Big Tin

Big tin: IT infrastructure used by organisations to run their businesses. And other stuff too when I feel like it…

Whom do you trust?

Keeping your data secure is something you need to be constantly aware of. Apart from the army of people out there who actively seek your credit card and other financial and personal details, not to mention the breadcrumbs that accumulate to a substantial loaf of data on social media, it’s too easy to give the stuff away on your own.

It’s really all about trust. We’re not very good at choosing whom we trust, as we tend to trust people we know – or even people we have around us sometimes. As an example, I present a little scenario I encountered yesterday on a train.

The train divides en route, so to get to your destination, you need to be in the right portion of the train. An individual opposite me sat for 45 minutes through seemingly endless announcements – from the guard, the scrolling dot matrix screens, and the irritatingly frequent, automated announcements – all conveying the same information both before, during and after the three or four stops before we arrived at the decision point about which bit of the train to be in.

At the station where a decision had to be made, she leaned across and asked if she was in the right portion of the train for her destination.

Why? She would rather trust other passengers than the umpteen announcements. She’s not alone, as I’ve seen this happen countless times.

So it’s all about whom you trust. As passengers, we were trustworthy.

So presumably were the security researchers with clipboards standing at railway stations asking passengers for their company PC’s password in exchange for a cheap biro. They gathered plenty of passwords.

I recently left a USB phone charger in a hotel belonging to a major international chain. They said they would post it back if I sent them a scanned copy of my credit card to cover the postage. That they offered suggests there must be plenty of people willing to take the gamble that their email won’t be read by someone who shouldn’t. Not to mention what happens after the hotel has finished with the data. Can they be sure the email would be securely deleted?

I declined the offer and suggested that this major chain could afford the £7 it would cost to pop it in the post. Still waiting, but not with bated breath. I don’t trust them.

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Filed under: data protection, Security, Technology

Solving the ‘too many passwords’ problem

Recent events at Evernote, which was hacked and whose file containing users’ passwords could have been stolen, reminds us that, despite the insistence of the IT security industry that passwords offer poor security, that’s what we all continue to use. But there is a way to make remembering passwords easier.

As ever, there’s a trade-off between convenience and security and, it would appear that most of us, especially at the small business and consumer level, don’t want the hassle that stronger security involves. Usually, it involves some form of two-part authentication – something know and something you have – and the banks have gone furthest in implementing this. You know the drill: give us a number and then tell us something else you know.

I reckon most people can cope with this – even I, with my appalling memory, can handle it.

And then there are the burgeoning numbers of passwords we need to remember for the rest of our lives which, whether we like it or not, we are increasingly being forced to conduct online. And this is my point.

I’ve been accessing online services since 1992, so I’ve used a lot of passwords. To start with, there weren’t that many, and it was easy to remember them. The numbers of services grew and I started using the same or similar passwords for services that fell into the same category.

That’s not great security – so after hunting for a solution, I discovered a free, lightweight password generator which I used for over 10 years – until about three years ago.

What happened? The generator worked fine and produced unique passwords tied to the name of the service, but it had a number of limitations.

First of these was its inability to tune passwords to the requirements of some sites – the ones that demand a specific password length and/or format – so many digits and capitals, and no repetitions, for example.

The second was more serious: it was Windows-only. That was fine at first as I still run mainly Windows, but as mobile devices have become more capable, I now access multiple services on tablets and smartphones too – they don’t run Windows.

At that point, the answer was clearly a password safe. After some research I lit on KeePass. As the product’s website says: “KeePass is a free open source password manager, which helps you to manage your passwords in a secure way. You can put all your passwords in one database, which is locked with one master key or a key file. So you only have to remember one single master password or select the key file to unlock the whole database. The databases are encrypted using the best and most secure encryption algorithms currently known (AES and Twofish).”

Even better, it’s cross-platform – as well as Windows, there are versions for iOS, Android, MacOS, J2ME, BlackBerry and Windows Phone 7 – and it works. You can drive it using hotkeys so, for example, Ctrl-Alt-K brings up the database containing your passwords, which you can import from pretty much any file format you like. Other hotkeys will auto-type passwords and/or usernames into your web browser, or you can cut and paste them, in which case the software removes them from memory after a short while to enhance security.

There’s a host of other features but it’s a very easy application to set up and to use – you can get into the more advanced stuff when you’re good and ready. For example, Evernote asked all users to reset their passwords as a following the hack. KeePass generated a new password for Evernote to a security standard I’m happy with, and that was it – no dramas.

So if you ever find that you have too many passwords to remember, take a look at KeePass: free, easy to use, and does the job superbly, in my view.

UPDATE 7 June 2017
Since writing this blog post, I’ve continued to use KeePass and have not changed by positive opinion of it. I’d say though that it remains head and shoulders above an oft-touted alternative, LastPass, which is cloud-based. This means that your password and other data are not always under your personal control – and that if the company is hacked, (as almost all large targets at some point are more likely to be), then your database could be vulnerable.

Far better to stay in full control, using your own resources and two-factor authentication (2FA) to sync the password database: the combination of 2FA and encryption is mighty tough (you can never say impossible but it’s as good as in practical terms) to break.

On the other hand, I’ve stopped using Evernote, having found that Microsoft’s OneNote does it better – and remains free to use.

Filed under: Security, ,

Technology highlights 2013

I’ve been shamefully neglecting this blog recently, yet a lot of interesting new technologies and ideas have come my way. So by way of making amends, here’s quick round-up of the highlights.

Nivio
This is a company that delivers a virtual desktop service with a difference. Virtual desktops have been a persistent topic of conversation among IT managers for years, yet delivery has always been some way off. Bit like fusion energy only not as explosive.

The problem is that, unless you’re serving desktops to people who do a single task all day, which describes call centre workers but not most people, people expect a certain level of performance and customisation from their desktops. If you’re going to take a desktop computer away from someone who uses it intensively as a tool, you’d better make sure that the replacement technology is just as interactive.

Desktops provided by terminal services have tended to be slow and a bit clunky – and there’s no denying that Nivio’s virtual desktop service, which I’ve tried, isn’t quite as snappy as having 3.4GHz of raw compute power under your fingertips.

On the other hand, there’s a load of upsides. From an IT perspective, you don’t need to provide the frankly huge amounts of bandwidth needed to service multiple desktops. You don’t care what the end user wants to access the service with – so if you’re allowing people to bring and use their own devices into work, this will work with anything, needing only a browser to work. I’ve seen a Windows desktop running on an iPhone – scary…

And you don’t need to buy applications. The service provides them all for you from its standard set of over 40 applications – and if you need one the company doesn’t currently offer, they’ll supply it. Nivio also handles data migration, patching, and the back-end hardware.

All you need to do is hand over $35 per month per user.

Quantum
The company best known for its tape backup products launched a new range of tape libraries.

The DXi6800 is, says Quantum’s Stéphane Estevez, three times more scalable than any other such device, allowing you to scale from 13TB to 156TB. Aimed at mid-sized as well as large enterprises, it includes an array of disks that you effectively switch on with the purchase of a new licence. Until then, they’re dormant, not spinning. “We are taking a risk of shipping more disks than the customer is paying for – but we know customer storage is always growing. You unlock the extra storage when you need it,” said Estevez.

It can handle up to 16TB/hour which, is, reckons the company, four times faster than EMC’s DD670 – its main competitor – and all data is encrypted and protected by an electronic certificate so you can’t simply swap it into another Quantum library. And the management tools mean that you can manage multiple devices across datacentres.

Storage Fusion
If ever you wanted to know at a deep level how efficient your storage systems are, especially when it comes to virtual machine management, then Storage Fusion reckons it has the answers in the form of its storage analysis software, Storage Fusion Analyze.

I spoke to Peter White, Storage Fusion’s operations director, who reckoned that companies are wasting storage capacity by not over-provisioning enough, and by leaving old snapshots and storage allocated to servers that no longer exist.

“Larger enterprise environments have the most reclaimable storage because they’re uncontrolled,” White said, “while smaller systems are better controlled.”

Because the company’s software has analysed large volumes of storage, White was in a position to talk about trends in storage usage.

For example, most companies have 25% capacity headroom, he said. “Customers need that level of comfort zone. Partners and end users say that the reason is because the purchasing process to get disk from purchase order to installation can take weeks or even months, so there’s a buffer built in. Best practice is around that level but you could go higher.”

You also get what White called system losses, due to formatting inefficiencies and OS storage. “And generally processes are often broken when it comes to decommissioning – without processes, there’s an assumption of infinite supply which leads to infinite demand and a lot of wastage.”

The sister product, Storage Fusion Virtualize “allows us to shine a torch into VMware environments,” White said. “It can see how VM storage is being used and consumed. It offers the same fast analysis, with no agents needed.”

Typical customers include not so much enterprises as systems integrators, service providers and consultants.

“We are complementary to main storage management tools such as those from NetApp and EMC,” White said. “Vendors take a global licence, and end users can buy via our partners – they can buy report packs to run it monthly or quarterly, for example.”

Solidfire
Another product aimed at service providers, SolidFire steps aside from the usual pitch for all solid-state disks (SSD). Yes solid-state is very fast when compared to spinning media but the company claims to be offering the ability to deliver a guarantee not just of uptime but of performance.

If you’re a provider of storage services in the cloud, one of your main problems, said the company’s Jay Prassl, is the noisy neighbour, the one tenant in a multi-tenant environment who sucks up all the storage performance with a single database call. This leaves the rest of the provider’s customers suffering from a poor response, leading to trouble tickets and support calls, so adding to the provider’s costs.

The aim, said Prassl, is to help service providers offer guarantees to enterprises they currently cannot offer because the technology hasn’t – until now – allowed it. “The cloud provider’s goal is to compute all the customer’s workload but high-performance loads can’t be deployed in the cloud right now,” he said.

So the company has built SSD technology that, because of the way that data is distributed across multiple solid-state devices – I hesitate to call them disks because they’re not – offers predictable latency.

“Some companies manage this by keeping few people on a single box but it’s a huge problem when you have hundreds or thousands of tenants,” Prassl said. “So service providers can now write a service level agreement (SLA) around performance, and they couldn’t do that before.”

Key to this is the automated way that the system distributes the data around the company’s eponymous storage systems, according to Prassl. It then sets a level of IOPS that a particular volume can achieve, and the service provider can then offer a performance SLA around it. “What we do for every volume is dictate a minimum, maximum and a burst level of performance,” he said. “It’s not a bolt-on but an architecture at the core of our work.”

Filed under: Business, Cloud computing, Data centre, desktops, Enterprise, Product, Product launch, Servers, Storage, Systems management, , , ,

2012: the tech year in view (part 2)

Here’s part 2 of my round-up of some of the more interesting news stories that came my way in 2012. Part 1 was published on 28 December 2012.

Datacentre infrastructure
NextIO impressed with its network consolidation product, vNet. This device virtualises the I/O of all the data to and from servers in a rack, so that they can share the bandwidth resource which is allocated according to need. It means that one adapter can look like multiple virtual adapters for sharing between both physical and virtual servers, with each virtual adapter looking like a physical adapter to each server. The main beneficiaries, according to the company, are cloud providers, who can then add more servers quickly and easily without having to physically reconfigure their systems and cables. According to the company, a typical virtualisation host can be integrated into the datacentre in minutes as opposed to hours.

In the same part of the forest, the longer-established Xsigo launched a new management layer for its Data Center Fabric appliances, its connectivity virtualisation products. This allows you to see all I/O traffic across all the servers, any protocol, and with a granularity that ranges from specific ports to entire servers.

Nutanix came up with a twist on virtualisation by cramming all the pieces you need for a virtualisation infrastructure into a single box. The result, says the company, is a converged virtualisation appliance that allows you to build a datacentre with no need for separate storage systems. “Our mission is to make virtualisation simple by eliminating the need for network storage,” reckons the company. Its all-in-one appliances mean faster setup and reduced hardware expenditure, the company claims. However, like any do-it-all device, its desirability depends on how much you value the ability to customise over ease of use and setup. Most tend to prefer separates so they can pick and choose.

Cooling servers is a major problem: it costs money and wastes energy that could be more usefully employed doing computing. This is why Iceotope has developed a server that’s entirely enclosed and filled with an inert liquid: 3M Novec 7300. This convects heat away from heat-generating components and is, according to chemical giant 3M, environmentally friendly and thermally stable. The fluid needs no pumping, instead using convection currents to transport heat and dump it to a water-filled radiator. The water is pumped but, Iceotope says, you need only a 72W pump for a 20kW cabinet of servers, a far cry from a typical 1:1 ratio of cooling energy to compute power when using air as the transmission medium.

Networking
Vello Systems launched its Data Center Gateway incorporating VellOS, its operating system designed for software-defined networking (SDN) – probably the biggest revolution in network technology over the last decade. The box is among the first SDN products – as opposed to vapourware – to emerge. The OS can manage not just Vello’s own products but other SDN compliant systems too.

Cloud computing
One of the highlights of my cloud computing year was a visit to Lille, to see one of OVH‘s datacentres. One of France’s biggest cloud providers, OVH is unusual in that it builds everything itself from standard components. You’ll find no HP, IBM or Dell servers here, just bare Supermicro motherboards in open trays, cooled by fresh air. The motivation, says the company comes from thefact there are no external investors and a high level of technical and engineering expertise at the top. Effectively, the company does it this way because it has the resources to do so, and “because we are techies and it’s one of our strong values.” The claimed benefit is lower costs for its customers.

I had an interesting discussion with Martino Corbelli, the chief customer officer at Star, a UK-based cloud services provider. He said that the UK’s mid-market firms are getting stuck in bad relationships with cloud services vendors because they lack both the management and negotiation skills required to handle issues and the budget to cover the cost of swapping out.

“The industry for managed services and cloud is full of examples of people who over promise and under deliver and don’t meet expectations,” he said, reckoning that discussions with potential customers now revolve more around business issues than technology. “Now it’s about the peer-to-peer relationship,” he said. “Can you trust them, are you on the same wavelength, do you feel that your CFO can call their CFO and talk to them as equals?”

We also saw the launch of new cloud computing providers and services from mid-market specialist Dedipower, CloudBees with a Java-based platform service, and Doyenz with a disaster recovery service aimed at smaller businesses.

Storage
Coraid boasted of attracting over 1,500 customers for its unique ATA-over-Ethernet (AoE) storage products. This means that storage is using native Ethernet rather than storage-specific protocols. Coraid reckons this reduces protocol overheads and so is three to five times faster than iSCSI. The company makes a range of storage systems but, although AoE is an open standard, no other company is designing and selling products with it.

WhipTail joined the growing list of vendors selling all-flash storage systems with its Accela products. Solid-state gives you huge performance advantages but the raw storage (as opposed to the surrounding support infrastructure) costs ten times as much compared to spinning disks, so the value proposition is that the added performance allows you to make more money.

Eventually, the bulk of storage will be solid-state, as the price comes down, with disk relegated to storing backups, archives and low-priority data, but that time has yet to come. It’s a delicate balancing operation for companies such as WhipTail and Violin Memory: they don’t want to be too far ahead of the mass market and don’t want to miss the boat when flash storage becomes mainstream.

Filed under: Business, Cloud computing, Data centre, Enterprise, Networking, operating systems, Product launch, Storage, Systems management, Technology, , , , , , , , , , , , ,

2012: the tech year in view (part 1)

As 2012 draws to a close, here’s a round-up of some of the more interesting news stories that came my way this year. This is part 1 of 2 – part 2 will be posted on Monday 31 December 2012.

Storage
Virsto, a company making software that boosts storage performance by sequentialising the random data streams from multiple virtual machines, launched Virsto for vSphere 2.0. According to the company, this adds features for virtual desktop infrastructures (VDI), and it can lower the cost of providing storage for each desktop by 50 percent. The technology can save money because you need less storage to deliver sufficient data throughput, says Virsto.

At the IPExpo show, I spoke with Overland which has added a block-based product called SnapSAN to its portfolio. According to the company, the SnapSAN 3000 and 5000 offer primary storage using SSD for cacheing or auto-tiering. This “moves us towards the big enterprise market while remaining simple and cost-effective,” said a spokesman. Also, Overland’s new SnapServer DX series now includes dynamic RAID, which works somewhat like Drobo’s system in that you can install differently sized disks into the array and still use all the capacity.

Storage startup Tegile is one of many companies making storage arrays with both spinning and solid-state disks to boost performance and so, the company claims boost performance cost-effectively. Tegile claims it reduces data aggressively, using de-duplication and compression, and so cuts the cost of the SSD overhead. Its main competitor is Nimble Storage.

Nimble itself launched a so-called ‘scale to fit’ architecture for its hybrid SSD-spinning disk arrays this year, adding a rack of expansion shelves that allows capacity to be expanded. It’s a unified approach, says the company, which means that adding storage doesn’t mean you need to perform a lot of admin moving data around.

Cloud computing
Red Hat launched OpenShift Enterprise, a cloud-based platform service (PaaS). This is, says Red Hat, a solution for developers to launch new projects, including a development toolkit that allows you to quickly fire up new VM instances. Based on SE Linux, you can fire up a container and get middleware components such as JBoss, php, and a wide variety of languages. The benefits, says the company, are that the system allows you to pool your development projects.

Red Hat also launched Enterprise Virtualization 3.1, a platform for hosting virtual servers with up to 160 logical CPUs and up to 2TB of memory per virtual machine. It adds command line tools for administrators, and features such as RESTful APIs, a new Python-based software development kit, and a bash shell. The open source system includes a GUI to allow you to manage hundreds of hosts with thousands of VMs, according to Red Hat.

HP spoke to me at IPExpo about a new CGI rendering system that it’s offering as a cloud-based service. According to HP’s Bristol labs director, it’s 100 percent automated and autonomic. It means that a graphics designer uses a framework to send a CGI job to a service provider who creates the film frame. The service works by estimating the number of servers required, sets them up and configures them automatically in just two minutes, then tears them down after delivery of the video frames. The evidence that it works can apparently be seen in the animated film Madagascar where, to make the lion’s mane move realistically, calculations were needed for 50,000 individual hairs.

For the future, HP Labs is looking at using big data and analytics for security purposes and is looking at providing an app store for analytics as a service.

Security
I also spoke with Rapid7, an open-source security company that offers a range of tools for companies large and small to control and manage the security of their digital assets. It includes a vulnerability scanner, Nexpose, a penetration testing tool, Metasploit, and Mobilisafe, a tool for mobile devices that “discovers, identifies and eliminates risks to company data from mobile devices”, according to the company. Overall, the company aims to provide “solutions for comprehensive security assessments that enable smart decisions and the ability to act effectively”, a tall order in a crowded security market.

I caught up with Druva, a company that develops software to protect mobile devices such as smartphones, laptops and tablets. Given the explosive growth in the numbers of end-user owned devices in companies today, this company has found itself in the right place at the right time. New features added to its flagship product inSync include better usability and reporting, with the aim of giving IT admins a clearer idea of what users are doing with their devices on the company network.

Networking
Enterasys – once Cabletron for the oldies around here – launched a new wireless system, IdentiFi. The company calls it wireless with embedded intelligence offering wired-like performance but with added security. The system can identify issues of performance and identity, and user locations, the company says, and it integrates with Enterasys’ OneFabric network architecture that’s managed using a single database.

Management
The growth of virtualisation in datacentres has resulted in a need to manage the virtual machines, so a number of companies focusing on this problem have sprung up. Among them is vKernel, whose product vOPS Server aims to be a tool for admins that’s easy to use; experts should feel they have another pair of hands to help them do stuff, was how one company spokesman put it. The company, now owned by Dell, claims it has largest feature set for virtualisation management when you include its vKernel and vFoglight products, which provide analysis, advice and automation of common tasks.

Filed under: Business, Cloud computing, data protection, Enterprise, mobile, Networking, Product, Product launch, Security, Servers, Storage, Systems management, Technology, , , , , , , , , ,

Technology predictions for 2013

The approaching end of the year marks the season of predictions for and by the technology industry for the next year, or three years, or decade. These are now flowing in nicely, so I thought I’d share some of mine.

Shine to rub off Apple
I don’t believe that the lustre that attaches to everything Apple does will save it from the ability of its competitors to do pretty much everything it does, but without the smugness. Some of this was deserved when it was the only company making smartphones, but this is no longer true. and despite the success of the iPhone 5, I wonder if its incremental approach – a slightly bigger screen and some nice to have features – will be enough to satisfy in the medium term. With no dictatorial obsessive at the top of a company organised and for around that individual’s modus operandi, can Apple make awesome stuff again, but in a more collective way?

We shall see, but I’m not holding my breath.

Touch screens
Conventional wisdom says that touchscreens only work when they are either horizontal and/or attached to a handheld device. It must be true: Steve Jobs said so. But have you tried using a touchscreen laptop? Probably not.

One reviewer has, though, and he makes a compelling case for them, suggesting that they don’t lead to gorilla arm, after all. I’m inclined to agree that a touchscreen laptop could become popular, as they share a style of interaction with users’ phones – and they’re just starting to appear. Could Apple’s refusal to make a touchscreen MacBook mean it’s caught wrong-footed on this one?

I predict that touchscreen laptops will become surprisingly popular.

Windows 8
Everyone’s a got a bit of a downer on Windows 8. After all, it’s pretty much Windows 7 but with a touchscreen interface slapped on top. Doesn’t that limit its usefulness? And since enterprises are only now starting to upgrade from Windows XP to Windows 7 — and this might be the last refresh cycle that sees end users being issued with company PCs — doesn’t that spell the end for Windows 8?

I predict that it will be more successful than many think: not because it’s especially great because it certainly has flaws, especially when used with a mouse, which means learning how to use the interface all over again.

In large part, this is because the next version of Windows won’t be three years away or more, which has tended to be the release cycle of new versions. Instead, Microsoft is aiming for a series of smaller, point releases, much as Apple does but hopefully without the annoying animal names from which it’s impossible to derive an understanding of whether you’ve got the latest version.

So Windows Blue – the alleged codename – is the next version and will take into account lessons from users’ experiences with Windows 8, and take account of the growth in touchscreens by including multi-touch. And it will be out in 2013, probably the third quarter.

Bring your own device
The phenomenon whereby firms no longer provide employees with a computing device but instead allow you to bring your own, provided it fulfils certain security requirements, will blossom.

IT departments hate this bring your own device policy because it’s messy and inconvenient but they have no choice. They had no choice from the moment the CEO walked into the IT department some years ago with his shiny new iPhone – he was the first because he was the only one able to afford one at that point – and commanded them to connect it to the company network. They had to comply and, once that was done, the floodgates opened. The people have spoken.

So if you work for an employer, expect hot-desking and office downsizing to continue as the austerity resulting from the failed economic policies of some politicians continue to be pursued, in the teeth of evidence of their failure.

In the datacentre
Storage vendors will be snapped up by the deep-pocketed big boys – especially Dell and HP – as they seek to compensate for their mediocre financial performance by buying companies producing new technologies, such as solid-state disk caching and tiering.

Datacentres will get bigger as cloud providers amalgamate, and will more or less be forced to consider and adopt software-defined networking (SDN) to manage their increasingly complex systems. SDN promises to do that by virtualising the network, in the same way as the other major datacentre elements – storage and computing – have already been virtualised.

And of course, now that virtualisation is an entirely mainstream technology, we will see even bigger servers hosting more complex and mission-critical applications such as transactional databases, as the overhead imposed by virtualisation shrinks with each new generation of technology. What is likely to lag however is the wherewithal to manage those virtualised systems, so expect to see some failures as virtual servers go walkabout.

Security
Despite the efforts of technologists to secure systems – whether for individuals or organisations, security breaches will continue unabated. Convenience trumps security every time, experience teaches us. And this means that people will find increasingly ingenious ways around technology designed to stop them walking around with the company’s customer database on a USB stick in their pocket, or exposing the rest of the world to a nasty piece of malware because they refuse to update their operating system’s defences.

That is, of course, not news at all, sadly.

Filed under: Cloud computing, Consumer, data protection, desktops, Enterprise, Laptop, mobile, Networking, operating systems, Product, Security, Servers, Storage, Technology, , , , , , , , , , ,

Happy birthday Simon the smartphone

IBM Simon

IBM Simon

Today, 23 November 2012, is the 20th anniversary of the launch of the first smartphone. The IBM Simon was a handheld cellular phone and PDA that ended up selling some 50,000 units. This was impressive as, at the time, publicly available cellular networks were a rarity.

In fact, at the London launch of the device, I remember wondering how many people would buy one given the high costs of both a subscription and the phone. In the USA, BellSouth Cellular initially offered the Simon for US$899 with a two-year service contract or US$1099 without a contract.

As well as a touch screen, the widget included an address book, calendar, appointment scheduler, calculator, world time clock, electronic note pad, handwritten annotations, and standard and predictive stylus input screen keyboards.

Measuring 203mm by 63.5mm by 38mm, it had a massive 35mm by 115mm monochrome touch screen and weighed a stonking 510g, but was only on the market for about six months. The UK never saw it commercially available.

So while it never really took off, this was largely down to timing: it was ahead of its time and it was soon overtaken by smaller, less well-featured devices that were more affordable.

But when you contemplate which shiny shiny is your next object of desire, think about the Simon, and remember, Apple didn’t invent the smartphone: IBM did.

Filed under: Business, Consumer, Product, Product launch, Smartphone, Technology, , , , , ,

New developments in open source security

I just spent some time talking to Claudio Guarnieri, European security researcher for Rapid7, about some interesting new open source security developments. Guarnieri is responsible for Cuckoo Sandbox, a malware analysis system. His website reckons that “you can throw any suspicious file at it and in a matter of seconds Cuckoo will provide you back some detailed results outlining what such file did when executed inside an isolated environment.”

But he was also talking about a USB threat detection software which appears to be unique. Ghost USB Honeypot is a honeypot for malware which spreads via USB storage devices. The aim is to fool malware into infecting a fake device, from which point you can trap and/or analyse the malware.

It works by emulating a USB device so that, if a computer is infected by malware which propagates using USB flash drives, as so much of it does, the honeypot will trick the malware into infecting the emulated device, where it can be detected without compromising the host system. This kind of attack can particularly difficult to detect because it can attack high security machines that aren’t network-connected. Stuxnet was one such.

To anyone looking at it from user space or from higher levels in the kernel-mode storage architecture, the Ghost drive appears to be a real removable storage device, that strives to behave exactly like disk.sys, the operating system’s disk class driver. The key to its operation is that malware should not be able to detect that it’s not a real USB device.

You can drive it from a GUI or from the command line, and the aim is for companies to be able to deploy the software on standard client machines without the user having to get involved.

In fact, ideally, according to Ghost’s developer, Bonn University student Sebastian Poeplau, the best way to get this to work successfully is to hide it from the user so they don’t try to write to it. In this way, any write access can be assumed to be malware, and the data written is copied into an image file and can be copied off for later analysis. There’s a video of a recent presentation Poeplau gave about the project, its rationale and how it works, here.

Filed under: Business, desktops, Enterprise, Product, Security, , , , , , , , ,

AVM Fritz!Box 7390 review

I’ve just acquired a handful of home/small business networking products – the AVM Fritz!Box Fon WLAN 7390 router, AVM Fritz!WLAN Repeater, and AVM Fritz!Powerline 500E Set – and I’d like to share the experience.

AVM Fritz!Box Fon WLAN 7390

Like any broadband router, the 7390 connects your local area network (LAN) to an ADSL-enabled phone line – but there’s far more to it than that. It’s probably the fullest featured product of its kind.

At its heart, the 7390 runs Linux but you never need to know that unless you like tinkering. It provides a huge range of information about your DSL connection, not just speed but signal to noise ratio, error stats, and a graphical representation of the line’s carrier frequency spectrum.

If your line is noisy, you can adjust the sensitivity of the device to accommodate that, in order to trade off stability for speed. My phone line was very crackly for a few days which at first resulted in the router disconnecting and retraining frequently. Using the 7390’s line settings, I was able to achieve a stable, albeit slower connection until the line cleared.

And as well as the more common ADSL/ADSL2+, it will also connect to a VDSL line, useful for small businesses with a need for high speed uploading.

Telephony is one of the 7390’s fortés. It includes a DECT base station that allows all GAP-compatible cordless phones to connect to it, and you can also use with a SIP service to call over the Internet, with full logging and call quality data available. The telephony module includes an answering machine, a phone book, alarms, call blocking and diversion, and a call logging screen.

WiFi support includes all modern 2.4GHz standards, plus the 5GHz 802.11a standard, all with a full set of security controls, as well as the ability to avoid channels being used by nearby WLANs. Its four LAN ports are now Gigabit Ethernet enabled – its predecessor supported only 100Mbps – so the 7390 is now useful as a full participant of a home or small business network. It also includes a USB port into which you can plug storage, such as a NAS containing video and audio files, to be shared over the LAN via UPnP.

Other features include an energy saving mode, a night service, and daily, weekly or monthly email reports.

Any downsides? It’s expensive at around £185 from Amazon, and some users have complained of poor English language support from the German parent company.

There’s a lot more the device can do but in summary, it’s a highly capable router and a whole lot more.

AVM Fritz!WLAN Repeater 300E

A simple-to-use device, this extends the WLAN, connected either via the WLAN itself or using a wired network connection. Connection is simple, using push buttons on both the router and repeater, and the link is fully encrypted so, unlike some products, you don’t have to drop strong encryption to extend the WLAN. A good way to get a wireless connection in the workshop.

AVM Fritz!Powerline 500E Set

Fritz!Powerline adapters are an alternative to running network cables: instead, use the mains system for networking. The main drawback compared to a standard Ethernet connection is speed: the max theoretical throughput is 500Mbps but much less than that in practice. A batch file-driven data transfer showed a data rate over the Powerline network of 171Mbps, compared to a rate using gigabit Ethernet of 392Mbps.

The pair of devices in the box each sport an Ethernet port, and a security button which enables 128-bit encryption. You must use this or your data could be visible to everyone else connected to the same circuit – including your neighbours. You also get a pair of Ethernet cables, and the adapters are IEEE P1901 compliant, and so should be compatible with adapters from other vendors.

Summary

Both the Powerline devices and repeater are useful for extending your network, or you could combine both for a faster, more robust connection.

Filed under: Consumer

Cloud means gloom for hardware vendors – or does it?

Maintaining a good relationship with hardware vendors is an essential element of any cloud or service provider’s daily process. The problem is that, if some recent gloomy predictions come true, there will be fewer of them. That’s the line from Werner Vogels, Amazon’s chief technology officer, among others, according to this piece on ZDNet. But is it true?
Vogels reckons that, as enterprises aim to reduce capital expenditure by buying in an increasing number of services, hardware vendors will suffer a squeeze in sales, and so revenues.

The rest of this article can be found here.

Filed under: Business, Cloud computing, Enterprise, Technology, , , , , ,

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