by Rob Enderle

Pull the Plug on Java Before It’s Too Late

Jan 18, 20135 mins
BrowsersConsumer ElectronicsCybercrime

This week's zero-day exploit is the latest evidence suggesting that client-side Java is past its prime, not to mention dangerously insecure. It's time for consumers and enterprises to pull the plug on Java before Oracle sells it off and leaves it for the vultures of cyberspace.

Client-side Java really never did make sense—not that it wasn’t a good idea, more that it didn’t make sense for a company such as Sun Microsystems, which largely made money selling expensive servers and workstations, to create it.

Sun had no real business inventing and then owning a largely free client-based platform that mostly ran in browser plug-ins. Java was created to hurt Microsoft under an incredibly foolish strategy to accelerate the commoditization of hardware and software. Since hardware commoditized first, Sun went to that great corporate graveyard in the sky, and Oracle took over.

Oracle is now an enterprise-class, revenue- and profit-focused, back-office vendor and Java is still largely an in-browser, free, client platform. It appears the only reason Oracle is keeping it is in the eventual hope it can get a ton of money out of Google for breaching its license—an effort that seems to have become a money hole rather than a money source.

Write Once, Read Everywhere a 9/11 Cyber Attacker’s Dream

One of the best protections against an international catastrophic security breach or systems crash along the lines of the digital 9/11 the Department of Defense has been warning against is that most critical systems don’t talk to each other and the related application platforms are very different.

Analysis: Does a Cyber-9/11 Loom?

Commentary: The Government’s Cybersecurity Plan Will End in Catastrophe

Java falls short of its write-once, run-anywhere goal, but it came darn close to it. That provides a common platform that a hostile entity can use to gain access to client systems such as cellphones to PCs. Java can also be running on the systems used as administrative consoles, suggesting it would be an ideal first target if a hostile entity wanted to do massive damage to a company—or country.

Were Java to stick around, a massive security effort would be needed to assure that such an attack was identified quickly and mitigated near instantly once discovered. The chance for an exploit to move to a global scale is simply too great.

The Java Security Danger Is Real

The security exposure is not only real, it is known to attackers. We realized this last week when the second zero-day Java exploit in less than a year emerged. A security warning hit the TV networks, and even the Department Homeland Security issued a warning to immediately disable the code on its systems to avoid losing confidential data.

Oracle appeared to act quickly, but advice emerging suggests that Java is too unsafe to continue to use, partly because Oracle’s patch appears to be inadequate.

However, Java is so entrenched that removing it, or even disabling it, is problematic. It is deeply embedded in browsers and plug-ins, and it’s used widely by legacy applications that have a legitimate business purpose. It exists in everything from point-of-purchase terminals to administration consoles. Without Java, many businesses simply can’t function.

Oracle Will Likely Abandon Java in Face of Mount Threats

While the benefit of getting money out of Google lawsuit appears to be evaporating, the potential liability and brand damage that Oracle could suffer should a major breach be tied to an inadequately patched Java continues to escalate. If this were a strategic product, Oracle would bite the bullet and assign the required resources to it.

However, Java isn’t strategic to Oracle, and you could say the firm operates as a funding source for Larry Ellison’s yacht, private island and other hobbies. At the international scale that a Java catastrophe could generate, there is now an increasing and likely chance that Oracle could collapse under a mountain of litigation.

Even if Oracle dodged that bullet, the brand damage to any company tied to an exploit of this magnitude would likely do collateral damage to the firm’s sales prospects. That is something neither Oracle’s sales team nor Ellison are likely to ignore. I would imagine, in fact, that Oracle’s leaders are gaming how to elegantly pull the plug on client-side Java this month. They aren’t stupid people.

Blog: It’s Time to Banish Java from Your Computer

This suggests an aggressive strategy to remove Java plug-in dependence should be on the short list of things to do this year, if not this quarter. Once Oracle spins out the product, likely to a poorly funded open source organization, Oracle’s need to keep it patched and secure will evaporate—and the likelihood of the product becoming a door into your shop will increase exponentially. Anyone still hooked to Java at that time will be in immediate crisis. Those who have already distanced themselves from the offering will be in far better shape.

However painful it is, and it will be painful to many of you, not acting in a timely manner will prove to be insignificant if your inaction leads to a massive corporate breach or catastrophic failure. It is past the time to say goodbye to Java.

Rob Enderle is president and principal analyst of the Enderle Group. Previously, he was the Senior Research Fellow for Forrester Research and the Giga Information Group. Prior to that he worked for IBM and held positions in Internal Audit, Competitive Analysis, Marketing, Finance and Security. Currently, Enderle writes on emerging technology, security and Linux for a variety of publications and appears on national news TV shows that include CNBC, FOX, Bloomberg and NPR.

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