GCN Insider

CHILLIN': CooIT Systems' MTCEC is a refrigerator for your PC.

Owen Ambur

Liquid cool

Is it about time to say goodbye to the air-cooling fan in your desktop personal computer? The folks over at CoolIT Systems think so. For about a year the Canada-based company has been offering technology to cool down hot computer processors.

As chip manufacturers continue to pack more power onto computer microprocessors to accommodate high-performance gaming systems and computationally intensive applications, computers are generating more heat. To keep processors from overheating, chip manufacturers integrate thermal-protection circuitry with the chip sets. But this technology can slow down processors, said Geoff Lyon, chief executive officer of CoolIT Systems.

'Liquid cooling is the next natural stage' to efficiently reducing CPU temperatures, Lyon said. CooIT Systems' MTEC (Thermoelectric Cooler) technology acts like a refrigerator inside a desktop PC.

It is not a water cooling system, so it does not use a radiator. Instead, the company uses 'chiller modules,' which keep the coolant chilled and transfer heat outside the PC. The chiller consists of a dual thermal-plate heat sink, multiple thermoelectric coolers (TECs), two fluid heat exchangers that transfer heat from the CPU to the coolant and a low-speed fan.

The chiller, a compact reservoir and a pump are integrated into a single, mountable unit. CoolIT took pains to make the unit easy to install, so users can avoid damaging expensive PC components.

CoolIT offers two cooling systems ' the Freezone CPU Cooler and the Eliminator CPU Cooler. Freezone is geared toward CPUs with total heat output of up to 175 watts. It sports 6 TECs and is capable of handling the new quad-core processors coming onto the market. The Eliminator can handle CPUs with a total heat output of up to 125 watts. It has 3 TECs and is suited for any dual-core CPU.

Leading providers of gaming and high-performance desktop systems, such as Alienware, Velocity Micro, Maingear and Hypersonic, incorporate CooIT technology in their systems.

Last month, Dell jumped on the bandwagon. Dell officials said the company's new XPS 710 H2C high-performance computer will use CoolIT MTEC to cool its Intel quad processor.

The company is now working on liquid cooling technology that will work in servers located in data centers. Lyon hopes that system will be available by the end of this year. A cooling system for notebook PC computers is expected to debut in early 2008.

'Rutrell Yasin

Risky business

The firmware in your computer could be the next field of play in the cat-and-mouse game of computer security.

John Heasman, security consultant for NGS Software Ltd. of the U.K., looks for new and better ways to hide rootkits, code running on a computer that typically burrows deep enough into the operating-system kernel that it is not easily detected. Installed surreptitiously, a rootkit can be used to hide malicious third-party activity. Heasman said at the recent Black Hat Federal Briefings in Arlington, Va., that he had found a way to hide these little gems in a computer's firmware.

Heasman last year announced a proof-of-concept technique for hiding a rootkit in a computer's Basic Input-Output System. Because the BIOS runs beneath the operating system, a rootkit operating there could survive reboots, reinstallation of the operating system or even replacement of the hard drive.

The technique worked, but it required physical access to the computer, and the rootkit could not be easily spread. 'I set out to come up with a means of persisting a root-kit elsewhere in the system,' Heasman said. Since many devices on the PC have firmware that can be flash-upgraded, he noted, 'the PCI bus was an obvious target.'

The PCI bus is used for attaching peripherals to a motherboard. The PCI Expansion ROM holds initialization code for the bus that is executed by the operating system on boot-up. The Expansion ROM often can be flash-upgraded without removing the chip, providing an avenue for inserting rootkit code below the operating system.

'That's relatively complex to get up and running,' Heasman said. But it worked. And he was also able to use Intel's Preboot Execution Environment tool to update the rootkit with further instructions. The rootkit also could send data out by this path.

As with the BIOS trick, installation is not easy. It is a targeted one-off attack that would not provide much return on investment to a hacker focused on compromising huge numbers of computers for financial gain.

'Currently, this is not worth doing,' Heasman said. There are too many machines that can be compromised much more easily. On the other hand, the malicious code would not be easy to spot because there are no databases of good firmware code for comparison and no signatures for malicious code.

'William Jackson

Junior tags

The X in XML stands for extensible, and folks are just starting to see how far the Extensible Markup Language can indeed be extended. Take, for instance, the growing community around microformats, or XML-based schemas written for very narrowly defined duties. Microformats have been written to describe calendar events (hCalendar), people and organizations (hCard), and even opinions and ratings (VoteLinks). Each of these formats has a set of tags that can be used for defining the fields pertinent to its domain.

Now application developers are starting to notice microformats and work them into their own creations. IBM Corp. developer Michael Kaply has released a plug-in'called Operator'for the Firefox browser that can put some of these microformats to practical use. Once installed, Operator will scan each Web page you visit and look for data encoded in a microformat. Any information found can then be piped to the appropriate application or Web service.

For example, on the Microformats.org home page you can download hCards into Microsoft Outlook or place into your Google calendar an event that is listed on that page. A toolbar on the browser lets you know if any microformatted data resides on the page you're visiting.

Although a simple plug-in, Operator carries with it a pretty radical notion. It upgrades the role of Web browser from information viewer to information broker, noted Mozilla developer Alex Faaborg on his blog. 'Much in the same way that operating systems currently associate particular file types with specific applications, future Web browsers are likely going to associate semantically marked-up data you encounter on the Web with specific applications, either on your system or online,' he writes.

In many ways, microformats represent the true power of XML, noted Owen Ambur, who until his retirement from the Interior Department earlier this year headed up the Federal CIO Council's XML Community of Practice.

While a number of XML-based efforts are under way to try to define central vocabularies across all of government, the format also allows countless individual communities of interest to define their own terminologies.

It may be the work of these specialized communities that could have the widest impact over the years. 'As individuals and communities of practice continue to define themselves in an open-standard format like XML on the Web, the potential of the network effect will continue to grow,' Ambur e-mailed.

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