Beware ISPs offering Free Upgrades

If you’ve had an ADSL line since the early days, especially those with unlimited transit, you’ll probably be hearing from your ISP about now. They’ll be offering you a “free upgrade” to a new, faster service as the product you currently have is being discontinued by BT. This is a tad disingenuous.

What’s actually happening is that BT is changing its wholesale prices, making the legacy products like Datastream and IPStream less profitable than then newer Wholesale Broadband Connect (WBC), and they will indeed be dropping IPStream and Datastream from exchanges starting in October 2013. Although this won’t be overnight. That doesn’t mean your provider couldn’t offer you an equivalent service, although this will depend on the equipment remaining at the exchange and who operates it. Most of London, for example, has Be or C+W available as an alternative. Or they could move you on to WBC.

The disadvantage with WBC is that it will probably require you to change your modem (or entire router if its a modem/router combined). It’s not technically possible to programme WBC to connect at the older G.DMT standard, giving you the reliability you’re used to. Presumably if you’re using an old 512K line it’s for reliability rather than speed – the last thing you need is fast and flaky. You can clamp the modulation method on some modems, and if it’s a G.DMT-only modem it won’t attempt higher speeds, although this doesn’t guarantee it’ll be stable at the maximum 8Mbps is may try for. Unfortunately many ADSL2+ modems out there tend to get unstable if you turn up the wick, and there may be no way of turning it down from the modem’s side. This won’t have mattered on a G.DMT line, but these won’t exist any longer. In sort, you’re probably going to need a new one.

One striking feature of this whole situation is the different way ISPs are treating their customers; and bear in mind that people on these old lines will have been loyal customers for very many years, paying every month at early 2000’s rates. Zen Internet and EasyNet are good examples. If you had an unlimited IPStream before, this is what you get now.

Zen EasyNet AAISP 4theNet
(download limit)
Hard limited 100Gb  Remains unlimited Shaped (no change) Remains unlimited
Modem Tough – you must go  and buy another Send pre-configured new one free of charge Depends on service level Depends on service level
Price Same Reduced TBC Reduced
Speed Max 8Mbps down, 448K up As fast as possible up to 24Mbps down, 2Mbps up TBC 12Mbps down, 1Mbps up

This isn’t comparing like-for-like; 4theNet is a lot cheaper to begin with and favoured by those in the know, whereas Zen and EasyNet charge more but do a lot of end-user hand-holding. AAISP has mind-boggling technology solutions, but has always charged for transit in their own way – but they don’t cut you off. Unless Zen has a change of heart, their users are going to walk away. You get the vives that old customers are just too much trouble.


Airbus A319 Emergency Landing at Heathrow

It’s all over the news, with mobile phone pictures and everyone being interviewed. Although it’s clear one engine was in flames, one of the interviewees mentioned something really interesting that the main news media hasn’t picked up on yet…

Apparently the engine cowling became detached from both engines, after which the pilot assessed the situation with both engines running properly without covers. Only after one of the engines caught fire was the emergency landing made back at Heathrow. (This is reasonable – there are other places to land for less of an emergency and the crew might have wanted to assess the situation as to why they’d lost the covers before landing).

To lose one cover is unfortunate; to lose both is starting to look like carelessness.

It could be that the passenger being interviewed was a poor observer, or it could be that the covers were simply not latched on properly. It’s been said by the BBC people that “the covers were blown off” – engine explosion? Not likely, as apparently the engines remained running.

Logitech pulls plug on Vid HD and suggests users dismantle firewalls

One of the best things about Logitech USB web cameras was their video conferencing system called Vid HD. Unlike Skype, it’s secure (or can be). This was a great reason to use it, and why network administrators the world over would chose it over things like MSN Messenger and Skype.

Logitech LogoIf you want to know what’s wrong with Skype see my chapter on VoIP in the Handbook of Electronic Security and Digital Forensics. Basically it’s a “stealth” protocol based on illegal file sharing technology (Kazza) and is almost completely unmanageable at firewall level. Apart from its use as a conduit for malware through a firewall, its anarchic super-node structure is a menace. It was designed, of course, to make it impossible for the authorities to shut it down peer-to-peer media sharing operations after Napster’s servers were clobbered, so the directory server (super-nodes) can pop up anywhere you get a luser running Skype. In summary, no one who knows about security would be happy about Skype running on their corporate network, and home users can go to hell in a handcart.

So, it’s come as something of a shock to discover that Logitech, the supplier of reason, plans to do the dirty on all those who bought their kit and signed up to the service. According Joerg Tewes (their VP of digital home business group) on his blog, Logitech is going to withdraw the service on 1st July.

According to Tewes, “We launched Logitech Vid to make video calling easier and more approachable for our customers. We recognize that video calling has come a long way since then and there are now more widely used video calling solutions available, such as Skype.”

He continues by suggesting that users switch to Skype instead, as though this is some kind of decision made in the best interests of their hapless customers. There’s no hint of an apology.

Unless there is a change of heart from Logitech it’s going to leave a lot of people in the lurch. These will be people who understand about communications and security, not the home users that think Skype is cool. It’s going to hit the kind of people who specify product, and they’ll be loath to trust Logitech again as a result. I, for one, am certainly sorry I recommended them.

Deploying a replacement is going to be awkward and expensive, and there’s no obvious sensible replacement available.  Vid HD was simple, reliable and a good product. Logitech’s management may be simple, but they’re neither reliable nor good.

I have asked Logitech through for their comments through Joerg Tewes about the above, but they have so far declined to comment.


Rename file extensions in UNIX/Linux/FreeBSD

I had a directory with thousands of files from a Windoze environment with inconsistent file extension  Some ended in .hgt, others in .HGT. They all needed to be in lower case, for some Windows-written cross-compiled software to find them. UNIX is, of course, case-sensitive on such things but Windoze with its CP/M-like file system used upper-case only, and when the shift key was invented, decided to ignore case.

Anyway, rather than renaming thousands of files by hand I thought I’d write a quick script. Here it is. Remember, the old extension was  .HGT, but I needed them all to be .hgt:

for oldname in `find . -name "*.HGT"`
newname=`echo $oldname | tr .HGT .hgt`
mv $oldname $newname

Pretty straightforward  but I’d almost forgotten the tr (translate) command existed, so I’m now feeling pretty smug and thought I’d share it with the world. It’ll do more than a simple substitution – you could use “[A-Z] [a-z]” to convert all upper case characters in the file to lower case, but I wanted only the extensions done. I could probably have used -exec on the find command, but I’ll leave this as an exercise for the reader!

It could me more compact if you remove the $newname variable and substitute directly, but I used to have an echo line in there giving me confirmation I was doing the right thing.


Infosec 2013 – First Impressions

I’m here at Infosec 2013 at Earls Court, looking for the latest trends in Information Security. It feels a bit more sober this year, but this could be to do with the number of people turning up on the Tuesday. Hot topics? Well user privilege management seems to be headlining, at least a bit. That’s what the marketing people are aiming their guns at anyway, but it’s too early to tell what the real story will be.

I had a look at the “new” Firebox firewalls. Their big thing is application management, which is, apparently, a big selling point. Rather than just blocking out particular web sites based on URL, they are using signatures on web pages to do the blocking. This approach allows companies, for example, to allow people to access profiles on Facebook but not play games. It’s a good idea, but I don’t see how it can get around the YouTube problem – a mixture of business and entertainment videos (often embedded in supplier and customer web sites) with no obvious way to tell between them. I’ll be taking a closer look.

New at the show is South Korean cyber security company AhnLab. Given my recent comments on the North Korean cyber-warfare claims, they’ll be interesting to talk to.

What’s going on in the cyber-security business-wise? Overseas outsourcing is a recurring theme. Scary!


Lighttpd in a FreeBSD Jail (and short review)

Lighttpd is an irritatingly-named http daemon that claims to be light, compared to Apache. Okay, the authors probably have a point although this puppy seems to like dragging perl in to everything and there’s nothing minuscule about that.

I thought it might be worth a look, as Apache is a bit creaky. It’s configuration is certainly a lot simpler than httpd.conf,although strangely, you tend to end up editing the same number of lines. But is it lighter? Basically, yes. If you want the figures it’s currently running (on AMD64) a size of 16M compared to Apache httpd instances of 196M.

But we’re not comparing like for like here, as Lighttpd doesn’t have PHP; only CGI. If you’re worried about that being slow, there’s FastCGI, which basically keeps instances of the CGI program running and Lightttpd hands tasks off to an instance when they crop up. Apache can do this (there’s the inevitable mod), but most people seem happy using the built-in PHP these days so I don’t think FastCGI is very popular. It’s a pity, as I’ve always felt CGI is under-rated and I’m very comfortable passing off to programs written in ‘C’ without there being an noticeable performance issues. Using CGI to run a perl script and all that entails is horrendous, of course. But FastCGI should level the playing field and allow instances of perl or any other script language of your dreams to remain on standby in much the same way PHP currently remains on standby in Apache. That doesn’t make perl or PHP good, but it levels their use with PHP on Apache, giving you the choice. And you can also choose  high-performance ‘C’.

This is all encouraging, but  I haven’t scrapped Apache just yet. One simple problem, with no obvious solution, is the lack of support for the .htaccess file much loved by the web developers and their content management systems. Another worry for me is security. Apache might be big and confusing, but it’s been out there a long time and has a good track record (lately). If it has holes, there are a lot of people looking for them.

Lighttpd doesn’t have a security pedigree. I’m not saying it’s got problems; it’s just that it hasn’t been thrashed in the same way as Apache and I get the feeling that the development team is much smaller. Sometimes this helps, as it’s cleaner code, but it’s statistically less likely to have members adept at spotting security flaws too. I’m a bit concerned about the FastCGI servers all running on the same level, for example.

Fortunately you can mitigate a lot of security worries by running in a jail on FreeBSD (it will also chroot on Linux, giving some degree of protection). It was fairly straightforward to compile from the ports collection, but it does have quite a few dependencies. Loads of dependencies, in fact. I saw it drag m4 in for some reason! Also the installation script didn’t work for me but it’s easy enough to tweak manually (find the directory with the script and run make in it to get most of the job done). The other thing you have to remember is that it will store local configurations in /usr/local on BSD, instead of the base system directories.

To get it running you’ll need to edit  /usr/local/etc/lighttpd/lighttpd.conf, and if you’re running in a jail be sure to configure the IP addresses to bind to correctly. Don’t be fooled: There’s a line at the bottom that sets the IP address and port but you must find the entry server.bind in the middle of the file and set that to the address you’ve configured for the jail to have passed through. This double-entry a real pooh trap, especially as it tries to bind to the loopback interface and barfs with a mysterious message. Other than that, it just works – and when it’s in the jail it will happily co-exist with Apache.

I’ve got it running experimentally on a production server now, and I’ve also cross-compiled to ARM and it runs on Raspberry Pi (still on FreeBSD), but it was more fun doing that with Apache.

When I get time I’ll do a full comparison with Hiawatha.