Archive for July, 2008

Why you need a firewall

Computer security gurus have been saying now for years that a firewall should be part of every computer users life. Unfortunately, it’s not often explained exactly what a firewall is, nor why the average person needs one. Often the terms get so technical that users quickly get lost, and stop paying attention. I guess it’a curse that most technical computer users eventually end up with. You forget that not everybody else understands what you are saying.

Most people have learnt about anti-virus programs, and accpet that they need them. Unfortunately, for most people this becomes a security blanket which they believe will keep everything safe and well on their computers. That was maybe true 10-15 years ago, but in today’s hyper connected world, a whole new stategy is needed. In a sense, you need a security “triangle.”

One side is your anti-virus program, the other is a good anti-spyware program, and the last side is a firewall. On all corporate networks, there are firewalls, often some seriously advanced pieces of equipment. For the home user, it mainly comes down to software based firewalls, and/or the firewalls inside an ADSL router for example.

At home, I am unfortunately still using 56k dial up modem for internet access, which means that the computer has no protection in the path to it, unlike with a router for example. This means that I’m even more exposed to the dangerous side of the internet.

Recently, I swapped over from Sygate Personal Firewall to the free Comodo Personal Firewall Pro, and it’s opened my eyes to the dangers of the net. WIthin a day or so, the firewall started blocking traffic coming in to TCP port 135. This turned out to be the result of old computer worms on other people’s computers trying to infect our computer. The number of attacks grew and grew and it was disturbing to see.

This means that a lot of home users have infected computers, and they may not even know it. The range of computers attacking me seemed to all belong to the dial up network of Telkom (our ISP and South Africa’s biggest telephone company), which does make sense. Being on dial up, you are not likely to keep any security products up to date, especially if it’s a non technical user using the computer. Updates seem to be too big to download, so people ignore it.

In short, every computer user using Windows should have a firewall installed. Using the built in Windows Firewall (under XP) is a small step in the right direction, but for any real protection, a third party product is needed. For Windows Vista, the Windows Firewall is far, far better, but there are still 3rd party ones that are even better.

In this day and age, you should not be without one, it is just good computer security and sense. It can possibly save you from a batch of nasty things.


LG Optical drives are nosiy

I’ve used many optical drives over the years, including LG, Memorex, Sony, Smasung, Asus, Compaq, the list goes on. This past weekend at home, using my home computer, I finally realized something I had known for a long time: LG makes the most noisy optical drives.

Installing software off a dvd sounds akin to a jet aircraft taking off. It is not a pleasant sound at all. Now, the drive is not faulty, and generally, LG drives have always worked well for me, with very few “coasters”, or bad disks.

I recently worked with some Asus drives here at my work, and good grief, they were nice and quiet! The Quietrac feature really does work. The drive spins up, but it’s a quiet humming sound that is worlds apart from the jet engine of the LG’s.

I’m in half a mind to get rid of my LG, and buy an Asus SATA DVD writer, simply for the added quiet it will bring. Not to mention, SATA will let me free up half of the rather bulky IDE cable in my case. I know that SATA optical drives apparently don’t like the AHCI mode of SATA, but I’m sure I can get around it somehow.

So in summary, if you value quiet when working with your optical drives, do not buy an LG. Rather get an Asus drive, and enjoy a quieter working experience.

I hate being sick

Most people hate getting up on Mondays, and are tempted to stay in bed. I too often suffer this, as it’s comfortable, and getting up early is always hard. However, when you have a cold, it often gets worse.

I picked this cold up sometime last week, but the first effect didn’t show up until Saturday morning, in the usual manner of sore throat and blocked nose. I went to a friend of mine’s 23rd birthday party that night, and unfortunately for me, there were many people smoking in that venue. I’m not a smoker, and second hand smoke has always annoyed me, but Saturday night’s smoke probably made things worse for me. I spend most of yesterday, Sunday, sneezing and coughing in bed.

I forced myself to come in to work today, as I have a ton of things that need to be done. I may stay out tomorrow though, depending on how I feel. I’m always reluctant to be off sick, but my health has to come first. I’m not the world’s fittest nor most healthy person, and rather one day off than risk the cold worsening and then take a week off.

People keep suggesting I take meds, but it serves no real purpose other than to relieve some of the symptoms. Furthermore, it’s useless. So at the moment, I’m just drinking Corenza C in water to help relieve some of the blocked nose problems, and Cepacol lozenges for my raw throat to ease the pain after coughing a lot.

I doubt we’ll ever get to the point where we can prevent or cure the cold, the blasted thing is so simple, yet so complex. It mutates every time, and every person suffers in their own way.

Ug, my eyes feel so heavy now. Long day ahead and I’m not in a mood to be here. Sigh

Categories: Personal Tags:

Telkom’s great ADSL mess

On Monday this week, our ADSL connection here at work decided to fall over and get sick. This was a rather rare event for ADSL, and especially during the middle of the month. Normally issues only happened at the end of the month, when the whole ADSL network runs out of capacity.

The symptoms included high latency, most international websites timing out, and even locally hosted South African sites being sluggish. Luckily this happened the day before school started, which helped minimize the fuss. The situation was somewhat better on Tuesday, but still a bit sluggish. After confirming with our Internet Service Provider that there was an issue, I sent out a mail to all our staff members, letting them know.

Unfortunately, not everyone bothers to read the message clearly, as there were many calls and e-mails to me, expecting me to magically make the problem right. Then I have to patiently explain to people that it is a Telkom issue, and we must all wait. I’m sure the people are probably tired of hearing me blame everything on Telkom every time there is an issue, but in South Africa it really is the case, dut to the staggering monopoly of this company.

Our school cannot afford a leased line, and we cannot make use of 3G techology or iBurst, for either speed or capacity issues. That really just leaves ADSL. For a school that has grown a lot in the last year, we are still sitting with a 512KBPS line, where we should be on a 4MBPS line. Even with a proxy server in place, internet access still can be sluggish, and cap will always vanish. Worst of all, there was no decrease in price this year, there was actually an increase on the physical copper line rental instead. Telkom then has the cheek to take out adverts in the newspapers, going on about how they have kept “broadband” pricing at last year’s levels. They can afford to cut the rates, which in turn will bring in new customers, but they are too close minded to understand that.

I’m ranting here, but when it comes to this company, I can’t help it. To them, providing internet access is almost like a luxury that they are giving to spoilt children. 👿

All I can say is that I continue to hope that Neotel can keep putting on pressure. Telkom is already cracking, and hopefully they burst open soon.

Categories: General, Internet

DSTV issues

Here in South Africa, your choice when it comes to television is one of 2 things: Analogue or DSTV. With analogue, you can view 4 channels, with a 5th, Mnet, needing a decoder to work, as it is pay tv. DSTV, operated by a company called MultiChoice, is a satellite offering with many unique channels, plus it also carries the analogue channels.

Our family got DSTV at the start of the year, along with the PVR decoder. This let us record good programs, pause live tv, and watch 2 different channels on 2 different tv. So the tv in the bedroom could watch something while the one in the lounge something else.

At first, the service worked absolutely great. The amount of interesting programs was vast, and we all enjoed it. All the functions worked as advertised, and we were happy. Unfortunately, then the errors started creeping in. The decoder started freezing when we swtiched it on, there were random restarts, channels just stopped working on a whim, bizarre sound errors every now and then.

I went to the forums on the DSTV website, and found that our experiences were nothing new. Many other people had the same issues. I also found out that in 2006, many firmware updates were issued by MultiChoice, which helped, but frustrated users. That lead me to check our decoder’s update feature regularly, but to date, no firmware has been released so far this year.

It’s a pity that such a good product could be so flawed. Recordings have always worked flawlessly, and there has never been an issue with playback either. Hard rebooting the decoder is never a great idea, due to the hard drive in there. Sudden power loss can corrupt a hard drive. I guess the other issue that bothers me is the heat that the hard drive puts out. I know all hard drives do create heat, but in the slim factor of the decoder, it seems to be worse than what I’m used to. You can really feel it by putting your hand on top of the decoder after it’s been on for a bit. Luckily we keep the decoder on an open spot where air can circulate around it.

I hope that their new decoders, due out soon, that offer HDtv, will be more stable. Competition in the industry would also be good, to force prices to come down and more features to be offered. Unfortunatley, no one has been able to muster the cash and skills to compete with MultiChoice. They just have too long a headstart and too big a user base at this point in time. And that is exactly what a monopoly is.

Insane amounts of storage space space

I was browsing over at my favourite forums earlier on, and I discovered this thread under the hardware section, where people were discussing what amount of hard drive space they had available to them:

It was simply stunning to read through this, and see that some people were pushing well over 2 terabytes of storage space 😯

At home, I have 2 250GB hard drives, which is enough space for myself for now. I don’t have movies on my computer, nor do I have sets of TV series. Yet, I intend to have plenty of virtual machines for testing purposes, and that will eventually eat up space as well, so in the end I will need to get bigger drives.

I guess the most insane part about the whole thing is that I’m still working with 10GB hard drives here at work. I’m struggling to keep these drives from filling up and killing performance, yet some people in that thread have terabytes’ worth of data and have almost no free space. That fact shows to me the insane progress of the hard drive industry over the last 10 years. 10 years ago, 10Gb or smaller was the norm, no one could possibly imagine why you would need more space.

I guess as the internet and technology has evolved, the requirement for space has shot up. Also, people are no longer really backing up to dvd because of the sheer size of some things, so instead hard drives are used, bue to the simple cheapness and speed of the drive.

The risks of drives going bad are always there, but most people seem to be willing to take that risk these days. The solution I’ve seen is to just buy more drives and use it as external backup.

I guess this is my most rambling post ever, but I’m still struggling to wrap my head around the fact that people have the amount of storage space at their fingertips now, that once was the domain of Fortune 500 Companies only.

That’s progress for you 😎

Working on slow and old computers

I’m back at work now after a nice 2 week break that was seriously deserved after a long very busy term here at the school. I had a chance to unwind, play games, go out, and do some work at my old high school which I mentioned in a previous post.

I’m back ahead of the majority of the staff, preparing computers and ironing out kinks. It’s going pretty well, I’m deploying Internet Explorer 7 and Windows XP Service Pack 3 all over the show. One thing that is driving me nuts though is the fact that I’m back to working with Pentium 3 (800-1000Mhz) machines, with 128MB of RAM, and 10GB 5400RPM hard drives. Updating these computers becomes a big exercise in patience and then some. Waiting there listening to the hard drive crash away is not fun by any means.

It really is hard to adjust to slowness again, after working on my beast of a computer at home. So is adjusting back to a 17″ CRT monitor, when I became used to my 24″ wide LCD. I truly now begin to understand the frustration of the staff with waiting for the computers to open a document or whatever needs to be done. Yet there isn’t anything I can do until we have replaced out IT lab with new machines. We are 11 computers into it, out of 26. Once that is done, we will look at sorting out the staff rooms and so on.

I respect the fact that these Pentium 3’s are lasting so long, despite the pounding they take. However, it’s causing us to slip backwards IT wise, as they cannot handle new software or education programs. 10GB hard drives are useless, they are almost completely full and are seriously slow.

I guess this is a rant many IT admins have, as we fight with the accountants to get a better budget for equipment. We all want the best and to offer the best, but without funds, we can’t do anything. A while back the British company that owns us wanted us to stop buying new computers, and take their old P3 and P4’s. The bursar and I nearly lost it with anger, as this would have been a huge step backwards. Luckily he convinced them that we needed new machines, no matter what. I shudder to think at the stuff they would have sent us. 👿