Getting more for less (INCREASE THE SIZE OF YOUR … Internet connection)

For several years now, due mainly to the downturn in the economy, there has been a trend to keep what you have and avoid upgrading or changing things. I understand this mentality quite well – if it’s working for what you need, why bother changing? Especially if money’s as tight as it is. But, while sticking with what you’ve got may seem like a prudent move, it isn’t always the best way to get the best bang for your buck. Sometimes upgrading can actually reduce your costs, or give you more for the same cost. One such area in which this is especially true is with Internet access.

First off – it’s important to know what bandwidth is. Bandwidth is the measure of available data transmission/reception capability you have access to. (You can think of it like the top speed of a car — more bandwidth, able to go faster.) What this means to you as a consumer of bandwidth is that the more bandwidth that you have, the more data you can consume more quickly, and the less likely you are to notice slowdowns when multiple people/computers are using the same Internet connection. In the age of streaming video, online gaming, increasingly large file sizes, cloud computing, and so on, having appropriately as much bandwidth is a big deal.

For example, lets say you are in an office with five other people who share the same Internet connection. This single Internet connection probably seems fine most of the time, as you are mainly using it for email and to visit the occasional website. Sometimes, however, you notice slowdowns – like when you attempt to watch videos, listen to music, or attend a meeting online with a product like WebEx or GoToMeeting. The issue is amplified further when multiple people are trying to do these things at the same time. These slowdowns are generally caused by insufficient bandwidth on your Internet connection for what you are trying to accomplish.

So, here’s the big question: When was the last time that you looked into upgrading your Internet connection to one with more bandwidth?

Oh, I know what you are saying to yourself, “I haven’t looked because I don’t want to pay more than I already am.” But, the reality is that if you haven’t evaluated your bandwidth costs over the past few years, you are probably paying more than you should be.

Prices for bandwidth have reduced dramatically over the past five years – and speeds have increased significantly. If you haven’t looked into providers recently, it is very possible that you could double the amount of bandwidth you currently have – while reducing your pricing to half of what you are currently paying, and this is no exaggeration. It just takes a phone call or two — and remember, sales reps are eager to gain you as a customer if you’re shopping for better service and lower prices. Those few minutes on the phone could save you a bundle in the long run!

So, why are you still paying the same amount of money for the same amount of bandwidth you had five years ago? It’s time to look into an upgrade.

Consider keeping some important data online

It is common for data security folks to tell you to be careful about what data you keep online and the risks associated. But, I’m here to tell you why you should keep some of your data online. Because, while you should be careful about what data you put online – you should be careful about what you don’t.

Consider the unpleasant scenario – a home robbery, house fire, storm, flood or some other loss. After the event you will need access to insurance documents, home photos and other important data. Now assume that you stored all that information on your home computer – all that information is now lost, and recovering it has just become much more difficult.

NOAA public domain image

“But wait!” you say, “I keep all my data backed-up and stored in a fire safe so I’ll be alright.” You need to be careful with this assumption and should be aware of some facts:

  1. Thieves like stealing safes – they assume that you have something valuable inside that they want. 
  2. Fire safes are rated to a specific temperature for a specific amount of time – but the temperatures that are reached inside – while relatively safe for paper documents, at least for the rated period of time – can be catastrophic for your data storage media (backup tapes, CDs/DVDs, flash drives and pretty much all other media are susceptible to heat).
  3. Water, used by the fire department or the result of some act of Mother Nature, can cause damage to both your digital storage media and your paper documents within a safe. So even if you have taken measures to protect your data at home – it may not be quite enough.

No one wants to think that events like these might occur to them, but unfortunately no one is immune from the possibility. Preparation gives you the possibility to mitigate your risk in these situations. To help yourself prepare for some sort of catastrophic event like this I suggest that you look into keeping copies of your important data online. You may want to consider using an online document management service or one of the many online backup services avaialbe. Most online backup services provide reasonable protection of your data through encryption and other measures, and are a relatively safe (there is no such thing as perfect) means to protect your data from loss or theft – and will still be available to you should some catastrophic loss at home occur.

So remember, while you may not want to advertise information about yourself or put compromising data on the Internet, you really don’t want to avoid putting data up for that reason. With proper consideration most data can be reasonably secured online – and your disaster recovery solution could be considered an investment in your own future well being,

Security on the chopping block

Everyone is aware that budgets everywhere are shrinking. One area that should always remain a priority is information security.  Unfortunately, with the downturn in the market more and more IT departments are working with ever dwindling budgets. Budgets that often leave those implementing technology to have to make hard choices. And, the practicalities of continuing to keep the infrastructure running have taken priority over keeping the network safe.

Data intrusion is a constant threat in our modern world. Don’t think that someone is trying to access your data? Well you would be very terribly mistaken. People exist who try to gain any access to any data that they can get. Your data is at risk. This has been proven time and time again.

Open Source Logo

Companies and individuals need to take a long hard look at the cuts they are looking to make. Regular reviews of your infrastructure need to be undertaken. If you are in charge of IT, finances or just run your own business, you need to be aware of what measures are being taken to protect your data – and that those measures are adequate.

Tight budgets may in fact be here for the foreseeable future, but you don’t want to put off the security changes that your network needs because you cannot afford it. Instead of giving up because of your budget – start looking at the alternatives. Just because you can’t afford the package that everyone else is using, doesn’t mean that there isn’t something just as good, or at least far better than what you have, for much lower pricing  – or possibly even free.

Start looking at Open Source alternatives – open source products are often free and comparable to commercial products. Tons of software pieces exist. For example, need a VPN to connect to your office securely when remote? Try OpenVPN. Need a replacement for your aging firewall that doesn’t support newer protocols or provide the security that you require? Try SmoothWall. Need to replace your anti-virus with a lower cost solution? Checkout Clam (free) or F-Prot ($50/yr for 10 Computers).

The moral here: you don’t need to forgo the protection that you need – simply because your budget has become too tight. If you spend some time to look for a solution you might just find that the solution has been there for a while and at a much more reasonable cost than you had thought. You need to protect your network, your computers and your data. Don’t make the mistake that so many others have made – don’t put your security on the chopping block.

CAUTION: “Free” wireless available here

The traveling business user has become accustomed to taking free wireless Internet at airports, hotels, coffee shops, bookstores and a multitude of other locations for granted. The convenience factor of being able to stay connected anywhere has become more of a necessity rather than a convenience. But the reality is that this free convenience comes at a cost: Security.

Security, or lack thereof, is the major problem with ‘free’ wireless Internet access at all these locations. Here are the problems: First, free wireless Internet is rarely ever encrypted leaving your data open to interception and possibly compromising sensitive data. Second, you have no way of knowing if the wireless access point you are connecting to is actually what it appears, just because it says ‘Airport’  or ‘Coffee Shop’ doesn’t mean that it isn’t really are what they say they are – often these can be access points that are maliciously set up in order to steal as much information as possible from you.

Now, I don’t want you to get frightened away from free wireless access points just because of these dangers. Free access points can be very beneficial for certain uses. But, you should take some precautions when using them.

Foremost, make sure that your computer has a firewall – even the built-in Windows Firewall is better than none at all. This severely limits the routes that attackers can use to get into your system.You should also avoid transmitting usernames, passwords, credit card numbers or other sensitive information unless you have a secure channel for transmission of the data, like SSL (this stands for Secure Socket Layer which is a data encryption method – you can recognize SSL based connections in your web browser by the HTTPS prefix on websites rather than HTTP which is used for unencrypted connections), or VPN (or Virtual Private Network – a method of securely connecting to a ‘trusted’ network – like your home or office via a client/server setup).

Avoid using your e-mail client unless your system uses encrypted connections (check with your IT department or e-mail provider if you’re unsure). If your e-mail client doesn’t connect securely and you use it, you could end up giving a rogue user access to your account information.

 There are alternatives to using free Wi-Fi:  Aircards or Tethering* allow you to use the network provided by your cellular company. While not foolproof – this method does mitigate the risks of your packets (data) being easily sniffed out by someone at the location you are at. Also, you will find that many airports (at kiosks) and hotels have wired Data Ports available – these can be lower risk than unsecured wireless.

And if you do spend a lot of time in hotels you may want to check into a portable wireless router (like the D-Link DWL-G730AP Pocket Router/AP).  This way you could connect to a hotel’s wired network with your portable wireless router and then have an encrypted wireless access of your own available. And not only that – while many hotels have free wired Internet, often you have to pay for wireless but not if you have a portable wireless router. And, considering the price some hotels charge for Wi-Fi, the portable wireless router could pay for itself in two nights at a hotel and start making returns for you.

Wherever you are and whatever method you choose to use, connect wherever you may be.  Remember to be mindful that there can be risks. And that “free” Wi-Fi could end up costing far more than you bargained for.

*Tethering is a method of getting wireless access by connecting your phone, PDA or other wireless device to your computer and using its Internet connection. Tethering is usually available for a modest fee – and offers similar speeds to an aircard.

ASUS Eee PC 1000

With the popularity of a new generation of low-cost laptops known as netbooks on the rise, we decided to procure one to see if they live up to all the hype. First we started with researching the many models available (over the last year a multitude of devices have landed on the market). In our research we found many worthwhile candidates for our needs. We settled on the ASUS Eee PC 1000 because of positive reviews, and two important factors: 40GB of SSD storage (sometimes faster than standard rotating HDDs, and definitely more resilient to getting banged around) and a track history of people having successfully installed beta versions of Windows 7.

Unboxing – the Eee came in a rather small box, holding the netbook, manuals, power supply and carrying case. Physically the power supply is the smallest that I have ever seen on a laptop – but then the Eee uses far less power than most laptops. Turning it on, the Eee came preloaded with a Linux distribution – simple, easy to use… not at all what we wanted.

Windows 7 beta – loading Windows 7 turned out a bit of a trick. First thing, to save size and money the Eee has no CD/DVD drive, so an external USB drive was required. Then the 40GB SSD in the Eee 1000 turns out to actually be a 8GB and a 32GB SSD – with the 8GB drive as primary. On my first attempt I tried to install Windows 7 on 32GB drive – the Windows 7 installation failed on several attempts.

I began reading up on what those who were successful did to get Windows 7 installed. It turns out that they had been installing Windows 7 on the 8GB drive. At first I was skeptical that I could get anything worthwhile to fit in only 8GB, but I attempted the process anyway. Turns out the install of Windows 7 would fit, the install actually being smaller than Windows Vista. Yet this solution is not optimal – you have to jump through quite a few hoops to get Program Files, the pagefile and user files off of the 8GB drive and onto the larger 32GB drive. Even then space was low on the 8GB drive, and after installation of Windows Updates I realized that the solution was just sub-optimal.

I decided to find a way to install Windows 7 on the Primary 32GB drive. It took a while, but after some fooling around I was able to get some required system files only on the 8GB drive continue with the Windows install on the 32GB drive. Finally I had the install that I wanted.

Windows 7 it turns out does run on an Eee netbook – but I wouldn’t say that it runs well…. at least not without some tweaking to turn off some of the flashier features of the system. But it does run, and it boots up rather quickly (likely due to the SSD drive). However, when you install Microsoft Office you start to see the shortcomings of the low-powered Intel Atom processor in the Eee – after opening just a single Office product, the system starts to slow down significantly, open two Office programs and it slows to a crawl. Stay away from Microsoft Office and the Eee performs decently.

There are lots of reviews about the netbooks being the future of inexpensive ultra-portable computing – and the Eee PC 1000 shows that netbooks are clearly on the way. Other more powerful, newer machines are already on the way – and may just do what this Eee just doesn’t quite do yet. I do, however, believe that the Eee as designed (with Linux on it) does do what they designed it for – it just wasn’t designed to do what we wanted to do with it.

Windows 7: Nothing more than Windows 6.1 in disguise

You may be asking yourself, ” Windows 6.1?  I’ve never even heard of Windows 6″. (Of course, then again you might not be asking yourself that question at all, but that doesn’t really help me continue with my point. So for the sake of expediency let’s just assume for a second that you are.)  Believe it or not, you have heard of Windows 6. In fact, you have probably heard lots of things, good and bad, about Windows 6 over the past few years. Simply put: Windows 6 is Windows Vista, but Windows 7 isn’t Windows 7.

Microsoft has been numbering it’s Windows Versions all the way since it’s inception. At the beginning the revision numbers were openly touted (Windows 1,  Windows 2, Windows 3, Windows 3.1 and Windows 3.11), however starting with Windows 95, Microsoft decided in its infinite and convoluted marketing wisdom to go ahead and start naming the desktop Windows operating systems based upon the year of release (Windows 95, Windows Millenium Edition, Windows 2000)  and then later changed it up again by assigning seemingly random (but apparently really contained some sort of magical marketing value) names to the operating system (Windows XPand Windows Vista). Each version, however still was based upon a sequentially numbered version of Windows.

If you want to find out what version of Windows your machine is running, it’s pretty simple. Bring up a command prompt, type ‘ver’ (without quotes) and hit <Enter>. In my case if I follow this process on my primary workstation I  receive this response “Microsoft Windows [Version 6.0.6001]” which translates to Windows Vista w/Service Pack 1. Now this is where things get odd with Windows 7. One would think, then that it logically follows, that Microsoft naming the version of Windows after Vista (6.0) Windows 7, that Microsoft was returning to their old naming structure with the name of Windows matching the actual revision of the operating system. However, if you were to lookup the version number for Windows 7 (Beta) using the same process that I used in Windows Vista, you would recieve a response similar to the following: “Microsoft Windows [Version 6.1.7000]“.

Wait. You’re saying that Windows 7 is really Windows 6.1? Yes! Windows 7 is nothing more than Windows 6.1, and if you look closely at it – you can see that using the name ‘Windows 7′ is nothing more than yet another “brilliant” marketing scheme from the Microsoft Marketing department.  The biggest visible difference is the GUI (Graphical User Interface) and some performance and usability tweaks, but underneath all new windows and siding, this is still the same ole house as Vista. See, what seemingly occurred here is that Microsoft wished to distance itself from the Vista platform due to the amazing amount of bad press (most of it unduly deserved if you ask me) and fallout from a wildly successful smear campaign brought against it by a certain unnamed competitor *cough* Apple *cough*.

And so, the Marketing scheme known as Windows 7 was born. Yet, Windows 7 the “wonderful”, “new” and “What Vista shoulda been” OS that everyone seems to be touting should really be called Windows Vista SP2, or R2. Windows 7 isn’t a whole new animal – it’s the same pig with a new shade of lipstick slapped on to make it more palatable for the detractors and to allow them to charge a premium for features that should be free upgrades to Windows Vista.

I’m not happy with Windows 7. I’m not happy with Windows 7 not because it’s a bad operating system, nor because it has any glaring problems. I’m not happy with Windows 7 because it appears to me to be a bold-faced lie aimed at consumers who are buying into the hype, and expecting a revolutionary new operating system which Windows 7 simply is not. Naming it Windows 7 appears to me to be nothing more than a deliberate ploy to mislead the consumer. 

That said, I’m still a Microsoft fan. And I will still buy Windows 7, albeit grudgingly, when it comes out because it genuinely does have some performance tweaks and UI changes that appeal to me. But I cannot help but feel that the hype, naming and price are all unwarranted, and exist simply to take advantage of the consumer. I just hope that Microsoft will choose to do things differently in the future.

The free flavors of Ubuntu

ubuntu

You may or may not have heard of Ubuntu. Ubuntu, is a fast growing and quickly maturing Linux distribution which is targeted as a free alternative to Microsoft Windows or Mac OSX. What makes Ubuntu impressive is it’s included suite of powerful tools that allow you to do a multitude of different functions which would normally require major suites of pay for software, but allowing you to do it free and slimply. But that’s just the plain vanilla version – their are two derivative versions which may be even more interesting to know about: Mythbuntu, and Ubuntu Studio.

Mythbuntu is a powerful derivative distribution designed for the home theater. It combines the stability of Ubuntu with the power and versatility of the great open source PVR system MythTV. What you get is an easy to setup, easy to use, free PVR system that allows you to watch, record or pause TV from a multitude of different HD or SD sources. You can also watch live or recorded shows from any room in your house in which you have a Windows or Linux based system with the MythTV front-end (also free) installed. All you need is the hardware – and you have a very powerful and easy to use Home Theater system.

Check Mythbuntu out at: http://www.mythbuntu.org/

Ubuntu Studio, on the other hand is a pre-built, system setup specifically to excel in multimedia creation and editing. With Unbuntu Stuido you can create/edit graphics, audio and video with a multitude of powerful professional quality tools that are already setup and customized for most media creation/editing needs. You can create professional quality media for print, radio or even television if you choose.

Ubuntu Studio can be found at: http://ubuntustudio.org/home

Or you can just check out the original Ubuntu at: http://www.ubuntu.com/

Computer repair made really, really easy

It’s not too often that I find myself impressed with a company or a service that a company offers. So often products and services offered by companies are not quite what they appear, or don’t live up to the hype.  But, PCService.com did what so many other companies have failed to do – impressed me immensely.

My initial experience with PCService.com started out with a broken LCD screen on a machine under warranty. Unfortunately, it seems that regardless of if the issue is a workmanship issue or drop related issue, Lenovo considers all broken LCD issues to be ‘abuse’ related issues which are not covered under their warranty (not sure how normally opening a laptop constitutes “abuse,” but that’s a rant for another day). I was left with the need to get a replacement screen for a relatively new Lenovo laptop.

I began researching laptop repair companies, as it had been a couple years since I needed a non-warranty repair on a laptop other than a battery or hard drive replacement. I even researched price costs for a replacement LCD. And, because this laptop was relatively new – my researched prices were ending up relatively high. The part price wasn’t too bad, but labor was adding significantly to the price – a factor that I have pretty much come to expect these days.

Around this time, I ran across PCService.com. It seemed to be everything I had been Fixed!looking for. The price for the part and labor was about what I was finding elsewhere just for the part alone. And shipping…. well that was free as long as you had a couple days to wait (if this isn’t an option, next-day shipping is available for $70). All of this seemed too good to be true – which sent up red flags all over the place for me.

A deal this good? It’s got to be a scam, right? And that’s exactly what I was thinking when I began researching them. Instead, I found praise, a good solid background with the BBB (under the name of MacService – the other end of their business) and that they are Lenovo certified (along with plenty of others). So I decided to take the plunge.

How it works: PCService.com uses a very simple web-wizard that makes life easy when it comes to a repair. It goes something like this:  

  Step 1: Select your laptop brand
  Step 2: Select your Model
  Step 3: Select the repair (LCD Replacement, HDD, RAM, DVD Drive, Keyboard, hinge. Case… etc).
  Step 4: Checkout
  Step 5: They ship you a box – you place the laptop and power cable in the box, and return the box. They do the repair and e-mail you the status, then return the laptop to you.

And…It really is that simple. And to top it all off, all of the prices for all the repairs are listed up-front when you are selecting the repair – something most companies are unwilling to do.

Simple, easy and satisfying. The next time that I need a laptop repaired – I’m going to use PCService.com – and if the service is as good the next time, I will definitely have to recommend them.

If you have comments about PCService.com, or any other Laptop repair provider we would love to hear about it.

Microsoft Issues Emergency Security Patch

MrYuk

Microsoft on October 23, 2008 did something out of the ordinary.  They released an emergency critical security update for Microsoft Windows (Effecting Multiple versions of the Operating System) on a Thursday.  This was an extraordinary change of pace for Microsoft, which normally releases their updates only on Tuesdays (known, less than affectionately, to the Microsoft world as “Patch Tuesdays”).

What does this tell us?  It tells us that this flaw is BAD, really bad – anything bad  enough to make Microsoft release this patch out of the normal cycle can’t be good.  The flaw, found in multiple versions of Windows, could allow an attacker to gain  access to an unpatched system to run malicious code (Read: Virus, Trojan, Worm, etc).  What’s more – several exploits have already been found in the wild.

The good news: If your system is set to automatically download and install updates daily, and you are behind a corporate firewall you are probably in the clear.  But if your system isn’t auto updating, or you don’t know, I highly suggest you install this (and all other) Microsoft security updates.

To download the patch – run windows update.  Or go to: http://www.microsoft.com/protect/computer/updates/bulletins/200810_oob.mspx

Remember, if you maintain a good working firewall, anti-virus application and regularly patch your system – you can go a long way towards preventing issues like these from affecting you.

For more information on the problem, see: http://www.microsoft.com/technet/security/bulletin/ms08-067.mspx

Some known exploits in the wild:
http://www.f-secure.com/v-descs/trojan-spy_w32_gimmiv_a.shtml
http://www.microsoft.com/security/portal/Entry.aspx?name=Exploit%3aWin32%2fMS08067.gen!A

A few bad Apples

Do we really need more disinformation? Apples’ ongoing attempt to fool consumers is the electronic equivalent of a poorly run negative political campaign.  Granted the switcher ads are humorous, but comedy doesn’t excuse dissemination of disinformation. Don’t get me wrong, Apple has done a good job at building unique niche products, but best of breed? I think not. Does Apple actually believe the public at large will buy this crap or is this all done to play to the ego of the Apple fan boys?

Apple has created a sense of false security, allowing consumers to believe Macs are immune to viruses.  Granted Mac viruses are rare. This is not because they are more secure than other operating systems, rather because they don’t have a targetable market share. As Apple market share grows, it becomes a more favorable target. Ignoring this potential risk and reinforcing a security myth expands the target while hurting security as a whole. PC hardware and software manufacturers understand these risks and vigilantly work to create and provide security software suites.

More expensive manufacturing, assuming the manufacturing truly does cost more, doesn’t necessarily make better hardware. Sure, milling a solid block of aluminum to create a laptop chassis is different but not groundbreaking. In reality, Apple builds computers lacking hardware options, expandability, and upgradeability. While there isn’t media frenzy around PC hardware innovations they normally have a far greater impact than Apples. I use blocks of steel as bookends – that does not mean I’m an artist or innovator. I didn’t make a better bookend; it’s just my use of steel. I can understand a minimalistic approach but that’s a choice, not an innovation.

Where are the standard features we’ve come to expect on a laptop? Multiple ports for expandability with the freedom to travel without a case full of dongles? Biometrics for added security and additional authentication schemes? How about the desktop options required to stay abreast of technology growth? Or, the ability to easily upgrade to an unlimited by compatibility choice of processor, video card, HDTV-tuner, soundcard, motherboard, or any other hardware that is on the market? Where is the freedom of choice that spurs innovation, or the open platform that allows rapid evolution? PCs are not only more flexible, they are cheaper to replace if you choose not to upgrade your hardware.

I’m not buying the fact that it’s cheap and easy to change platforms. Yes, I understand that a Mac functions right out of the box. Truth be told, you can do the exact same thing with a PC. I know iLife is a claim to fame with MACs, but Windows comes bundled with the exact same feature set. Hands down, there is more consumer software for the PC than for the MAC, and it’s cheaper. And yes, I understand I can run Windows on a Mac, but why? PCs come with Windows, why would I buy a MAC then buy Windows on top of it? It’s like buying a “pretty” car then paying to have the engine installed.

Windows Vista is not broken, and if you compare the out of the box experience between Mac OS and Windows, people find them about equal. Neither platform is perfect but neither is broken – they’re simply different. A minimalistic approach isn’t wrong nor is it innovative, it’s just different. Simply put, it seems as if Apple just can’t seem to find the strength within the product line to positively promote their product, instead relying on negative mud-slinging more reminiscent of a Presidential campaign than a computer company.

Maybe there is a reason that the Apple motto is ‘Think Different’ and not ‘Think Better’.

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