Perfect hardware for a TV-based dashboard

Dashboards are a great way to visualize large amounts of information in a concise matter. In IT we usually display various types of network data from a monitoring software, but dashboards are used in all sorts of environments. You can visualize stock data or just show a map of all trucks in a fleet with their current position.

If you work for a large company with a dedicated NOC then you’ll likely have an integrated setup with 4 or more TVs, connected to hardware specialized for dashboards or, at the very least, a powerful PC with multiple PCI cards.

But not everybody has the budget or the need for a NOC like AT&Ts, and one or two TVs can be sufficient for most networks – provided the dashboard is well-designed and customizable of course.

AT&T's NOC
AT&T NOC

Most dashboards require a fairly recent web browser (if you are unlucky even Adobe Flash), making some sort of a PC or Mac the preferred hardware to power that dashboard. Most IT departments have a plethora of old PCs sitting around, and it can be tempting to resurrect one of those boxes and give them a new life as a dashboard PC. After all, you’re “just” displaying a web page.

In reality, older hardware can a have hard time keeping up with modern browsers and the frenzy of Javascript operations that come with a busy dashboard. The dashboards often run well for some time (hours or days – depending on the hardware and the dashboard), but ultimately buckle under the load. The result is a dashboard that skips updates or breaks down altogether. Even if you do have a decent PC sitting around, it’s hardly a perfect solution since even small PCs take up a considerable amount of space, and cables can quickly get in the way. And I think we can all agree that the last thing we need more of are cables.

Low-cost integrated devices like the Raspberry Pi are tempting, but not perfect either. They’re not usually designed to be used with graphical interfaces, much less with memory and CPU hungry applications like web browsers displaying dashboards.

After trying everything from Raspberry Pi, old Mac Mini hardware and more, we finally found a solution for under $100 – which has now worked quite well for several months: The 1st generation Intel Compute Stick which you can get from online retailers like Amazon, NewEgg and others.

Intel Compute Stick
Intel Compute Stick

Even in its 1st generation (the one we tested) the Intel Compute Stick running Windows 10 Home performed surprisingly well. We’ve been running an EventSentry dashboard (which of course we’re hoping you are running as well) on it since February on Microsoft’s new Edge browser, and we’ve never had an issue.

The Intel Compute Stick features 2 Gb of RAM, is powered by a quad-core intel Atom processor and has 30 Gb of storage, of which more than half are available. This is of course not a machine you’ll want to render videos or play video games on, but plenty sufficient for a web browser from our experience. We were actually pleasantly surprised by how responsive the little device felt overall. Even though you cannot join a domain, you can still install the EventSentry agent on the machine to keep an eye on performance and other system metrics for example.

But there are of course some caveats, as is to be expected from a computer that costs less than $100 and is not much bigger than a USB memory stick. If you’re using Bluetooth and Wifi then you’ll only need to connect the power cord and the setup is clean. Since the stick also sports a single USB 2.0 port, we used a USB hub along with a USB-based Ethernet adapter to connect it to our LAN as well as connect a keyboard/mouse. USB 2.0 didn’t negatively affect performance in our limited use case scenario.

If you need more hardware, maybe because your dashboards are particularly taxing, then you can purchase a newer and faster model as well. The 2nd generation Intel Computer Sticks start around $149 and the high-end models include as much as 64Gb of disk space and 4Gb of RAM.

My first computer was a 80286 with 1Mb of RAM and a 20Mb hard drive, and it was about as big as two shoe boxes. It’s impressive to see a device this small perform that well. If you have the need to turn a TV into a full-blown desktop, then I’d definitely recommend the Intel Computer Stick(s)!

Curiosity Kills the Cat

25 years ago, on July 24th 1985, the Amiga 1000 was introduced in New York City (check out the ad). Coincidentally, the Amiga 500 was my first computer and I loved playing games on the Rock Lobster – despite the 7.15909 MHz processor. Well, those were the good old days, the days before mainstream email, the days before spam. Or were they? Believe it or not, in 1985 it had already been 7 years since the first spam email was sent by Gary Thuerk over the ARPAnet.

amiga_1000.jpg

I don’t know about you, but 32 years later I still get spam delivered to my inbox on a daily basis, and that’s despite having 2-3 spam filters in place. What’s more, I still get legitimate email caught by the spam filter, mostly to the dismay of the sender.

Now, of course WE all know not to open spam – or to even look at it – as it will potentially confirm receipt (if you display images from non-trusted sources) and could also trigger malware (again depending on your email reader’s configuration).

But, we’ve all seen spam emails and I can’t help but wonder who actually reads these emails (for purposes other than to get a chuckle), much less opens them! Let’s not even think about who opens attachments or clicks links (yikes!) from spam emails.

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The Facts

So WHO are those people opening, clicking spam? Well, turns out that the MAWWG, the Messaging Anti-Abuse Working Group determines exactly that (and presumably other things too) – every year. Better yet, they publish that information for our enjoyment.

It’s been a few months since the latest findings were published, but I’d consider them relevant today nevertheless (and a year from now for that matter).

In a nutshell, the group surveyed the behavior of consumers both in North America and Europe, and published key findings in regards to awareness, consumer confidence and so forth.

Before I give the link to the full PDF (see the Resources section below); here are what I think are some of the most interesting facts:

  • Half of all users in North America and Europe have “confessed” to opening or accessing spam. 46% of those who opened spam, did so intentionally to unsubscribe or out of some untameable sense of curiosity. Some were even interested in the products “advertised” to them!

    Bottom Line: 1 out of 4 people open spam emails because they want to know more, or want to unsubscribe.

  • In more detail, 19% of all users surveyed either clicked on a link from an email (11%) or opened an attachment from an email (8%) that they themselves suspected to be spam. I found that to be one of the most revealing numbers in the report.
  • Young users (under 35) consider themselves more experienced, yet at the same time engage in more risky behavior than other age groups. In Germany, 33% of all users consider themselves to be experts. Compare that to France, where only 8% of all users think they are pros.
  • Less than half of users think that stopping spam or viruses is their responsibility. Instead, they feel that the responsibility lies mainly with the ISP and A/V companies. 48% of all respondents do realize that it is their responsibility. The report doesn’t state whether this particular question, which lists 10 choices, was a multiple choice question.
  • When asked about bots, 84% of users were familiar with the possibility that software, say a virus, can control their computer. At the same time, only 47% were familiar with the terms “bot” or “botnet”.
  • On the upside, 94% of all users are running A/V software that is up-to-date, which is a comforting fact. I can only imagine that the remaining 6%, given Apple’s market share, account for most of the rest.

    My opinion: OS X users are probably still oblivious and don’t see the need to install A/V or any other type of security software on their computers. Still, some PC users apparently still don’t install AntiVirus/AntiMalware on their computers, despite many free options being available today.

Wow, that’s a lot of bad news to digest. So if I may summarize – the reason why we keep getting spam in our inboxes, is because every 5th person with a computer clicks on links or opens attachments (ah!) from spam emails, and because 6% of all users with a computer don’t run security software. Given the amount of people that dwell in the western hemisphere, that amounts to a lot of people.

Well, at least I know now why I keep getting those nuisance emails in my inbox. But somehow I don’t feel any better about them.

Training Day

I think what this report shows us the importance of user education. While people are apparently aware of spam, it doesn’t look like the average Joe is aware of the implications that a simple click in an email can have.

If you are reading this email, then you are probably a network professional working in an organization. With that, you have a unique opportunity to organize a simple workshop with your employees to educate them about the potential threats, and remind them that it’s not a good idea to do anything with suspect emails.

botnet.png

There is a wealth of information available on the web about educating users on spam and general computer security. We all know that software can only do so much – it’s a constant cat & mouse game between the researchers and the bad guys. It’s simply not possible, at least not today, to make the computers we use on a daily basis 100% secure.

While securing computers in a corporation is possible to some extent using whitelisting, content filters and such, doing the same thing for home computers is much more difficult. And it’s those computers that are most likely to be part of a botnet.

I can only imagine that the average user does not know that botnets can span thousands, if not millions, of computers. The Conficker botnet alone infected around 10 million computers and has the capacity to send 10 billion emails per day.

Let’s face it, the situation will not improve as long as people will click links in emails and open attachments from suspicious senders.

I encourage you to organize a training session with your users on a regular basis. If your organization is large, then you might want to start with the key employees first, and maybe create a tiered training structure.

Our Network is Safe

You might think that your network is safe. You have AntiVirus, white listing, AntiMalware, firewalls in every corner, web content filters and more. Scheduling a training sessions to tell your users on not to do the obvious, is probably the last thing on your mind.

But read on.

Risky behavior by your end users will not only affect global spam rates, but your organization as well. Corporate espionage is growing, and spies (whether they are from a foreign government or corporation) often use email to initially get access to an individuals computers. See SANS Corporate Espionage 201 (PDF) for some techniques being employed.

For example, pretty much every organization has people working from home. If a malicious attacker can compromise a home computer that is used to access a corporate network (even if it’s just used to access emails) and install a key logger, then they will most likely have gotten access to your corporate network. Once they have their foot in the door, it’s only a matter of time.

There are plenty of resources available on the net on how to educate users on security, spam and so forth. A short training session of 20 minutes is probably enough. The message to convey is simple, and if you keep a few points in mind the session can even be fun. Consider the following for the training session:

  • Be sure to interact with your users. Start off by asking them if they use A/V software or AntiMalware software at home.
  • Tell them about botnets, and if they would be happy knowing that their computer is part of a 10 million botnet controlled by people in the Ukraine.
  • Be sure to explain that a single users actions can compromise their corporate network.
  • Explain that technology cannot provide 100% security against intruders.

Of course, user education alone is not the answer to solving security problems like viruses, phishing and the like. Encryption, digital signatures (especially for corporate emails), white-listing all should be employed regardless of user education.

Resources

2010 MAAWG Consumer Survey Key Findings Report (6 pages)
2010 MAAWG Consumer Survey Full Report (87 pages)

Using Cartoons to Teach Internet Security
Get IT Done: IT pros offer tips for teaching users

1983: Coleco Adam

If you’re past 30 then you’ve probably heard about the Commodore C64, the Amiga, the IBM XT and so forth. Well, another lesser known computer that was released around the same time IBM released their “IBM Personal Computer XT” was the Coleco Adam.

Why is this funny?

To find out why this is beyond funny, you will have to read the Wikipedia article about the Coleco Adam, in particular the “Problems” section. We found the 1st and 3rd problem most amusing.