Happy Birthday, WWW

April 30, 2013

Most readers are probably acquainted with at least the outline history of the World Wide Web [WWW], developed originally, beginning in 1989, by Sir Tim Berners-Lee and Robert Cailliau at the European nuclear research establishment, CERN (Organisation Européenne pour la Recherche Nucléaire).   At the time, the Internet was very much a new thing, and that first project was aimed at using hyper-text to make accessing scientific information easier.  (There were other search and indexing tools available, like Archie and Gopher, but none had really caught on in a big way.)  The new WWW was made accessible to the public via the Internet in August, 1991.

As an article at Ars Technica reminds us, it was twenty years ago today, on April 30, 1993, that CERN announced the conclusion of an internal debate, making the WWW technology freely available to anyone, putting three software packages in the public domain: a basic Web server, a basic client (a line mode browser), and a common library.  Quoting from the announcement:

CERN’s intention in this is to further compatibility,  common practices, and standards in networking and computer supported collaboration.

CERN has announced today that, in commemoration of that 1993 decision, it is starting a project to restore the world’s first website, which was hosted on Berners-Lee’s NeXT workstation, and explained how to use the new technology.   (A slightly later copy is available here.)  It also intends to restore related files and documents.

To mark the anniversary of the publication of the document that made web technology free for everyone to use, CERN is starting a project to restore the first website and to preserve the digital assets that are associated with the birth of the web. To learn more about the project and the first website, visit http://info.cern.ch

CERN also has a restoration project page.


One Year Left for XP Life Support

April 8, 2013

I’ve written here a couple of times about the impending end of support for Microsoft’s Windows XP operating system.   As a brief article at Ars Technica reminds us, the last day of extended support for XP is one year from today; as of April 9, 2014, there will be no more updates or security fixes for the nearly 12-year-old operating system.  (As the article mentions, the same timetable also applies to Internet Explorer 6 and Office 2003.)  Windows XP was introduced in September 2001, and has received a steady stream of monthly bug fixes and security updates ever since; for example, tomorrow Microsoft, in its regular monthly cycle, is expected to release six security bulletins for Windows XP, two of them rated as of Critical severity.  As I wrote, back in July, 2012, about the end of support:

Given the historical record of PC operating systems with respect to security issues, only a cockeyed optimist would regard continuing to use XP much beyond that point as prudent, even ignoring that fact that Microsoft, historically, has not really been a poster child for PC security, at least in a positive sense.

As I’ve noted, Microsoft’s next version after XP, Windows Vista, was neither a technical nor a commercial success.  Following on after Vista, Windows 7, released in October 2009, was a much better product, by all accounts; yet it was only in the second half of 2012 that its market share, as estimated by NetMarketShare, exceeded that of Windows XP.

The statistics from NetMarketShare suggest that, as the Ars article mentions, something like 38% of Internet users sampled are still using Windows XP.  This, in may ways, is not surprising — think of the “Y2K” panic in the late 1990s, and how many ancient COBOL applications were unearthed for the first time in years.  (Although the whole Y2K issue was something of a damp squib, getting someone to look at those old applications, or at least recognize their existence, was probably the most salutary aspect of the whole exercise.)  Existing systems and applications, if they are of any importance, always (correctly) have to be considered; this in itself is perfectly rational.  But sometimes, as in this situation, the time element of ones plan is constrained by external realities, and indefinite dithering is not really a sensible option.

If you are still using XP on your own machine, or if you are responsible for a group of machines, using XP, in your business or organization, I would encourage you, in the strongest possible terms, to start creating a migration plan now, if you do not already have one.  The spot you are in just now is not going to be tenable much longer.


Faster Than Light Comms: Getting Ready

April 1, 2013

I’m sure that those of you reading here are acquainted with Moore’s Law, and related observations: the cost per unit of computing power has been dropping rapidly for several decades.  Just yesterday, I wrote about the retirement of the Roadrunner supercomputer system, the first system to break the petaflop performance barrier; that system has not, of course, started running slower; but its performance per unit of electricity consumed is no longer competitive.

Similar improvements are occurring in communications technology. (I have written before about the history of Ethernet technology, the nominal speed of which has increased from 10 Mbit/second in the early days to 100 Gbit/second,and up,today.)  These increases are pretty impressive in their own right; if one thinks back to  Internet access via modem dial-up, the mind boggles.

Thinking about these trends, one idea stands out: we have not, collectively, done an especially good job of anticipating them, or of making appropriate plans to adjust to these rapidly evolving technologies.  Because of this, I am happy to join in, and promote, an effort, focused on communications technology,  to be better prepared for future improvements.

The effective speed of data communications has been getting faster, not only because of increased network speeds (as I mentioned above for Ethernet), but because of  better understanding of the underlying physical principles involved.  This leads me to support a bold idea: it is time to pretpare for communication rates that exceed the speed of light.   OK, maybe it won’t be on sale in time for Christmas of this year; but we have, collectively, been late so many times that being early might be a welcome change.

The key conceptual problem with faster-than-light communications is that, because of relativistic effects on time, the message may arrive before it is sent.  (Relativity theory says that time slows down as one approaches the speed of light; it is plausible, and in accord with the equations, that time goes backwards once the speed of light is exceeded.)  I’m glad to say that the society of Internet Protocol Cognoscienti (in which your humble servant plays a very minor part) has developed a draft standard [RFC 6921] for moving forward under this faster and more exciting regime.  As stated in the abstract of the new standard:

We are approaching the time when we will be able to communicate faster than the speed of light. It is well known that as we approach the speed of light, time slows down. Logically, it is reasonable to assume that as we go faster than the speed of light, time will reverse. The major consequence of this for Internet protocols is that packets will arrive before they are sent. This will have a major impact on the way we design Internet protocols. This paper outlines some of the issues and suggests some directions for additional analysis of these issues.

It’s great to see this kind of proactive work by the standards bodies; in fact, I might suggest that you make note of the date.

Update, Tuesday, 2 April, 0:05 EDT

Please do take note of the date.


First Petaflop Computer to be Retired

March 31, 2013

I’ve posted notes here about the Top500 project, which publishes a semi-annual list of the world’s fastest computer systems, most recently following the last update to the list, in November 2012.

An article at Ars Technica reports that the IBM Roadrunner system, located at the US Department of Energy’s Los Alamos National Laboratory, will be decommissioned and, ultimately, dismantled.  The Roadrunner was the first system whose performance exceeded a petaflop (1 petaflop = 1 × 1015 floating point operations per  second).  It held the number one position on the Top 500 list from June, 2008 through June 2009; it was still ranked number two in November, 2009.  The Roadrunner system contained 122,400 processor cores in 296 racks, covering about 6,000 square feet.  It was one of the first supercomputer systems to use a hybrid processing architecture, employing both IBM PowerXCell 8i CPUs  and AMD Opteron dual-core processors

The system is being retired, not because it is too slow, but because its appetite for electricity is too big.   In the November 2012 Top 500 list, Roadrunner is ranked at number 22, delivering 1.042 petaflops and consuming 2,345 kilowatts of electricity.  The system ranked as number 21, a bit faster at 1.043 petaflops, required less than half the power, at 1,177 kilowatts.

It will be interesting to see how the list shapes up in June, the next regular update.


The Internet Surveillance State

March 30, 2013

One of the hardy perennial issues that comes up in discussions of our ever more wired (and wireless) lives is personal privacy.  Technology in general has invalidated some traditional assumptions about privacy.  For example, at the time the US Constitution was being written, I doubt that anyone worried much about the possibility of having a private conversation.  All anyone had to do, in an age before electronic eavesdropping, parabolic microphones, and the like, was to go indoors and shut the door, or walk to the center of a large open space.  It might be somewhat more difficult to conceal the fact that some conversation took place, but it was relatively easy to ensure that the actual words spoken were private.

Similarly, before the advent of computer data  bases, getting together a comprehensive set of information about an individual took a good deal of work.  Even records that were legally public (e.g., wills, land records) took some effort to obtain, since they existed only on paper, probably moldering away in some obscure courthouse annex.  Even if you collected a bunch of this data, putting it all together was a job in itself.

People whose attitudes date back to those days often say something like, “I have nothing to hide; why should I care?”  They are often surprised at the amount of personal information that can be assembled via technical means.  The development of the Internet and network connectivity in general has made it easy to access enormous amounts of data, and to categorize and correlate it automatically.  Even supposedly “anonymized” data is not all that secure.

Bruce Schneier, security guru and author of several excellent books on security (including Applied Cryptography,  Secrets and Lies, Beyond Fear, and his latest book, Liars and Outliers), as well as the Schneier on Security blog, has posted an excellent, thought provoking article on “Our Internet Surveillance State”.  He begins the article, which appeared originally on the CNN site, with “three data points”: the identification of some Chinese military hackers, the identification (and subsequent arrest) of Hector Monsegur. a leader of the LulzSec hacker movement, and the disclosure of the affair between Paula Broadwell and former CIA Director Gen. David Petraeus.  All three of these incidents were the direct result of Internet surveillance.

Schneier’s basic thesis is that we have arrived at a situation where Internet-based surveillance is nearly ubiquitous and almost impossible to evade.

This is ubiquitous surveillance: All of us being watched, all the time, and that data being stored forever. This is what a surveillance state looks like, and it’s efficient beyond the wildest dreams of George Orwell.

Many people are aware that their Internet activity can be tracked by using browser cookies, and I’ve written about the possibility of identifying individuals by the characteristics of their Web browser.  And many sites that people routinely visit have links, not always obvious, to other sites.  Those Facebook “Like” buttons that you see everywhere load data and scripts from Facebook’s servers, and provide a mechanism to track you — you don’t even need to click on the button.  There are many methods by which you can be watched, and it is practically impossible to avoid them all, all of the time.

If you forget even once to enable your protections, or click on the wrong link, or type the wrong thing, and you’ve permanently attached your name to whatever anonymous service you’re using. Monsegur slipped up once, and the FBI got him. If the director of the CIA can’t maintain his privacy on the Internet, we’ve got no hope.

As Schneier also points out, this is not a problem that is likely to be solved by market forces.  None of the collectors and users of surveillance data has any incentive, economic or otherwise, to change things.

Governments are happy to use the data corporations collect — occasionally demanding that they collect more and save it longer — to spy on us. And corporations are happy to buy data from governments.

Although there are some organizations, such as the Electronic Privacy Information Center [EPIC]  and the Electronic Frontier Foundation [EFF], that try to increase awareness of privacy issues, there is no well-organized constituency for privacy.  The result of all this, as Schneier says, is an Internet without privacy.


Document Freedom Day 2013

March 27, 2013

The Free Software Foundation Europe [FSFE] has designated today, March 27, as Document Freedom Day [DFD] for 2013, to mark the importance of open standards for the exchange of documents and other information via the Internet.

It is a day for celebrating and raising awareness of Open Standards and formats which takes place on the last Wednesday in March each year. On this day people who believe in fair access to communications technology teach, perform, and demonstrate.

This year’s DFD is being sponsored by Google and openSUSE.

One of the key aims of DFD is to promote the use and promulgation of open standards for documents and other information.  The DFD site gives the FSFE’s definition of an open standard; as the Wikipedia article on the subject suggests. there is a range of definitions from different organizations.  The FSFE’s definition is fairly strict: essentially, it requires that a standard be open to assessment, implementation, and use without restrictions, and that a standard be defined by an open process, not controlled by any single party.  That there is some considerable similarity between the concepts of open standards and open source software is, of course, not a coincidence.

As I have mentioned before, I am a fairly enthusiastic proponent of open source software, and I’m a fan of open standards, too.  As I’ve already mentioned, there are several different definitions of open standards, and I think it is useful to realize that “openness” can be a matter of degree.

The standards for HTML (HyperText Markup Language, the language used to create Web pages), and for the C programming language, would meet most definitions as open standards.  At the other extreme, Microsoft’s original definitions of documents for its Office product were not at all open: undocumented binary formats, entirely under the vendor’s control.  The Portable Document Format [PDF] for text documents was originally defined by Adobe Systems, but the format definition was published; beginning in 1994, with the release of Adobe’s Acrobat 2.0 software, the viewing software (Acrobat Reader, now Adobe Reader) was available free.  (PDF was officially released as an open standard on July 1, 2008, and published by the International Organization for Standardization as ISO 32000-1:2008.)

While, in an ideal world, one might have wished, prior to 2008, to have the PDF specification fully open, the situation was far better than having an entirely closed spec: it was possible to evaluate the PDF definition, and developers other than Adobe were able to develop software to work with PDF files.  (I still use a small, fast program called xpdf to view PDF documents on my Linux PC.  It lacks a good deal of functionality, compared to Adobe’s Reader, which I also use regularly, but it is much faster for routine, “let’s have a look at this” usage.)

I think that the principle of open standards is worth supporting, for the very practical reasons that the FSFE has identified; they enable you to

  • Collaborate and communicate with others, regardless of which software they are using
  • Upgrade or replace your apps and still be able to open and edit your old files
  • Choose which phone / tablet / computer you want to use without worrying about compatibility

These are benefits worth having.


UK Government Prefers Open Source

March 16, 2013

Those of you who have read this blog from time to time already know that I am a proponent of the open source model of software development.  I’ve talked about its use in a number of different cases, including the development of the Linux operating system, and the development of systems for the US Department of Defense.  Even Microsoft, whose chief executive, Steve Ballmer, once likened open-source software to “a cancer”, seems to have gotten religion; for example, it now uses Hadoop open-source software for “big data” projects, and supports the use of Linux virtual machines in its Azure cloud service.

According to an article at Computer Weekly, the government of the United Kingdom is preparing the launch of a new set of mandatory standards for development of new digital public services.  The new Government Service Design Manual, now in a beta edition, includes a clear preference for open source:

In a section titled “When to use open source”, the manual says: “Use open source software in preference to proprietary or closed source alternatives, in particular for operating systems, networking software, web servers, databases and programming languages.

This strikes me as eminently sensible, especially the last phrase, “in particular for operating systems …”  Considering operating systems as an example, it seems to me extremely improbable that the UK would require unique OS capabilities not needed elsewhere.  Perhaps more bluntly, it seems to me very unlikely that the UK (or the US, or anyone else) has some special, valuable insight into how an OS should be built.  (The evidence seems to suggest that, at least for general purpose computers, the approach initially embodied in the UNIX OS works pretty well; UNIX’s descendents include Linux, of course, as well as Android, OS X, and Google’s Chrome OS.)

The new standards do allow for use of proprietary software in rare cases; but the manual cautions that, in these cases, it is important to specify open interface standards, to avoid vendor lock-in.  The article quotes government chief technology officer Liam Maxwell, on the advantages of the open-source approach:

Nobody makes packaged software for digital public services. With the software we are making, we have a preference for open source, because it means other countries can use it too and help make that software better. This approach will also ensure we are not locked in to some mad oligopoly outsource.

The new standards also state that new software developed for the government should be published under an open-source license.  The UK government has also entered into an agreement with Estonia for joint development of some public service systems.

As I’ve said before, the ideas underlying the open-source approach have been around since the early days of computing (and even longer in the natural sciences).  Governments everywhere seem to be struggling with the conundrum of how to do more with less.  Using open source software (and getting rid of the Not Invented Here syndrome) should free up some significant resources now devoted to wheel re-invention.


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