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Meltdown & Spectre - Care Analytics

Meltdown & Spectre – What you need to know

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Today I woke to the familiar ping sound of my phone alerting me to an incoming email –  I relaxed a little when I could see it wasn’t a failure alert. We have plenty of alerting monitoring tools and there is usually something going on that begs some tender loving care, sometimes I even have to open two eyes.

It was a news article from my CFO. Of course, I would never tell him that this was usually a “one-eyer”, this one was something about the latest security alerts in a NY Times article regarding “Meltdown” and “Spectre”.

When I finally woke up enough, I engaged the other eye. I quickly figured out that Meltdown and Spectre, were nothing to do with “James Bond” and were also not the two latest scary characters from the WWE, they were just two more security alerts that seem to arrive all too frequently these days.

Usually, if it is just announcements that my credit cards or personal identity has potentially been stolen for the tenth time, I casually read it and move on, in the complete safety of knowing just how much money they could steal from my accounts. If they knocked on my door I would probably just hand it over to them anyway for being so “creative”.

Anyway, like it or not, as self-proclaimed “Security expert” it sometimes falls upon me to know enough to put a client or a friend, or this case, one of my bosses, minds at rest. Occasionally I have to act on these scare mongering news articles, and protect infrastructure that we are responsible for and respectfully owe our customers both eyes, sometimes more.

I decided to do some early morning research to see what “Meltdown” and “Spectre” were really all about, and just what, if any, action we, as a company, may have to take. I also thought it was a great idea to provide enough information to my friends and colleagues that they were reasonably safe from a Gremlin, or the Credit Card Reaper from visiting their digital wallets in the middle of the night. Which of course, then brought me to write this blog that you are now reading. So, with much (more) ado, here’s everything you need to know about the latest two digital drop outs to invade our Cloud and Mobile “happiness meters”.

Firstly, I think it Is important to point out that most of us are sadly used to the myriad of virus warnings that we see from time to time in the news, a lot of which is innocuous stuff, just drummed up to sell you the latest version of someone’s anti-virus protection.

Of course, lately, if you are running Windows, especially the latest version Windows 10, you are “pretty much” covered by Windows Defender, which is the built-in product that Microsoft now has in their Operating Systems to combat viruses. It does a good job, so these days it has become unnecessary to run additional tools, although some people feel safer running the latest McAfee or Norton or the one of the many tools still available.

Most of which do a really good job of not just picking up viruses, but also slowing your computer down to an intolerable crawl. But I digress….. So we all know about viruses, right?

Occasionally, the news is of a scare that is potentially more harming than a virus, and while these are few and far between, they do pop up from time to time. Meltdown and Spectre are two of these “threats” as we can collectively categorize them. In the case of a virus, it is a security risk posed by someone – a “Bad Actor” (Black Hat) has deliberately written a piece of code that can perform actions on your computer without you being aware of what they are doing.

Actions that may include sending passwords or bank account numbers from your computer to other bad actors who will then attempt to buy all the things on your account that you could never possibly afford! The thing about viruses, as most people have come to know, is that they really don’t just “happen” on their own, they are usually “activated” by the Computer owner clicking on a malicious piece of code, usually in a web page.

You clicking on that link (the one offering to make you rich) – was the “Activation Mechanism” – a HTML link has two elements, the “Text” associated with the subject that you SEE, and then the second element is the target web page of where you will be sent to when you click that link.

In most cases “Buy This” will indeed take you to the item, but as many of us have come to know – the text can say “Click this, it will make you rich” can sometimes contain the target that will actually make you poor, i.e, it will do something very bad on your computer, the delivered code or “Payload” could look through all those cookies that you never delete, or the passwords that you always save. So the “Activation Mechanism” is you clicking a link, which is actually executing the malicious code.

Technically, it’s really only a virus if can be spread to other computers. Its not a virus if it simply runs code on your computer, but it’s a thin line that we won’t argue here, but you could click on a link that searched on your network for other computers to infect, so it then would become a virus. As the code has a given “Signature” i.e. – it contains some form of text that can be detected by a virus checker.

This is the reason why you run a virus “update” once in a while (should be weekly) as your computer downloads new “checks” – it keeps a library of all the known virus threats, and what their signatures look like to try and find a match when it runs a weekly scan of your computer.

Meltdown and Spectre, are not viruses, they are a different kind of threat, and therefore have to be detected and treated in a different way. Meltdown are essentially “bugs” or “flaws” within an operating system that allow a bad actor to access certain parts of your computer. Both could theoretically be used to read information from a computer’s memory, including private information like passwords, photos, messages, and more.

I will tackle Meltdown first. Meltdown is a flaw that only affects the Intel processors, so this flaw does not affect most Apple devices, iPhone and Tablets are safe, as they do not use the intel processors. So as far as Meltdown is concerned, we are talking about Windows and Linux machines and Apple Mac or Mac Books, Linux being mostly a Server Operating System but Windows of course being both a desktop and Server OS.

Meltdown is a flaw that could be exploited by a piece of rogue code running on your PC. Now, this is where my earlier text comes in, the rogue code can ONLY be executed if you perform the “Activation Mechanism” and deliver its payload – it isn’t magic, it can’t just appear or run unless you run it. It should go without saying these days, but resist, resist, resist, clicking on any link that you are suspicious of.

While the Meltdown flaw technically could allow a rogue program to access certain parts of your computer’s memory, it is a really obscure bug and has to be used in a very specific way to actually get anything useful to a Black Hat. To try and explain it in clear and understandable terms, it can only access certain pieces of information that the processor has marked as “no longer useful”.

Even then, it would be a memory dump and it has a very low chance of being useful and an even less chance of actually containing your deepest secret or even your shallowest bank account.

The Meltdown flaw has actually been known to chip manufacturers and device makers for at least a month, but there was a concerted effort to bring all parties together to deliver a congruent “fix” to most devices, that was scheduled for next week. Unfortunately, Linux guys being what they are (sorry Linux guys) – they noticed the fix was scheduled in an upcoming Linux OS patches and promptly it went out to a few media channels and all hell broke loose from there.

This had the effect of rushing out the fix code quicker, and as I write this there is a Windows bug fix that addresses the flaw in Windows 10. It will be automatically loaded and installed along with your usual updates that are typically scheduled on your desktop computer. If you have disabled the Windows Update (because it is pretty annoying) you can perform a manual update that will also bring down the fix. As a reference – the bug is fix in Windows that will get downloaded and installed is described here:

 Windows 10 Meltdown fix

Older versions of Windows will have to wait until Tuesday 9th January to receive the fix in their regular fix release. Linux users are also vulnerable to the Meltdown flaw, but kernel fixes are available in the latest yum update (or apt-get) and fixes all three CVE listings (CVE-2017-5754, CVE-2017-5753, CVE-2017-5715)

Common Vulnerabilities and Exposures (CVE) is a catalog of known security threats. The catalog is sponsored by the United States Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and threats are divided into two categories: vulnerabilities and exposures.

Meltdown does not affect mobile phones or some Apple devices, as these do not typically run on Intel processors, but Apple Mac and Macbook devices are affected.

Spectre – is a whole different issue. Spectre affects a much wider range of devices, including those running on Intel, AMD and ARM processors, which is pretty much everything, including nearly all cell phones.

According to a statement by AMD, vulnerability to the second Spectre variant hadn’t been demonstrated on AMD processors and posed “near zero risk of exploitation” due to differences in AMD architecture. Because of the use of the word “near” there is some skepticism around whether there is indeed a risk on AMD, but we will see further updates from AMD no doubt in coming days.

As there are many versions of mobile phone software running on many different devices, we will not see all mobile phones patched quickly, more likely you will see a mobile update appear on your phone as a matter of routine updates. Or both Android and Apple iPhones you can go into the phone system settings and check to see if there are any updates and download and apply them.

In summary, there certainly is a lot of buzz right now regarding both Meltdown and Spectre, but after careful analysis, the likelihood of this flaw being exploited on a phone near you is very minimal. For the paranoid and purists among us – go run the updates now.

Mark Richards is a Cloud Security Expert, Solutions Architect and most importantly a “White Hat” for Care Analytics.   

The Evolution Of Computer Storage

By | Amazon Cloud, Cloud Solutions, Data Services | No Comments

So, nope, I am not talking about where you keep your laptop or your iPhone, I am talking about Computer storage, the “Hard Disk,” the one that is on your Laptop or iPhone. It’s just another one of these things that we all take for granted in today’s world of IoT (Internet of Things) and the Cloud.

But here’s the history of how it came to be a Terabyte in your pocket now. For that matter, here is even a history of what a Terabyte really is, depending on whom you talk to.

Of course, the Terabyte in your pocket wasn’t always that way, but just like rings counted in a freshly cut tree trunk, if you have been around the block a few times, you can almost tell someone’s age by the first disk or device that they remember.

For me, that is ancient … I can start at the very beginning, which is before the hard disk even existed.

I wondered the other day, just how many of our bright young generation, actually know what a “floppy disk” was or is? And this lead me to write this blog so that we can remember the “good ole days,” the days of the vinyl 78’s, Betamax and a shiny 62 Chevy … well, actually I digress, I am really not THAT old … I just wanted to see if you were paying attention.

So let’s get back to the floppy disk. The very first floppy disk I saw was in 1976, so there you go, I really aged myself there didn’t I?

Anyway, in 1976, I remember being amazed at the floppy disk. I was still in school, and I spent my early days playing with everything that remotely resembled a technical toy, and of course, any computer that I could find and dismantle, to figure out how it worked and sometimes didn’t, after breaking more than a few. But it was worth it, and it was very educational, just an expensive hobby at the time. It was good I found a job collecting old bike parts and building bikes to sell, because I am pretty sure after about five broken computers, my parents would have given up funding that exercise. I am certain that they would never have understood that to “fix” a computer there was a need to open them up and look inside, and sometimes even “break” them.

Anyway, I had some good grounding in the early days, I had worked with punch tape before floppy disks, and in the days when I really had nothing to impress the girls, there was always my fallback trick, of actually being able to look at eight holes on a paper tape, and tell them what letter it was…I don’t say this to impress because back then that’s all I had! – but to tell you that in the beginning, there were eight holes. Those eight holes, in all combinations, represented all of the characters of a typewriter and more, some special characters that told the computer that the girls fed the paper tapes into could “read.” Now pay attention, this is not the boring bit, this is the beginning….

Each one of those rows of holes represented a character – or a “byte” of information. If holes one through three were punched it was a certain letter, and if there was no hole where hole two may have been, it was another letter.

As the days of punch tape and punch cards gave way to the first hard drives, the original makers became enormous corporations very quickly.

Companies like IBM and Western Digital, both still well-known names today, even 50 years later. They both owe their fortune and fame to the original hard drives.

It took a while, and I don’t remember the very first drive, though I know it was called a Winchester, for the life of me I still don’t know why you would call a hard drive after a gun, being British that may be lost on me. I guess it’s the same reason why Google today calls the Android Operating system releases names like Cupcake and Gingerbread. Strange people computer people.

So back to the floppy, and focus!

I don’t remember the 3340 model Winchester disk, but I did start work on the 3370 – it’s successor…. I think that was in 1979, I remember they were the size of a fridge, and I think I even remember that they were tens of thousands of dollars, or good old “pounds sterling,” as they were to me in Britain then.

That was about the time that I also came across an 8-inch floppy disk, and I remember reading the label as if it were yesterday, it held 102k “Kilo Bytes” of information.

So, this is the point where I have to digress, or you’ll get bored by the numbers, but stay with me, because this will all become relevant, there is madness in my method!

I will jump in and out of the floppy drive and hard drive in this blog post, but the storage concept is the same for both.

So I think most of us know that there are 8 “bits” in a byte. If you don’t, and you were paying attention above (see, don’t skip) – you will have found that those eight “bits” represent a single character.

Now, a computer works with those bits and sees them on a magnetic storage (whether it be floppy or hard disk) as ones and zeros…Or to be more precise, the magnetism is there to be used by the computer to “switch on” and off – the precise dot on the disk that represents exactly one-eighth of a character… so if it reads eight “dots” or “bits” in a row, it then moves those “bits” into memory to perform a task with it.  

So, now we know – there are 8 “bits” in a “Byte.”

I supposed I should tell you that two “Bytes” are “Nibble” – not that there is any relevance at all, except that I really think you should know that. You never know when that may save your life, or at the very least become the next Slumdog Millionaire.

Ok, so I feel that you are getting this, so we must go faster now that the training wheels are off….

So, even though the 8 inch floppy disks had been around for several years prior, the public never saw them, and to all intents and purposes, the first floppy disk anyone outside of the boffins with the pencils in their pockets and the broken glasses saw was the 5 ¼ inch diskette, invented in 1976.

For most people, it stored 360 kilobytes or 360,000 characters.

It was shortly after, that the disk manufacturers figured out not only how to make a “Double Density” floppy disk, but those clever little beggars had also written to the magnetic medium on both sides. So now we were looking at a whopping 1024 Kilobytes, so we entered the new realm – of the Megabyte!!!!

So most people think of “Mega” as “Big” – or “magnificent” – in terms of computers, it represents a million bytes or a thousand kilobytes.

I won’t go into the “1024” and not “1000” thing … because then, I really will bore you. So we forge ahead!

So in 1980, at the same time that Apple brought out their floppy disk, and Apple II disk (I had and broke one of them), Atari had their floppy disk version and computer (I had and broke two of them). There were multiple versions and iterations, but over a period of five years, there evolved a standard where the 5 /4 “floppy disk” or “diskette” as they became to be known, went from 100 Kilobytes in the lab version – to a retail version that now was double sided, double density and contained the first and famous “Megabyte”.

But as quickly as it arrived, the media companies were constantly seeking more and more capacity and more creative ways to achieve that goal. It wasn’t long until the inevitable happened, and they made it smaller.

They didn’t make it smaller in the amount it held, though they did make it a 3 ½ drive by 1983 – what’s more, they had now made the “floppy disk” – NOT SO FLOPPY!

The 3 ½ disk drive was born – it wasn’t very floppy, in fact, it was not floppy at all – but the name stuck, even though the magnetic disk was encased in a hard plastic and it, well, no longer “flopped.”

So here we are, from 1983 to 1986, where multiple versions of the 3 ½ inch diskette had arrived at a first 720kb version, and then on to the most popular version of all time – the 1.44mb diskette.

I know that one well because I walked around the office with my “boot disk” in my pocket. I could see in those days, so I never did the broken glasses thing, but I do vaguely remember having a pocket full of pencils, If that means anything to you.

In 1983, as the floppy was evolving, so was the hard drive. I remember being shocked that the 5Mb hard disk was quickly replaced with a 10Mb version. Good ole Floppy, or diskette, was still 1.44Mb. To this day they are still available on EBay. I think they did eventually evolve to a higher density – the usual doubling of technology effect that made some of the 3 ½ disks hold as much as 2.8 Mb. Not much of media company’s R & D dollars went into the Floppy diskette after 1985, because the media industry had invented a new toy – the CD Rom!

Ok, so here we go again….in 1991 “CD-ROMs” came out, so called because they were “Compact Disks” and ROM – meaning “Read Only Media.”

Unlike the floppy disks and even the hard disks, CD-ROMs were not magnetic media anymore, and they were now Optical. This meant that although they were still switching bits on and off to represent Binary data, the drives were able to do this optically, by the use of very small laser light technology built into the drives that could pinpoint very small large on disk and change a single bit.

The 10Mb hard drive was also galloping away at technology improvements at this time, from 10 to 20 and 20 to 40 and so on. By 1991 – IBM had introduced the first 1,000 Megabyte drive – thus entering the age of the “Gigabyte” How do I know this?

Because I paid 1,000 dollars for it in 1992!!! – Ssh, don’t tell my wife!

How did they get from the late 80’s 40 Mb drive to that magic 1 Gigabyte number and density in 1992? – They had by that time managed to build drives that were essentially eight disks, or eight “Platters” on a spindle, and also doubling the density of the magnetic medium. More “bits per inch” as the industry calls it.

From this point forward, the competition to produce the drives really started heating up, huge companies like Fujitsu, Maxtor, Quantum, Hitachi, IBM, Seagate, and Western Digital were in a never ending race to continue to be the biggest or the fastest drive in the industry. All the while reducing the cost and providing double the capacity.

In 1992, Seagate was the first to market the 2. 1 Gb Barracuda drive, able to spin the disks at a whopping 7,200 rpm to get the fastest read and write capability of its time.

Not to be outdone, IBM was working on technology that would soon cross a billion bits per inch marker, an astonishing feat back then, with clean rooms needed without a single spec of dust for fear of contamination, costing hundreds of millions of R & D dollars.

The leap frog game in 1996 again went to Seagate, who had by then reached a drive capable of spinning at 1,000 rpm with the Cheetah family of disk drives. Only to be outdone in 1997 by IBM once again bringing out a technology leap with magnetoresistive heads (no, actually) – boosting capacity to a huge 16.8 Gigabytes.

In the year 2000, the big guys figured if you can’t beat them, buy them!

Maxtor bought Quantum, who was the number two drive maker in the world, to now surpass Seagate as number one.

Seagate, not to be outdone, introduced an even faster drive in 2002 with the 15,000 rpm Cheetah drive. The fastest drive in the world could read the disk and retrieve information in an average seek time of 3.9 milliseconds, and pulling 48 Mb every second from the drive. I never did really understand why it gave a “more enjoyable online experience” as it was marketed, they probably just got fed up with saying it was “fast” all the time.

I feel like this is a good time to take a break and get an update on just how big these drives can get.

So … we have established that there are 1024 Kilobytes in a Megabyte earlier, and we also touched on a Gigabyte – being a thousand Megabytes.

But, did you know….

That 1,000 Gigabytes is a Terabyte (or 1012bytes)?

And 1,000 Terabytes is a Petabyte? 1,000 Petabytes being an Exabyte …

And 1,000 Exabytes is a Zettabyte?

But I bet you knew that a 1,000 Zettabytes is a Yotabyte – right?

It wasn’t until 2007 that we saw the very first 1 Terabyte hard drive from Hitachi.

In the following four years we saw the leapfrogging continue, with Seagate and Western Digital increasing the capacity to 1.5 Tb, 2.0 Tb, 3.0 Tb respectively, and in 2011 Seagate finally trumped WD with the 4 Tb drive.

It is no wonder then that IBM decided that the playing field got too crowded, and decided to sell its hard drive business to Hitachi for an “undisclosed sum” in 2012.

The merger of the IBM intellectual property with Hitachi produced a new heavyweight to combat Western Digital and Seagate.

Hitachi announces the first 6 Tb drive in 2014, with Hitachi once again claiming the crown in 2015 with the world’s first 10 Tb drive, the Helium filled Ultrastar H210.

The drive reportedly has an average 2.5 million hours between failures, which is about four times more time than the average human has. If you ever wanted to bury a boat load of data in a time machine, for the future benefit of humankind, this is certainly the drive for you.

The sad part is, this drive sells today for under $500, or twice what I paid for that 1 Gb drive in 1992. No, don’t tell the wife.

Sixty years ago, data storage cost $640 per megabyte, per month. At IBM’s 1956 rates for storage, a new iPhone 7 would cost you about $20.5 million  – a month.

In 1965 The US Government planned the world’s first data center to store 742 million tax returns and 175 million sets of fingerprints on magnetic tape. None of that magnetic tape could have survived to today, yet you could store the records on your iPhone.

These days you can fit 2 TB onto an SD card the size of a postage stamp.

So where do we go from here? Who knows, with Virtual Reality finally a reality, and every hour of James Cameron’s new 800 mm stereoscopic 3D movie cameras for Avatar containing more information than the Library of Congress, no one really does.

But I do know, that I have spun up 30 computers in the last week on Amazon’s Cloud Computing platform – with a total of 5 Terabytes of storage – and all without leaving my desk.  

Care Analytics is an AWS partner

If you are looking for more storage and considering the Cloud, Contact Us.

~ Mark Richards

AWS Solutions Architect – Care Analytics