The Good Guys - Embedded.com

The Good Guys

Taking his cue from Programmer's Toolbox, Jack offers up a list of products that make his life easier-as an engineer and a human being.

In the July 2002 issue, Jack Crenshaw wrote about, among other things, The Good Guys (see “The Curmudgeon Strikes Back,” p. 9). He's tired of complaining about problem companies and products, and intends to strike a blow for truth, justice, and The American Way by praising those who deserve kudos, and consigning the rest to obscurity.

A noble idea. Like mom always said, “If you don't have something nice to say, keep your mouth shut.” So let me hitchhike on his effort and mention a few outfits who do a great job.

Let's start with Sony. Sure, they make those annoying digital pets and other products whose sole mission in life seems to be to get pre-teens to suck their parents' wallets dry. And their telephone access and website are truly the pits. But their Vaio computers are simply wonderful. I have two Vaio laptops and one desktop machine. Two of the three are several years old and have never given me a lick of trouble. The PCG-SRX77 notebook is only six months old. So far, it's running without a hiccup.

The Vaio notebooks have an unbeatable form factor. They're tiny and weigh only two pounds. I give lots of PowerPoint presentations. A computer failure would be doom, so I always carry two laptops. Neither of them has ever failed, but since the machine is, as NASA would say, a Criticality 1 failure node, it's prudent to be redundant. A pair of machines at two pounds each is not much of a carry-on burden.

The SRX77 is smaller than a sheet of paper and less than an inch thick. With four to five hours of (real) battery life, it runs longer than my brain can produce lucid thoughts. A built-in 100BaseT jack gives a wideband link anywhere there's an Ethernet port, something more and more hotels provide.

A wireless LAN completes the picture. Initially, I dismissed this feature, not seeing much practical use for it. My technically precocious son convinced me to add a wireless access point (WAP) to our houseboat's network, which has changed the way I work. Tired of sitting at the desk? Lie down in bed and type. Sit at the table. Lounge outside (when the sun doesn't wash out the LCD screen) and work while catching some rays.

The supplied Windows XP has been reasonably reliable (for a Windows product) and easy to network. It burns a lot of disk space, but the Vaio's 20GB hard drive ameliorates any OS size issues. The 256MB of RAM makes XP run well (for a Windows product).

XP does carry out a constant dialog with Microsoft. Every couple of nanoseconds, XP announces that yet another OS update is ready for download. Many are fixes for security flaws, so no doubt one should be grateful for XP's self improvement. I'd imagine, though, that it's also reporting software serial numbers and other bits of personal trivia to the folks in Redmond-a good reason to maintain legal versions of Office and VC++, though the costs are rather staggering. An even better reason to avoid Money in favor of Quicken.

Backups

Without a reasonable backup strategy you might as well junk the computer. Enter another Good Guy: the folks at Centered Systems. Their $29.95 Second Copy 2000 software product (www.secondcopy.com) moves the backup problem from the notebook to the desktop machine.

With Second Copy installed on the notebook, I create one or more profiles of files and folders to synchronize with another machine. The program will then ensure that both computers always have the latest version of each file. The user can run the sync process manually at any time or command Second Copy to do so automatically at some interval.

I suppose Second Copy does much the same thing as Microsoft's Brief-case, but that program has always baffled me. It seems one has to move individual files, or something, into the Briefcase folder, and count on Gates, et al. to keep multiple copies current. If there's any sort of profile or automatic mode, I can't find it, despite raiding a number of Windows for Dummies books.

I learned long ago to keep everything that's important to me in one directory. Under that, there are hundreds of other directories and thousands of files organized by projects and function. With one top-level directory, it's a breeze to copy everything that counts to a CD in a single operation.

Using Second Copy, a single top-level directory also means that my laptop has exactly the same data as the desktop machine. In Web-speak, they mirror each other. With the notebook and a cell phone, I can take my entire office home, on a plane, to a picnic, or wherever. There's no need to scramble to ensure I've brought the right files.

Running Second Copy over the 100MB LAN updates the computers in half a minute, unless I've done something absurd like delete my main top directory on one machine. (It happens, but multiple-computer backups, a CD backup done weekly, and daily copies to an alternate directory on the desktop machine minimizes the pain). Data rates are much slower over the wireless LAN, running from 1MB to 11Mbps depending on signal quality, so I have a number of smaller profiles aimed at updating just one project, the one I'm working on. So a sync operation never takes long.

Unlike Briefcase, Second Copy is intuitive to use and maintains up to 25 copies of old versions of files. In a year, I've never had to go back to one of these old versions, but it's reassuring to know they exist. The program offers all sorts of other features I've never used. No doubt they're wonderful, but the basic functionality is enough to eliminate the need for any sort of backup hardware on the laptop.

Ganssle homeland security

All of this connectivity and file sharing is wonderful and awful at the same time. I've had good luck with a cable modem. The provider is one of the smallest cable companies around, so there's little network traffic. I can count on 1 Mbps rates. That's not bad for $35-a-month.

But the cable connection is an invitation to exploitation. Windows Explorer shows a dozen or more PCs hanging on the cable, each wide open, their C: drives exposed. Astonishingly, most users don't even disable file sharing, which would offer at least some minimal isolation from the 'Net wolves.

Steve Gibson, author of the popular SpinRite program, deserves accolades as one of the Good Guys. His site (https://grc.com) has a free service called ShieldsUP that attempts to probe your computer's ports and get access to your system. It's benign and, if successful, simply reports the problem. Highly recommended for anyone with an Internet connection.

ShieldsUP showed that every software firewall I installed had issues. All offered some protection. Some brought the system to its knees (McAfee's was so bad and so persistent that I had to reformat the disk to totally eliminate it). The best were defeated by the wiles of my children, who seem determined to load games and plug-ins that open ports and install limited servers.

But the software firewalls did show the vulnerability of a cable-connected PC. On average they picked up five to 10 port scans per minute. The forces of evil are aggressive and determined. They will bust in unless kept at bay with decent technology.

Enter Linksys (www.linksys.com). Their sub-$100 Etherfast Cable/DSL router installs between the cable modem and the rest of the network, and serves as a four-port, 100MB hub and firewall with muscle. The unit assigns IP addresses-fake ones that aren't visible to the Internet-to each computer on the LAN, gets its own dynamic IP from the ISP, and then routes packets as needed.

I hate to install software and hardware, dreading the agony of digging through a huge manual aimed at the brain-dead user but lacking the info needed to do a decent setup. The Linksys sat on the shelf for far too long, waiting for me to overcome my reluctance to tangle with its configuration. Turns out, the Linksys folks qualify as Good Guys. Installation took 15 minutes and was painless. Browse the router's IP address and it serves web pages with all of the setup information. It auto-configured properly, with all ports blocked. Nobody can get in. ShieldsUP, which I run often, confirms that the LAN is not visible to the outside world.

It is possible to poke holes in the router, to enable ports to support, say, an FTP server. In this high-threat cyberworld, that seems far riskier than any benefit. I keep all ports blocked.

Happy with the router, I later added a Linksys WAP, a box that hangs on the LAN and offers wireless connections to up to 32 computers. It also had a hassle-free installation. Encryption options keep unwanted passers-by from logging in with their own laptops.

The Linksys router is but part of a careful defense against the cursed hackers. It won't do much about viruses, for instance. To thwart at least some of these attacks I refuse to use Outlook. The program is fine, I suppose, but it's the hackers' favorite target. Using a program that's constantly under attack is like driving a car with no oil. Pretty soon, maybe real soon, something is going to go seriously wrong.

A lot of viruses are big. I keep them off my machine by setting up the e-mail reader to leave all large e-mails and attachments on the server. Sure, it's a nuisance to explicitly tell the reader to fetch a 20KB e-mail from a trusted source, but the vast majority of safe messages are relatively short, and those big nasty payloads never make it to the local disk. I get a dozen or so obvious big viruses a day. So far, nothing's gotten past the ISP's server.

Spam

Because my e-mail address is widely-published, my inbox overflows with a fascinating dialog with developers, and with an onslaught of spam. Hundreds to even thousands of messages a day come in with ads for all sorts of things that I'd rather not have, can't imagine anyone wants, and probably shouldn't exist. It's hard to believe that spammers find anyone interested in their wares. However, I owned an ISP in the '90s. The logs showed that 80% of our users were primarily interested in pornography. Porn is a big business and seems unlikely to go away.

The demands made by spam on my time got me wondering if e-mail was worth the trouble. The spammers changed their tactics as fast as I could build filters for the e-mail reader, and the trash box, where all that filtered mail ends up, grew so fast it crippled system performance.

Years ago, the volume of unwanted mail changed my whole e-mail strategy. I can't use a Windows-hosted email reader or a Web-interface while traveling, since the 56Kbps modem connection takes forever to download even the headers. My ISP runs a Linux box. In the past, when I was on the road, I'd telnet in and use Pine, deleting spam as fast as possible to get to the real mail.

Then I discovered SpamAssassin (spamassassin.org). The authors surely qualify as Good Guys. They claim it catches 99.94% of unwanted mail, which seems about right based on my experience.

SpamAssassin is a bit different than other filtering programs. It runs on a Unix/Linux machine, filtering the mail before it gets to your inbox. A .forward file feeds all incoming mail through procmail. A corresponding .procmailrc lets SpamAssassin qualify the mail before it's passed to you.

The program scores each incoming message using a set of rules. “Viagra” in the subject line contributes a number of points to the message's score. If the sum exceeds a configured value the e-mail gets trashed. It's easy to change the rule set as needed. I get a lot of mail from a particular robot, so I created a rule that gives those messages huge “delete me” scores.

All rejected mail goes into a file named “caughtspam.” While writing this, I looked and found that in the last three months it captured 652MB of spam messages-e-mails that I never saw, never had to delete, and neither wasted my time nor depleted my faith in human nature. A few minutes after deleting the file to save disk space, it again appeared, growing as I watched.

The Unix/Linux version of SpamAssassin is free. It takes some Unix savy to compile and install the program, but the docs are pretty clear. Depending on the server's setup, the sysadmin may have to fiddle with the mail configuration. It's worth the trouble.

Deersoft sells a Windows version of SpamAssasin for $29.95 (www.deersoft.com/sp_pro.html). It's for Outlook users and appears to download all of the mail before filtering. Having no experience with this version, I can neither recommend nor condemn it.

Cheap CAD

I don't do a lot of schematics anymore, but I occasionally need to create a small circuit. The packages from the big vendors are swell, but cost tons of money and burn disk space. I looked for a long time for a simple CAD program that worked well on a laptop or desk machine, cost little, and came with halfway decent libraries.

The CAD Good Guys are Capilano Computing Systems Ltd (www.dwlite.com). The application is called Designworks Lite. At $39.95 it surely qualifies as an inexpensive program. It's a stripped down version of their $395 flagship product, so it cannot route PCBs, exports no netlists, and does not do hierarchical drawings. If you're building real products, the full-blown version makes sense. If you're creating schematics for documentation, for tiny projects, or for demo purposes, Lite is for you.

Some low-cost CAD programs use non-standard symbols, rectangular blocks for resistors (common in the UK) and the like. Others have horribly-limited libraries. With some, creating library components is so counter-intuitive that it borders on the impossible. Designworks is easy, standard, and has a reasonably rich set of components already designed. I recommend it highly.

I've run out of space. So many Good Guys and not enough room! We may complain about the state of business and the world, but perhaps the Good Guys outnumber everyone else.

I choose to be optimistic and so look for the best in people and companies. Ignored, the others will just fade away.

Jack G. Ganssle is a lecturer and consultant on embedded development issues. He conducts seminars on embedded systems and helps companies with their embedded challenges. Contact him at .

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