities discovered by Project Zero, given the fixed Patch Tuesday cycle and Project Zero’s rigid 90-day time frame.”