Monday, January 5, 2009

The End Is Near...

For hard disk drives, that is.

The original electronic computers of the late 1940s and early 1950s had hundreds and hundreds of moving parts. The systems I worked on while I was in the U.S. Navy had reduced this to dozens of moving parts – lots of mechanical switches, some relays, cooling blowers (powerful fans), and large hard disks (the size of washing machines) and tape drives (the size of refrigerators) each of which had dozens of motors, actuators, gears, dashpots, capstans, etc.

Once the electronics themselves moved from vacuum tubes to solid state (transistors and integrated circuits), by far the most likely thing to break in a computer was a moving part. In the 1970s, as a data systems tech in the Navy, I spent much of my life cleaning, repairing, lubricating, and adjusting things that moved. The only other common failure was high-voltage solid state electronics, which in those days was still in its infancy. Basically, the fewer moving parts something had, the more reliable it was.

These days, a modern PC generally only has two kinds of moving parts (not counting mouse and keyboard): fans and hard disk drives. Modern direct current fans are very reliable, but they do occasionally still break. Hard disk drives are notorious amongst IT professionals for being the most likely source of problems on a PC. But solid state disk drives have been (a) small, and (b) outrageously expensive.

That's changing, and very quickly. Toshiba is about to introduce a 512GB solid state disk drive – bigger than the hard disk installed on most PCs. It will be pricey – but not outrageously so, and (like all electronic devices) that price will come down rapidly as competitors come on line and production volumes ramp up.

The hard disk is about to become a museum display. I give it 5 years at most, and possibly as little as 2 years.

The only moving part left will be the fan – and as low power electronics get better and better (which they are), the need for these will taper off and eventually disappear altogether...

Security Theater...

Bruce Schneier coined this lovely term (“security theater”) for the actions taken in the name of making us safer, but which actually provide little or no additional safety. The primary value of such actions is political cover, not actual safety. To cite just one of many such examples, Bruce points out that limiting liquids to 4 oz. is completely useless in thwarting a hijacking attempt – any terrorist with an IQ above 50 or so will simply use some other weapon. He repeatedly points out the many ways in which our Department of Homeland Security engages in security theater, irritating a great many American citizens and foreign visitors while accomplishing little to actually make us safer.

Michael Yon, one of my favorite sources for information about the War on Terror, tells the story of a recent encounter with the DHS by one of his friends, a Thai woman named Aew. Here's his conclusion:
When I discovered that she had missed her flight, after about 24 hours of travel thus far, I called immigration at Minneapolis and asked to speak with Officer Knapp. Knapp got on the phone, but this time it was me questioning him. Knapp told me it was legal to read e-mails. I asked for his first name, but he was afraid to give his first name, which was rather strange for someone working within the confines of an airport where everyone has been searched for weapons. Where I work, in a war zone, soldiers give their first and last names and face Taliban and al Qaeda heads up, man to man. I write about al Qaeda, Taliban and other terrorist groups who kill thousands of people. My name is Michael Yon. My first name is Michael. Mr. Knapp hides behind a badge bullying a woman whose only activities are Yoga, reading, travel, and telling me what is healthy and unhealthy to eat. Knapp is a face of Homeland Security. How many other officers at Homeland Security bully 90-pound women, but are afraid to give their own names?

Knowing that Homeland Security officers are creating animosity and anxiety at our borders does not make me feel safer. How many truly bad guys slip by while U.S. officers stand in small rooms and pick on little women?

I have just returned from Afghanistan and Iraq on a trip with U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and I can assure you that we can do better. We do not have to violate human rights and insult our closest allies to maintain our security.

Meanwhile, Aew had missed two flights; standby seats were full on the second flight, and I was considering flying from Florida to Minneapolis to get her myself. I did not want Aew to have to sleep in the airport overnight.

I had intended to show Aew a bit of my country. But it's taking a little while for her to get over her discomfort at being in America. She was treated better in China. So was I.

Security theater may be popular with the politicians, but it's not real popular with people on the ground. When a security hawk like Michael Yon starts decrying the uselessness and unfairness of a policy, you know there's something wrong with it...

500 Most Common Passwords...

In several different capacities over the years, I've been responsible for corporate IT security. One of the things I did was to test password security, by using the same tools that hackers use to break into password-secured accounts. Most of these tools do the same thing as the first step: they try a relatively short list (usually just a few hundred) of common passwords. I was shocked how often this simple first step worked – a great many people obviously chose the same password.

Now someone has published a list of the 500 most common passwords. My passwords are not on this list. Are yours? If so, you're easy prey for any hacker...