Discourse / Editorials / November 17, 2010

Letters to the Editor: Response to Internet editorial

Before I start, I’d like to say that if anyone ever has any questions concerning technology on campus please contact the Computer Help Desk. I can’t stress this enough – if you’re experiencing a problem, you actually have to tell the Computer Center about it.

There seems to be some complacency about reporting issues to the Computer Center. This may be because students believe that when they are experiencing an issue, then everyone on campus must be experiencing the same issue and somehow we know about it and are trying to fix it. You should know that if we are aware of a problem, we are willing to look into it and more often then not provide a solution or a carefully researched conclusion.

This is true whether it is an issue with one’s computer or a broader system issue. Most problems we run into can actually be resolved by adjusting a setting on the user’s computer, rather than pushing some network-wide “fix it” button. But that’s not always the case. Again, more often than not, you actually have to tell us about it.

It’s worth mentioning for perspective that a few weeks ago there was a legitimate network outage. The outage lasted roughly ten minutes as a few services were rebooted and some users (notably Macs) had to reboot their computers before they could get back online. It is the first time in my recent memory that we have experienced an outage like this.

Saying that, there is, thus, absolutely no reason to assume that because your connection to the wireless has died that it is a campus wide issue. If you are experiencing an issue, please let us know.

That aside, I’ll now take this time to address the concerns brought up by John Williams’ article What’s wrong with Knox?: The Internet (11/11). You can find the solutions or rationale behind these commonly asked questions, plus many, many more, by simply contacting the Computer Help Desk (ext 7700 or helpdesker@knox.edu).

1) “Mac Remediation”

If you own a Mac and find yourself in remediation upon boot up or wake up, the reason comes from Bradford following its “Valid Agent Scan” rule. When a Mac goes to sleep, Bradford loses contact with the Agent on the computer. Bradford will then quarantine the computer for not having an agent. This is a fundamental way that OSX handles sleep mode.

It’s not a big deal, really. When the Mac wakes up, it should move almost immediately back onto a 10.7 ip address. If it does not, call the Help Desk.

2) “Slowness, “lag” and general complaints about the speed of our network

Williams made a comparison to dial-up speeds. Just for reference, if users were to try watching videos or, on some levels, even resolving facebook.com on a dial-up connection, it would take much longer than 30 seconds. MUCH longer. Thirty seconds is pretty solid and blazingly fast by comparison. That’s just saying.

There are many factors that can work into your connection strength. One such factor is commonly referred to as “the microwave effect,” illustrated well by xkcd (http://xkcd.com/654/). As well, some spyware can interfere with signal strength and quality as well as the several rogue routers there are around campus.

Anyway, to the question at hand, simply put, there are a very large number of users using the Internet on campus for different things. From Facebook, Youtube, Netflix, Internet Gaming ranging from Battle.net (World of Warcraft, Starcraft 2) and games on Steam (Team Fortress 2, Left 4 Dead), to games played over Xbox Live (XBL) and the Playstation Network (PSN) to even phones and other wireless devices using the Knoxtronics connection to check for mail every ten minutes or bring up a webpage.

Particularly as the night goes on, more and more users are settling in to play games, watch movies and browse the web. This can strain the network a bit and cause some slowdown. That’s just the nature of the beast. Knox-Wireless is not set up like your wireless networks at home where, at max, it has maybe three or four users ever connected to it at one time. But it should never be so damaging as to cause user frustration. If it does, consider calling the Help Desk and seeing if there is an issue at hand.

That said, whenever there’s a problem or an issue, the computer center is more than happy to take the call and see what they can do about it and offer some advice or a solution to the issue. There may never be a solution that fits to absolutely everybody’s needs, but priorities have to be established. That said, everything is always a work in progress and input or suggestion are always accepted.

(For suggestions or input, consider contacting a Student Senate Representative who can relate the information to the Senate Technology Committee. Remember, this is for suggestions, not complaints or problems. Call the Help Desk if you’re experiencing a problem).

3) “Password resets”

Recently, the computer center has instituted a new rule saying that all users will have to change their password every 30 days. In addition, new password requirements went into effect, requiring 3 of the 4 following: 1) a capital letter, 2) a lowercase letter, 3) a number, 4) some kind of special character (!,&,%, etc). The story behind how and why all of this came about might not be well known.

You may have seen posters scattered around campus (and particularly in the computer labs) reminding users not to give out their passwords in response to emails. Over the summer, several Knox accounts were compromised by email scams phishing for usernames and passwords. This presented a huge security breach for the Knox Network and much frustration to the Computer Center as they are still sorting out and discovering compromised accounts as email scams continue to drip into webmail accounts. The easiest way to protect a compromised account is for the user to reset her password.

When summer came to a close and students returned to campus, concerns were raised about any accounts that might still be hacked. Compromised accounts give unwanted users potentially harmful access and the dangerous ability to hack further into the Knox Network where private and personal information may be held. It was decided then, in a decision approved by Roger Taylor, to force all user passwords to expire on October 30th as an attempt to perform a clean sweep. Further, in order to be able to catch hacked accounts before they cause any problems, password resets were going to be mandated every 30 days.

As it stands, it is not likely that the password rotation rule (passwords can’t be repeated until after the fifth change) or the 30 day reset period will be reversed in the near future, if ever. The Computer Center is playing a dangerous game by trying to protect private information stored on Knox servers while maintaining user-friendliness with concerns to students, faculty and staff actually using the services it provides.

4) Sophos

There are two kinds of anti-virus programs out there: Free (Avast, AVG) and Subscription (Norton, McAfee, Sophos) based. In the end, they’re basically the same thing. The difference is that Free Anti-Virus usually get their new updates a week or more after the subscription-based ones do. That’s not a bad thing, per se, but needless to say, the subscription form is obviously the safer choice in the long run.

I don’t see why people complain about Sophos, but, believe me, Williams is not the first one. I don’t get how or why people complain about getting subscription-based antivirus for free. Yes, you pay for it through tuition, but the same goes for all the other software on the Shared_Apps folder and whether you use Office 2007 or not, you don’t hear any complaints. Williams notes “slowness” and says that Sophos is a cpu hog. Honestly, it’s not, and if you’re experiencing slow down, you should call the Help Desk. I’ll try and address some common misconceptions nonetheless.

• Scanning

You probably don’t need to scan your computer very often. Antivirus software is designed to catch incoming threats. Notice how Sophos’s icon is a big blue shield. It is designed to catch and stop dangerous applications that run on your machine and to notice, based on its definition updates, when a virus has appeared even before it starts running. The Anti-virus is a prevention tool and will usually function just fine with little or no input from the user… unless it finds something.

• It’s not all about You – “The Knox Network Ecosystem”

Steve Hall from the Computer Center once a shared a beautiful metaphor with me that really sums up the Knox Network and Sophos. He explained that the Knox network is an ecosystem of interconnected devices all walking in and out of involvement in the network’s community. Imagine what happens when a disease or virus enters this ecosystem. It starts as only one, but over time, the infection can spread to other devices until it eventually compromises the entire ecosystem. Slowly, the infection starts to eat up bandwidth on the network and can even effect individual wireless access points, launching DOS-Attacks (Denial of Service-Attacks) and causing random brownouts for entire buildings.

Truthfully, none of this happens in the blink of an eye, but tracking down the machine that is causing the initial infection –that is disrupting the access points wherever it goes, spreading malware and slowdown –is nearly impossible with all the mobile devices on campus. Wherever the infected user goes, he brings a cloud of disconnected classmates with him.

Sophos, cooperating with Bradford, is designed to try and prevent this and, overall, it has been overwhelmingly successful. Upon its initial inception last year, hundreds of users were discovered to be heavily infected and causing problems for other students. Coinciding with this, many machines were discovered to have inadequately updated and protected systems, causing gaping security holes that in the past would have been impossible to locate and fix.

The bottom line is that Sophos is not a requirement to get onto the Internet to protect you, so much as it is a requirement in order to protect everybody else.

• Macs.

You don’t hear it as much, but I should mention that just because you use an Apple Macintosh computer does NOT mean that the anti-virus is wasted on you. Even Apple itself recommends its users to be using a credited antivirus software program (Ironically, as of November 2nd, they began offering Sophos for free on their website, or at least a version of it). Once again, the protection is not meant just for you, but for your friends and colleagues as well. Macs can still carry inactive viruses intended for Windows machines and the same goes for vice versa. As the viruses get cleverer and smarter, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that a Mac virus can find itself downloaded onto a Windows machine and then secretly attached to an email bound for a Mac. It can happen. It will happen. And there are plenty of nasty Mac viruses out there.

All in all, I just want to restate that if anybody ever has any questions or concerns relating to technology on campus, please do not hesitate to call or visit the Computer Help Desk. Suggestions can go to Student Senate, as well as the Help Desk. In the end, I can’t stress enough that we can’t fix problems we don’t know about. It frustrates us to know that users are having a hard time when we are more than glad to help. Talk to us. Let us know what’s going on and we’ll be glad to help.

If there are any other questions to be had (keeping in mind I didn’t respond to all of William’s questions), please contact the Help Desk and we’d be glad to sit down and explain the situation and help you out.

The Computer Help Desk is located in the basement of SMC, E-Wing; Room E010 and is open on weekdays from 8am-6pm Monday through Thursday, 8am to 5pm on Fridays. Ext: 7700. Email: Helpdesker@knox.edu.

Student Senate Meets weekly in the CFA Round Room, 7pm on Thursdays. Suggestions or questions can be emailed to Senate@knox.edu or to your district representative.

Jean-Christophe Weinberg

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