Monthly Archives: November 2007

For Millions of Windows PC's, the Perfect Storm is Gathering

November 27th, 2007

Listen To Recorded Audio:

A spectre is haunting the net but, outside of techie circles, nobody seems to be talking about it. The threat it represents to our security and wellbeing may be less dramatic than anything posed by global terrorism, but it has the potential to wreak much more havoc. And so far, nobody has come up with a good idea on how to counter it.

It’s called the Storm worm. It first appeared at the beginning of the year, hidden in email attachments with the subject line: ‘230 dead as storm batters Europe ‘. The PC of anyone who opened the attachment became infected and was secretly enrolled in an ever-growing network of compromised machines called a ‘botnet’. The term ‘bot’ is a derivation of ‘software robot’, which is another way of saying that an infected machine effectively becomes the obedient slave of its – illicit – owner. If your PC is compromised in this way then, while you may own the machine, someone else controls it. And they can use it to send spam, to participate in distributed denial-of-service attacks on banks, e-commerce or government websites, or for other ‘even more sinister’ purposes.

Storm has been spreading steadily since last January, gradually constructing a huge botnet. It affects only computers running Microsoft Windows, but that means that more than 90 per cent of the world’s PCs are vulnerable. Nobody knows how big the Storm botnet has become, but reputable security professionals cite estimates of between one million and 50 million computers worldwide.

To date, the botnet has been used only intermittently, which is disquieting: what it means is that someone, somewhere, is quietly building a doomsday machine that can be rented out to the highest bidder, or used for purposes that we cannot yet predict.

Of course, computer worms are an old story, which may explain why the mainstream media has paid relatively little attention to what’s been happening.

Old-style worms – the ones with names like Sasser, Slammer and Nimda – were written by vandals or hackers and designed to spread as quickly as possible. Slammer, for example, infected 75,000 computers in 10 minutes, and therefore attracted a lot of attention. The vigour of the onslaught made it easier for anti-virus firms to detect the attack and come up with countermeasures. In that sense, old-style worms were like measles – an infectious disease that shows immediate symptoms.

Storm is different. It spreads quietly, without drawing attention to itself. Symptoms don’t appear immediately, and an infected computer can lie dormant for a long time. ‘If it were a disease,’ says one expert, Bruce Schneier, ‘it would be more like syphilis, whose symptoms may be mild or disappear altogether, but which will come back years later and eat your brain.’

Schneier thinks Storm represents ‘the future of malware’ because of the technical virtuosity of its design. For example, it works rather like an ant colony, with separation of duties. Only a small fraction of infected hosts spread the worm. A much smaller fraction are command-and-control servers; the rest stand by to receive orders. By only allowing a small number of hosts to propagate the virus and act as command-and-control servers, Storm is resilient against attack because even if those hosts shut down, the network remains largely intact and other hosts can take over their duties.

More fiendishly, Storm doesn’t have any noticeable performance impact on its hosts. Like a parasite, it needs the host to be intact and healthy for its own survival. This makes it harder to detect, because users and network administrators won’t notice any abnormal behavior most of the time.

And instead of having all hosts communicate with a central server or set of servers, Storm uses a peer-to-peer networking protocol for its command-and-control servers. This makes the botnet much harder to disable because there’s no centralised control point to be identified and shut down.

It gets worse. Storm’s delivery mechanism changes regularly. It began as PDF spam, then morphed into e-cards and YouTube invites. It then started posting blog-comment spam, again trying to trick viewers into clicking infected links. Similarly, the Storm email changes all the time, with new, topical subject lines and text. And last month Storm began attacking anti-spam sites focused on identifying it. It has also attacked the personal website of a malware expert who published an analysis of how it worked.

At the moment, nobody knows who’s behind this. Is it a Russian mafia operation? An al-Qaeda scheme? The really creepy thing is that, to date, the controllers of Storm have used it for such relatively trivial purposes. The suspicion is that they are biding their time, waiting for the moment when, say, 100 million naive Windows users have clicked on an infected link and unwittingly added their machines to the botnet. Only then will we know what a perfect storm in cyberspace is like.

Check the links below to read up on the Storm worm.

How Bad Is The Storm Worm?

The Storm Worm

About The Storm Worm

Snopes is our favorite site for verifying and/or debunking internet & email gossip

Storm Worm Rages Across The GlobeStorm Worm Adds Millions Of Computers To Botnet

10 Computer Components You Should Replace Rather Than Repair

November 20th, 2007

With all the reports of consumers being ripped off by unscrupulous computer repair people, I thought I’d share a little information to shed some light on repairing vs. replacing aging or failing components.Any time a computer component stops working, or just becomes unstable — as we all know will happen from time to time — we have to decide whether to replace it, have it repaired, or just get by as is with perhaps a temporary fix. Just getting by will nearly always be the cheapest solution, at least in the short run. Replacement, however, will usually provide a good opportunity to upgrade. In fact, given the rate at which the various technologies behind computer hardware are advancing, unless you replace something a week after you buy it, you may almost be forced to upgrade. The following are a few items which, if replaced (and generally upgraded), can provide excellent benefits, from an enhanced user experience to additional compatibility, greater longevity, and stability for the whole system.

#1: Power Supply
One of the most overlooked pieces of computer hardware is the power supply unit (PSU). Computer enthusiasts often brag about their blazing fast processors, top-of-the- line video cards, and gigs upon gigs of RAM, but rarely about their great PSUs.
The truth is, the power supply is the last thing we should skimp on when choosing components for our system. If a computer’s brain is its processor, its heart is the power supply. And having one that is worn out, underpowered, unstable, or just generally cheap can be a major cause of hardware failure. Every computer’s power requirements are different, but a good minimum for a modern PC is 450 watts. Some systems, especially those with multiple high-end video cards or lots of add-on cards and peripherals may require a PSU rated at 800 watts or more. Replacing a failing or inadequate power supply can make a previously unstable system stable. Aside from supplying enough power, that power must be supplied stably. A common cause of “unexplained” lockups and system crashes is a drop in voltage supplied to the system when under load, caused by a poorly manufactured PSU. The easiest way to find a quality PSU is to stick to the consistently top brands such as Antec, EnerMax, and PC Power & Cooling.

#2: Fans
As computers have gotten more powerful over the last decades, they have also gotten hotter. Gone are the days of a passively cooled Pentium 100; now we have fans on our massive CPU heatsinks, on our monster video cards, and on intake and outtake vents to our computer cases. All of these fans are playing important roles by keeping our computers safely cooled, and we should try to ensure that they continue doing so.
Fans are one of the few parts that when replaced will not usually be replaced with something better. But they deserve mention because: As one of the few moving parts in our system, they are one of the most likely to actually break. When they break, it’s likely to pass unnoticed or not cause much concern. Also, fans are cheap and easy to replace. It generally takes about 10 dollars, 15 minutes, and a screwdriver to install a new one, so there’s really no good excuse for not doing so.

#3: Surge Protector / UPS
This is another item that keeps our computers safe and should not be neglected. A surge protector can be a stand-alone power strip, but one is also built into virtually every uninterruptible power supply (UPS). The surge protector guards our devices against spikes in energy that occur in our circuits at the home or office, usually due to lightning or the powering up of high-powered devices, such as hair dryers or refrigerators. Repairing a surge protector would be difficult and expensive at best; replacement is almost always the best option.
It can be tricky to know when it’s time to replace a surge protector, because the component inside that diverts excess power from surges to the ground simply wears out with repeated use. However, there is often no interruption of power or other indication that it’s done. You may still have juice but not be protected. The cheapest protectors may wear out after fewer than 10 small surges, while the better ones can last through hundreds. The safest thing to do is to get higher quality protectors but still replace them occasionally.

#4: Video Card
The video card is one of the most important elements in the performance of your system and overall user experience. Even though it is also one of the priciest components, there are two good reasons to replace it should your old one bite the dust.
First, video cards are one of the components that are being improved upon seemingly every day. Just like with CPUs, a video card that’s two years old simply isn’t as fast as a current one and won’t have the newest features (such as support for DirectX 10). Also, the video card is the number one hardware stopgap as we migrate to Vista . Manufacturers just aren’t providing new Vista-compatible drivers for lots of their old video cards. This means that many of us will have to replace our video cards whether they are broken or not, if we plan to switch to Vista .

#5: Flash Media Reader
All kinds of devices use flash cards these days: cameras, MP3 players, even cell phones. These small devices let us take our data anywhere easily. Since it seems as if every device uses a different format of flash media, most of us have all-in-one type card readers. If the reader breaks or gets lost (which seems to happen a lot), there are two excellent reasons for upgrading to a newer model instead of trying to repair the old one.
First, many old card readers are USB 1.1. The newer ones use USB 2.0 instead, which is 40 times faster. This is more than enough reason to replace an old reader, even if it’s not broken. In addition, new formats are constantly coming out for flash cards, and when they do, you need a new reader to use them. For example, Secure Digital High Capacity (SDHC) and xD from Fujifilm are not supported by older readers.

#6: CD/DVD Drives
Considering that it has moving, spinning parts, the average CD/DVD drive is actually fairly robust. Because of that, however, many people are still using old read-only (or CD RW) drives instead of amazingly cheap (and handy) DVD writers. If you’re still using an old drive and it finally gives up the ghost, you’ll probably be glad it did when you replace it with a DVD/CD RW combo drive for less than 50 dollars.

#7: Hard Drives
The computer component we all least want to fail is the hard drive. It’s easier to cope with the loss of the much more expensive processor or video card as long as we still have our precious data, so your first instinct is to try to repair it. But if you’ve been practicing good backup habits, you can actually come out of the situation better off when you replace the old drive with something bigger and faster.
The “giant” 100-GB hard drive of a few years ago is no longer so large. Today, you can get 750 GB for less than 200 bucks. In addition to being much, much larger, newer hard drives will generally be Serial ATA II (SATA II), which has a maximum data transfer rate of about 300 MB/s as opposed to SATA I’s 150 MB/s and the older Parallel ATA (PATA) rate of 133 MB/s. SATA II is fairly new, so many motherboards don’t support it. But even if yours doesn’t, the SATA II drives generally have a jumper that can put them in SATA I mode.

TIP: Right now, most SATA II hard drives ship with this limiting jumper in place by default, so if your board does support SATA II, be sure to change the jumper before you install the drive.

#8: Monitor
With the exception of servers, a computer isn’t much good without a monitor. Monitors rarely make it all the way to the stage of completely not working, because we replace them when they start to fade. If you replace a monitor that’s more than a few years old, the new one will likely not much resemble the old.
Any reluctance you may have had to switch from the giant 50-pound cathode ray tube (CRT) monitor to a slim and featherweight liquid crystal display (LCD) should be gone by now. The gap in performance in terms of color rendering and refresh rates between CRTs and LCDs is very small. Unless you’re a graphics designer who needs a multi-thousand dollar large screen CRT, the benefits of size, weight, power consumption, and less eye fatigue that LCDs enjoy will far outweigh any small performance advantages of a CRT. With the exception of the extremely high and extremely low end markets, it’s quite hard to find a new CRT monitor anyway. If you were already using an LCD that’s a few years old, when you replace it you’ll enjoy those leaps in performance that the LCDs have made in the last few years.

#9: Keyboard
Since so many of us spend hours every day banging away at them, it’s important to have a keyboard that’s comfortable and efficient. And since we use them so much and often so brutally, it’s no wonder they break often. Keys come off, get stuck, or just get really dirty. When these things happen, you should usually go ahead and replace the keyboard rather than live with the hassle.
Today’s keyboards have new, handy features. Some have built in user-defined macro keys for often-repeated commands; some can fold up for easy transportability; some have built-in ports so they can double as USB hubs. There is a keyboard with some unique feature to suit nearly anyone’s needs.

#10: Motherboard and Processor
Replacing the motherboard is always the most involved upgrade. Since it usually means “starting over” with a clean installation of the operating system, lots of people are reluctant to change to a newer board even when the old one gives up the ghost, preferring instead to replace it with the exact same model, thus avoiding having to wipe the OS. However, since a motherboard upgrade is the most involved, it also can give the widest range of benefits.
First and foremost, replacing the motherboard usually gives us the chance to upgrade to the latest processor technology. Today, you can get the benefits of a dual or even quad CPU setup with only one processor, thanks to multi-core technology, in which more than one processing core is placed on a single wafer. In a multitasking or multithreaded environment, this effectively increases your computer’s performance by a factor of two or four. Additionally, upgrading the motherboard gives you access to new technologies for other components. PATA and SATA I hard drives (and optical drives) can be upgraded to SATA II. AGP video cards can be upgraded to PCI-E. USB 1.1 ports become USB 2.0. The list goes on for virtually every component and to complete this major upgrade you’ll need to replace the power supply and quite possibly the tower case itself. Sometimes, even though it can be a pain, starting over can be the best choice and the best bang for the buck. Article source TechRepublic/TechTips

Speed up Web Surfing with OpenDNS

Listen To Recorded Audio:

November 6th, 2007

OpenDNS is the cutting-edge Internet service by a San Francisco-based company. Simply put, with OpenDNS you are no longer tied to using your ISP’s slow and much overworked DNS servers.

What the heck is DNS?
Whenever you access a website your computer first contacts a domain name server (DNS) to find out what server IP address is paired with that particular domain name. By default without any configuration your computer automatically uses DNS servers provided by your ISP which are commonly overused and slow. You can experience anywhere from 50 milliseconds to a second or more when dealing with slow DNS’s before your computer can interact with the actual website.

Enter OpenDNS
By configuring your computer to use the domain name servers at OpenDNS you can benefit from more reliable and faster DNS servers and queries. But it doesn’t stop there – Block the bad sites and whitelist the good.

Phishing Protection

OpenDNS operates, the world’s most trusted source of phishing data. They integrate that data into an intelligence feed on their DNS servers to keep everyone on your network safe from phony sites trying to steal personal information.

Domain Blocking

You want to secure your network and have control over what resolves. OpenDNS gives you that control by providing the tools to block any website or DNS zone on the Internet, all through an easy-to-use interface.

Adult Site Blocking

Safeguard your kids, protect your students, or limit your corporate liability by blocking adult websites. The OpenDNS adult site blocking solution can be deployed in minutes and provides granular levels of blocking. Did I mention it’s completely free?

Web Proxy Blocking
Prevent people on your network from bypassing the access restrictions you put in place. Blocking Web proxies helps ensure your network remains secure.

Domain Whitelisting
They also provide a (growing) list of Web content filtering categories to block, but sometimes there is a domain you want to make sure is never blocked, even if it’s listed in a feed. Have the final say with the Domain Whitelisting feature.

Got stats? Statistics
Understand your Web traffic with intutive stats about your network’s DNS. This is your data, and now you can view it like never before. And of course, if you don’t want stats, they won’t collect any DNS data from you, at all.

To the end user, the OpenDNS service is truly transparent. You won’t really notice that you’re using it with the exception of the speed and security improvements. It does nothing to hinder your browsing habits.

Okay so now that I’ve got your attention you’re probably wondering how you too can start browsing with OpenDNS. It’s rather simple, all you need to do is tell your computer (or router if you’re on a network) to use the OpenDNS servers whose IP’s can be found on their website. Fortunately, for those folks with no idea where to start, they offer comprehensive guides to setting it all up. Choose the brand and model router you own and follow the simple instructions.

What to do?
The best thing to do is sign up for an OPENDNS account. It’s absolutely FREE so make a positive move towards a faster, safer and more secure internet for your home, family or business.

ActSmartDentalThe Most Dental IT Experience
on the South Shore!

David’s Blog Archives
Our Clients Say:
Everybody @ ActSmart is WONDERFUL! We are very relieved to have you on our team & know that we are in great hands. ~Leslie, Glivinski & Associates
Proud To Be:
Attention Dental Practices:

We Offer:
Follow Us: