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Date Wed 14 November 2007

Well, I’ve been pretty busy lately, between school work and work for Sun and Rutgers. Rutgers seems to be planning a new student lab, so I’ll probably have a hand in that. And I’m now doing troubleshooting and on-site support for RUwired and the Smart Classrooms. It’s a big step down from programming web apps, but quite refreshing to have a job that gets me out of the dungeon now and then.

I’m also planning my first tech demo as the Sun Campus Ambassador, which will tentatively be held on December 4th at the RUSLUG meeting. Stay tuned for more.

In other news, unfortunately, I haven’t gotten my surplus from Rutgers yet. I’m sitting here in my cube, staring at a pile of equipment with nowhere to go. I just hope that this works out next week so I’ll have some time to play around on Thanksgiving weekend.

Anyway, I was reading an article that I saw on Digg about WalMart’s $200 Linux-based computer. What a great idea. Admittedly, I shop at WalMart now and then (well, I’m in college) and one line got me a bit:
“The gPC is built using tiny components, but put inside a full-size case because research indicates that Wal-Mart shoppers are so unsophisticated they equate physical size with capability.”
Though I’ll admit that it’s probably true. The author seemed to think that Linux may have found its’ niche, and was even bold enough to say that, “While the price of hardware has fallen dramatically, the price of Windows hasn’t. This could be Microsoft’s Achilles’ Heel. ”

Well, ahmen. I’ve been mentioning that for quite a while now, as many others have. We’ve reached the point where Microsoft Windows and Microsoft Office is considerably more expensive than the computer that they run on. OEMs like Dell are selling Linux-based PCs (granted they aren’t really advertising them, and I didn’t see any mention of them when I glanced through their Home/Home Office lineup), and even WalMart is selling Linux-based systems. What I wonder, though, is how long it will take mainstream consumers to look at two shiny little CDs, befuddled that they cost more than a whole computer, and wonder what other options there are.

To go off on a tangent for a moment, yesterday I took delivery of a beautiful Wastern Digital My Book external hard drive. It’s the first one I’ve bought in almost three years, since my LaCiE (F.A. Porsche design) disk croaked on me and took 100 GB of photo scans with it. This one, a My Book Premium ES, is a 500 GB disk in a 3-pound-ish box, which cost $150 with shipping. I remember the first time I saw a writable DVD, when I was doing an internship in video postproduction. They kept the blanks locked up. I don’t think I ever would have imagined paying $150 to have half a terabyte in the palm of my hand. Anyway, the great thing about this model is that it has a 3.0 Gbps eSATA connector, so it can easily be used as *fast* exteral storage. So, once I got it, I set about backing up my laptop. Hopefully by this time tomorrow, I’ll have a laptop that dual-boots openSuSE 10.1 (pure 64-bit) and OpenSolaris SXDE 9/07.

Back on topic, I’m totally enthused that Linux is finally making headway in the desktop market. However, a few minutes ago, sitting here at my desk, I was struck with panic. The same type of panic that would hit a driving instructor if he sent his student out in a car and then realized the poor kid didn’t know there was a brake. Linux is a multi-user operating system. At its’ heart, it’s designed to be a server-bound Unix. And all of a sudden it struck me that people are downloading Ubuntu or some other easy-to-use distro, and nobody told them where the brake is!

I doubt that most new Linux users know what I (or any experienced user) take(s) for granted. I’d hope that Ubuntu doesn’t enable SSH by default, but I don’t know. But, realistically, how people who “try” Ubuntu because it’s “free” (as in free beer) understand administration and security of Linux systems? If they run SSH, do they know to run something like denyhosts? Do they even know what system logs are or where they are found, let alone check them? Do they understand file checksumming, and something like Tripwire? More importantly, do they understand the power of their system, and how much it could do without their knowledge?

Many security experts have conjectured that the lack of Linux viruses is simply because Linux has such a low market share. However, with no user education, imagine how simple a “virus” could be. And how devastating. Let’s glance by the fact that Windows has poisoned Linux users. Most Windows users are used to clicking “ok” to everything that pops up. So, when Linux asks them for a root password to install software, or perform some other action, the default reaction will probably be to do it. After all, if the OS wants it, it should be done. Let’s not even think of those Linux distros that totally disregard root and give the user root privileges - the designers aimed to get rid of the security advantages of a Unix-like OS, and did so perfectly.

Surely, Linux security will improve in ways that are easier for novices to understand. File permissions should be checked by a scrpit, as well as checksums, system logs, etc. and it can all be tied up in a simple interface. But, let’s think about this for a minute. Digg ran an article at the end of last year claiming 8 Million Ubuntu users. Let’s say that only a million of them are complete novices. How many of them, do you think, would think twice if they got an email or went to a web page (that looked “official”) that asked them to download and run a script in order to update something. Or just a popular web site that asked them to download some package or file and run it, in order to be able to view some content? It’s only one line in cron to start a DDoS attack. Maybe two lines.

I’m all for Linux moving to the desktop. Paying more for an OS than you paid for the computer is just insanity. Paying for any software when there’s a prefectly good free alternative isn’t too smart. And, for the majority of casual computer users, a Linux-based system would work perfectly - not to mention the stability and lack of frustration from BSODs, etc. But before this happens, there needs to be a community effort to educate new users about security, about the differences between Linux and Windows (or Mac), and about what is “bad” (malicious, just out of place, etc.). Most of all, there needs to be a concerted effort to develop all-in-one security tools that monitor logs, filesystems, system files, installed packages, permissions, etc. and present them in a simple, user-friendly manner (i.e. this is wrong, the system thinks it should be this, click for more information or click to fix it - and, of course, an easy way to rollback changes. ). Perhaps most important for new users, and ease-of-use, is a way to track these changes based on what package initiates them.

If you haven’t tried Linux, give it a shot. It doesn’t cost anything, it’s secure, stable, and fast, it runs on half the machine that Vista needs, and best of all, it promotes Free Software (“open source”) which, after all, is in the interest of everyone who uses a computer. Ubuntu will even mail you a CD for free! If you’re not ready to give up Windows, download OpenOffice. And, if you’re already a Linux guru, have a look at OpenSolaris - if you’re a developer or a SysAdmin, you’ll thank me for suggesting it (and Sun will mail you a free CD or DVD, too!). They even have LiveCD Solaris versions.


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