Perplexed in Peoria or baffled in Baltimore, help is an e-mail away

John Breeden II and Carlos A. Soto

GCN invests in a first-class lab facility where skilled independent reviewers study everything from enterprise-level servers to network appliances to new desktops and notebooks to rate them for suitability in government.

Lab director and senior technology analyst John Breeden II and associate technology analyst Carlos Soto test and review scores of products every year for GCN, and try out many more.

Now you can tap this vital resource directly from your desktop. Do you have a perplexing technology issue or a burning question you need answered? Just send your query to AskTheLab@gcn.com and they will do their best to answer it for you here.

Letters to AskTheLab@gcn.com

Amy from the Agriculture Department writes: 'I am thinking about upgrading several PCs and there is a nice deal on some systems, but they only have USB 1.1 ports and not 2.0. Is there really any difference?'

John: The answer to this question depends on how you use your systems. The difference between USB 1.1 and USB 2.0 is actually quite extraordinary. Carlos keeps track of all the numbers from our testing and will be happy to show you the differences, but let's just say that with large files the difference in transfer times can be several minutes.

Carlos: Actually it can be even longer. In testing USB 2.0, which averages 480-Mbps transfer rates, we found it can move a 500M file in 30 seconds as opposed to three minutes with a USB 1.1 connection that is capable only of an 11-Mbps transfer rate. The larger the file, the bigger those numbers become.

John: Your productivity can really increase quite a bit if you use USB 2.0 ports, but again, it depends on what you do in your work at Agriculture. Do you transfer a lot of data to key drives or portable USB hard drives? If you do, you will save a lot of time with USB 2.0.

Basic peripheral devices like keyboards and mice won't mind being in either port, but some of the newer devices like videoconferencing setups or analysis tools are going to be much more efficient in 2.0 ports, as will key drives.

Carlos: It also sounds like your vendor might be trying to dump old technology on you. Almost every desktop or notebook these days comes with 2.0 ports standard. We haven't seen a system in the lab without them for more than a year. So if you are being shortchanged on the USB ports, I have to wonder what else you might be getting that is graying around the edges.

John: Like the old Commodore Computer commercials said, 'It's not what you pay for, it's what you get.' Send the system specs to the lab and we'll take a look at them for you.

Mel from Washington asks: 'I just purchased a handheld personal digital assistant and it has Bluetooth as a feature. Is this an opening for hackers to steal my data and destroy my network?'

Carlos: It can be in the near future, Mel, but for now I wouldn't worry about it. Bluetooth hacking, or Bluesnarfing as it is called, lets users get access to personal information on your handheld such as your contact information or e-mails. But this technology is still too primitive to allow a hacker to access secure data on a network.

John: The one thing that does make it dangerous now is the possibility of identity theft. If someone gets your personal data, he or she might be able to steal your identity. So for now, be careful what info you drop into your PDA about yourself and your contacts.

Jason writes from an undisclosed government location: 'My wireless access point sits in a conference room. I have cloaked the [service set identifier]. Is this enough security or do I need to do more?'

John: It depends on what is on your network and how much someone wants to get in. There's an old joke about two people running from a bear. The first guy looks at the other and says, 'We will never outrun this bear.' And the second guy looks back and says, 'I don't need to outrun the bear cause I can outrun you.' If you have a cloaked network and the agency or company next to you does not, the hackers are going to likely pick the easier target.

Carlos: Wireless security is like proper dress when camping in winter: layers, layers and layers. Simply disabling your SSID helps a lot, but not enough.

The first layer you should have is Wired Equivalent Privacy or some other form of encryption between the wireless clients and the access point. Then you might want to change the SSID to an alphanumerical name; the more complicated the better. You can also set most access points to allow only connections of a certain signal strength, so someone in your undisclosed conference room can gain network access but someone in the parking lot nearby can't because their signal would be too weak at that distance.

Lastly, you might want to invest in some type of wireless scanning and monitoring detection hardware such as a wireless detection system from AirDefense Inc. of Atlanta.

Alison in Virginia asks: 'To protect the e-mail on our network, we use client-based software. But keeping it updated is taking up all my time. Is there a better way to keep spam and viruses out?'

John: If you have a large enterprise with a lot of clients, you should consider getting a network appliance to do the heavy lifting for you. The lab recently finished a review looking at four of these devices that ranged from small plug-and-play boxes that protected just the inbound mail stream to huge, enterprise-level systems that looked at both inbound and outgoing traffic.

The fact is, even with distributed computing, it can still be a pain to push profiles down to every client on your network. And that doesn't even account for the danger of a new rogue client that you don't know about getting infected with a virus because it was not on your network map.

Network appliances act either as your network firewall or sit directly behind it. They scan the mail stream for viruses and even spam. And they kill or quarantine the virus at the very edge of your domain, before it attempts to harm any of your systems.

The appliances update themselves, which keeps the entire network protected.

William in government IT asks: 'I may be a bit archaic, but I still use floppy disk drives. Can you still buy 3.5- inch floppy drives for notebook computers? I can't seem to find them. And what are people using as portable storage instead?'

Carlos: Floppy drive? What is that? I must have wax in my ears. Actually, this is a good question. Much of the government still uses floppy drives, which will soon become extinct. But there's one company that still places floppy drives as a standard peripheral on their notebooks'MPC Computers LLC of Nampa, Idaho. And virtually every other PC vendor still provides floppy drives as an option.

John: Users have moved to using key drives these days because you can fit the equivalent of hundreds of floppies into the palm of your hand, which, by the way, is also the main reason why USB 2.0 is so popular.

Call me archaic too, but I still use floppies myself from time to time. You can pick up a pack of 50 3.5-inch disks at Staples for around $20, and you can use them as disposable media.

Sure, I put all my important files on my 512M key drive. But floppy disks are still useful. For example, if my editor wants a revision of a story, I can put the story on a floppy and leave it on his desk. Editors are notorious for not giving things back, and if he never returns to it me, it's no big loss. I could not say the same thing about my expensive key drive.

There is probably a market for cheap, as in less than a dollar, key drives with something small like 10M of storage space. But until that day comes, key drives are still a bit too expensive to be considered disposable, so expect the industry to grudgingly support 3.5-inch drives for some time to come.

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