Author Archives: sschmitt

What is Decentralization On The Web and Why Does It Matter?

These days, there are a few large technology companies that handle most of the web’s information. Amazon, Google, Facebook, and others have ownership over the lion’s share of our data. Many of these companies have been in hot water recently over data privacy violations for misusing the vast amounts of data they have on their customers. Furthermore, these companies’ business models depend on gathering as much data as possible to sell ads against.

Many years ago, the web was much less centralized around these huge companies. For instance, before Gmail it was much more common to host your own email or use a much smaller service. You had much more control over your own service. Today, your data isn’t in your hands, it’s in Google or Facebooks. Furthermore, they can kick you off your platform for a number of reasons without any warning. Additionally, there are political reasons for not wanting all of your information in these centralized silos. Being a part of these platforms means that you must conform with their rules and guidelines, no matter how much you don’t like them.

Decentralized systems fix this by giving you control over your information. Instead of one centralized company with one running copy of the service, decentralized services work a lot like email. Anyone can run their own email server and have control over their own information. This has been true about email since it was formed. But for social networks and other sites, this kind of distributed model is now becoming an option as well.

Mastodon is a twitter-like social network based on federation and decentralization. Federation means that individual versions of the service run by different people can talk to one another. This means that I can follow someone with an account on Mastodon.com from my account at Mastodon.xyz. This works very similarly to how email works: you can email anyone from your gmail account, not just other gmail accounts. Federation means that I can run my own server with my own rules if I wanted to. I can choose to allow certain content or people and know that my data is in my control.

Many people are starting to call decentralized technology “Web 3.0”. While Web 2.0 saw people using the internet for more and more things, this came at the cost of consolidation and large companies taking over much of the control of the web. With decentralization and federation, the web can once again be for the people, and not only for large companies.

 

October Apple Event Preview

Today Apple sent out invitations for an event on October 30th in New York City. The event, titled “There’s more in the Making”, hints at a creative and pro focused event, which is further suggested by the event being hosted at the Howard Gilman Opera House. There are several rumored devices that will be launched at this event

The headline product that is rumored to be announced will be an update to the iPad Pro line. The line, which is made up of two models, is rumored to gain many of the features from the iPhone X line of phones. This includes smaller bezels and FaceID to replace the fingerprint reader. The devices are also said to switch over from their proprietary Lightning connector in favor of the more standard USB-C. This will also allow the iPad to connect to external display and other accessories much more easily. The iPad and the iPhone are some of the only devices in the industry that haven’t switched over to USB-C. This transition will help the industry converge on a single port type.

There are also rumored to be new Mac’s at this event. The Mac mini hasn’t been updated in over 4 years and is overly due for a refresh. The new minis are rumored to be smaller and more aimed at the pro market. This makes sense given the overall theme of the event. Apple is also rumored to be introducing a new low end Mac laptop at around the $1000 price point. This will replace the aging MacBook Air that Apple is still selling. This is by far Apple’s highest volume price range, so it’s important to have a modern, compelling option.

Is there anything else that Apple will announce next week? What are your predictions?

The Future of the Mac

There have been two major rumors in the past month about the future of the Mac. It’s clear in the past several years that much of Apple’s development effort has been geared towards Apple’s mobile operating system, iOS, which powers iPhones and iPads. Apple has also been introducing new platforms, such as Apple Watch and HomePod. Through all of this, the Mac has been gaining features at a snail’s pace. It seems like Apple will only add features when it feels it must in order to match something it introduces first on iOS. But these recent rumors point to a Mac platform that could be revitalized.

The first major rumor is a shared development library between iOS and the Mac. What does this mean to non-developers? It means that we could very well see iOS apps such as Snapchat or Instagram on Mac. MacOS uses a development framework called AppKit. This framework stems back many years to when Apple bought a company called NeXT computer. These systems are what eventually became the Mac, and the underlying framework has stayed largely the same since then. Obviously, there have been changes and many additions, but it is still different from what developers use to make iOS apps for iPhones and iPads. iOS uses a framework called UIKit, which is very different in key areas. Basically, it means that to develop an app for the iPhone and the Mac takes twice the development effort. Supposedly, Apple is working on a framework for the Mac that is virtually identical to UIKit. This means that developers can port their apps to the Mac with basically no work. In theory, the amount of apps on the Mac would increase as developers port over their iOS apps to the Mac. This means many communication apps such as Snapchat and Instagram could be usable desktop apps.

What Apple’s future macOS framework could look like.

The second major rumor is that Apple is expected to switch from Intel provided CPUs to their own ARM based architecture. Apple switched to Intel CPUs in 2006 after using PowerPCs for many years. This transition brought along an almost 2x increase in performance compared to the PowerPC chips they were using. In the last few years, Intel hasn’t seen the year over year performance increases that they used to have. Additionally, Intel has been delaying new architectures as manufacturing smaller chips gets harder and harder. This means Apple is dependent on Intel’s schedule to introduce new features. On the other hand, Apple has been producing industry-leading ARM chips for use in their iPhones and iPads. These chips are starting to benchmark at or above some of the Intel chips that Apple is using in their Mac line. Rumors are saying that the low-power Macs could see these new ARM based chips as soon as 2020. The major caveat with this transition is that developers could have to re-write some of their applications for the new architecture. This means it might take some time for applications to be compatible, and some older applications might never get updated.

Its clear that Apple’s focus in the past several years has been on its mobile platforms and not on its original platform, the Mac. But these two rumors show that Apple is still putting serious engineering work into its desktop operating system. These new features could lead to a thriving Mac ecosystem in the years to come.

PCIe Solid State Drives: What They Are and Why You Should Care

Consumer computers are largely moving away from hard disk drives, mostly because solid state drives have gotten so cheap. Upgrading to a solid state drive is one of the best things that you can do for your computer. Unlike a RAM or CPU upgrade, you will notice a dramatic difference in day-to-day usage coming from a hard drive. The only real benefit of using a traditional hard drive over a solid state drive would be capacity per dollar. If you want anything over 1TB, you’re basically going to have to settle for a hard drive.

Solid-State Drive with SATA bus (compare the gold connectors to the below image)

While SSD prices have come down, SSD technology has also improved dramatically. The latest trend for solid state drives is a move away from SATA to PCIe. Serial ATA, or SATA, is the bus interface that normally connects drives to computers. The latest version of this, SATA 3, has a bandwidth limit of 750 Megabyes per second. This used to be plenty for hard drives and even early SSDs; however modern SSD’s are easily able to saturate that bus. This is why many SSDs have started to move to PCIe. Depending on the implementation, PCIe can do up to 32 Gigabytes per second. (That’s nearly 43 times as fast!) This means that SSDs have plenty of room to grow in the future. There are a couple different technologies and terms related to PCIe SSDs that you may want to make yourself familiar with:

M.2

M.2 is a new interface for connecting SSDs to motherboards. This connector is much smaller than the SATA connector was, and allows SSDs to be much smaller and physically attach to the board instead of connecting via a cable. The confusing thing about M.2 is that it can operate drives over either SATA or PCIe. Most of the newer drivers and motherboards only support the PCIe version. M.2 drives have a few standard lengths, ranging from 16 to 110 millimeters. There are also a few different connector type styles that have varying pins on them. M.2 connectors also support other PCIe devices such as wireless cards.

NVMe

NVM Express is a Host Controller Interface that allows the CPU to talk to the SSD. This standard is meant to replace the current AHCI, which was created in the 1980s. This standard is too slow for managing solid state drives, so NVMe was designed specifically for that purpose. It means that CPUs can communicate with the drive with much lower latency. NVMe is largely the reason that current PCIe SSDs can reach speeds over 3 Gigabytes per second.

Solid State is soon to become a universal standard as older machines are phased out and consumer expectations rise. Don’t get left in the dust.

Intel, ARM, and the Future of the Mac

For years, there have been rumors that Apple wants to move away from Intel and x86 processors to something that they design in house. This desire comes from a combination of Intel’s slowing pace and the rapid improvement of Apple’s own A-series chips that the company uses in the iPhone and iPad. Moving to a new CPU architecture is not without it’s challenges, and it would not be the first one that Apple has undertaken. The last major change was from PowerPC to Intel in 2005. That transition was made due to the lack of innovation from IBM. Intel’s future roadmap had much more powerful chips than what IBM was offering. IBM was slowly moving their product line to be more server oriented. They were already having issues meeting the power demands that Apple was trying to achieve.

Much of that same situation is happening now with Intel and ARM processors. For the last several generations, Intel’s improvements have been aimed at power efficiency increases. Many PC owners haven’t had a reason to upgrade their Sandy Bridge CPUs to the latest generation. Intel’s latest generation chips, Kaby Lake, is based on the same architecture as two generations ago. Kaby Lake is the second “iterative” step for the same process architecture. This is mostly due to Intel’s problems with being able to produce 10nm chips(their current chips are based on a 14nm process). Intel has not delivered the increased power that many Mac users have been craving, especially for their pro desktops.

On the other hand, Apple has been one of the leading innovators in ARM processor design. ARM holdings designs and produces the basic architecture design. It then licenses these designs to companies such as Apple, Samsung, and Qualcomm to manufacture their own systems on a chip (SOC). While these chips are not x86, they are much more power efficient and require less transistors. ARM chips are getting to the point where they are almost as powerful as some Intel chips. For example, the iPad Pro benchmarks higher than the 12” Macbook for both single core and multi-core tests. It would totally be possible to produce a high power ARM processor that would replace the Intel chips that Apple uses. With the slow progress that Intel has had, its not a matter of if, but rather when.

Rumors are saying that Apple has already ported macOS from x86 to ARM internally. This rumor has also stated that the new version of macOS meant for ARM chips has many similarities to iOS. While the pros and cons of this are up for debate, its easy to predict from past macOS updates that this is where the platform is going. A switch to ARM would mean that app developers would have to do some work to update their apps, as x86 applications will not natively run on ARM chips. But Apple has made similar transitions from PowerPC to Intel. In that case, the pros and cons were very similar to what they are now, and overall the market was very happy with the switch. Would you be happy with a switch to ARM chips if that meant a faster and lighter machine for you?

Securing Your Online Services

Securing your online services

With more and more of our lives happening online, it’s super important to protect all of your personal information with secure passwords. Your personal information is probably stored across a wide variety of social media, Google, banks, and other sites that contain information you would not want to fall into the wrong hands.

There are several different aspects to making sure your passwords are protecting you as much as possible. This post will serve as an online security audit so that you can go through your online services and secure yourself as much as possible

Step 1: Securing your email

Your email account is the most important account to secure. If someone has access to your email, then they can view all of your personal personal information within those messages. Your main email account is also used for password recovery for every other account that you have, so if they get into your email, theres no stopping them from getting into your Facebook, Google, and banking information.

The first place to start is making sure your email has a very strong password. We will get into generating strong passwords later in the article, but your email account should definitely be one of the stronger ones. This is the first line of defense against people trying to enter into your email.

Step 2: Two-Factor Authentication

The basic premise behind two factor authentication
The basic premise behind two factor authentication

After you get setup with a strong alphanumeric password, the next step is to turn on Two-factor authentication (sometimes known as two-step authentication). This system adds an additional layer of security to your account by requiring you to have your phone or another device in order to get into your account. There are various implementations of this system, but it generally works by receiving a text message with a code that you enter after you enter your password. This code expires after 30 seconds, so even if someone was able to steal this code, it would be useless after 30 seconds.

The whole idea of multi-factor authentication is that you need both something you know (your password), as well as something you have (your phone) in order to access your account. Some security systems even add another factor such as a finger print or iris scan in order to access an account or area. You can find out which services you use have two factor authentication here.

Step 3: Using a password manager

1Password is one of the most popular password managers, especially for Mac and iOS devices
1Password is one of the most popular password managers, especially for Mac and iOS devices

Earlier I said that one of the best ways to secure your email was with a strong password. The best passwords are those that are long, random, and include a variety of letters, numbers, and symbols. Equally important is using a different password for each service. Many people use the same password across all of their logins. This means that once someone gets that password, they can basically access your entire life online. A password manager facilitates both of these goals by generating strong passwords, and then storing them securely so you never have to remember what they are.

Password managers are very good at generating random passwords for you to use. Most of them have build in generators that allow you to customize parameters such as length and what types of symbols you want to use. I would recommend creating the longest password possible for the most security.

Note that for some reason, certain services implement a maximum length for passwords. For these services, you will have to limit the length to what the service allows.

The second part, and perhaps the more useful part, of a password manager is that it stores all of them. As a user, all you have to do is remember one master password that allows you to access the password manager. The password manager stores all of your login information in an encrypted database that unlocks with your master password. Both 1Password and LastPass have browser extensions that will enter in your information when you come across a login page for a given service. Since you basically never have to type in your passwords manually, this means that you can make them longer and more secured. The only password you ever have to remember and type out is the one that unlocks your password manager vault. And even on devices such as your iPhone, you can set it to unlock with your fingerprint, so you never have to type in any passwords.

LastPass's Browser Extension
LastPass’s Browser Extension

Conclusion

So much of your data is stored online, that it’s dangerous not to protect it to the best of your ability. For most people, there is a tradeoff between security and convenience. Its so much more convenient to have the same password across multiple services. This is easy to remember, plus its easier to type in since these passwords are normally short and something relatable, such as a pet name or some combination of initials and a birthday. But these same elements that make it easy to log in yourself also make it easy for hackers gain access. If your password is something easy to guess, then they don’t even have to brute force their way in.

The steps outlined in this post will help you to maximize your online security, while still holding onto the convenience that we desire as end users. A strong email password is the root of your security strategy, as this helps to prevent hackers from gaining access to all your accounts when they compromise one. Two factor authentication means that even if someone gains your password, they still won’t be able to enter your account unless they get your phone. Finally, a password manager will allow you to have strong passwords while having the convenience of a single password.