28 September, 2006

Safer Browsing

Recently I posted about another security issue with Internet Explorer -- Microsoft has since released a patch -- a rare case for Microsoft to release a patch outside their monthly "patch Tuesday" cycle. I also push Firefox fairly hard as an alternative to Internet Explorer. To be fair, Firefox has had as many issues as Microsoft, but it still is a better alternative for two reasons: 1) Firefox does not have the same tight integration to Windows as Internet Explorer, therefore the problems are typically not as severe; 2) Firefox releases fixes much faster than Microsoft.

All that aside, if your machine gets a virus, spyware, or other malware from browsing, it is more difficult than ever to remove. So of course you need to be diligent in keeping your browser and operating system (OS) up-to-date, as well as your security applications. If your system is compromised, you might as well just plan on re-installing your OS -- a very time consuming effort -- and consider yourself lucky if that is all you need to do.

There are actually other alternatives to help protect yourself. Yesterday I installed a "virtual appliance" for web browsing. I'll try to make this as simple as possible -- using the free VMware Player from VMware, I loaded a Linux OS with Windows, and in turn the Linux OS loaded the Firefox browser. VMware provides many "appliances" to work with their free player -- I used their Browser Appliance.

VM means virtual machine. The Linux OS that loaded thinks that it is running directly on computer hardware, where in fact it is just another Windows application. The power behind this is that I can configure the VMware to never save any settings. Why is this powerful? Well if I were to go to a website that loaded spyware or a virus (which would have to be written for Linux by the way), once I close my VMware application, all that would be gone.

Think of the last time you inadvertently closed Word or Excel without first saving the file -- you had to go back and recreate your document all over again. For spyware and viruses though, that would be a good thing. So using the VMware Player with the Browser Appliance to do your web browsing, can keep your computer free of spyware and viruses, as it would never be saved to your hard drive and therefore it would never infect your computer.

As I said, I loaded this last night, and it worked flawlessly -- I had no install issues and no trouble making it work. Understand that the VMware Player is a 30 MB download and the Browser Appliance is 260 MB, so it takes a bit to download and install it. Also, since you are loading another operating system (Linux Ubuntu 5.10), launching it takes longer than just opening a web browser. But once loaded, it performs fine -- I did not experience any detectable lag time. (This is also a great solution for web developers who need to test their applications on Linux -- you do not need a separate box or a dual boot machine any more.)

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