My name is Dave, and I’m a Microsoft junkie. So are the people I hang out with every day at work. We’re all junkies. We’re addicted to the glamor drug of Microsoft SQL Server 7.
I’m still trying to recover from the nightmare that is Microsoft SQL Server.

You see, I have a problem. My employer and most of its clients rely heavily on SQL Server. SQL Server is a touchy beast. We have some servers running completely unpatched SQL Server 7, for fear of breaking a client’s application. No, I absolutely will not tell you who my employer is or who those clients are.

That makes us, in Microsoft’s eyes, socialism-loving pinko Commies, since we won’t migrate to SQL 2000. Unfortunately, SQL 2000 isn’t completely compatible with SQL 7. So we’re forced into being pinko Commies.

Part of the reason SQL Slammer hit was because of the touchiness of the service packs and hotfixes, and part of it was the difficulty in installing them. The hotfix that would prevent SQL Slammer requires you to manually copy over 20 files, mercifully spread out over only two directories. But it takes time and it’s easy to make a mistake. So Microsoft released a SQL 2000 patch with a nice, graphical installer. But the pinko Commies like me who still use SQL 7 have to manually copy files.

Now, SQL 7 isn’t vulnerable to SQL Slammer, but it has plenty of security flaws of its own. And there’s one thing that history has taught us about viruses. Every time a new virus hits, a game of one-upmanship ensues. Similar viruses incorporating new twists appear quickly. And eventually a virus combining a multitude of techniques using known exploits appears. A SQL Slammer derivative that hits SQL 7 in one way or another is only a question of time.

Someone asked me why we can’t just leave everything unpatched and beef up security. The problem is that while our firewall is fine and it protects us from the outside, it doesn’t do anything for us on the inside. So the instant some vendor or contractor comes in and plugs an infected laptop into our network–and it’s a question of when, not if–we’re sunk. Can we take measures to keep anyone from plugging outside machines into our network? Yes. We can maintain a list of MAC addresses for inside equipment and configure our servers not to give IP addresses to anything else. But that’s obstructive. The accounting department is already supremely annoyed with us because we have a firewall at all. Getting more oppressive when there’s even just one other option isn’t a good move. People in the United States love freedom and they get annoyed when it’s taken away, even in cases that are completely justifiable like an employer blocking access to porn sites. But in a society where sysadmins have to explain that an employer’s property rights trump any given individual’s right to use work equipment for the purpose of seeing Pamela Anderson naked, one must be picky about what battles one chooses to fight.

In a moment of frustration, after unsuccessfully patching one server and breaking it to the point where SQL wouldn’t run at all anymore, I pointed out how one can apply any and every security patch available for Debian Linux at any instant it comes out with two commands and the total downtime could be measured in seconds, if not fractions of a second. And the likelihood of breaking something is very slight because the Debian security people are anal-retentive about backward compatibility. The person listening didn’t like that statement. There’s a lot more software available for Windows, he said. I wondered aloud, later, what the benefit of building an enterprise on something so fragile would be. Jesus’ parable of building a house on rock rather than on sand came to mind. I didn’t bring it up. I wasn’t sure it would be welcome.

But I think I’ll keep on fighting that battle. Keeping up on Microsoft security patches is becoming a full-time job. I don’t know if we can afford a full-time employee who does nothing but read Microsoft security bulletins and regression-test patches to make sure they can be safely deployed. I also don’t know who would want that job. But we are quickly reaching the point where we are powerless and our lives are becoming unmanageable.

Such is the life of the sysadmin. It’s a little bit of a rush to come into crisis situations, and a lot of my clients know that when they see me, there’s something major going on because they only see me a couple of times a year. In the relatively glamor-less life of a sysadmin, those times are about as glamorous as it gets. And for a time, it can be fun. But when the hours get long and not everyone’s eager to cooperate, it gets pretty draining.