CSO50 2015: When Windows XP ends, life must go on for research systems

What do you do when 600 mission-critical workstations can't say goodbye to Windows XP, but support for the operating system is ending? That was the challenge facing biopharmaceutical company Quintiles Inc., in Durham, N.C.

As a service provider to the pharmaceutical industry, Quintiles uses hundreds of FDA-validated applications, which means they are tested to make sure they do exactly what they're supposed to do.

"When applications fall into that category, you can't just swap things out. You have to go through formalized testing" before new applications can be approved, explains Jerry Fink, director of IT. "We have a lot of applications like that, systems that are talking to laboratory equipment, or special programs needed for an entire clinical study from start to end."

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So when the companywide transition to Windows 7 wrapped up with just weeks to spare before XP support ended, Quintiles was left with 600 machines that it couldn't remediate. Instead of panicking, Quintiles decided to take a different approach.

"While the vast majority of companies were in more of a reactive mode, Quintiles was in preventative mode," says CISO Patricia Weedon, who joined the company in late 2014.

"It's a different model. Quintiles said 'lets take a step back and protect our most valuable assets in a different way vs. firefighting.'"

Fink and his team started looking at the real attack vectors on these machines. One big risk to any machine is access to the Internet, they surmised, such employees surfing the Web or accessing a site that releases malware. "So we put these machines in a specific group that restricts them from having access to the Internet, and we reduced that vector to zero," Fink says.

Next they looked at antivirus heuristics and increased anti-virus controls through policy in its centralized anti-virus management solution. XP workstations were set to have higher sensitivity on their heuristics scanning along with increased blocking on the host-based intrusion protection management. "If they run a little slower [because of it], that's OK," Fink says.

They also took a fresh look at security patches. Many companies, including Quintiles, usually deploy only medium and critical patches, but for the XP machines, even low-risk patches were deployed because those vulnerabilities have been around for a long time, inviting attackers to come up with new exploits against them.

Finally, they looked at vulnerability management. Using vulnerability scanners all the way down to the endpoint isn't standard practice, but Quintiles began adding the XP machines to its vulnerability-scanning program so they would know quickly if a new risk shows up. Fink refers to this as hyper-vigilant monitoring.

Eight months later, the original 600 un-remediated machines have been whittled down to 200, thanks to some virtualized applications and an update to a specific application that reduced that footprint.

The bottom line: The solution didn't require any additional spending. "We already had these technologies and tools at our fingertips," Fink says. "By just changing our paradigm, stepping up our game and treating these machines specially, we were able to dramatically decrease the risk."

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