Mountain Dew Code Red – it's fitting that the same drink Jesse Eisenberg's character in the horror-comedy Zombieland was drinking when he was first exposed to the zombie apocalypse was also used to name the piece of malicious software that caused Microsoft's then CEO Bill Gates to completely refocus his business, forcing it to embrace security as a central pillar.
Microsoft’s then head of security response, Steve Lipner, was woken up 2:00am on Saturday, July 13, 2001, by a call from cybersecurity specialist Russ Cooper. Lipner was told a nasty piece of malware called “Code Red" – a malicious computer program that spreads quickly by copying itself to other computers across the Internet.
Within two weeks more than 300,000 computers around the world were infected with Code Red including some at the U.S. Department of Defense and Department of Justice.
Although Code Red was extremely virulent, it wasn't all that damaging. But that changed over the coming years as Blaster worm came shortly after that, followed SQL Slammer, Nimda. Code Red II, MyDoom, Sasser and others. Some were able to seriously affect important systems such as ATMs.
And all through this, Microsoft was caught in a reactive mode, trying to close down holes and flaws as they were identified and exploited.
There was also a sense of frustration. In 2003, the SQL Slammer worm launched, infecting tens of thousands of machines around the world within minutes. Incredibly, there was already a software patch that could prevent the infection and it had been available for months.
So, while there was a lot to do in fixing the software and making it more secure, Microsoft knew that its efforts needed to also include developers, administrators and users.
Microsoft's support call centres were under enormous pressure. Understaffed to deal with the torrent of infections and incidents, they had to bus engineers to the customer support call centre to keep up with high call volumes.
By February 2002, Microsoft knew something had to change. So, they shut down development on their flagship cash cow, Windows, and redirected their efforts towards security. What started as a one-month program turned into two months with over 9000 developers dedicated to making the Windows codebase more secure.
Far from being a one-off project, this new focus on security, characterised by Gates' famous "Trustworthy Computing" email, became embedded in Microsoft Security Development Lifecycle (SDL).
By late 2003, early versions of the SDL began to take shape. New tools and processes were developed. And Microsoft had a new understanding of the security landscape. They were now integrating security into product development as a primary focus.
In 2004 the security team took the official proposal for the SDL to senior leadership, and got approval to integrate the approach. It was to be mandatory, embedded into the development cycle, updated periodically, and applied to all products and online services that faced meaningful risk.
The SDL was publicly released and has been downloaded over a million times by developers large and small from all over the world.
The full story including videos from many of the central players in the development of Trustworthy Computing, the Windows development shutdown and the ongoing focus on security at Microsoft can be found at www.SDLstory.com.