Jan 032021
 

Picture the scene – someone has bought a new service and they want you to “make it work”. And because they’re kind, they virtually toss you a 2,000 page PDF manual.

Somewhere within that manual there is a list of tcp port numbers that the service listens to and access to which is required for functionality. Which is just great if this was the 2000s – it would have made my life back then far easier.

But this isn’t the distant past (in technology terms). We don’t run simple stateful packet filters that can’t distinguish between some application making an API call over tcp/443 and some klutch watching cat videos over tcp/443.

We should be getting application specific rules – that can distinguish between legitimate application traffic and attack traffic. Surely it is not beyond the wit of application vendors to work with the firewall vendors to come up with such rules?

And application vendors who work with the firewall vendors to come up with proper firewall rules will gain a bit of a competitive edge. And in the wake of the SolarWinds breach, customers may be asking about security.

Seagull Over Sea
Dec 132020
 

We all love wireless networking – the untethered laptop, the smartphone, the tablets, the “smart home” stuff. It’s all so convenient.

But it also sucks, and for some things – particularly legacy applications that require a persistent connection – it sucks very hard indeed.

Why?

Fundamentally, wireless uses a shared medium – you’re sharing the airwaves with everyone else who has a wireless access point. Yes there are separate “channels” to help split up that shared medium, but you will still find yourself competing for bits of the airwaves.

Ever try listening to shortwave radio? All that noise, and interference. And every so often someone would break in and start reading out a long string of random numbers in the most boring tone of voice imaginable. That still happens, but instead of getting to peer under the skirt of national security, you get something even more boring – slowdowns and dropouts.

And this is all if you are sat in the same room as your wireless access point! Leave the room and all sorts of issues can arise. The power of wireless drops with distance and all sorts of things can block wireless.

Diagnosing wireless issues is something that takes highly paid specialists hours and frequently involves moving access points (which essentially moves the problem – hopefully to somewhere people won’t notice) or installing more access points (which can make things worse).

With all these problems, it is a wonder that wireless networking works at all. But it does! Most of the time. Perhaps Facebook acts up every once in a while (and just occasionally it is Facebook). Or any other web site. But some applications react badly to periodic drops in performance or ‘moments of silence’.

The purpose of this rant is that when you are having problems with network glitches when working from home, try a wired network connection. Yes getting that set up is tedious and you may need to spend some money, but it’s worth it to avoid all those dents in the desk.

The Red Door
Dec 092020
 

The ‘tubes are full of pundits expanding on ‘leaks’ from Apple about the possibility of more powerful ARM-based Apple Macs on the way.

No shit! What a surprise. You could knock me down with a feather.

The recently announced Macbooks with the ARM-based M1 processor from Apple are an initial release with something that is an improvement on their existing ARM-based processors used in their phones and tablets. A leak is hardly necessary to predict the release of more powerful processors to replace their whole line-up – if Apple is going to put ARM processors into their laptops, they’ll be doing the same for the rest of the line-up.

Next year, or the year after, you won’t find an Intel processor in any Apple product. Or perhaps most – it may be handy to keep one or two Intel-based products around simply to maintain a platform for software products that won’t work on ARM.

But there is no reason why Apple should stick to Intel, and every reason why they should – if they can produce a low-power laptop processor this good what can they do with a desktop processor power-budget?

Now it is entirely possible that Apple will stumble, but there really is no reason to act surprised when rumours of more ARM-based products ‘leak’.

No Fun At The Fair
Oct 102020
 

One of the big names in the opensource world – Eric Raymond – has declared that Windows will soon be effectively a Linux distribution. Which seems like a ridiculous notion; except technically it might make a lot of sense.

How?

It seems impossible for Microsoft to replace Windows with Linux, but actually it could be done. Windows itself consists of a bunch of software applications which call Windows “APIs” which in turn make calls to the legacy NT kernel. If all that software is written cleanly (it won’t be, but bear with me), it should be possible to make modifications to both (or either) the Linux kernel and the Windows APIs to allow Windows software to run natively.

Impossible? Nope – it has already been done to a certain extent – Wine and Proton allow a considerable amount of Windows software (and games!) to run under Linux.

Why?

So it’s not impossible, but surely it is a lot of work. So why?

Microsoft has a bit of a problem – they don’t make a huge amount of money selling the Windows operating system, and maintaining it is hugely expensive. All those security fixes, all those bug fixes, and all those new features they want to introduce.

Now most of this is done to the “userland” rather than the kernel itself, but the kernel does still need to be maintained. But what if you could use the Linux kernel and get some level of maintenance supplied by those not employed by Microsoft?

Would that save Microsoft money? It seems quite possible, and you can bet someone in Microsoft has estimated whether it would or not.

Will It Happen?

There are those who point to certain actions by Microsoft – the Linux subsystem for Windows, the Edge browser for Linux, the rumour of an Office build under Linux, etc. as indicators that Microsoft is planning this.

I think they’re wrong to the extent that those actions don’t say whether Microsoft is planning to make Windows a Linux distribution or not. There are plenty of reasons why Microsoft is releasing Linux software not least because they will almost certainly have developers that believe that porting software is a good way of finding bugs.

The real answer is that the only people who know are inside Microsoft.

The Join
Sep 242020
 

I like screenshots (the graphical kind) – I make them all the time for documentary purposes. But there is one kind of screenshot that makes me boil :-

Screenshots taken for fault finding which turn textual information into graphical information. How on earth am I supposed to be able to do anything with any of those IPv6 addresses without typing them in and risking making a typo?

And I’m a good typist – I’ve been known to freak people out by carrying on typing when they arrive at my desk whilst talking to them. But certain kinds of information – such as network addresses (whether MAC, IPv4, or IPv6) – are tricky to get right and a simple off-by-one error can dramatically influence the diagnostic results.

Now don’t get me wrong – I’m not expecting the average person to stop using screenshots when reporting faults. Hell, it’s better than nothing!

But there are IT support staff who don’t do textual cut&paste!

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