You may have seen in the media reports of a serious security vulnerability variously referred to as KPTI, KAISER and F**CKWIT and methods of exploiting it generally known as MELTDOWN AND SPECTRE.
This flaw has existed for years and has been known about for months at least and is not currently being maliciously exploited (no hackers or viruses are using this to corrupt, steal or otherwise endanger data) so there is no need to panic.
While this is not an active security threat like the recent Wannacry and other ransomware outbreaks or the many other kinds of malware already in existence, it is a problem with how computers work at a very fundamental level and so is generating a lot of publicity. Rather like the ‘Y2K bug’ it is a real and serious issue, however like that issue, one which is unlikely to impact end users or small to medium business networks.
Microsoft patches and anti-virus updates which deal with the threat are in the process of being released and are being deployed to our customer’s servers and workstations as part of our automated Windows Updating Policy and central anti-virus management and is a good example of why proactive security patching is always important.
It has been widely publicised that the patches being deployed can cause the CPU to slow down, however, this is unlikely to be noticeable except on very busy database servers in large organisations.
In short, while this is a serious high-level problem in modern computing the threat is largely theoretical, fixes are already in place to deal with it and P2’s automated systems and pro-active monitoring are keeping our customer’s systems running securely and smoothly to ensure they do not experience any problems arising from the issue.
Meltdown / Spectre – all the technical details
Inside most modern Operating Systems such as the Windows Operating System on workstations and servers, there is a set of core processes, known as the kernel, that manages everything else: it starts and stops user programs; it enforces security settings; it manages memory so that one program can’t take over another; it controls access to the underlying hardware such as USB drives and network cards; it rules and regulates everything that happens on the computer. The kernel runs at a separate privilege level from the user programs (like your web browser or Microsoft Word etc.) to keep its secrets and special abilities isolated from the other software.
The hardware of the CPU (Central Processing Unit, the main chip that is the core ‘brain’ of any computer) itself supports this separation.
A flaw in how this works at the hardware level has been discovered and it affects almost all CPUs made by Intel, AMD and ARM since 1995 – this means the CPU in almost all workstations, servers, mobile phones and tablets and even other network hardware like routers and switches.
The flaw means that it is possible, under some circumstances, for user programs to read or even change the kernel’s secret information, which could theoretically mean a malicious program or process could discover security credentials or other usually secret information and ‘take over’ the computer. It’s a potential whole new way for viruses to work.
Some ‘proof of concept’ ways of exploiting this vulnerability, called Meltdown (for Intel CPUs) and Spectre (for AMD CPUs) have been developed but there are currently no actual malware using this ‘in the wild’ – no one’s bank details are being stolen or spreadsheets corrupted using this method – however, because it is a fundamental flaw in how modern computing works it is being taken very seriously.
It is likely that the hardware architecture of CPUs will change to correct this flaw in future, however, in the meantime, the Operating System developers, such as Microsoft, have changed the way work is done by the CPU to prevent this vulnerability being exploited. Unfortunately, this causes this workload to be processed slightly less efficiently and this will affect performance. The more simultaneous calls the CPU has to handle the more noticeable the impact of this performance reduction will be. Some kinds of use cases, such as large and busy databases, make many more simultaneous CPU calls and so may experience significant slow-down, which is being estimated as a potential 2-30% reduction in performance. This is going to have a serious impact on the performance and cost of cloud computing for organisations such as eBay or for software-as-a-service providers - which could cause a trickle-down effect of slowed performance or knock-on price rises for some products and services.
With such a fundamental change to how the system runs and because of the way anti-virus software interacts with the Operating System kernel, there was an issue initially with the Microsoft Operating System patches causing problems with some anti-virus products which could cause computers to experience ‘blue screen’ failures or be unable to boot to the Operating System. Microsoft is working closely with antivirus software partners to ensure that only computers with compatible anti-virus software are able to install the Operating System updates and to ensure all customers receive the January Windows security updates as soon as possible.
Most major anti-virus products are now compatible and the necessary updates for them are already in place on most platforms, but whether these are deployed on any given system depends on how regularly it is configured to check for and apply application updates.
Similarly, the Microsoft Operating System updates have been released for most versions of Windows, however, some are still in development and again whether or not the patches have been applied on any particular computer will depend on its configured update schedule.
Updates for other Operating Systems, such as macOS for Apple computers, iOS and Android for smartphones and tablets, Linux and UNIX computer Operating Systems and the various firmware and embedded systems in network hardware such as routers and switches and many other electronic devices are likely to be released over the coming months and distributed through the usual channels for those products.
Data backups and replication aren't one and the same. There are important differences in what they are used for and how they are configured. Only by understanding the differences can you determine whether your business needs just one solution or both of them.
Data backups involve copying both critical and non-critical data periodically. They are typically performed once a day, however it can be more or less often depending on a company's requirements. Once created the backup files are stored on a device which can be located onsite, offsite (e.g., online, at a company facility in a different part of the country), or both. Storing backup files onsite only where your data resides is not ideal should the building be lost e.g. fire or flood as the original data and the backup files could be destroyed. It is relatively inexpensive to perform and store data backups and are well suited for compliance with government and industry regulations as the backup files can be kept for as long as needed. Data backups do not ensure continuity of operations if there is a disaster or system failure since it can take a while to set up a new system and restore the data from the backup files.
Replication involves copying and moving data to a secondary system usually in near real-time. Replication is typically used for critical data that must always be available. The replicated data is kept in a secondary system which is identical to the primary system. As soon as a change is made to the data on the primary system it is permanently made to the data in the secondary system. There are no recovery points which can be problematic, for example if ransomware encrypts the data on the primary system, the encrypted data will be copied and moved to the secondary one. Combining replication with continuous data protection or snapshot technology to create recovery points to roll back to. Replication solutions are designed to ensure that critical data and the applications used to work with that data are always available if there is a system failure or disaster. Configuring and maintaining a replication solution can be expensive because the secondary system needs to be identical to the primary system.
What Should You Use?
Data backups and replication address different types of risks. Backups ensure that a business can recover its data after a system failure or disaster (disaster recovery), while replication ensures that critical data and applications are available for use if the primary system goes down (high availability). Every business needs to be backing up its data regularly as well as making sure it can restore its data from those backups. A business might also need a replication solution if it has critical data and applications that always need to be available. If recovery points are created the secondary system could serve as a backup mechanism for the critical data. A data backup solution would still be needed for the business's non-critical data. We can help you determine whether you need one or both solutions in your business.
The economy might technically be out of recession, however businesses are still doing everything in their power to cut costs and save as much as possible without compromising on quality. One avenue for savings is switching from a traditional business phone system and lines to a VoIP plan. VoIP is a technology that has been around for a little over a decade now and allows you to make and receive phone calls over digital internet lines instead of over traditional phone lines. Some common VoIP providers include Skype, Vonage or our own system Novavoice.
VoIP offers a lot of advantages over traditional business phone systems for example the technology is a lot more customisable giving you a huge range of options for how, where, and when you receive calls. A VoIP based phone system will take phone calls on an office phone during business hours and then to transfer them to your private mobile after-hours. They also offer features such as video calling, the ability to run your own internal telephone board exchange (PBX), and to control all of the equipment that handles telephone service in your office. As the telephone system is cloud based and depending on provider many new features can be added or removed giving you much more flexibility to scale up or down depending on your business requirements.
The biggest benefit of VoIP for business though is the cost saving with VoIP systems often being significantly cheaper than similar services offered by traditional commercial telecoms. With the removal of traditional phone lines and moving the phone system to the cloud the reduction in hardware costs alone makes a significant saving. If you have branch offices or remote workers the call costs are free, allowing businesses to scale and improve flexible working and communication.
Of course VoIP services offer some disadvantages too, these need to be weighed carefully before making a decision. Unlike traditional telephone lines VoIP requires both power and internet to be functioning in order to work. Lose either one and you lose your phone lines, however services are increasingly more reliable or contingency can be planned for depending on your business requirement.
To find out more about VoIP telephone systems, see our demonstration suite or request a brochure please contact us.
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