Entries tagged as technology
Saturday, March 29. 2014
Let's get this out of the way. One of the primary reasons I'm writing this is in response to a request by John Carmack for coherent commentary about the recent acquisition of Oculus VR by Facebook. My hope is that he does, in fact, read this and maybe drop a comment in response. <fanboy>Hi John!</fanboy> I've been a huge Carmack fan since the early ID days, so please excuse the fanboyism.
And I *just* saw the news that Michael Abrash has joined Oculus as well, which is also incredibly exciting. Abrash is an Assembly GOD. <Insert more fanboyism here />
Ok, on to the topic a hand. The Oculus Rift is a VR headset that got its public start with a Kickstarter campaign in September of 2012. It blew away it's meager goal of $250,000 and raked in almost $2.5 Million. For a mere $275 and some patience, contributors would receive an unassembled prototype of the Oculus Rift. Toss in another $25 and you received an assembled version.
But what is the Oculus Rift? According to the Kickstarter campaign :
Oculus Rift is a new virtual reality (VR) headset designed specifically for video games that will change the way you think about gaming forever. With an incredibly wide field of view, high resolution display, and ultra-low latency head tracking, the Rift provides a truly immersive experience that allows you to step inside your favorite game and explore new worlds like never before.
In short, the Rift is the culmination of every VR lover's dreams. Put a pair of these puppies on and magic appears before your eyes.
For myself, Rift was interesting, but probably not something I could ever use. Unfortunately, I suffer from Amblyopia, or Lazy Eye as it's commonly called. I'm told I don't see 3D. Going to 3D movies pretty much confirms this for me since nothing ever jumps out of the screen. So as cool as VR sounds to me, I would miss out on the 3D aspect. Though it might be possible to "tweak" the headset and adjust the angles a bit to force my eyes to see 3D. I'm not sure if that's good for my eyes, though.
At any rate, the Rift sounds like an amazing piece of technology. In the past year I've watched a number of videos demonstrating the capabilities of the Rift. From the Hak5 crew to Ben Heck, the reviews have all been positive.
And then I learned that John Carmack joined Oculus. I think that was about the time I realized that Oculus was the real deal. John is a visionary in so many different ways. One can argue that modern 3D gaming is largely in part to the work he did in the field. In more recent years, his visions have aimed a bit higher with his rocket company, Armadillo Aerospace. Armadillo started winding down last year, right about the time that John joined Oculus, leaving him plenty of time to deep dive into a new venture.
For anyone paying attention, Oculus was recently acquired by Facebook for a mere $2 Billion. Since the announcement, I've seen a lot of hatred being tossed around on Twitter. Some of this hatred seems to be Kickstarter backers who are under some sort of delusion that makes them believe they have a say in anything they back. I see this a lot, especially when a project is taking longer than they believe it should.
I can easily write several blog posts on my personal views about this, but to sum it up quickly, if you back a project, you're contributing to make something a reality. Sometimes that works, sometimes it doesn't. But Kickstarter clearly states that you're merely contributing financial backing, not gaining a stake in a potential product and/or company. Nor are you guaranteed to receive the perks you've contributed towards. So suck it up and get over it. You never had control to begin with.
I think Notch, of Minecraft fame, wrote a really good post about his feeling on the subject. I think he has his head right. He contributed, did his part, and though it's not working out the way he wanted, he's still willing to wish the venture luck. He may not want to play in that particular sandbox, but that's his choice.
VR in a social setting is fairly interesting. In his first Oculus blog post, Michael Abrash mentioned reading Neal Stephenson's incredible novel, Snow Crash. Snow Crash provided me with a view of what virtual reality might bring to daily life. Around the same time, the movie Lawnmower Man was released. Again, VR was brought into the forefront of my mind. But despite the promises of books and movies, VR remained elusive.
More recently, I read a novel by Ernest Cline, Ready Player One. Without giving too much away, the novel centers around a technology called the OASIS. Funnily enough, the OASIS is, effectively, a massive social network that users interact with via VR rigs. OASIS was the first thing I thought about when I heard about the Facebook / Oculus acquisition.
For myself, my concern is Facebook. Despite being a massively popular platform, I think users still distrust Facebook quite a bit. I lasted about 2 weeks on Facebook before having my account deleted. I understand their business model and I have no interest in taking part. Unfortunately, I'm starting to miss out on some aspects of Internet life since some sites are requiring Facebook accounts for access. Ah well, I guess they miss out on me as well.
I have a lot of distrust in Facebook at the moment. They wield an incredible amount of information about users and, to be honest, they're nowhere near transparent enough for me to believe what they say. Google is slightly better, but there's some distrust there as well. But more than just the distrust, I'm afraid that Facebook is going to take something amazing and destroy it in a backwards attempt to monetize it. I'm afraid that Facebook is the IOI of this story. (It's a Ready Player One reference. Go read it, you can thank me later)
Ultimately, I have no stake in this particular game. At least, not yet, anyway. Maybe I'm wrong and Facebook makes all the right moves. Maybe they become a power for good and are able to bring VR to the masses. Maybe people like Carmack and Abrash can protect Oculus and fend off any fumbling attempts Facebook may make at clumsy monetization. I'm not sure how this will play out, only time will tell.
How will we know how things are going? Well, for one, watching his Facebook interacts with this new property will be pretty telling. I think if Facebook is able to sit in the shadows and watch rather than kicking in the front door and taking over, maybe Oculus will have a chance to thrive. Watching what products are ultimately released by Oculus will be another telling aspect. While I fully expect that Oculus will add some sort of Facebook integration into the SDK over time, I'm also hoping that they continue to provide an SDK for standalone applications.
I sincerely wish Carmack, Abrash, and the rest of the Oculus team the best. I think they're in a position where they can make amazing things happen, and I'm eager to see what comes next.
Thursday, February 20. 2014
I was debugging an odd network issue lately that turned out to have a pretty simple explanation. A client on the network was intermittently experiencing significant delays in accessing the network. Upon closer inspection, it turned out that prior to the delay, the client was being left idle for long periods of time. With this additional information it was pretty easy to identify that there was likely a connection between the client and server that was being torn down for being idle.
So in the end, the cause of the problem itself was pretty simple to identify. The fix, however, is more of a conundrum. The obvious answer is to adjust the timers and prevent the connection from being torn down. But what timers should be adjusted? There are the keepalive timers on the client, the keepalive timers on the server, and the idle teardown timers on the firewall in the middle.
TCP keepalive handling varies between operating systems. If we look at the three major operating systems, Linux, Windows, and OS X, then we can make the blanket statement that, by default, keepalives are sent after two hours of idle time. But, most firewalls seem to have a default TCP teardown timer of one hour. These defaults are not conducive to keeping idle connections alive.
The optimal scenario for timeouts is for the clients to have a keepalive timer that fires at an interval lower than that of the idle tcp timeout on the firewall. The actual values to use, as well as which devices should be changed, is up for debate. The firewall is clearly the easier point at which to make such a change. Typically there are very few firewall devices that would need to be updated as compared to the larger number of client devices. Additionally, there will likely be fewer firewalls added to the network over time, so ensuring that timers are properly set is much easier. On the other hand, the defaults that firewalls are generally configured with have been chosen specifically by the vendor for legitimate reasons. So perhaps the clients should conform to the setting on the firewall? What is the optimal solution?
And why would we want to allow idle connections anyway? After all, if a connection is idle, it's not being used. Clearly, any application that needed a connection to remain open would send some sort of keepalive, right? Is there a valid reason to allow these sorts of connections for an extended period of time?
As it turns out, there are valid reasons for connections to remain active, but idle. For instance, database connections are often kept for longer periods of time for performance purposes. The TCP handshake can take a considerable amount of time to perform as opposed to the simple matter of retrieving data from a database. So if the database connection remains established, additional data can be retrieved without the overhead of TCP setup. But in these instances, shouldn't the application ensure that keepalives are sent so that the connection is not prematurely terminated by an idle timer somewhere along the data path? Well, yes. Sort of. Allow me to explain.
When I first discovered the source of the network problem we were seeing, I chalked it up to lazy programming. While it shouldn't take much to add a simple keepalive system to a networked application, it is extra work. As it turns out, however, the answer isn't quite that simple. All three major operating systems, Windows, Linux, and OS X, all have kernel level mechanisms for TCP keepalives. Each OS has a slightly different take on how keepalive timers should work.
There's a pretty good reference page with information on how to set these parameters that can be found here.
We still haven't answered the question of optimal settings. Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be a correct answer. The defaults provided by most firewall vendors seem to have been chosen to ensure that the firewall does not run out of resources. Each connection through the firewall must be tracked. As a result, each connection uses up a portion of memory and CPU. Since both memory and CPU are finite resources, administrators must be careful not to exceed the limits of the firewall platform.
There is some good news. Firewalls have had a one hour tcp timeout timer for quite a while. As time has passed and new revisions of firewall hardware are released, the CPU has become more powerful and the amount of memory in each system has grown. The default one hour timer, however, has remained in place. This means that modern firewall platforms are much better prepared to handle an increase in the number of connections tracked. Ultimately, the firewall platform must be monitored and appropriate action taken if resource usage becomes excessive.
My recommendation would be to start by setting the firewall tcp teardown timer to a value slightly higher than that of the clients. For most networks, this would be slightly over two hours. The firewall administrator should monitor the number of connections tracked on the firewall as well as the resources used by the firewall. Adjustments should be made as necessary.
If longer lasting idle connections are unacceptable, then a slightly different tactic can be used. The firewall teardown timer can be set to a level comfortable to the administrator of the network. Problematic clients can be updated to send keepalive packets at a shorter interval. These changes will likely only be necessary on servers. Desktop systems don't have the same need as servers for long-term establishment of idle connections.
Friday, February 7. 2014
SSL, a cryptographically secure protocol, was created by Netscape in the mid-1990's. Today, SSL, and it's replacement, TLS, are used by web browsers and other programs to create secure connections between devices across the Internet.
SSL provides the means to cryptographically secure a tunnel between endpoints, but there is another aspect of security that is missing. Trust. While a user may be confident that the data received from the other end of the SSL tunnel was sent by the remote system, the user can not be confident that the remote system is the system it claims to be. This problem was partially solved through the use of a Public Key Infrastructure, or PKI.
PKI, in a nutshell, provides the trust structure needed to make SSL secure. Certificates are issued by a certificate authority or CA. The CA cryptographically signs the certificate, enabling anyone to verify that the certificate was issued by the CA. Other PKI constructs offer validation of the registrant, indexing of the public keys, and a key revocation system. It is within these other constructs that the problems begin.
When SSL certificates were first offered for sale, the CAs spent a great deal of time and energy verifying the identity of the registrant. Often, paper copies of the proof had to be sent to the CA before a certificate would be issued. The process could take several days. More recently, the bar for entry has been lowered significantly. Certificates are now issued on an automated process requiring only that the registrant click on a link sent to one of the email addresses listed in the Whois information. This lack of thorough verification has significantly eroded the trust a user can place in the authenticity of a certificate.
CAs have responded to this problem by offering different levels of SSL certificates. Entry level certificates are verified automatically via the click of a link. Higher level SSL certificates have additional identity verification steps. And at the highest level, the Extended Validation, or EV certificate requires a thorough verification of the registrants identity. Often, these different levels of SSL certificates are marketed as stronger levels of encryption. The reality, however, is that the level of encryption for each of these certificates is exactly the same. The only difference is the amount of verification performed by the CA.
Despite the extra level of verification, these certificates are almost indistinguishable from one another. With the exception of EV certificates, the only noticeable difference between differing levels of SSL certificates are the identity details obtained before the certificate is issued. An EV certificate, on the other hand, can only be obtained from certain vendors, and shows up in a web browser with a special green overlay. The intent here seems to be that websites with EV certificates can be trusted more because the identity of the organization running the website was more thoroughly validated.
In the end, though, trust is the ultimate issue. Users have been trained to just trust a website with an SSL certificate. And trust sites with EV certificates even more. In fact, there have been a number of marketing campaigns targeted at convincing users that the "Green Address Bar" means that the website is completely trustworthy. And they've been pretty effective. But, as with most marketing, they didn't quite tell the truth. sure, the EV certificate may mean that the site is more trustworthy, but it's still possible that the certificate is fake.
There have been a number of well known CAs that have been compromised in recent years. Diginotar and Comodo being two of the more high profile ones. In both cases, it became possible for rogue certificates to be created for any website the attacker wanted to hijack. That certificate plus some creative DNS poisoning and the attacker suddenly looks like your bank, or google, or whatever site the attacker wants to be. And, they'll have a nice shiny green EV certificate.
So how do we fix this? Well, one way would be to use the certificate revocation system that already exists within the PKI infrastructure. If a certificate is stolen, or a false certificate is created, the CA has the ability to put the signature for that certificate into the revocation system. When a user tries to load a site with a bad certificate, a warning is displayed telling the user that the certificate is not to be trusted.
Checking revocation of a certificate takes time, and what happens if the revocation server is down? Should the browser let the user go to the site anyway? Or should it block by default? The more secure option is to block, of course, but most users won't understand what's going on. So most browser manufacturers have either disabled revocation checking completely, or they default to allowing a user to access the site when the revocation site is slow or unavailable.
Without the ability to verify if a certificate is valid or not, there can be no real trust in the security of the connection, and that's a problem. Perhaps one way to fix this problem is to disconnect the revocation process from the process of loading the webpage. If the revocation check happened in parallel to the page loading, it shouldn't interfere with the speed of the page load. Additional controls can be put into place to prevent any data from being sent to the remote site without a warning until the revocation check completes. In this manner, the revocation check can take a few seconds to complete without impeding the use of the site. And after the first page load, the revocation information is cached anyway, so subsequent page loads are unaffected.
Another option, floated by the browser builders themselves, is to have the browser vendors host the revocation information. This information is then passed on to the browsers when they're loaded. This way the revocation process can be handled outside of the CAs, handling situations such as those caused by a CA being compromised. Another idea would be to use short term certificates that expire quickly, dropping the need for revocation checks entirely.
It's unclear as to what direction the market will move with this issue. It has been over two years since the attacks on Diginotar and Comodo and the immediacy of this problem seems to have passed. At the moment, the only real fix for this is user education. But with the marketing departments for SSL vendors working to convince users of the security of SSL, this seems unlikely.
Wednesday, April 3. 2013
In April of 2012, a Kickstarter project was launched by a company aiming to create an electronic watch that served as a companion to your smartphone. A month later, the project exceeded it's funding goal by over 100%, closing at over $10 million in pledges. Happily, I was one of the over 68,000 people that pledged. I received my Pebble about a month ago or so and I've been wearing it ever since.
Sunday, January 13. 2013
In general, I'm a pretty loyal person. Especially when it comes to material things. I typically find a vendor I like and stick with them. Sure, if something new and flashy comes along, I'll take a look, but unless there's a compelling reason to change, I'll stick with what I have.
But sometimes a change is forced upon me. Take, for instance, this last week. I've been a loyal Verizon customer for … wow, about 15 years or so. Not sure I realized it had been that long. Regardless, I've been using Verizon's services for a long time. I've been relatively happy with them, no major complaints about services being down or getting the runaround on the phone. In fact, my major gripe with them had always been their online presence which seemed to change from month to month. I've had repeated problems with trying to pay bills, see my services, etc. But at the end of the day, I've always been able to pay the bill and move on. Since that's really the only thing I used their online service for, I was content to leave well enough alone.
In more recent months, we've been noticing that the 3M DSL service we had is starting to lack a bit. Not Verizon's fault at all, but the fault of an increased strain on the system at our house. Apparently 3M isn't nearly enough bandwidth to satisfy our online hunger. That, coupled with the price we were paying, had me looking around for other services. Verizon still doesn't offer anything faster than 3M in the area and, unfortunately, the only other service in the area is from a company that I'd rather not do business with if I could avoid it.
In the end, I thought perhaps I could make some slight changes and at least reduce the monthly bill by a little until we determined a viable solution. I was considering adding a second DSL line, connected to a second wireless router, to relieve the tension a bit. This would allow me to avoid that other company and provide the bandwidth we needed. My wife and I could enjoy our own private upstream and place the rest of the house on the other line.
Ok, I thought, let's dig into this a bit. First things first, I decided to get rid of the home phone, or at least transfer it to a cheaper solution. My cell provider offered a $10/month plan for home phones. Simple process, port he number over, install this little box in the house, and poof. Instant savings. Best part, that savings would be just about enough to get that second DSL line.
Being cautious, and not wanting to end up without a DSL connection, I contacted Verizon. Having worked for a telco in the past, I knew that some telcos required that you have a home phone line in order to have DSL service. This wasn't a universal truth, however, and it was easy enough to verify. The first call to Verizon went a little sideways, though. I ended up in an automated system. Sure, everyone uses these automated systems nowadays, but I thought this one was particularly condescending. They added additional sound effects to the prompts so that when you answered a question, the automated voice would acknowledge your request and then type it in. TYPE IT IN. I don't know why, but this drove me absolutely crazy. Knowing that I was talking to a recorded voice and then having that recorded voice playing sounds like they were typing on a keyboard? Infuriating. And, on top of it, I ended up in some ridiculous loop where I couldn't get an operator unless I explicitly stated why I wanted an operator, but the automated system apparently couldn't understand my request.
Ok, time out, walk away, try again later. The second time around, I lied. I ended up in sales, so it seems to have worked. I explained to the lady on the phone what I was looking for. I wanted to cancel my home phone and just keep the DSL. I also wanted to verify that I was not under contract so I wouldn't end up with some crazy early termination fee. She explained that this was perfectly acceptable and that I could make these changes whenever I wanted. I verified again that I could keep the DSL without issue. She agreed, no problem.
Excellent! Off I went to the cell carrier, purchased (free with a contract) the new home phone box, and had them port the number. The representative cautioned that he saw DSL service listed when he was porting and suggested I contact Verizon to verify that the DSL service would be ok.
I called Verizon again to verify everything would work as intended. I explained what I had done, asked when the port would go through, and stressed that the DSL service was staying. The representative verified the port date and said that the DSL service would be fine.
You can guess where this is going, can't you. On the day of the port, the phone line switched as expected. The new home phone worked perfectly and I made the necessary changes to the home wiring to ensure that the DSL connection was isolated away from the rest of the wiring. DSl was still up, phone ported, everything was great. Until the next morning.
I woke up the following morning and started my normal routine. Get dressed, go exercise, etc. Except that on the way to exercise, I noticed that the router light was blinking. Odd, I wonder what was going on. Perhaps something knocked the system online overnight? The DSL light on the modem was still on, so I had a connection to the DSLAM. No problem, reboot the router and we'll be fine. So, I rebooted and walked away. After a few minutes I checked the system and noticed that I was still not able to get online. I walked through a mental checklist and decided that the username and password for the PPPoE connection must be failing. Time to call Verizon and see what's wrong.
I contacted Verizon and first spoke to a sales rep who informed me that my services had been cancelled per my request. Wonderful. Al that work and they screw it up anyway. I explained what I had done and she took a deeper look into the account. Turns out the account was "being migrated" and she apologized for the mixup. Since I was no longer bundled, the DSL account had to be migrated. I talked with her some more about it and she decided to send me to technical support to verify everything was ok. Off I go to technical support, fully expecting them to ask be to reset my DSL modem. No such luck, however, the technical support rep explained that I had no DSL service.
And back to sales I went. I explained, AGAIN, what was going on. The representative confirmed my story, verified that the account was being migrated, and asked me to check the service again in a few hours. All told, I spent roughly an hour on the phone with Verizon and missed out on my morning exercise.
After rushing through the remainder of my morning routine and explaining to my wife why the Internet wasn't working, I left for work. My wife checked in a few hours later to let me know that, no, we still did not have an Internet connection. So I called Verizon again. Again I'm told I have no service and that I have cancelled them. Again I explain the problem and what I had done. And this time, the representative explains to me that they do not offer unbundled DSL service anymore, they haven't had that service in about a year. She goes on to offer me a bundled package with a phone line and explains that I don't have to use the phone line, I just have to pay for it.
So all of the careful planning I had done was for naught. In an effort to make sure this didn't happen to anyone else, the rep checked back on my account to see who had informed me about the DSL service. According to the notes, however, I had never called about such a thing. I called to complain about unsolicited phone calls and they referred me to their fraud and abuse office and explains about the magical phone code I could put in to block calls. Ugh! She then went on to detail every aspect of my problem, again so someone else didn't have this problem.
This is the sort of situation that will, very rapidly, cause me to look elsewhere for service. And that's exactly what I did. I've since cut all ties with Verizon and moved on to a different Internet service provider. I'm not happy with having to deal with this provider, but it's the only alternative at the moment. Assuming I don't have any major problems with the service, I'll probably continue with them for a while. Of course, if I run into problems here, the decision becomes more difficult. A "lesser of two evils" situation, if you will. But for now, I'll deal with what comes up.
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"Chance favors the prepared mind."