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Looking to improve—and possibly speed up—the creation and release of software security patches, Microsoft Corp. is implementing a closed beta program for external testing teams.

The formalization of Redmond’s new Security Update Validation Program clears the way for external patch testers to get “limited and controlled access” to security updates ahead of public release.

The goal, according to company officials, is to provide a small number of dedicated external evaluation teams with access to the patches to test for application compatibility, stability and reliability in simulated production environments.

Stephen Toulouse, program manager at the Microsoft Security Response Center, told that the external evaluation program was implemented to add a new level of quality control to the engineering process.

“We’ve always maintained that the most important thing is to make sure the patches are of a high quality. A faulty patch is worse than no patch at all. This program speaks to that commitment,” Toulouse said.

He made it clear that the outside testers had no access to information on the vulnerability addressed by the patch.

“They’re evaluating the updates in a private, closed-lab environment. They are required to sign an NDA [nondisclosure agreement] and they don’t ever know what the patch is correcting. They’re simply simulating a real-world deployment in a lab environment and looking for potential problems,” Toulouse said.

“The end result of this program is higher quality updates for customers to help ensure timely and effective deployment of patches.”

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According to Debby Fry Wilson, a director in the security research center, the external testing teams were selected from trusted MVPs (Most Valuable Players), ISVs and managed customers who were capable of mimicking patch deployments in a lab environment.

“They had to make a heavy commitment to provide a dedicated evaluation team and to restrict the use of the update to the test environment,” Wilson said.

“Based on customer feedback, one of the complaints we’ve dealt with was that security updates had problems with application compatibility, reliability and stability. We’ve done better in the last year, but we can always improve the engineering process,” she said.

It’s a Catch-22 situation for the software giant as it struggles to balance the need for glitch-free updates rolled out in a timely manner.

Security experts have long criticized the company for being slow to address critical software flaws. eEye Digital, a security research outfit, maintains a section on its Web page that features Microsoft patches that are long overdue.

On the other hand, Microsoft has also had to cope with the embarrassment of having to recall faulty patches.

In 2003, a buggy patch from Microsoft even opened the door to the widespread exploitation of a vulnerability in the Internet Explorer browser.

“We’re always looking at ways to create updates and get them rolled out to customers quickly. But, the testing is an important part of that process. With this program, the external evaluation teams aren’t looking to make sure the vulnerability is fixed. They’re testing to make sure that when the update is deployed across a network, it does not break existing applications,” Toulouse said.

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