27 December, 2006

Musings about Vista

With all the fanfare of the coming release of Vista, there has been a fair amount of speculation and chatter this month on the SCADA Gospel list about its potential in SCADA and DCS systems. And of course, I would be remiss if I didn't mention Peter Gutman's paper about what Vista security may mean for device driver performance.

Taken together, I think Vista may have the ability to finally put a nail in many of the security problems that have been dogging Microsoft's reputation for almost as long as they've been writing operating systems. However, such power in the hands of the greedy may also prove their undoing. The use of Vista's security features to limit the use and re-use of content seems ominous to me. It also seems a bit scary that Vista demands signed drivers; and that Microsoft and Microsoft alone are the only ones who can hand out keys for such drivers. There won't be any open source drivers. Where does this leave small time Industrial Control Systems Integrators? I wonder if this is Microsoft's answer to Open Source Software --if it ain't signed by them, it won't run.

Going further, Vista seems focused in directions which may not be in line with current design policies of many control systems. According to Gutman, the security features it uses demand that video drivers be scanned every 30 milliseconds for certain "tilt bits" to verify that no "premium content" is being ripped. What does that do to control system performance? Does that reduce your Pentium Chip to something that runs at half the speed it had in previous OSs? Even if it doesn't, what happens if the the OS doesn't like your driver's behavior? It revokes the signature!

Remember all that stuff about embedded logic bombs? What if something a SCADA or DCS system does trips this? Do you trust the folks who write drivers to avoid all such problems? I don't. Are you ready to debug device driver minutia? I'm not. Somehow, given this permanent alternative, I'm starting to think that perhaps the Blue Screen of Death was not such a bad thing after all.

My verdict: Vista has some ugly features which will get in the way of any DCS or SCADA deployment. Not just now, but perhaps for many Service Packs to come (If Microsoft stays in business for that long). Microsoft would do well to heed the advice of Gutman and many others to temper their efforts at "managing content." I can smell what's coming next. Microsoft would probably like to deny their OS to most Open Source Software.

If they actually manage to do this, I tend to agree with Gutman: Microsoft will end up committing suicide. We'll see this once great firm shrivel up in to a shadow of it's former self. Those of us who depend on it in our Industrial Control Systems will be left with a bag of parts. Is this really where you wanted to go?

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