Friday, December 21, 2007

Trojan horse

A Trojan horse, or simply Trojan, is a piece of software which appears to perform a certain action but in fact performs another. Contrary to popular belief, this action, usually encoded in a hidden payload, may or may not be acutely malicious, but Trojan horses are notorious today for their use in the installation of backdoor programs. Simply put, a Trojan horse is not a computer virus. Unlike such badware, it does not propagate by self-replication but relies heavily on the exploitation of an end-user (see Social engineering). It is instead a categorical attribute which can encompass many different forms of codes. Therefore, a computer worm or virus may be a Trojan horse. The term is derived from the classical myth of the Trojan horse.

In the field of computer architecture, 'Trojan Horse' can also refer to security loopholes that allow kernel code to access anything for which it is not authorized.

Trojan horse payloads are almost always designed to do various harmful things, but can also be harmless. They are broken down in classification based on how they breach and damage systems.

The nine main types of Trojan horse payloads are:

Remote Access

Email Sending

Data Destruction


Proxy Trojan (disguising others as the infected computer)

FTP Trojan (adding or copying data from the infected computer)

Security software disabler

Denial-of-service attack (DoS)

URL trojan (directing the infected computer to only connect to the internet via an expensive dial-up connection)

Some examples of damage are:

erasing or overwriting data on a computer

encrypting files in a cryptoviral extortion attack

corrupting files in a subtle way

upload and download files

allowing remote access to the victim's computer. This is called a RAT (remote administration tool)

spreading other malware, such as viruses: this type of Trojan horse is called a 'dropper' or 'vector'

setting up networks of zombie computers in order to launch DDoS attacks or send spam.

spying on the user of a computer and covertly reporting data like browsing habits to other people

making screenshots

logging keystrokes to steal information such as passwords and credit card numbers

phishing for bank or other account details, which can be used for criminal activities

installing a backdoor on a computer system

opening and closing CD-ROM tray

harvesting e-mail addresses and using them for spam

restarting the computer whenever the infected program is started

deactivating or interfering with anti-virus and firewall programs

deactivating or interfering with other competing forms of malware

randomly shutting off your computer

Methods of infection

The majority of Trojan horse infections occur because the user was tricked into running an infected program. This is why it is advised not to open unexpected attachments on emails -- the program is often a cute animation or an image, but behind the scenes it infects the computer with a Trojan or worm. The infected program doesn't have to arrive via email; it can be sent in an Instant Message, downloaded from a Web site or by FTP, or even delivered on a CD or floppy disk. (Physical delivery is uncommon, but if one were the specific target of an attack, it would be a fairly reliable way to infect a computer.) Furthermore, an infected program could come from someone who sits down at a computer and loads it manually. However, receiving a Trojan in this manner is very rare. It is usually received through a download.

How Trojan Horses Are Installed

Users can be tricked into installing Trojan horses by being enticed or frightened. For example, a Trojan horse might arrive in email described as a computer game. When the user receives the mail, they may be enticed by the description of the game to install it. Although it may in fact be a game, it may also be taking other action that is not readily apparent to the user, such as deleting files or mailing sensitive information to the attacker. As another example, an intruder may forge an advisory from a security organization, such as the CERT Coordination Center, that instructs system administrators to obtain and install a patch.

Other forms of "social engineering" can be used to trick users into installing or running Trojan horses. For example, an intruder might telephone a system administrator and pose as a legitimate user of the system who needs assistance of some kind. The system administrator might then be tricked into running a program of the intruder's design.

Software distribution sites can be compromised by intruders who replace legitimate versions of software with Trojan horse versions. If the distribution site is a central distribution site whose contents are mirrored by other distribution sites, the Trojan horse may be downloaded by many sites and spread quickly throughout the Internet community.

Because the Domain Name System (DNS) does not provide strong authentication, users may be tricked into connecting to sites different than the ones they intend to connect to. This could be exploited by an intruder to cause users to download a Trojan horse, or to cause users to expose confidential information.

Intruders may install Trojan horse versions of system utilities after they have compromised a system. Often, collections of Trojan horses are distributed in toolkits that an intruder can use to compromise a system and conceal their activity after the compromise, e.g., a toolkit might include a Trojan horse version of ls which does not list files owned by the intruder. Once an intruder has gained administrative access to your systems, it is very difficult to establish trust in it again without rebuilding the system from known-good software

Finally, a Trojan horse may simply be placed on a web site to which the intruder entices victims. The Trojan horse may be in the form of a Java applet, JavaScript, ActiveX control, or other form of executable content.


The best advice with respect to Trojan horses is to avoid them in the first place.

System administrators (including the users of single-user systems) should take care to verify that every piece of software that is installed is from a trusted source and has not been modified in transit. When digital signatures are provided, users are encouraged to validate the signature (as well as validating the public key of the signer). When digital signatures are not available, you may wish to acquire software on tangible media such as CDs, which bear the manufacturer's logo. Of course, this is not foolproof either. Without a way to authenticate software, you may not be able to tell if a given piece of software is legitimate, regardless of the distribution media.

I strongly encourage software developers and software distributors to use cryptographically strong validation for all software they produce or distribute. Any popular technique based on algorithms that are widely believed to be strong will provide users a strong tool to defeat Trojan horses.

Anyone who invests trust in digital signatures must also take care to validate any public keys that may be associated with the signature. It is not enough for code merely to be signed -- it must be signed by a trusted source.

Do not execute anything sent to you via unsolicited electronic mail.

Use caution when executing content such as Java applets, JavaScript, or Active X controls from web pages. You may wish to configure your browser to disable the automatic execution of web page content.

Apply the principle of least privilege in daily activity: do not retain or employ privileges that are not needed to accomplish a given task. For example, do not run with enhanced privilege, such as "root" or "administrator," ordinary tasks such as reading email.

Install and configure a tool such as Tripwire® that will allow you to detect changes to system files in a cryptographically strong way

Educate your users regarding the danger of Trojan horses.

Use firewalls and virus products that are aware of popular Trojan horses. Although it is impossible to detect all possible Trojan horses using a firewall or virus product (because a Trojan horse can be arbitrary code), they may aid you in preventing many popular Trojan horses from affecting your systems.

Review the source code to any open source products you choose to install. Open source software has an advantage compared to proprietary software because the source code can be widely reviewed and any obvious Trojan horses will probably be discovered very quickly. However, open source software also tends to be developed by a wide variety of people with little or no central control. This makes it difficult to establish trust in a single entity. Keep in mind that reviewing source code may be impractical at best.

Adopt the use of cryptographically strong mutual authentication systems, such as ssh, for terminal emulation, X.509 public key certificates in web servers, S/MIME or PGP for electronic mail, and kerberos for a variety of services. Avoid the use of systems that trust the domain name system for authentication, such as telnet, ordinary http (as opposed to https), ftp, or smtp, unless your network is specifically designed to support that trust.

Do not rely on timestamps, file sizes, or other file attributes when trying to determine if a file contains a Trojan horse.

Exercise caution when downloading unauthenticated software. If you choose to install software that has not been signed by a trusted source, you may wish to wait for a period of time before installing it in order to see if a Trojan horse is discovered.

We encourage all security organizations to digitally sign any advisories or other alerts. We also recommend that users validate any signatures, and beware of unsigned security advice.

If you do fall victim to a Trojan horse, some anti-virus software may also be able to recognize, remove and repair the damage from the Trojan horse. However, if an intruder gains access to your systems via a Trojan horse, it may be difficult or impossible to establish trust in your systems. In this case, we recommend that you disconnect from the network and rebuild your systems from known-good software, being careful to apply all relevant patches and updates, to change all passwords, and to check other nearby systems

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

This post gives home users an overview of the security risks and countermeasures associated with Internet connectivity, especially in the context of “always-on” or broadband access services (such as cable modems and DSL). However, much of the content is also relevant to traditional dial-up users (users who connect to the Internet using a modem).

Computer security

What is computer security?

Computer security is the process of preventing and detecting unauthorized use of your computer. Prevention measures help you to stop unauthorized users (also known as "intruders") from accessing any part of your computer system. Detection helps you to determine whether or not someone attempted to break into your system, if they were successful, and what they may have done.

Why should I care about computer security?

We use computers for everything from banking and investing to shopping and communicating with others through email or chat programs. Although you may not consider your communications "top secret," you probably do not want strangers reading your email, using your computer to attack other systems, sending forged email from your computer, or examining personal information stored on your computer (such as financial statements).

Who would want to break into my computer at home?

Intruders (also referred to as hackers, attackers, or crackers) may not care about your identity. Often they want to gain control of your computer so they can use it to launch attacks on other computer systems.

Having control of your computer gives them the ability to hide their true location as they launch attacks, often against high-profile computer systems such as government or financial systems. Even if you have a computer connected to the Internet only to play the latest games or to send email to friends and family, your computer may be a target.

Intruders may be able to watch all your actions on the computer, or cause damage to your computer by reformatting your hard drive or changing your data.

How easy is it to break into my computer?

Unfortunately, intruders are always discovering new vulnerabilities (informally called "holes") to exploit in computer software. The complexity of software makes it increasingly difficult to thoroughly test the security of computer systems.

When holes are discovered, computer vendors will usually develop patches to address the problem(s). However, it is up to you, the user, to obtain and install the patches, or correctly configure the software to operate more securely. Most of the incident may be prevented if system administrators and users kept their computers up-to-date with patches and security fixes.

Also, some software applications have default settings that allow other users to access your computer unless you change the settings to be more secure. Examples include chat programs that let outsiders execute commands on your computer or web browsers that could allow someone to place harmful programs on your computer that run when you click on them.


This section provides a basic introduction to the technologies that underlie the Internet. It was written with the novice end-user in mind and is not intended to be a comprehensive survey of all Internet-based technologies. Subsections provide a short overview of each topic. This section is a basic primer on the relevant technologies. For those who desire a deeper understanding of the concepts covered here.

What does broadband mean?

"Broadband" is the general term used to refer to high-speed network connections. In this context, Internet connections via cable modem and Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) are frequently referred to as broadband Internet connections. "Bandwidth" is the term used to describe the relative speed of a network connection -- for example, most current dial-up modems can support a bandwidth of 56 kbps (thousand bits per second). There is no set bandwidth threshold required for a connection to be referred to as "broadband", but it is typical for connections in excess of 1 Megabit per second (Mbps) to be so named.

What is cable modem access?

A cable modem allows a single computer (or network of computers) to connect to the Internet via the cable TV network. The cable modem usually has an Ethernet LAN (Local Area Network) connection to the computer, and is capable of speeds in excess of 5 Mbps.Typical speeds tend to be lower than the maximum, however, since cable providers turn entire neighborhoods into LANs which share the same bandwidth. Because of this "shared-medium" topology, cable modem users may experience somewhat slower network access during periods of peak demand, and may be more susceptible to risks such as packet sniffing and unprotected windows shares than users with other types of connectivity.

What is DSL access?

Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) Internet connectivity, unlike cable modem-based service, provides the user with dedicated bandwidth. However, the maximum bandwidth available to DSL users is usually lower than the maximum cable modem rate because of differences in their respective network technologies. Also, the "dedicated bandwidth" is only dedicated between your home and the DSL provider's central office -- the providers offer little or no guarantee of bandwidth all the way across the Internet.

DSL access is not as susceptible to packet sniffing as cable modem access, but many of the other security risks we'll cover apply to both DSL and cable modem access.

How are broadband services different from traditional dial-up services?

Traditional dial-up Internet services are sometimes referred to as "dial-on-demand" services. That is, your computer only connects to the Internet when it has something to send, such as email or a request to load a web page. Once there is no more data to be sent, or after a certain amount of idle time, the computer disconnects the call. Also, in most cases each call connects to a pool of modems at the ISP, and since the modem IP addresses are dynamically assigned, your computer is usually assigned a different IP address on each call. As a result, it is more difficult (not impossible, just difficult) for an attacker to take advantage of vulnerable network services to take control of your computer.

Broadband services are referred to as "always-on" services because there is no call setup when your computer has something to send. The computer is always on the network, ready to send or receive data through its network interface card (NIC). Since the connection is always up, your computer’s IP address will change less frequently (if at all), thus making it more of a fixed target for attack.

What’s more, many broadband service providers use well-known IP addresses for home users. So while an attacker may not be able to single out your specific computer as belonging to you, they may at least be able to know that your service providers’ broadband customers are within a certain address range, thereby making your computer a more likely target than it might have been otherwise.

How is broadband access different from the network I use at work?

Corporate and government networks are typically protected by many layers of security, ranging from network firewalls to encryption. In addition, they usually have support staff who maintain the security and availability of these network connections.

Although your ISP is responsible for maintaining the services they provide to you, you probably won’t have dedicated staff on hand to manage and operate your home network. You are ultimately responsible for your own computers. As a result, it is up to you to take reasonable precautions to secure your computers from accidental or intentional misuse.

What is a protocol?

A protocol is a well-defined specification that allows computers to communicate across a network. In a way, protocols define the "grammar" that computers can use to "talk" to each other.

What is IP?

IP stands for "Internet Protocol". It can be thought of as the common language of computers on the Internet. There are a number of detailed descriptions of IP given elsewhere, so I won't cover it in detail in this document. However, it is important to know a few things about IP in order to understand how to secure your computer. Here we’ll cover IP addresses, static vs. dynamic addressing, NAT, and TCP and UDP Ports.

An overview of TCP/IP can be found in the TCP/IP Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) at


What is an IP address?

IP addresses are analogous to telephone numbers – when you want to call someone on the telephone, you must first know their telephone number. Similarly, when a computer on the Internet needs to send data to another computer, it must first know its IP address. IP addresses are typically shown as four numbers separated by decimal points, or “dots”. For example, and are IP addresses.

If you need to make a telephone call but you only know the person’s name, you can look them up in the telephone directory (or call directory services) to get their telephone number. On the Internet, that directory is called the Domain Name System, or DNS for short. If you know the name of a server, say, and you type this into your web browser, your computer will then go ask its DNS server what the numeric IP address is that is associated with that name.

Every computer on the Internet has an IP address associated with it that uniquely identifies it. However, that address may change over time, especially if the computer is

dialing into an Internet Service Provider (ISP)

connected behind a network firewall

connected to a broadband service using dynamic IP addressing.

What are static and dynamic addressing?

Static IP addressing occurs when an ISP permanently assigns one or more IP addresses for each user. These addresses do not change over time. However, if a static address is assigned but not in use, it is effectively wasted. Since ISPs have a limited number of addresses allocated to them, they sometimes need to make more efficient use of their addresses.

Dynamic IP addressing allows the ISP to efficiently utilize their address space. Using dynamic IP addressing, the IP addresses of individual user computers may change over time. If a dynamic address is not in use, it can be automatically reassigned to another computer as needed.

What is NAT?

Network Address Translation (NAT) provides a way to hide the IP addresses of a private network from the Internet while still allowing computers on that network to access the Internet. NAT can be used in many different ways, but one method frequently used by home users is called "masquerading".

Using NAT masquerading, one or more devices on a LAN can be made to appear as a single IP address to the outside Internet. This allows for multiple computers in a home network to use a single cable modem or DSL connection without requiring the ISP to provide more than one IP address to the user. Using this method, the ISP-assigned IP address can be either static or dynamic. Most network firewalls support NAT masquerading.

What are TCP and UDP Ports?

TCP (Transmission Control Protocol) and UDP (User Datagram Protocol) are both protocols that use IP. Whereas IP allows two computers to talk to each other across the Internet, TCP and UDP allow individual applications (also known as "services") on those computers to talk to each other.

In the same way that a telephone number or physical mail box might be associated with more than one person, a computer might have multiple applications (e.g. email, file services, web services) running on the same IP address. Ports allow a computer to differentiate services such as email data from web data. A port is simply a number associated with each application that uniquely identifies that service on that computer. Both TCP and UDP use ports to identify services. Some common port numbers are 80 for web (HTTP), 25 for email (SMTP), and 53 for Dmain Name System (DNS).

What is a firewall?

The Firewalls FAQ ( defines a firewall as "a system or group of systems that enforces an access control policy between two networks." In the context of home networks, a firewall typically takes one of two forms:

Software firewall - specialized software running on an individual computer, or

Network firewall - a dedicated device designed to protect one or more computers.

Both types of firewall allow the user to define access policies for inbound connections to the computers they are protecting. Many also provide the ability to control what services (ports) the protected computers are able to access on the Internet (outbound access). Most firewalls intended for home use come with pre-configured security policies from which the user chooses, and some allow the user to customize these policies for their specific needs.

What does antivirus software do?

There are a variety of antivirus software packages that operate in many different ways, depending on how the vendor chose to implement their software. What they have in common, though, is that they all look for patterns in the files or memory of your computer that indicate the possible presence of a known virus. Antivirus packages know what to look for through the use of virus profiles (sometimes called "signatures") provided by the vendor.

New viruses are discovered daily. The effectiveness of antivirus software is dependent on having the latest virus profiles installed on your computer so that it can look for recently discovered viruses. It is important to keep these profiles up to date.

Computer security risks to home users

What is at risk?

Information security is concerned with three main areas:

Confidentiality - information should be available only to those who rightfully have access to it

Integrity -- information should be modified only by those who are authorized to do so

Availability -- information should be accessible to those who need it when they need it

These concepts apply to home Internet users just as much as they would to any corporate or government network. You probably wouldn't let a stranger look through your important documents. In the same way, you may want to keep the tasks you perform on your computer confidential, whether it's tracking your investments or sending email messages to family and friends. Also, you should have some assurance that the information you enter into your computer remains intact and is available when you need it.

Some security risks arise from the possibility of intentional misuse of your computer by intruders via the Internet. Others are risks that you would face even if you weren't connected to the Internet (e.g. hard disk failures, theft, power outages). The bad news is that you probably cannot plan for every possible risk. The good news is that you can take some simple steps to reduce the chance that you'll be affected by the most common threats -- and some of those steps help with both the intentional and accidental risks you're likely to face.

Before we get to what you can do to protect your computer or home network, let’s take a closer look at some of these risks.

Intentional misuse of your computer

The most common methods used by intruders to gain control of home computers are briefly described below. More detailed information will be provided in next posts

Listed in the References section below:

Trojan horse programs

Back door and remote administration programs

Denial of service

Being an intermediary for another attack

Unprotected Windows shares

Mobile code (Java, JavaScript, and ActiveX)

Cross-site scripting

Email spoofing

Email-borne viruses

Hidden file extensions

Chat clients

Packet sniffing

Trojan horse programs

Trojan horse programs are a common way for intruders to trick you (sometimes referred to as "social engineering") into installing "back door" programs. These can allow intruders easy access to your computer without your knowledge, change your system configurations, or infect your computer with a computer virus.It will discussed in depth in the future.

Back door and remote administration programs

On Windows computers, three tools commonly used by intruders to gain remote access to your computer are BackOrifice, Netbus, and SubSeven. These back door or remote administration programs, once installed, allow other people to access and control your computer.

Denial of service

Another form of attack is called a denial-of-service (DoS) attack. This type of attack causes your computer to crash or to become so busy processing data that you are unable to use it. In most cases, the latest patches will prevent the attack.

It is important to note that in addition to being the target of a DoS attack, it is possible for your computer to be used as a participant in a denial-of-service attack on another system.

Being an intermediary for another attack

Intruders will frequently use compromised computers as launching pads for attacking other systems. An example of this is how distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) tools are used. The intruders install an "agent" (frequently through a Trojan horse program) that runs on the compromised computer awaiting further instructions. Then, when a number of agents are running on different computers, a single "handler" can instruct all of them to launch a denial-of-service attack on another system. Thus, the end target of the attack is not your own computer, but someone else’s -- your computer is just a convenient tool in a larger attack.

Unprotected Windows shares

Unprotected Windows networking shares can be exploited by intruders in an automated way to place tools on large numbers of Windows-based computers attached to the Internet. Because site security on the Internet is interdependent, a compromised computer not only creates problems for the computer's owner, but it is also a threat to other sites on the Internet. The greater immediate risk to the Internet community is the potentially large number of computers attached to the Internet with unprotected Windows networking shares combined with distributed attack

There is great potential for the emergence of other intruder tools that leverage unprotected Windows networking shares on a widespread basis.

Mobile code (Java/JavaScript/ActiveX)

There have been reports of problems with "mobile code" (e.g. Java, JavaScript, and ActiveX). These are programming languages that let web developers write code that is executed by your web browser. Although the code is generally useful, it can be used by intruders to gather information (such as which web sites you visit) or to run malicious code on your computer. It is possible to disable Java, JavaScript, and ActiveX in your web browser. I recommend that you do so if you are browsing web sites that you are not familiar with or do not trust.

Also be aware of the risks involved in the use of mobile code within email programs. Many email programs use the same code as web browsers to display HTML. Thus, vulnerabilities that affect Java, JavaScript, and ActiveX are often applicable to email as well as web pages.

Cross-site scripting

A malicious web developer may attach a script to something sent to a web site, such as a URL, an element in a form, or a database inquiry. Later, when the web site responds to you, the malicious script is transferred to your browser.

You can potentially expose your web browser to malicious scripts by

following links in web pages, email messages, or newsgroup postings without knowing what they link to

using interactive forms on an untrustworthy site

viewing online discussion groups, forums, or other dynamically generated pages where users can post text containing HTML tags

Email spoofing

Email “spoofing” is when an email message appears to have originated from one source when it actually was sent from another source. Email spoofing is often an attempt to trick the user into making a damaging statement or releasing sensitive information (such as passwords).

Spoofed email can range from harmless pranks to social engineering ploys. Examples of the latter include

email claiming to be from a system administrator requesting users to change their passwords to a specified string and threatening to suspend their account if they do not comply

email claiming to be from a person in authority requesting users to send them a copy of a password file or other sensitive information

Note that while service providers may occasionally request that you change your password, they usually will not specify what you should change it to. Also, most legitimate service providers would never ask you to send them any password information via email. If you suspect that you may have received a spoofed email from someone with malicious intent, you should contact your service provider's support personnel immediately.

Email borne viruses

Viruses and other types of malicious code are often spread as attachments to email messages. Before opening any attachments, be sure you know the source of the attachment. It is not enough that the mail originated from an address you recognize. The Melissa virus (see References) spread precisely because it originated from a familiar address. Also, malicious code might be distributed in amusing or enticing programs.

Never run a program unless you know it to be authored by a person or company that you trust. Also, don't send programs of unknown origin to your friends or coworkers simply because they are amusing -- they might contain a Trojan horse program.

Hidden file extensions

Windows operating systems contain an option to "Hide file extensions for known file types". The option is enabled by default, but a user may choose to disable this option in order to have file extensions displayed by Windows. Multiple email-borne viruses are known to exploit hidden file extensions. The first major attack that took advantage of a hidden file extension was the VBS/LoveLetter worm which contained an email attachment named "LOVE-LETTER-FOR-YOU.TXT.vbs". Other malicious programs have since incorporated similar naming schemes. Examples include

Downloader (MySis.avi.exe or QuickFlick.mpg.exe)

VBS/Timofonica (TIMOFONICA.TXT.vbs)


VBS/OnTheFly (AnnaKournikova.jpg.vbs)

The files attached to the email messages sent by these viruses may appear to be harmless text (.txt), MPEG (.mpg), AVI (.avi) or other file types when in fact the file is a malicious script or executable (.vbs or .exe, for example).

Chat clients

Internet chat applications, such as instant messaging applications and Internet Relay Chat (IRC) networks, provide a mechanism for information to be transmitted bi-directionally between computers on the Internet. Chat clients provide groups of individuals with the means to exchange dialog, web URLs, and in many cases, files of any type.

Because many chat clients allow for the exchange of executable code, they present risks similar to those of email clients. As with email clients, care should be taken to limit the chat client’s ability to execute downloaded files. As always, you should be wary of exchanging files with unknown parties.

Packet sniffing

A packet sniffer is a program that captures data from information packets as they travel over the network. That data may include user names, passwords, and proprietary information that travels over the network in clear text. With perhaps hundreds or thousands of passwords captured by the packet sniffer, intruders can launch widespread attacks on systems. Installing a packet sniffer does not necessarily require administrator-level access.

Relative to DSL and traditional dial-up users, cable modem users have a higher risk of exposure to packet sniffers since entire neighborhoods of cable modem users are effectively part of the same LAN. A packet sniffer installed on any cable modem user's computer in a neighborhood may be able to capture data transmitted by any other cable modem in the same neighborhood.

Accidents and other risks

In addition to the risks associated with connecting your computer to the Internet, there are a number of risks that apply even if the computer has no network connections at all. Most of these risks are well-known, so I won’t go into much detail in this document, but it is important to note that the common practices associated with reducing these risks may also help reduce susceptibility to the network-based risks discussed above.

Disk failure

Recall that availability is one of the three key elements of information security. Although all stored data can become unavailable -- if the media it’s stored on is physically damaged, destroyed, or lost -- data stored on hard disks is at higher risk due to the mechanical nature of the device. Hard disk crashes are a common cause of data loss on personal computers. Regular system backups are the only effective remedy.

Power failure and surges

Power problems (surges, blackouts, and brown-outs) can cause physical damage to a computer, inducing a hard disk crash or otherwise harming the electronic components of the computer. Common mitigation methods include using surge suppressors and uninterruptible power supplies (UPS).

Physical Theft

Physical theft of a computer, of course, results in the loss of confidentiality and availability, and (assuming the computer is ever recovered) makes the integrity of the data stored on the disk suspect. Regular system backups (with the backups stored somewhere away from the computer) allow for recovery of the data, but backups alone cannot address confidentiality. Cryptographic tools are available that can encrypt data stored on a computer’s hard disk.

Actions home users can take to protect their computer systems

I recommends the following practices to home users:

Consult your system support personnel if you work from home

Use virus protection software

Use a firewall

Don’t open unknown email attachments

Don’t run programs of unknown origin

Disable hidden filename extensions

Keep all applications (including your operating system) patched

Turn off your computer or disconnect from the network when not in use

Disable Java, JavaScript, and ActiveX if possible

Disable scripting features in email programs

Make regular backups of critical data

Make a boot disk in case your computer is damaged or compromised


Consult your system support personnel if you work from home

If you use your broadband access to connect to your employer's network via a Virtual Private Network (VPN) or other means, your employer may have policies or procedures relating to the security of your home network. Be sure to consult with your employer's support personnel, as appropriate, before following any of the steps outlined in this document.

Use virus protection software

It is recommended the use of anti-virus software on all Internet-connected computers. Be sure to keep your anti-virus software up-to-date. Many anti-virus packages support automatic updates of virus definitions. I recommend the use of these automatic updates when available.

Use a firewall

I strongly recommend the use of some type of firewall product, such as a network appliance or a personal firewall software package. Intruders are constantly scanning home user systems for known vulnerabilities. Network firewalls (whether software or hardware-based) can provide some degree of protection against these attacks. However, no firewall can detect or stop all attacks, so it’s not sufficient to install a firewall and then ignore all other security measures.

Don't open unknown email attachments

Before opening any email attachments, be sure you know the source of the attachment. It is not enough that the mail originated from an address you recognize. The Melissa virus spread precisely because it originated from a familiar address. Malicious code might be distributed in amusing or enticing programs.

If you must open an attachment before you can verify the source, I suggest the following procedure:

be sure your virus definitions are up-to-date (see "Use virus protection software" above)

save the file to your hard disk

scan the file using your antivirus software

open the file

For additional protection, you can disconnect your computer's network connection before opening the file.

Following these steps will reduce, but not wholly eliminate, the chance that any malicious code contained in the attachment might spread from your computer to others.

Don't run programs of unknown origin

Never run a program unless you know it to be authored by a person or company that you trust. Also, don't send programs of unknown origin to your friends or coworkers simply because they are amusing -- they might contain a Trojan horse program.

Disable hidden filename extensions

Windows operating systems contain an option to "Hide file extensions for known file types". The option is enabled by default, but you can disable this option in order to have file extensions displayed by Windows. After disabling this option, there are still some file extensions that, by default, will continue to remain hidden.

There is a registry value which, if set, will cause Windows to hide certain file extensions regardless of user configuration choices elsewhere in the operating system. The "NeverShowExt" registry value is used to hide the extensions for basic Windows file types. For example, the ".LNK" extension associated with Windows shortcuts remains hidden even after a user has turned off the option to hide extensions.

Specific instructions for disabling hidden file name extensions are given in

Keep all applications, including your operating system, patched

Vendors will usually release patches for their software when a vulnerability has been discovered. Most product documentation offers a method to get updates and patches. You should be able to obtain updates from the vendor's web site. Read the manuals or browse the vendor's web site for more information.

Some applications will automatically check for available updates, and many vendors offer automatic notification of updates via a mailing list. Look on your vendor's web site for information about automatic notification. If no mailing list or other automated notification mechanism is offered you may need to check periodically for updates.

Turn off your computer or disconnect from the network when not in use

Turn off your computer or disconnect its Ethernet interface when you are not using it. An intruder cannot attack your computer if it is powered off or otherwise completely disconnected from the network.

Disable Java, JavaScript, and ActiveX if possible

Be aware of the risks involved in the use of "mobile code" such as ActiveX, Java, and JavaScript. A malicious web developer may attach a script to something sent to a web site, such as a URL, an element in a form, or a database inquiry. Later, when the web site responds to you, the malicious script is transferred to your browser.

The most significant impact of this vulnerability can be avoided by disabling all scripting languages. Turning off these options will keep you from being vulnerable to malicious scripts. However, it will limit the interaction you can have with some web sites.

Many legitimate sites use scripts running within the browser to add useful features. Disabling scripting may degrade the functionality of these sites.

Disable scripting features in email programs

Because many email programs use the same code as web browsers to display HTML, vulnerabilities that affect ActiveX, Java, and JavaScript are often applicable to email as well as web pages. Therefore, in addition to disabling scripting features in web browsers (see "Disable Java, JavaScript, and ActiveX if possible", above), I recommend that users also disable these features in their email programs.

Make regular backups of critical data

Keep a copy of important files on removable media such as ZIP disks or recordable CD-ROM disks (CD-R or CD-RW disks). Use software backup tools if available, and store the backup disks somewhere away from the computer.

Make a boot disk in case your computer is damaged or compromised

To aid in recovering from a security breach or hard disk failure, create a boot disk on a floppy disk which will help when recovering a computer after such an event has occurred. Remember, however, you must create this disk before you have a security event.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Basics of Encryption


The incredible growth of the Internet has excited businesses and consumers alike with its promise of changing the way we live and work. But a major concern has been just how secure the Internet is, especially when you're sending sensitive information through it.

Let's face it, there's a whole lot of information that we don't want other people to see, such as:

Credit-card information

Social Security numbers

Private correspondence

Personal details

Sensitive company information

Bank-account information

Information security is provided on computers and over the Internet by a variety of methods. A simple but straightforward security method is to only keep sensitive information on removable storage media like floppy disks. But the most popular forms of security all rely on encryption, the process of encoding information in such a way that only the person (or computer) with the key can decode it.

Computer encryption is based on the science of cryptography, which has been used throughout history. Before the digital age, the biggest users of cryptography were governments, particularly for military purposes. The existence of coded messages has been verified as far back as the Roman Empire. But most forms of cryptography in use these days rely on computers, simply because a human-based code is too easy for a computer to crack.

Most computer encryption systems belong in one of two categories:

Symmetric-key encryption

Public-key encryption

Symmetric Key

In symmetric-key encryption, each computer has a secret key (code) that it can use to encrypt a packet of information before it is sent over the network to another computer. Symmetric-key requires that you know which computers will be talking to each other so you can install the key on each one. Symmetric-key encryption is essentially the same as a secret code that each of the two computers must know in order to decode the information. The code provides the key to decoding the message. Think of it like this: You create a coded message to send to a friend in which each letter is substituted with the letter that is two down from it in the alphabet. So "A" becomes "C," and "B" becomes "D". You have already told a trusted friend that the code is "Shift by 2". Your friend gets the message and decodes it. Anyone else who sees the message will see only nonsense.

Public-key encryption

The main problem in Symmetric is the transmission of private key. If user A wants to send a encrypted file to user B, user B should have user A’s private key.For this user A have to send his private key to user B.The transmission of the private key is vulnerable. For this they came to a new concept called Public-key encryption.

Public-key encryption uses a combination of a private key and a public key. The private key is known only to your computer, while the public key is given by your computer to any computer that wants to communicate securely with it. To decode an encrypted message, a computer must use the public key, provided by the originating computer, and its own private key. A very popular public-key encryption utility is called Pretty Good Privacy (PGP),

To implement public-key encryption on a large scale, such as a secure Web server might need, requires a different approach. This is where digital certificates come in. A digital certificate is basically a bit of information that says that the Web server is trusted by an independent source known as a certificate authority. The certificate authority acts as a middleman that both computers trust. It confirms that each computer is in fact who it says it is, and then provides the public keys of each computer to the other.

A popular implementation of public-key encryption is the Secure Sockets Layer (SSL). Originally developed by Netscape, SSL is an Internet security protocol used by Internet browsers and Web servers to transmit sensitive information. SSL has become part of an overall security protocol known as Transport Layer Security (TLS).

In your browser, you can tell when you are using a secure protocol, such as TLS, in a couple of different ways. You will notice that the "http" in the address line is replaced with "https," and you should see a small padlock in the status bar at the bottom of the browser window.

SSL operation:

Public-key encryption takes a lot of computing, so most systems use a combination of public-key and symmetry. If a ssl session is established the client computer will generate a public key and private key. the server already have a public key(which ssl certificate issued by a CA) and a private key.


Client machine

Server Public KEY

Server private KEY

client Public KEY

client private KEY

Once the ssl session enabled, the next process is to exchange the key. We need a public key to decrypt the data encrypted by the private key.

The first process is to exchange the public keys’s.


Client machine

Server Public KEY

Server private KEY

client Public KEY

client private KEY

So now the client will have server’s public key, and the server will have client’s public key. So server can decrypt client’s data and client can decrypt server’s data.


Client machine

Server Public KEY

Server private KEY

client Public KEY

client private KEY

Server Public KEY

client Public KEY

Now the encryption can be attained.


When connecting to a web server over SSL, a visitor's browser decides whether or not to trust the website's SSL certificate based on which CA issued the actual SSL certificate. To determine this, the browser looks at its list of trusted issuing authorities -- represented by a collection of Trusted Root CA certificates added into the browser by the browser vendor.

Like SSL certificates, root certificates also have a public and private key pair used to encrypt and decrypt information that is sent between two devices. The private key of the root certificate is heavily guarded and kept in the certificate provider's secure data center; while the public key of the root certificate is given to browser and application manufacturers to be added to their list of trusted roots. Embedding the public key into the browser or application allows the software to automatically recognize and trust any SSL or client certificate that has been signed by that root certificate.

The more browsers, web servers and applications that a certificate provider embeds their root certificates in, the higher their certificate "ubiquity" is. Certificate ubiquity is a term that essentially means "the percentage of the most popular browsers, web servers, and applications that inherently recognize and trust the providers root certificate." For example, COMODO maintains 99.3% browser ubiquity in the marketplace, which means that all comodo certificates will be recognized and trusted by all the most popular browsers, web servers and applications available today.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007


It is becoming increasingly common to tune in to the news or load your favorite news Web site and read about yet another Internet e-mail scam. An e-mail scam is a fraudulent e-mail that appears to be from a legitimate Internet address with a justifiable request — usually to verify your personal information or account details. One example would be if you received an e-mail that appears to be from your bank requesting you click a hyperlink in the e-mail and verify your online banking information. Usually there will be a repercussion stated in the e-mail for not following the link, such as "your account will be closed or suspended". The goal of the sender is for you to disclose personal and (or) account related information. This type of e-mail scam is also called phishing.

phishing (fish´ing) (n.) The act of sending an e-mail to a user falsely claiming to be an established legitimate enterprise in an attempt to scam the user into surrendering private information that will be used for identity theft. The e-mail directs the user to visit a Web site where they are asked to update personal information, such as passwords and credit card, social security, and bank account numbers, that the legitimate organization already has. The Web site, however, is bogus and set up only to steal the user’s information.

How to Spot A Phishing Scam:

At first glance, it may not be obvious to the recipients that what is in their inbox is not a legitimate e-mail from a company with whom they do business. The "From" field of the e-mail may have the .com address of the company mentioned in the e-mail, and the clickable link may also appear to be taking you to the company's Web site, but will in fact take you to a spoof Web site. Looks can be deceiving, but with phishing scams the e-mail is never from who is appears to be!

Key Terms To Understanding phishing:


The act of sending an e-mail to a user falsely claiming to be an established legitimate enterprise in an attempt to scam the user into surrendering private information that will be used for identity theft.

spear phishing

A type of phishing attack that focuses on a single user or department within an organization.


Any software that covertly gathers user information through the user's Internet connection without his or her knowledge


In the computer industry, refers to techniques for ensuring that data stored in a computer cannot be read or compromised by any individuals without authorization.

Phishing e-mails will contain some of these common elements: (view screen capture above from Eudora)

1. The "From Field" appears to be from the legitimate company mentioned in the e-mail. It is important to note, however, that it is very simple to change the "from" information in any e-mail client. While we're not going to tell you how, rest assured it can be done in a matter of seconds!

2. The e-mail will usually contain logos or images that have been taken from the Web site of the company mentioned in the scam e-mail.

3. The e-mail will contain a clickable link with text suggesting you use the inserted link to validate your information. In the image you will see that once the hyperlink is highlighted, the bottom left of the screen shows the real Web site address to which you will go. Note that the hyperlink does NOT point to the legitimate Citibank Web site URL.

In this instance, the text you click is "here", However, this may also state something like "Log-in to Citibank" or "" to be even more misleading. This clickable area is only text and can be changed to anything the sender wants it to read.

Additionally, you may spot some of these elements that did not appear in this particular scam:

Logos that are not an exact match to the company's logo, spelling errors, percentage signs followed by numbers or @ signs within the hyperlink, random names or e-mail addresses in the body of the text, or even e-mail headers which have nothing to do with the company mentioned in the e-mail.

Who Is Behind the Phishes & Why

The people behind phishing e-mails are scam artists. They literally send out millions of these scam e-mails in the hopes that even a few recipients will act on them and provide their personal and financial information. Anyone with an e-mail address is at risk of being phished. Any e-mail address that has been made public on the Internet (posting in forums, newsgroups or on a Web site) is more susceptible to phishing as the e-mail address can be saved by spiders that search the Internet and grab as many e-mail addresses as they can. This is why phishing is profitable for scammers; they can cheaply and easily access millions of valid e-mail addresses to send these scams to.

Common (Phish) Sense

After reading this far, we hope that you will be able to spot a phishing e-mail without too much difficulty. The e-mail represented above is just a sample; phishing e-mails can appear to be from any bank, PayPal, eBay, credit card companies, an online retail store — basically from anywhere a person may have registered for an account, and usually would have supplied financial information when registering.

The golden rule to avoid being phished is to never ever click the links within the text of the e-mail. Always delete the e-mail immediately. Once you have deleted the e-mail then empty the trash box in your e-mail client as well. This will prevent "accidental" clicks from happening as well. If, for some really odd reason you have this nagging feeling that this could just possibly be a legitimate e-mail and nothing can convince you otherwise, you still need to adhere to the golden rule and not click the link in the message. For those truly worried that an account may be in jeopardy if you do not verify your information, you need to open your Web browser program of choice and type the URL to the Web site in the address field of your browser and log on to the Web site as you normally would (without going through the e-mail link as a quick route). This will provide you with accurate information about your account and allow you to completely avoid the possibility of landing on a spoof Web site and giving your information to someone you shouldn't.

Now that you know how to avoid being phished, there is still the question of what to do about phishing e-mails should you be a recipient of them. First of all, you can visit the Web site of the company from whom the e-mail appears to be from and take the time to notify them of the suspicious e-mail. Many companies do want to know if their company name is being used to try and scam people, and you'll find scam and spoof reporting links within some of these Web sites. Additionally, you can report phishing to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), and depending on where you live, some local authorities may also accept Internet phishing scam reports. Lastly, you can also send details of a phishing scam to to the Anti-Phishing Working Group who is building a repository/database of common scams to help inform people of the risks.

The New Phish - Spear Phishing

As with all malicious code, once a small percentage of the population starts to catch on, the perpetrators find ways to make the attack a little different, and this case, make the phish harder to net. The newest type of phishing scam is one that focuses on a single user or a department within an organization. The Phish appears to be legitimately addressed from someone within that company, in a position of trust, and request information such as login IDs and passwords. Spear phishing scams will often appear to be from a company's own human resources or technical support divisions and may ask employees to update their username and passwords. Once hackers get this data they can gain entry into secured networks. Another type of spear phishing attack will ask users to click on a link, which deploys spyware that can steal data.

Did You Know...

The word phishing comes from the analogy that Internet scammers are using e-mail lures to fish for passwords and financial data from the sea of Internet users. The term was coined in 1996 by hackers who were stealing AOL Internet accounts by scamming passwords from unsuspecting AOL users. Since hackers have a tendency to replacing "f" with "ph" the term phishing was derived.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Linux History

The history of computer operating systems starts in the 1950s, with simple schemes for running batch programs efficiently, minimizing idle time between programs. A batch program is one that does not interact with the user at all. It reads all its input from a file (possibly a stack of punch cards) and outputs all its output to another file (possibly to a printer). This is how all computers used to work.

Then, in early 1960s, interactive use started to gain ground. Not only interactive use, but having several people use the same computer at the same time, from different terminals. Such systems were called time-sharing systems and were quite a challenge to implement compared to the batch systems.

During the 1960s there were many attempts at building good time-sharing systems. Some of these were university research projects, others were commercial ones. One such project was Multics, which was quite innovative at the time. It had, for example, a hierarchical file system, something taken for granted in modern operating systems.

The Multics project did not, however, progress very well. It took years longer to complete than anticipated and never got a significant share of the operating system market. One of the participants, Bell Labs, withdrew from the project. The Bell Labs people who were involved then made their own operating system and called it Unix.

Unix was originally distributed for free and gained much popularity in universities. Later, it got an implementation of the TCP/IP protocol stack and was adopted as the operating system of choice for early workstations.

By 1990, Unix had a strong position in the server market and was especially strong in universities. Most universities had Unix systems and computer science students were exposed to them. Many of them wanted to run Unix on their own computers as well. Unfortunately, by that time, Unix had become commercial and rather expensive. About the only cheap option was Minix, a limited Unix-like system written by Andrew Tanenbaum for teaching purposes. There was also 386BSD, a precursor NetBSD, FreeBSD, and OpenBSD, but that wasn't mature yet, and required higher end hardware than many had at home.

Into this scene came Linux, in October, 1991. Linus Torvalds, the author, had used Unix at the University of Helsinki, and wanted something similar on his PC at home. Since the commercial alternatives were way too expensive, he started out with Minix, but wanted something better and soon started to write his own operating system. After its first release, it soon attracted the attention of several other hackers. While Linux initially was not really useful except as a toy, it soon gathered enough features to be interesting even for people uninterested in operating system development.

Linux itself is only the kernel of an operating system. The kernel is the part that makes all other programs run. It implements multitasking, and manages hardware devices, and generally enables applications to do their thing. All the programs that the user (or system administrator) actually interacts with are run on top of the kernel. Some of these are essential: for example, a command line interpreter (or shell), which is used both interactively and to write shell scripts (corresponding to .BAT files).

Linus did not write these programs himself, and used existing free versions instead. This reduced greatly the amount of work he had to do to get a working environment. In fact, he often changed the kernel to make it easier to get the existing programs to run on Linux, instead of the other way around.

Most of the critically important system software, including the C compiler, came from the Free Software Foundation's GNU project. Started in 1984, the GNU project aims to develop an entire Unix-like operating system that is completely free. To credit them, many people like to refer to a Linux system as a GNU/Linux system. (GNU has their own kernel as well.)

During 1992 and 1993, the Linux kernel gathered all the necessary features it required to work as a replacement for Unix workstations, including TCP/IP networking and a graphical windowing system (the X Window System). Linux also received plenty of industry attention, and several small companies were started to develop and distribute Linux. Dozens of user groups were founded, and the Linux Journal magazine started to appear in early 1994.

Version 1.0 of the Linux kernel was released in March, 1994. Since then, the kernel has gone through many development cycles, each culminating in a stable version. Each development cycle has taken a year or three, and has involved redesigning and rewriting large parts of the kernel to deal with changes in hardware (for example, new ways to connect peripherals, such as USB) and to meet increased speed requirements as people apply Linux to larger and larger systems (or smaller and smaller ones: embedded Linux is becoming a hot topic).

From a marketing and political point of view, after the 1.0 release the next huge step happened in 1997, when Netscape decided to release their web browser as free software (the term 'open source' was created for this). This was the occasion that first brought free software to the attention of the whole computing world for the time. It has taken years of work since then, but free software (whether called that or open source) has become not only generally accepted but also often the preferred choice for many applications.

Social phenomenon

Apart from being a technological feat, Linux is also an interesting social phenomenon. Much through Linux, the free software movement has broken through to general attention. On the way, it even got an informal marketing department and brand: open source. It is baffling to many outsiders that something as successful as Linux could be developed by a bunch of unorganized people in their free time.

The major factor here is the availability of all the source code to the system, plus a copyright license that allows modifications to be made and distributed. When the system has many programmers among its users, if they find a problem, they can fairly easily fix it. Additionally, if they think a feature is missing, they can add it themselves. For some reason, that is something programmers like to do, even if they're not paid for it: they have an itch (a need), so they scratch (write the code to fill the need).

It is necessary to have at least one committed developer who puts in lots of effort. After a while, however, once there are enough programmer-users sending small changes and improvements, you get a snowball effect: lots of small changes result in a fairly rapid total development speed, which then attracts more users, some of which will be programmers. This then results in more small changes and improvements sent in by users, and so on.

For operating system development specifically, this large group of programmer-users results in two important types of improvements: bug fixes and device drivers. Operating system code often has bugs that only occur rarely and it can be difficult for the developers to reproduce them. When there are thousands or more users who are also programmers, this results in a very effective testing and debugging army.

Most of the code volume in Linux is device drivers. The core functionality, which implements multitasking and multiuser functionality, is small in comparison. Most device drivers are independent from each other, and only interact with the operating system core via well defined interfaces. Thus, it is fairly easy to write a new device driver without having to understand the whole complexity of the operating system. This also allows the main developers to concentrate on the core functiionality, and they can let those people write the device drivers who actually have the devices.

It would be awkward just to store the thousands of different sound cards, Ethernet cards, IDE controllers, motherboards, digital cameras, printers, and so on that Linux supports. The Linux development model is distributed, and spreads the work around quite effectively.

The Linux model is not without problems. When a new device gets on the market, it can take a few months before a Linux programmer is interested enough to write a device driver. Also, some device manufacturers, for whatever reason, do not want to release programming information for their devices, which can prevent a Linux device driver to be written at all. Luckily, with the growing global interest in Linux such companies become fewer in numbers.
What it is

Linux is a Unix-like multitasking, multiuser 32 and 64 bit operating system for a variety of hardware platforms and licensed under an open source license. This is a somewhat accurate but rather brief description. I'll spend the rest of this article expounding on it.

Being Unix-like means emulating the Unix operating system interfaces so that programs written for Unix will work for Linux merely by re-compiling. It follows that Linux uses mostly the same abstractions as the Unix system. For example, the way processes are created and controlled is the same in Unix and Linux.

There are a number of other operating systems in active use: from Microsoft's family of Windows versions, through Apple's MacOS to OpenVMS. Linux's creator, Linus Torvalds, chose Unix as the model for Linux partly for its aesthetic appeal to system programmers, partly because of all the operating systems he was familiar with, it was the one he knew best.

The Unix heritage also gives Linux the two most important features: multitasking and multiuser capabilities. Linux, like Unix, was designed from the start to run multiple processes independently of each other. Implementing multitasking well requires attention at every level of the operating system. It is hard to add multitasking to an operationg system afterwards. That's why the Windows 95 series and MacOS (before MacOS X) did multitasking somewhat poorly: multitasking was added to an existing operating system, not designed into a new one. That's also why the Windows NT series, MacOS X, and Linux do multitasking so much better.

A good implementation of multitasking requires, among other things, proper memory management. The operating system must use the memory protection support in the processor to protect running programs from each other. Otherwise a buggy program (that is, most any program) may corrupt the memory area of another program, or the operating system itself, causing weird behavior or a total system crash, with likely loss of data and unsaved work.

Supporting many concurrent users is easy after multitasking works. You label each instance of a running program with a particular user and prevent the program from tampering with other user's files.
Portable and scalable

Linux was originally written for an Intel 386 processor, and naturally works on all successive processors. After about three years of development, work began to adapt (or port) Linux to other processor families as well. The first one was the Alpha processor, then developed and sold by the Digital Equipment Corporation. The Alpha was chosen because Digital graciously donated a system to Linus. Soon other porting efforts followed. Today, Linux also runs on Sun SPARC and UltraSPARC, Motorola 68000, PowerPC, PowerPC64, ARM, Hitachi SuperH, IBM S/390, MIPS, HP PA-RISC, Intel IA-64, DEC VAX, AMD x86-64 and CRIS processors. (See for details.)

Most of those processors are not very common on people's desks. For example, S/390 is IBM's big mainframe architecture. Here, mainframe means the kind of computer inside of which you can put your desk, rather than the kind that fits on your desk.

Some of those processors are 32 bit, like the Intel 386. Others are 64 bit, such as the Alpha. Supporting such different processors has been good for Linux. It has required designing the system to use proper modularity and good abstractions and this has improved code quality.

The large variety of supported processors also shows off Linux's scalability: it works everything from very small systems, such as embedded computers, handheld devices, and mobile phones, to very large systems, such as the IBM mainframes.

Using clustering technology, such as Beowulf (, Linux even runs on supercomputers. For example, the US Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories bought a cluster with 1920 processors, resulting in one of the five fastest supercomputers in the world with a theoretical peak performance of 9.2 teraFLOPS or 9.2 trillion calculations per second. (LWN article).
Using Linux

The operating system itself is pretty boring to most people. Applications are necessary so to get things done. Traditionally, Linux applications have been the kinds of applications used with Unix: scientific software, databases, and network services. Also, of course, all the tools programmers want for their craft.

Much of such software seems rather old-fashioned by today's desktop standards. User interfaces are text based, or they might not exist at all. Indeed, most software has usually been non-interactive and has been of the command line, batch processing variety. Since most users have been experts in the application domain, this has been good enough.

Thus, Linux first found corporate employment as a file server, mail server, web server, or firewall. It was a good platform for running a database, with support from all major commercial database manufacturers.

In the past few years Linux has also become an interesting option on the user friendly desktop front. The KDE ( and Gnome ( projects develop desktop environments and applications that are easy to learn (as well as effective to use). There is now plenty of desktop applications which people with Windows or MacOS experience will have no difficulty using.

There is even a professional grade office software package. OpenOffice (, based on Sun's StarOffice, is free, fully featured, and file compatible with Microsoft Office. It includes a word processor, spreadsheet, and presentation program, competing with Microsoft's Word, Excel, and Powerpoint.
Linux distributions

To install Linux, you have to choose a Linux distribution. A distribution is the Linux kernel, plus an installation program, plus some set of applications to run on top of it. There are hundreds of Linux distributions, serving different needs.

All distributions use pretty much the same actual software, but they are different in which software they include, which versions they pick (a stable version known to work well or the latest version with all the bells and whistles and bugs), how the software is pre-configured, and how the system is installed and managed. For example, OpenOffice, Mozilla (web browser), KDE and Gnome (desktop environments), and Apache (web server) will all work on all distributions.

Some distributions aim to be general purpose, but most of them are task specific: they are meant for running a firewall, a web kiosk, or meant for users within a particular university or country. Those looking for their first Linux experience can concentrate on the three biggest general purpose distributions: Red Hat, SuSE, and Debian.

The Red Hat and SuSE distributions are produced by companies by the same names. They aim at providing an easy installation procedure, and for a pleasant desktop experience. They are also good as servers. Both are sold in boxes, with an installation CD and printed manual. Both can also be downloaded via the network.

The Debian distribution is produced by a volunteer organization. It's installation is less easy: you have to answer questions during the installation the other distributions deduce automatically. Nothing complicated as such, but requiring understanding of and information about hardware most PC users don't want to worry about. On the other hand, after installation, Debian can be upgraded to each new release without re-installing anything.

The easiest way to try out Linux is to use a distribution that works completely off a CD-ROM. This way, you don't have to install anything. You merely download the CD-ROM image from the net and burn it on a disk, or buy a mass-produced one via the net. Insert disk in drive, then reboot. Not having to install anything on the hard disk means you can easily switch between Linux and Windows. Also, since all Linux files are on a read-only CD-ROM, you can't break anthing by mistake while you're learning.