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Are You Forgetting Something?

Bret Fitzgerald

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January 15, 2014 11:45 am

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Windows XP’s end of life is coming. No news there: You already know you need to migrate your workforce desktops and laptops. But are you forgetting something?

The Rise of Userless Computers

Usually a user “owns” a device—it’s the user’s gateway to information, communication and productivity. But what about those devices that aren’t “owned” by a user? Sure, most IT shops can track and inventory these devices like any other within their fleet. But without an owner, who is advocating for those userless devices?

We’re talking about everything from an ATM to an interactive sales kiosk, a ticket kiosk at the movie theater, a point-of-sale touchscreen, the video vending machine and the old desktop your doctor is now using as a sign-in station at the office. Many of these devices feature a desktop operating system (OS) like XP, while others run on lower-level, embedded or real-time OSs, like embedded Linux. Increasingly, machines that would have once been on an embedded OS are run on consumer-focused operating systems like XP. Many organizations can’t afford to develop specialized software, so while Windows may not be optimized for a particular peripheral, it’s far easier to use for specialized tasks.

Userless computers usually fall into one of three categories: the ones that, though userless, are well managed. An example might be an assembly plant that has shared terminals—no user “owns” these devices, but IT manages them anyway due to high use. The second category is those devices that are definitely not running a desktop OS like XP. Chances are your car’s central computer is probably on a specialized embedded Linux operating system.

But that still leaves many, many thousands of userless computers with a large percentage running XP. Examples are all around you:

From Point of Sale computers...

From Point of Sale computers…

To Wells Fargo ATM's.

To Wells Fargo ATM’s.

The ATM issue has been covered elsewhere, but the problem goes far beyond that. These kinds of machines are everywhere. Recently a friend went to give blood and logged in on a laptop near the door to the clinic—who’s managing that device? There are computers in common rooms in schools. Every mall is full of kiosks using cash-register computers and video displays. A lot of computers are connected to or running peripherals: traffic light cameras and security cameras, parking lot terminals, medical devices, sound systems and motion sensors. This interconnected world—the precursor to the internet of things—can be a dangerous place when it’s built on an unsupported operating system that’s vulnerable to exploits or simple compatibility limitations.

Windows and Doors

Though it’s hard to imagine a network compromised through a digital sign at a mall, it’s not impossible. Every internet-enabled computer is a window or door into a network. There are other reasons to be concerned too: these peripheral and userless computers have purposes that businesses can’t afford to have interrupted. A threat may never get further than your computerized cash register, but that’s all it takes to eliminate your ability to make the next sale.

Time to Refresh Your Memory

Many organizations probably haven’t gotten to these peripherals and userless computers because they have neither the budget nor the time. Still, other IT departments have likely forgotten about some or even all of these devices. Resource constraints often force IT departments to focus on their desktops and central IT operations. The IT departments are relieved if they’ve simply migrated their workforce off XP. They might think they’re safe. But malware is not a respecter of IT budget constraints (on the contrary); it can and will sneak in anywhere. And hackers often look for these kinds of chinks in IT armor.

Conclusion

As computing devices proliferate, organizations will have to constantly remember to care for all of their devices—especially as the world of traditionally highly-embedded devices and full-feature desktop and tablet operating systems collide. The XP end-of-life is a good reminder that you can’t forget about a working peripheral. You need to protect and update it just like the rest of your IT infrastructure. The first step is to perform careful hardware and software inventories. The next is to find the time and funds to update (or decommission) the old or nearly-forgotten computers in your environment. Remember, no window or door, no matter how old, should be left unlocked.

By Justin Strong, Sr. Product Marketing Manger, Endpoint Portfolio

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