Home > Articles > Home & Office Computing > Microsoft Windows Desktop

Understanding the Internet Information Server Situation

  • Print
  • + Share This
When Microsoft introduced its Internet Information Server as part of Windows NT 4.0 Server in 1996, it bundled that Web server with NT at no extra charge. But although the best things in life are free, it’s also true that you get what you pay for. Let author and columnist Ed Tittel explain why IIS has gotten a bad rap for its security problems and failings, explain how Microsoft is addressing this matter today, and speculate about how they’ll handle this in the future. You’ll also learn some of the particulars that make IIS cause security concerns, and how to address such matters.
Like this article? We recommend

Like this article? We recommend

You can say what you like about Microsoft's greedy, grasping, and perhaps even monopolistic ways in today's software and operating systems marketplace. But nobody can deny that Microsoft has also been a pioneer in that marketplace and has done more than simply occupy a dominant position in the software world.

For example, when Microsoft shipped Windows NT 4.0 in August 1996, it was the first major systems company to include ("bundle" if you like the marketing term) a Web server along with the core operating system it offered for sale. Prior to that time, the only options were to adopt Open Source implementations like Apache (which had already become the most popular Web server on the Internet by April 1996, and retains that coveted spot to this day) or the EMWAC (European Microsoft Windows NT Academic Center) shareware HTTP server, or to purchase commercial Web servers from companies like Frontier Technologies, O'Reilly & Associates, Questar Microsystems, or Netscape.

While it's true that IIS has had its share of problems and faults - many of them security related - it's also true that Microsoft's inclusion of IIS with Windows NT and later operating systems has helped to make the Web as ubiquitous and pervasive as it is today. Netcraft's October 2001 survey also shows that IIS usage has grown significantly since its introduction in 1996. Today, IIS is the second most popular Web server on the Internet, with a 28.99 percentage share (as compared to the leading Web server, Apache at 56.89 percent; iPlanet is next in the rankings with a miniscule 3.86 percent share).

Alas, IIS has been implicated in a rash of security-related issues over the years, and has earned a reputation as a useful but shaky Windows component. Then, in September 2001, highly regarded industry analysts and Windows watchers inside the Gartner Group recommended that organizations using IIS consider switching to less vulnerable Web servers such as those from Apache, iPlanet, and others. The upshot has been a huge debate in the industry about IIS that might be summed up in the following statements:

  • Is IIS any good at all?
  • What factors might prevent such a switch?
  • How much will switching cost?

Interestingly enough, this debate has calmed down considerably since September. Further investigation of available alternatives has shown that while IIS may be more vulnerable to security threats or compromise than other Web servers, none of them is perfect in this regard. More important, many companies and organizations who have built complex sites around IIS also rely on Microsoft tools, programming interfaces, and facilities that can't simply be picked up and moved over into some other Web server environment. In other words, those who have invested heavily in building highly interactive, powerful websites around IIS, ISAPI, ASP, and other Microsoft technologies might have to rebuild their sites from scratch were they to move to another platform.

The preceding paragraph answers the previous second and third questions directly (loss of Microsoft tools, interfaces, and related development investments is why a switch might be prevented, and in at least some case switching simply costs "too much"). Paying serious attention to maintaining the best possible security around IIS helps mitigate most exposures, and careful coding and testing practices can eliminate most obvious threats. Read on to see what IIS has brought to the Internet over the years, in addition to access to Web pages, graphics, multimedia files, services, and so forth.

A Catalog of Woes, Bad Defaults, and Vulnerabilities

Since its release in August 1996, IIS has certainly been the subject of a fair number of Microsoft and third-party security alerts. In the 38 months since the release of the first security bulletin for IIS 4.0 in June 1998, that version of ISS has been the focus of 37 security bulletins, of which at least 4 represent cumulative patch and hotfix rollups (to make it easier to "get safe" with the product in one go). In the 23 months since the release of the first security bulletin for IIS 5.0 in January 2000, that version has been the focus of 22 security bulletins, including 2 cumulative roll-ups. And although the time frame may not be long enough to make my claim statistically significant, this looks like a steady once-monthly average for security bloopers, vulnerabilities, gotchas, or other problems for either version of the product.

As somebody who routinely monitors Microsoft and third party security bulletins anyway, this one per month rate for security fixes is among the highest in the Microsoft family of systems and applications. Nevertheless, this regular pace of updates and fixes for IIS hasn't made keeping our public or private servers up with critical updates impossible, nor too terribly labor-intensive. While it's possible to make the argument that things shouldn't be this "bad," from the perspective of living with the realities it imposes - as long as you make a policy of keeping up with the news about possible exposures and apply related updates - working with IIS is not an impossible job.

That said, here's an abbreviated catalog of the kinds of problems that IIS has been prey to in both versions 4.0 and 5.0:

  • Unchecked buffer problems of various kinds, including Index Server searches, Index Server ISAPI extensions, URL formulations, and file download requests (with commands appended after legitimate filenames).

  • When ISAPI handles non-.HTR files as if they were of that type, contents can sometimes be accessed; likewise certain specialized HTTP headers can provoke display of (otherwise invisible) ISAPI source code.

  • Numerous instances of cross-site scripting (CSS) issues, where a website fails to filter script input (and can therefore be attacked with scripts from an intermediate site between the end-user and the target site).

  • Without proper controls on the default IIS anonymous user account (which takes the form IUSR_machinename), it's possible for that account to access volumes and directories outside the IIS container (because all accounts are part of the Everyone group, and because Windows gives the all-embracing Everyone group Full Control access rights over new volumes and folders by default).

Almost none of these vulnerabilities enable the kind of access necessary to establish a beachhead on a compromised machine. None of them provides a set of instant keys to administrator level access. But all of them, in the hands of a patient knowledgeable cracker, can lead to serious damage (especially from file deletion) or system compromise.

Thus, it's clear that keeping up with exploits and vulnerabilities, and applying patches and fixes as soon as they're available, has to be part and parcel of an IIS administrator's regular routine. To mitigate this situation, and improve on current conditions, Microsoft has promised to make some significant changes with the next release of IIS, version 6.0, scheduled for inclusion with Server .NET, itself scheduled for release in the June-August 2002, time frame. Read on to learn more about what Microsoft plans to do to clean up its Web server security act.

  • + Share This
  • 🔖 Save To Your Account

InformIT Promotional Mailings & Special Offers

I would like to receive exclusive offers and hear about products from InformIT and its family of brands. I can unsubscribe at any time.

Overview


Pearson Education, Inc., 221 River Street, Hoboken, New Jersey 07030, (Pearson) presents this site to provide information about products and services that can be purchased through this site.

This privacy notice provides an overview of our commitment to privacy and describes how we collect, protect, use and share personal information collected through this site. Please note that other Pearson websites and online products and services have their own separate privacy policies.

Collection and Use of Information


To conduct business and deliver products and services, Pearson collects and uses personal information in several ways in connection with this site, including:

Questions and Inquiries

For inquiries and questions, we collect the inquiry or question, together with name, contact details (email address, phone number and mailing address) and any other additional information voluntarily submitted to us through a Contact Us form or an email. We use this information to address the inquiry and respond to the question.

Online Store

For orders and purchases placed through our online store on this site, we collect order details, name, institution name and address (if applicable), email address, phone number, shipping and billing addresses, credit/debit card information, shipping options and any instructions. We use this information to complete transactions, fulfill orders, communicate with individuals placing orders or visiting the online store, and for related purposes.

Surveys

Pearson may offer opportunities to provide feedback or participate in surveys, including surveys evaluating Pearson products, services or sites. Participation is voluntary. Pearson collects information requested in the survey questions and uses the information to evaluate, support, maintain and improve products, services or sites, develop new products and services, conduct educational research and for other purposes specified in the survey.

Contests and Drawings

Occasionally, we may sponsor a contest or drawing. Participation is optional. Pearson collects name, contact information and other information specified on the entry form for the contest or drawing to conduct the contest or drawing. Pearson may collect additional personal information from the winners of a contest or drawing in order to award the prize and for tax reporting purposes, as required by law.

Newsletters

If you have elected to receive email newsletters or promotional mailings and special offers but want to unsubscribe, simply email information@informit.com.

Service Announcements

On rare occasions it is necessary to send out a strictly service related announcement. For instance, if our service is temporarily suspended for maintenance we might send users an email. Generally, users may not opt-out of these communications, though they can deactivate their account information. However, these communications are not promotional in nature.

Customer Service

We communicate with users on a regular basis to provide requested services and in regard to issues relating to their account we reply via email or phone in accordance with the users' wishes when a user submits their information through our Contact Us form.

Other Collection and Use of Information


Application and System Logs

Pearson automatically collects log data to help ensure the delivery, availability and security of this site. Log data may include technical information about how a user or visitor connected to this site, such as browser type, type of computer/device, operating system, internet service provider and IP address. We use this information for support purposes and to monitor the health of the site, identify problems, improve service, detect unauthorized access and fraudulent activity, prevent and respond to security incidents and appropriately scale computing resources.

Web Analytics

Pearson may use third party web trend analytical services, including Google Analytics, to collect visitor information, such as IP addresses, browser types, referring pages, pages visited and time spent on a particular site. While these analytical services collect and report information on an anonymous basis, they may use cookies to gather web trend information. The information gathered may enable Pearson (but not the third party web trend services) to link information with application and system log data. Pearson uses this information for system administration and to identify problems, improve service, detect unauthorized access and fraudulent activity, prevent and respond to security incidents, appropriately scale computing resources and otherwise support and deliver this site and its services.

Cookies and Related Technologies

This site uses cookies and similar technologies to personalize content, measure traffic patterns, control security, track use and access of information on this site, and provide interest-based messages and advertising. Users can manage and block the use of cookies through their browser. Disabling or blocking certain cookies may limit the functionality of this site.

Do Not Track

This site currently does not respond to Do Not Track signals.

Security


Pearson uses appropriate physical, administrative and technical security measures to protect personal information from unauthorized access, use and disclosure.

Children


This site is not directed to children under the age of 13.

Marketing


Pearson may send or direct marketing communications to users, provided that

  • Pearson will not use personal information collected or processed as a K-12 school service provider for the purpose of directed or targeted advertising.
  • Such marketing is consistent with applicable law and Pearson's legal obligations.
  • Pearson will not knowingly direct or send marketing communications to an individual who has expressed a preference not to receive marketing.
  • Where required by applicable law, express or implied consent to marketing exists and has not been withdrawn.

Pearson may provide personal information to a third party service provider on a restricted basis to provide marketing solely on behalf of Pearson or an affiliate or customer for whom Pearson is a service provider. Marketing preferences may be changed at any time.

Correcting/Updating Personal Information


If a user's personally identifiable information changes (such as your postal address or email address), we provide a way to correct or update that user's personal data provided to us. This can be done on the Account page. If a user no longer desires our service and desires to delete his or her account, please contact us at customer-service@informit.com and we will process the deletion of a user's account.

Choice/Opt-out


Users can always make an informed choice as to whether they should proceed with certain services offered by InformIT. If you choose to remove yourself from our mailing list(s) simply visit the following page and uncheck any communication you no longer want to receive: www.informit.com/u.aspx.

Sale of Personal Information


Pearson does not rent or sell personal information in exchange for any payment of money.

While Pearson does not sell personal information, as defined in Nevada law, Nevada residents may email a request for no sale of their personal information to NevadaDesignatedRequest@pearson.com.

Supplemental Privacy Statement for California Residents


California residents should read our Supplemental privacy statement for California residents in conjunction with this Privacy Notice. The Supplemental privacy statement for California residents explains Pearson's commitment to comply with California law and applies to personal information of California residents collected in connection with this site and the Services.

Sharing and Disclosure


Pearson may disclose personal information, as follows:

  • As required by law.
  • With the consent of the individual (or their parent, if the individual is a minor)
  • In response to a subpoena, court order or legal process, to the extent permitted or required by law
  • To protect the security and safety of individuals, data, assets and systems, consistent with applicable law
  • In connection the sale, joint venture or other transfer of some or all of its company or assets, subject to the provisions of this Privacy Notice
  • To investigate or address actual or suspected fraud or other illegal activities
  • To exercise its legal rights, including enforcement of the Terms of Use for this site or another contract
  • To affiliated Pearson companies and other companies and organizations who perform work for Pearson and are obligated to protect the privacy of personal information consistent with this Privacy Notice
  • To a school, organization, company or government agency, where Pearson collects or processes the personal information in a school setting or on behalf of such organization, company or government agency.

Links


This web site contains links to other sites. Please be aware that we are not responsible for the privacy practices of such other sites. We encourage our users to be aware when they leave our site and to read the privacy statements of each and every web site that collects Personal Information. This privacy statement applies solely to information collected by this web site.

Requests and Contact


Please contact us about this Privacy Notice or if you have any requests or questions relating to the privacy of your personal information.

Changes to this Privacy Notice


We may revise this Privacy Notice through an updated posting. We will identify the effective date of the revision in the posting. Often, updates are made to provide greater clarity or to comply with changes in regulatory requirements. If the updates involve material changes to the collection, protection, use or disclosure of Personal Information, Pearson will provide notice of the change through a conspicuous notice on this site or other appropriate way. Continued use of the site after the effective date of a posted revision evidences acceptance. Please contact us if you have questions or concerns about the Privacy Notice or any objection to any revisions.

Last Update: November 17, 2020