Corporate Security Blog

Oracle's Security Fixing Practices

Eric Maurice
Director of Security Assurance

In a previous blog entry, we discussed how Oracle customers should take advantage of Oracle's ongoing security assurance effort in order to help preserve their security posture over time. In today's blog entry, we're going to discuss the highlights of Oracle's security fixing practices and their implications for Oracle customers.

As stated in the previous blog entry, the Critical Patch Update program is Oracle's primary mechanism for the delivery of security fixes in all supported Oracle product releases and the Security Alert program provides for the release of fixes for severe vulnerabilities outside of the normal Critical Patch Update schedule. Oracle always recommends that customers remain on actively-supported versions and apply the security fixes provided by Critical Patch Updates and Security Alerts as soon as possible.

So, how does Oracle decide to provide security fixes? Where does the company start (i.e., for what product versions do security fixes get first generated)? What goes into security releases? What are Oracle's objectives?

The primary objective of Oracle's security fixing policies is to help preserve the security posture of ALL Oracle customers. This means that Oracle tries to fix vulnerabilities in severity order for each Oracle product family. In certain instances, security fixes cannot be backported; in other instances, lower severity fixes are required because of dependencies among security fixes. Additionally, Oracle treats customers equally by providing customers with the same vulnerability information and access to fixes across actively-used platform and version combinations at the same time. Oracle does not provide additional information about the specifics of vulnerabilities beyond what is provided in the Critical Patch Update (or Security Alert) advisory and pre-release note, the pre-installation notes, the readme files, and FAQs. The only and narrow exception to this practice is for the customers who report a security vulnerability. When a customer is reporting a security vulnerability, Oracle will treat the customer in much the same way the company treats security researchers: the customer gets detailed information about the vulnerability as well as information about expected fixing date, and in some instances access to a temporary patch to test the effectiveness of a given fix. However, the scope of the information shared between Oracle and the customer is limited to the original vulnerability being reported by the customer.

Another objective for Oracle's security fixing policies is not so much about producing fixes as quickly as possible, as it is to making sure that these fixes get applied by customers as quickly as possible. Prior to 2005 and the introduction of the Critical Patch Update program, security fixes were published by Oracle as they become produced by development without any fixed schedule (as Oracle would today release a Security Alert). Feedback we received was that this lack of predictability was challenging for customers, and as a result, many customers reported that they no longer applied fixes. Customers said that a predictable schedule would help them ensure that security fixes were picked up more quickly and consistently. As a result, Oracle created the Critical Patch Update program to bring predictability to Oracle customers. Since 2005, and in spite of a growing number of product families, Oracle has never missed a Critical Patch Update release.

It is also worth noting that Critical Patch Update releases for most Oracle products are cumulative. This means that by applying a Critical Patch Update, a customer gets all the security fixes included in a specific Critical Patch Update release as well as all the previously-released fixes for a given product-version combination. This allows customers who may have missed Critical Patch Update releases to quickly "catch up" to current security releases.

Let's now have a look at the order with which Oracle produces fixes for security vulnerabilities. Security fixes are produced by Oracle in the following order:

  • Main code line. The main code line is the code line for the next major release version of the product.
  • Patch set for non-terminal release version. Patch sets are rollup patches for major release versions. A Terminal release version is a version where no additional patch sets are planned.
  • Critical Patch Update. These are fixes against initial release versions or their subsequent patch sets

This means that, in certain instances, security fixes can be backported for inclusion in future patch sets or products that are released before their actual inclusion in a future Critical Patch Update release. This also mean that systems updated with patch sets or upgraded with a new product release will receive the security fixes previously included in the patch set or release.

One consequence of Oracle's practices is that newer Oracle product versions tend to provide an improved security posture over previous versions, because they benefit from the inclusion of security fixes that have not been or cannot be backported by Oracle.

In conclusion, the best way for Oracle customers to fully leverage Oracle's ongoing security assurance effort is to:

  1. Remain on actively supported release versions and their most recent patch set—so that they can have continued access to security fixes;
  2. Move to the most recent release version of a product—so that they benefit from fixes that cannot be backported and other security enhancements introduced in the code line over time;
  3. Promptly apply Critical Patch Updates and Security Alert fixes—so that they prevent the exploitation of vulnerabilities patched by Oracle, which are known by malicious attackers and can be quickly weaponized after the release of Oracle fixes.

For more information:
- Oracle Software Security Assurance website
- Security Alerts and Critical Patch Updates

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