April 11, 2016 brianradio2016

At least Hillary Clinton’s backward stance on encryption is somewhat in line with her actions. After all, it appears that she wasn’t using encryption on her email server for at least a few months, not to mention that the server was wildly insecure in other ways, including wide-open RDP and VNC services. Talk about bush league — but this was the secretary of state.

Meanwhile, we have the Panama Papers, which is a scandal unlike any the world has ever seen. I think we’ve only begun to scratch the surface, but one of the ruefully amusing aspects was Edward Snowden pointing out the utter hypocrisy of British PM David Cameron, who appears to support security and privacy only when it benefits him.

As tired as we may be of hearing about it, the fact remains that many powerful politicians do not understand encryption, security, or even privacy. You might think that the first requirement by a Secretary of State would be secure email. If she wanted to set up her own email server, security should have been the first, second, and third concern. Instead, it apparently was completely absent from the conversation.

Within tech circles, promoting the demise of encryption is an absurdity. Even trying to understand how anyone could think otherwise is a gymnastic mental exercise because we’re too close to the issue. We know how these things work, and we know exactly what happens when security is compromised. It’s never pretty. Poor information security destroys livesbankrupts companies, and routinely causes headaches for millions of people.

March 28, 2016 brianradio2016

No matter what you do in IT, one certainty persists: You will have questions. Very few tasks and zero projects come completely packaged and ready to go — one item or another will always requires further definition. But the key to moving through that process effectively is to question your questions. The ability to construct the right query is an undervalued talent indeed.

I see this all the time. Meetings are held about one project or another, defining a business need, an IT need, or a technical requirement, and the majority of the meeting addresses the plan to achieve the stated goal. However, in many cases nobody gets around to framing the right question leading to an answer that might actually reach the goal.

This might be as simple as “How do we build a tool to allow our support staff to more efficiently help our customers?” or “What’s the best way we can shore up our DR strategy in the short term?” Those are high-level questions that can lead in any number of directions, but at least they’re clearly stated. Closer to the ground, asking the right question can mean the difference between a successful outcome or a waste of time and money.

As an example, we might want to color outside the lines a bit and adapt a piece of software for a task other than its primary purpose. This is a common occurrence. However, we don’t know if it’s possible to do what we need. Thus, we head to Google and start framing searches to find out if anyone else has traveled this road before and how they solved this particular puzzle. Since we have some knowledge of the tools at hand, we start by constructing queries referencing the tools we have in mind and keywords related to our desired goal. Oddly, however, we find little or nothing that ties the two together. No matter how we frame our question, there’s nothing out there.

March 21, 2016 brianradio2016

It was a simpler time when Patch Tuesday was the most significant update cycle in technology. Of course there were patches and updates for other operating systems and applications, but the time between them was typically lengthy.

Back then, operating systems had long lifecycles. Full releases were several years apart, with minor updates in between. Our mobile phones never received updates, but of course we didn’t have smartphones and tablets as we’ve come to know them today. Our home entertainment systems were the same, as were our cars. Software updates happened at work, on an unusual day.

Today, everything needs updates, seemingly constantly. This trail leads from the smallest to the largest technology elements in our modern daily lives.

I turn on the TV and the streaming media box either immediately requests an update or has completed one, and the interface has changed. The TV itself prompts for a software update. My mobile phone is telling me 22 apps need to be updated — 30 on my tablet. My laptop pops up a reminder about new updates that need to be installed every day, and as I’m in the middle of something important, I tell it not today. Unbelievably, Windows users are losing that capability, as Microsoft has begun forcibly upgrading Windows 7 systems to Windows 10. Frankly, that should be a crime.

March 14, 2016 brianradio2016

Virtual private networks have many uses. Typically, businesses deploy VPNs so employees can securely access the corporate network from outside the office. However, we’ve seen a rise in third-party VPN services that use the same underlying technology, the encrypted tunnel, to simply provide a secure Internet connection.

Why would you ever need to do this?

When connected to a VPN service, the websites you access think you’re at the location where the VPN server is located. This can help anonymize your Internet traffic so it’s much harder for websites to track your personal browsing history.

March 14, 2016 brianradio2016

The last few turns in the Apple/FBI fiasco have been illuminating and highly disturbing — it’s becoming a war. Late last week, the Department of Justice filed a motion against Apple that included this incendiary tidbit: “Apple’s rhetoric is not only false, but also corrosive of the very institutions that are best able to safeguard our liberty and our rights.”

Apple’s public response called out the DOJ on a number of issues, not the least of which was in reference to that charge: “Everyone should beware, because it seems like disagreeing with the Department of Justice means you must be evil and anti-American. Nothing could be further from the truth.”

Among all of the attacks on data privacy in the past few years, this case stands to be the most important. It will go a long way toward determining digital privacy rights for the foreseeable future. This is not a case about a single phone or a terrorist or a technology company. This is a case that will likely set a precedent for whether tech firms will be required to provide backdoor access to their products.

To be clear — this backdoor is not to provide access to the data present on one of Apple’s products when asked, or with a warrant, but instead to ensure that all of its products can be accessed if needed. As much as the DOJ denies it, this will require building a master key. And that isn’t good for anyone.

March 7, 2016 brianradio2016

In the decades I’ve been in deep IT, there have been a few constants in the sea of change. One of those constants is that the simpler solution is generally the better solution. Also, estimating the amount of time any one task will require is a fool’s errand.

We’ve all been in technical meetings where a widget needs to be tweaked, a service needs to be modified, or what have you. Invariably a nontechnical person will state the task can’t be hard to do, and an engineer or developer, eyes growing wide, will counter that it will take several days at least. Many times, another techie, perhaps looking to curry favor, will chime in and say it should only take a few hours to work out. The truth is usually somewhere in the middle.

The fact is the nontechie has no frame of reference for the time requirement; he simply does not know if he asked for a frame-off rebuild of a classic car or an exterior wax. The engineer who has to do the work will say double or triple the amount of time he actually believes it will take in order to build in a buffer in case things go pear-shaped. The other techie knows what needs to be done, but fails to consider the commitment required around the actual work itself, such as the time needed to stand up a new dev environment, build test harnesses, perform testing, create documentation, and so forth. 

A perfect example of this phenomenon was seen recently from our favorite Martian, John McAfee. Last week he very publicly stated it would take “half an hour” to access the data on an encrypted iPhone. There is absolutely no way this is true. It’s a nonsense statement that has less bearing on reality than most of the claims we’ve heard on the presidential campaign trail this year — and that’s truly saying something.

February 29, 2016 brianradio2016

Working in deep IT is a double-edged sword. We know a lot more about the tech that nontechies use daily, but this wisdom can come back to haunt us — especially when we don’t take the time to educate fellow consumers in basic tech facts. After all, widespread confusion around terms and jargon provides great cover for unsavory business practices, most notably in the case of cable and Internet providers. It might help if we could do more educating than eye-rolling in those situations.

The chasm between technophiles and nontechies continues to grow unabated, and at the bottom of that chasm, there sit basic disparities in understanding, most notably in terms and units of measurements. For us in the know, technical terms have very explicit definitions; for others, not so much. Most of the world is familiar with the term “gigabyte” but has no real reference for the word. It’s up there with light-year and league as a known unit of measurement, but without real context. Heck, for many, it’s synonymous with “gigabit” and “modem.” This leads to problems in basic communication.

I read a story last week that breathlessly described a “breakthrough” that “enables downloads 50,000 times faster than ‘superfast’ broadband.” I get that this is click bait, but it serves to illustrate my point. The article went on to describe a multiplexed connection utilizing 15 fiber strands and compression to achieve 1.125Tbps throughout. It had absolutely nothing to do with broadband, yet the article took pains to measure this lab achievement against consumer broadband speeds and mentioned how you could download the entire “Game of Thrones” series in “a fraction of a second.”

Leaving aside all of the technical issues with that last statement, such as writing 1.125Tbps to storage, I understand why the article is presented this way. If the headline simply said researchers were able to simulate data transmissions at 1.125 terabits per second, most people would nod, then click to some other website. If you give them a familiar handle to grasp, such as a comparison to their own Internet connection, then eyebrows may raise, and some knowledge may be transferred.

February 22, 2016 brianradio2016

One of the constants in the tech world is that the marketing and sales folks want to make hard things easy in order to net more sales. One of the other constants is that the tech folks push back because many topics cannot properly be simplified, and by trying to make them simpler, we introduce bigger problems. Some areas are actually better left alone.

The readily available example of this might be the CLI. If you want someone to be able to perform simple tasks, give them a menu system. If you want them to be able to do the harder, more intricate work, give them a CLI. At a certain point, hand-holding becomes impossible. But I’ve waxed on that topic before.

The quest for one-click solutions to difficult problems is eternal. You could say that development environments such as Heroku fit that mold, as do Docker and (to a lesser degree) virtualization. There’s a lot of benefit in these solutions, but plenty of barriers as well.

We’re seeing the same simplifications in cloud infrastructure services that have matured to the point where they’re not offering only server instances, but entire, prebuilt application stacks ready to be clicked once and brought into the world. WordPress? Drupal? PHP? LAMP? Rails? Redis? Hadoop? Click here, and you’ll have a fully load-balanced stack with some kind of database back end ready to go. These aren’t single server instances with everything pre-installed. They’re multitiered stacks designed for scalability and heavier loads.

February 8, 2016 brianradio2016

I welcomed 2016 with a column about events that may come to pass — or at least substantially grow in significance — this year. That included a forecast that streaming content will become the norm, not the exception. I don’t mean Netflix or Amazon Prime, but the streaming of traditionally broadcast content, such as first-run shows from CBS, NBC, ABC, Fox, and the like, along with live sporting events.

Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, and other streaming services showcase either original content or a catalog of existing movies and TV shows — they don’t deal with live content or what we would consider broadcast television, such as the next episode of “Elementary” or cable content such as the return of “The Walking Dead.” That type of content is still delivered in the traditional broadcast method, which today means multicast over a cable network infrastructure.

But the signs that this is changing are everywhere. Major League Baseball is returning with MLB.tv, which allows subscribers to stream games to any device. This includes the ability to stream games and other related content directly to the MLB app running on streaming boxes such as the Apple TV, Roku, and Amazon Fire TV. You can catch NFL games on a variety of streaming apps as well, including the NFL’s own app for mobile devices and some streaming devices, though the NFL service is not as straightforward as the MLB offering. Other sports are joining the parade too.

ABC, CBS, and NBC all have apps for set-top streaming boxes, and apps were recently released for channels such as Fox Now, Food Network, HGTV, and the Travel Channel. You could already find apps for ESPN, FX, A&E, and others, including premium channels such as HBO, Starz, and Showtime that charge a per-month fee for the privilege. You can even add multichannel bundling services to the mix, such as Sling TV live streaming. The availability of these apps is dependent on the streaming platform, so you might find apps for the Apple TV that aren’t yet available for Roku, but they probably will be at some point.