Things we knew would happen and things we didn’t

This post is more of a combination of things that have come to my attention over the last few weeks. Some of them I expected and some I didn’t. The first thing that has happened was an expected result from the new way that Microsoft is updating their Windows 10 product. As released in the Windows Server Essential and Small Business Server blog a recent Windows 10 update breaks connectivity with the Windows Essential Connector functionality. What surprises me about this is that this is part of a current supported Microsoft product and they have no known solution to the problem. This really has me wondering about their testing program. But this is not an unexpected development. Many of the IT professionals that were in the Windows 10 launch meeting that I was at predicted that the automatic required updates would cause these types of issues. I don’t think that we collectively thought Microsoft would shoot their own foot so quickly.

I have heard various reports that Windows 10 updates remove applications without notification (http://lifehacker.com/windows-10-updates-are-deleting-some-apps-without-notif-1762347989) but that really was expected with one of Windows 10’s security features. One of the announced features of Windows 10 the removal of “old applications” like an old anti-virus program that is out-of-date. The logic behind this was that removing an old anti-virus program and re-enabling Windows Defender was better than relying on an old out-of-date program that was really not helping but was making you think you were protected. That makes sense. But what does not make sense are new hardware drivers being automatically replaced with older Microsoft ones because the update software thinks the Microsoft ones are newer (?) or better (?).

What this all shows is that Microsoft’s attempt to mimic the Apple update philosophy just doesn’t work on the Windows platform. The biggest reason for this, in my estimation, is that the Apple environment is a closed environment. Apple controls what can and cannot connect to their computers a lot tighter than Microsoft does. The PC market was created and has existed as an open hardware and software environment since IBM created the first PC. Open Source Foundation fans may complain that Microsoft doesn’t publish their code so others can copy it or add to it, but, in my opinion, the Apple platform that is based on the “free” and open UNIX operating system is more closed than the Microsoft platform. Steve Jobs said that he want a system that incompatible with everyone else’s.

The second piece of interesting news comes from a more security perspective. A Reuters report is talking about a new security hole found by a couple of researchers from a new cyber security company called Bastille. The researchers found that they could hack computers from as far as 180 meters (about 600 feet – or a typical city block) away by attacking the connection between a computer and its wireless mouse. Many mice use unencrypted signals between the device and the computer. This signal could mimicked by a device that sends keyboard commands to the computer via the same wireless connection as the mouse uses. “If we sent unencrypted keyboard strokes as if we were a mouse it started typing on the computer, typing at a 1000 words per minute,” said Chris Rouland, the CTO and Founder of Bastille.  Typing that fast could easily take over a computer faster than a person sitting at that computer could stop it. The parts to build such a device would cost less than $50 according to the story. The only comment I have to this is how many wireless mice do you use?

Finally, I saw this article and thought “Where was this when McGyver needed it?” A Digital Trends article talks about a $99 product that can turn your smartphone into a 3-D printer. Yes, I wrote 3-D printer. The Olo device uses a special resin that is put into a tank that uses the screen from your smartphone to print an object defined by an app that is loaded to your phone. The speed of the printing would probably lead more to a Saturday Night Live McGruber episode than a McGyver, but this does sound interesting. The company developing this device is currently being funded by a KickStarter Campaign. Check them out if you are interested. As I’ve always said, “Anything is possible given enough time and enough money. I’m not saying how much time or how much money.”

The Summer I knew was Coming

This has been an interesting summer in the computing world. The first item that caught my attention was the hack of Jeep by some white hat hackers (http://www.wired.com/2015/07/hackers-remotely-kill-jeep-highway/ if you haven’t already seen it). When I first heard that Audi was allowing an Internet connection from their Audi A6 vehicle some time before the Jeep hack, my first reaction was “Now I have to find a firewall for my car???” I knew other manufacturers would follow and it would be the newest “neat” feature.

Talking about the above hack with a friend of mine that just bought a new Chevy Impala, he said that he wasn’t concerned because the OnStar™ wasn’t connected to any of the engine systems. A few days later I caught a news story talking about how OnStar slowed down that had been carjacked so the police could capture the thief. Here’s a story on how the new technology works http://www.geek.com/mobile/onstar-now-slows-down-stolen-vehicles-1373845/ . So much for that theory.

A month or so later I was at CompTIA’s ChannelCon2015 event in Chicago and one of the session titles was “Refrigerators Telling Secrets: How the Internet of Things Will Change Privacy”. Of course I went to this session. Tim Hahn, a Distinguished Engineer at IBM presented on some of the basics of what his group was doing. Basically, he described the Internet of Things (IoT) as being the same thing that has been done by process control machines for decades. The difference is rather than the connections being wires running to a computer, the devices are reporting to the control computer over the Internet. The biggest problem is that people programing these devices are looking at resolving the problem they have been presented rather than the security problems they could be creating.

This is nothing new. We saw this with web browsers way back in the last century. One thing I learned early on in my software development career is that you never know what users will do with the code you write. They will find ways of using that code to do things you never thought about. So whatever you write, you need to think of security with the same priority that you do fulfilling the task you are trying to accomplish.

So as an end-user what can you do? Do you really need a refrigerator to tell you that you need milk? Do you have to adjust the heat in your house from your office? But we know people will want the convenience and not care about the cost. How many of you don’t like that people know where you are all the time, but don’t turn off the GPS on your phone? What you need to do as a consumer is make yourself aware of what you are giving up and make an informed decision on what you feel comfortable with giving up.

So you can’t get Quickbooks to work in Multi-user mode on Windows 2012 R2

Usually I write more about technology from a business owner’s perspective. But today, after spending about hours and hours with tech support from both Quickbooks and Microsoft, I’m writing about a technical issue. I just upgraded a client’s network to a Windows 2012 R2 Essential server. Like most small businesses, they use Quickbooks extensively to run their business. They had been running Quickbooks 2011 and needed to upgrade to Quickbooks 2014 to support their payroll functionally. For those that are legal eagles, I should note that Quickbooks™ is a registered trademark of Intuit, Inc. and Windows™ is registered trademark of Microsoft, Inc.

Like most IT professionals, the plan was to do one upgrade at a time to try and keep the number of things that changed to a minimum. The installation of the new server and all the new workstations worked like a charm. We then tried testing Quickbooks. In this case, 5 users access Quickbooks as a major function of their job. Each of the users could access and work with the Quickbooks 2011 database, but only in single user mode; we could not change to multi-user mode.

So, it was off to Quickbooks support. Since we had to change to Quickbooks 2014 for payroll support, the recommendation from tech support was to upgrade to Quickbooks 2014 to see if that fixed the problem. After several hours of conversion attempts and diagnostics, our Quickbooks tech declared that there was something wrong with the Quickbooks database and it needed to be sent into their database group for repair. This repair was to take 3 to 5 days. Since it was the Wednesday before a holiday weekend, we were hoping we would get notified that the file was available on Friday, but more realistically, we figured we would hear on Tuesday.

Not having heard from Quickbooks by mid-day Tuesday, the client called Quickbooks and discovered that the database group had received the file, but had no idea what they were supposed to do with it. Instructions were given and the file was made available late Thursday.

We installed the file and started testing. We still could not get multi-user access to the new Quickbooks 2014 version of the database. Quickbooks support got called in again. After spending another half day with Quickbooks support, they declared that there was something blocking the ports they needed open on the server. When asked if there was any additional help we could get from them, like Tier 2 support, we were informed that there was no additional support that is available to clients and we were on our own to figure out what the problem was with the ports. They only thing they would point to is an article in their knowledge base that walk you through the same steps we had taken. There were also the following lines at the bottom of the article:

Once you have followed all the steps in the article above and still experience the H202 error (your file is hosted on a Windows Server 2012 server), sign up to be notified below.

We are working to resolve this issue. We will notify you as soon as we have a solution or update to this topic.

Knowing that Quickbooks support wasn’t going to be any more help, I did some additional testing. Taking another server in my lab, I installed Windows 2008 R2 and added in Quickbooks 2014. That configuration allowed me to open the client’s file in multi-user mode. To take it a step further, I wiped the test machine and installed Windows 2012 R2 Essential, just like the client server, added Quickbooks 2014 and it worked! This meant the problem was isolated to the specific server at the client. I also determined that the problematic port was port 8019.

Since the problem was now isolated to being the client server environment, I went back to the client site and installed the Quickbooks database on a Windows 7 machine and the client’s staff was able to access the database in multi-user mode. While they were catching up on the work that had piled up, it was now time to contact Microsoft support to find an answer.

It was a long day with Namrata Manchanda of Microsoft PSS. Quickbooks tech support tested the ports by attempting to telnet to each of the ports required by their application. If a connection could not be opened, they concluded that the port was closed. My testing had shown that if I tried the same telnet test on the server using the loopback address (127.0.0.1) the connection worked. If I used the internal LAN address, the connection failed. Namrata found the same results. She checked the firewall rules, deleted them, re-added them with the same results. She compared SysInternal Process Explorer logs between the working workstation “server” and the real server. She still found nothing to point to the cause of the problem. We then removed Quickbooks from the server and she created a temporary website that would respond to port we were working on. After confirming the website worked via a browser, she tried the telnet tests. They responded exactly the same, loopback worked, LAN address didn’t. She then changed the port on the website to 8020 to test on a non-modified firewall port. Again the results were the same!

This testing now showed that the problem was indeed the firewall. Since restarting the firewall service several times did not fix the problem, Namrata tried restarting the Base Filtering Engine service. Now both tests worked! We reinstalled the Quickbooks database engine and we were able to open the file in multi-user mode.

The final result was that for some reason the Base Filtering Engine was not acknowledging the changes to the firewall rules and had cached the old rules. This is why when checking the rules, it appeared that the rules were correct, but in actuality, they were not applied. So if you have a Windows Firewall issue that will not resolve properly even if the rules are correct, try restating the Base Filter Engine service as well as the Windows Firewall service.

Does Anti-Malware really work?

I’ve been off taking care of business, but an article crossed my desk that I could not help sharing. The Wall Street Journal reported

“Software designed to block malicious actors from infiltrating networks is no longer viable and enterprises need to transition to new cybersecurity strategies focused on identifying threats and mitigating damages, according to the company that put antivirus software on the map. Brian Dye, senior vice president for information security at Symantec, says even the best antivirus software can now only intercept less than half of all malware, which is prompting the company to shift its focus on new products that help companies detect and respond to breaches.
The Wall Street Journal (tiered subscription model)

Many of my colleagues, me included, have thought that Symantec AntiVirus had been living off its reputation and no longer really worked in the SMB marketplace. From our perspective, the code had gotten too bloated and had too large of an impact on the performance of user workstations. Additionally, the just did not seem to find the malware that other options found. Now they are basically admitting that they have not done a great job and have given up.

This may be in reaction to the Target and other similar break-ins that have happened over the last few months. And it may be a reaction to the change in the legal environment’s view of what responsibilities an anti-malware provider really has. And it may have nothing to do with any of these occurances.

IT should be noted that anti-malware has always been a reactive science; you can never perfectly predict what a person will do, you can only report what they have done. Malware creation is no longer a hobby, but a real profession with real monetary rewards.

Does this mean that you should just forget about keeping your anti-malware up to date, or even run it on your machine? Just ask anyone how has done this. Ask them how well their machine runs, or should I say crawls.

I think that this is just a case of a company that was not doing the best job out there decided to cut its losses and move to another segment where it thinks it can do better.

So the Cloud is “Safe”

It’s National Cyber Security Awareness Month! Of course you should be aware of cyber security every month. Intel has done an interesting page of cyber security suggestions at https://www-ssl.intel.com/content/www/us/en/security/lifehacks.html. Check it out.

I know it seems like I have been picking on Google for the last couple of posts, but they are such an easy target. This time, Google’s CIO, Ben Fried had some interesting things to say in an article written by Liz Gammes of All Thngs D. The article talks about how Google employees are insulated from what is used in the outside consumer world. Google’s mantra is that everyone should trust the cloud to handle their communications and data storage. Employees should collaborate and develop corporate strategy on the web rather than their own internal networks.

Now, Google follows its philosophy by using its own products, like Google Apps and Google Drive for their internal development in their internal cloud. But how does it feel about using other’s products, or the cloud in general? “The important thing to understand about Dropbox,” Fried said, “is that when your users use it in a corporate context, your corporate data is being held in someone else’s data center.” To put that in a real context, Google’s basic philosophy, from my understanding, is anything that is stored on Google’s servers is Google’s property. That may be a bit of an overstatement, but they do feel they have the right to mine your data in order to target ads to you. What is to prevent and Edward Snowden from coping your information and passing it to others? You are relying on Google to tell you that your data has been compromised, and it is because of a breach of their security. Can you say “lawsuit”?

This is not to say that Google is worse than any other cloud provider. They are open about their position on data mining and I am not saying that anyone else is data mining or not data mining. What I am saying is that moving your data to the cloud means that you are consciously giving up control of your information to someone else. You are trusting them to prevent anyone other than yourself from accessing, destroying or changing that data.

As the old consumer adage goes “Buyer beware”.

Android on course for One Million Malware Apps

After taking some time off to attend to my real business, I have found some time to write again. The article the peaked my attention the most was a recent article in Fox Business News. The headline to this article is “Cyber Hackers on Course for One Million Malware Apps” and they are talking just about the Android operating system! According to the article it took over a decade to reach that many malware applications on the “much” beleaguered Microsoft operating environments. However, do we hear a cry from the public about how bad the Google Android operating system is? Not really, we just hear sales numbers on how that OS is selling better than anyone else.

I can go on about the details in the article, but it is written in plain English and doesn’t need any technical translation. What I really what you to think about is how this affects your policy on Bring Your Own Device (BYOD). It is evident the malicious software industry is turning its attention from the evermore hardening arena of the PC environment to the easy pastures of the mobile environment. Not to get too into Google bashing, but it is evident that Google has not learned from the mistakes of its predecessors in the industry. I will not say they are ignoring the security of their customer’s data and money, but they are evidently not doing what is necessary to control the massive outbreak of malware in their OS environment. The excuse that they just create the OS with associated patches and it is up to the licensees to distribute and implement those patch is ludicrous. If Google wants to be recognized as a true software vendor for the business environment, it needs to step up to the responsibilities of a true software vendor. This means they have to reach out beyond the environment that they completely control and make sure that the people using their software are protected as much as reasonable possible.

It’s 6 Months later. What should you do about the end of life for Small Business Server?

Hiding the announcement like a politician hides bad news, Microsoft announced the end of life for their Small Business Server (SBS) last July. It’s now nearly six months later, and they are still trying to figure out what the replacement for Small Business Server should really be. Just this month, Microsoft has changed the licensing rights for those that purchase Small Business Server 2011 with Software Assurance. The original announcement gave Software Assurance purchasers rights to one Windows Server 2012 Standard license, one Exchange 2010 Standard license and the associated CALs to match the Small Business Server CALs. The new announcement gives the purchaser rights to two Windows Server 2012 Standard licenses along with the Exchange 2010 license. Additionally, you will be able to upgrade to Exchange 2013 if you wish.

One other announcement that has been made by Microsoft is how to transmogrify Windows 2012 Server Essentials into a normal Windows 2012 Server environment. Transmogrification (yes, this is a real word according to Microsoft), can be simply accomplished by activating a Windows 2012 Server Essentials environment with a Windows 2012 Server product code. There are no additional charges outside of the CAL requirement for every user/device connected to server. This act also increase the number of computers that can be backed by the Essentials server up from 25 to 75

So what does this really mean to the business owner? The choices have become more numerous than before which really means you need an expert to determine what is best for your business. Let’s assume that you are moving from SBS 2003 to something. What should you choose?

One choice would be Small Business Server 2011. Although you can no longer purchase Software Assurance for the product, you can still purchase it until July of this year. Jeff Middleton of IT Pro Experts argues that SBS 2011 will have validity for the next five years. I think this is a valid assumption if you think your company will grow within the restraints of SBS (75 users).

Another choice would be to move to either Small Business Server Essentials 2011 or Windows 2012 Server Essentials for your internal server as long as you will stay within the 25 user limit. For this size business, I would recommend an outside mail server such as Microsoft Office 365.

For larger businesses, you could go to a Windows Server version and either have your email hosted in-house or in the cloud. In doing analysis for a number of different clients, I have found that the conversion costs to cloud email versus keeping mail in-house break even at about 5 years.

These are just high level overviews of what choices are available. There are many variations within the choices I have mentioned. If you have more questions, let me know an I will try to address them.