Oracle database left unpatched as management discount threats

Many organisations are failing to mandate their IT staff to quickly install Oracle's security patches, which may result in Oracle database installations being exposed to vulnerabilities for extended periods according to a survey out this week.

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Two online surveys that were jointly conducted between May and August of last year by the Independent 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 labour 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 , a vendor of database security tools 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 organisations 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.

Amichai Shulman, chief technology officer at database security vendor Imperva, 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."

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