Category Archives: Web

Speed up your DNS with Namebench

Namebench

DNS is used to convert the human readable domain names we use on the internet (such as amazon.co.uk), into machine readable IP addresses (e.g. 87.238.81.129).

Your computer accomplishes this by using a Name Server (NS), the NS your computer uses normally defaults to the one supplied by your Internet Service Provider (ISP). However the NS from your ISP may not be the fasted performing or have as many extra features a 3rd party NS providers. The speed with which the NS converts the Domain Name into an IP is the resolving speed. The resolving speed can be affected by various factors such as the speed of the NS server itself, the latency of your connection to the NS and the physical distance of the NS from you. So in order to maximise the speed of your web browsing etc. its important to have the fastest DNS resolving speed possible.

A good and easy to use tool that allows you to test the resolving speed of your current NS, vs various 3rd party ones is Namebench. This tool will send multiple DNS requests from your computer to your current NS and to the 3rd party NS list that Namebench includes by default. It then outputs a report comparing the resolving speed of your current NS vs the 3rd party NS services. It will also recommend the fastest NS for your internet connection. In my case using the DNS Advantage NS gave around an 80% speed boost.

If you’re not so worried about speed, you can also use your NS as an extra layer of security.

Windows Security

The below list is not meant to be exhaustive or to be a how-to for every suggestion, however I have provided links for most of the suggestion from which you can find more information.

Antivirus

This is a bit of a no-brainer, but many people still don’t use one. A good (and free) option to use is Microsoft Security Essentials, it performs well in AV tests, and in my experience runs lighter than other solutions. If you don’t mind paying you can try Norton Internet Security which has done quite well in tests recently, it also includes a firewall and other features.

Software Firewall

Even if you have hardware firewall, it is worth having a software firewall installed on your pc as well. This allows out-bound traffic to be filtered, which would not necessarily happen with a hardware firewall. Also software firewalls can flag up suspect programs using HIPS. A good free firewall which has HIPS is the Comodo firewall.

Router with NAT Translation and a Stateful Packet Inspection Firewall

This makes it harder for external computers to connect to your network, for more information see here.

Have separate User and Admin accounts

Running in a standard non-admin user account for daily use can substantially reduce security risks, only use the admin account when installing programs etc.

User Account Control (UAC)

UAC is a highly effective tool, especially when combined with running as a standard user as mentioned above. However make it sure it is set up correctly with the slider right at the top.

Windows 7

Windows 7 has features like Address Space Layout Randomization, this was also in vista, but Windows 7 is much nicer to generally and more responsive.

Use a 64 bit version of Windows 7

64 bit windows includes extra protection like Data Execution Protection and Patch Guard.

Use Google chrome as your default browser

Make sure you install Chrome using your standard account, not the Admin account. This will make sure chrome installs into your document and settings folder as opposed to the program files folder. This is necessary as this lets Chrome auto update in a standard user account, which it can’t if installed in the program files folder. There are several security benefits of using chrome:

  • Chrome auto updates itself, this means you will always have the most secure and up-to-date version
  • The Chrome sandbox makes it harder to exploit the browser
  • Chrome has flash built-in which ensures it is always auto-updated to the latest and most secure version, Chrome will eventually sandbox the plugin which will improve security
  • When installed paste “chrome://plugins/” into the address bar (without quotes) and disable any plugins you don’t use
  • Also consider using extensions like Flashblock and Adblock

Don’t install standalone Flash

When you need to use something with flash use Chrome, Flash is one of the main routes that a computer can be exploited via the web browser, so by using chrome’s version you can mitigate this risk. Also, do not install java unless you really need it.

Don’t use Adobe Reader

Adobe Reader generally has a lot of security flaws, try using an alternative like Sumatra or PDF-XChange PDF Viewer, Google Chrome also has a built-in PDF viewer in the Beta version, which i’m sure will soon come to the stable version. This is worth using to avoid various PDF exploits. If you really need to use Adobe Reader follow this advice for securing it.

DNS servers

Normally you use DNS servers that are supplied by your ISP, however there are now DNS services that screen domains for Malware, and prevent you accessing them. Two such services are Norton DNS and Clear Cloud DNS.

Turn on Microsoft Update

Microsoft Update is like windows update, but will update any Microsoft product including Microsoft Office etc.

Google and the Username Conundrum

The web is still a relatively new occurrence,  being publicly available for at most 15 years. During this time the Web has seen staggering growth, that has seen it come to the centre of society due its impact on the economy, communications, socialising etc. However this is not to say there haven’t been problems, there have been plenty, although the one issue I want to mention here is with usernames.

With the web being at most 15 years old, it is almost impossible to get usernames you’d actually want on popular services such as Google. I realise this is something that affects all popular service and it’s unfair to focus on solely on Google, however it easier to focus on one service and it is with Google that I find this annoyance with usernames most acutely.

As of now it is pretty much impossible to get any decent email address on Gmail, at least if you have an Anglo name. Have fun trying to get [email protected] or any other combination of initials or letters that are vaguely recognisable without having to resort to adding random numbers/letters at the end e.g. [email protected], which not only looks stupid is starting to become a barrier to usability, as the more random character that are introduced the greater the possibility of transcription errors when people write down the address.

We are having this problem now with only 15 years on the web and 25% of the world population on-line. The proportion of the global population using the web will only grow as it becomes more fundamental to the functioning of society, the global population itself could grow to as high as 10.5 billion by 2050, this is compounded in that future generations will likely use the web to a greater extent than current generations.

So how can a web service provider like Google address this? In the example of Gmail they could possibly add more available domains on top of gmail.com, but I expect this will only partially help. One way to counter this, at least in the medium term is to allow users to use their own domains with Gmail, this is of course possible now with Google Apps. However this is a very business/institution focused service and doesn’t account for people using it for personal use. However the fact remains that many people use apps for personal use and this likely to grow as the pressure on traditional usernames increases.

It seems to me that Google should take notice of this trend and create an apps product targeted at personal/family use, which enables full integration with Google’s existing services. Otherwise it takes the risk of alienating users who may move elsewhere.

Why Google Apps Sucks for Non-Business Users

I recently shifted to the Google Eco-System in a big way and have generally been pleased with the results. Gmail is substantially better than Hotmail and I have started to use Google Calendar which can sync with my Windows mobile device (I don’t believe MS Live calendar can do this).

However, there are have been a couple of especially irritating issues, which is due to my use of Google Apps. The crux of the problem, is that the Google Apps account is not perceived to be a “Google account”  by Google. So in order to access Google services other than those available through Apps, you will have to create a Google account.

Naturally I already had a Google account, but thought i’d set up a new one with my Apps email in order to keep everything together (or so I thought!). This is where the issues start, as when you create a Google account, it also creates a contact list for that Google account, separate to the contact list in the Apps account.

So because of this I can use Google Reader with my Google Account, but can’t use the social features with the contact list in my Apps account. I also can’t link faces to Apps contacts in Picasa. I’m sure there are other areas where this is an issue, but this the most I have come up with so far.

Needless to say this incredibly annoying, especially when it comes from Google, a company that claims to “organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful“. Unfortunately they aren’t doing a very good job of organising Google Apps data and making it available to their own products.

A simple backup solution for Gmail

I have previously never bothered as I have always thought the chances of a company like Microsoft or Google losing email to be quite remote, however this is more an attitude born of laziness rather than good sense, as a quick search will show mistakes can happen.
So with this in mind, I set about finding the easiest way to backup my Gmail account. I came across a solution (that suits me at least), which leverage my old Hotmail account. All I did was setup the Hotmail account to collect mail from my Gmail account via POP and dump it in a newly created folder called “Gmail Backup”. I selected “Enable POP for all mail (even mail that’s already been downloaded)” in the pop settings so it would pull all the mail in the Gmail account to the Hotmail account.
I’ve found this to work really well, as it will pull down not only the email received at the Gmail account, but also all the email I send from the account. Granted the mail on the Hotmail end is completely unstructured (i.e. no labels or differentiation between sent and received mail) but it’s better than nothing and best of all it works completely automatically without any input from me required.
Hopefully this will prove a fairly resilient system, as I imagine the chances of Microsoft and Google both destroying/losing/incinerating my email, at the same time, to be vanishingly small. Or perhaps I’m being lazy again…

Having recently moved to Gmail from Hotmail, I thought I should tackle another email related task I’ve been putting off, namely setting up a backup regime for my email.

I have previously never bothered as I have always thought the chances of a company like Microsoft or Google losing email to be quite remote, however this is more an attitude born of laziness than good sense, as a quick search will show mistakes can happen.

So with this in mind, I set about finding the easiest way to backup my Gmail account. I came across a simple solution (that suits me at least), which leverages my old Hotmail account. All I did was setup the Hotmail account to collect mail from my Gmail account via POP and dump it in a newly created folder called “Gmail Backup”. I selected “Enable POP for all mail (even mail that’s already been downloaded)” in the pop settings so it would pull all the mail in the Gmail account to the Hotmail account.

I’ve found this to work really well, as it will pull down not only the email received at the Gmail account, but also all the email I send from the account. Granted the mail on the Hotmail end is completely unstructured (i.e. no labels or differentiation between sent and received mail) but it’s better than nothing and best of all it works completely automatically without any input from me required.

Hopefully this will prove a fairly resilient system, as I imagine the chances of Microsoft and Google both destroying/losing/incinerating my email, at the same time, to be vanishingly small. Or perhaps I’m being lazy again…


Moving from Hotmail to Gmail

Over the last couple of days I have been making the transition from Hotmail to Gmail (using google apps) for my main personal email address.

The main reason I decided to do this, is that i’m planning on getting an Android powered phone in the next couple of months, and the integration between the Android OS and the google applications is a big draw for me. However the extra functionality Gmail has over Hotmail is also appreciated.

Exporting Mail From Hotmail

As far as I know, the only way to export all your mail from Hotmail is to use microsoft outlook connector (you may be able to use the POP access if you store all your mail in your inbox, but I didn’t want to destroy my folder structure to try it).

Outlook connector, as the name suggests, is a plugin that connects outlook (in my case Outlook 2007) to the Hotmail service. It allows you to sync mail (preserving folder structure), contacts and calendar data into Outlook. It will take a while to download all your mail, especially if you have a lot. After it has fully downloaded, I would suggest taking a backup of the data by exporting the entire Hotmail mail box to a .PST file, so if things go pear-shaped you’ve got something to fall back on.

At this point I setup IMAP support for my Gmail account in Outlook (instructions here) and setup labels in Gmail that corresponded to my folders in hotmail. All you need to do then, is to copy the mail from the Hotmail folders to the corresponding IMAP folders (which should have appeared in Outlook after you set them up in Gmail). If you do this though, transfer only small groups of messages at a time, as it takes ages to upload to Gmail, and apparently Gmail limits the number of emails you can upload during a given time period and blocks you out.

Another issue to lookout for, is that Outlook connector has a nasty habit of sometimes incorrectly downloading mail. It will sometimes download blank mail instead of the actual mail in your account, which is incredibly annoying (I think around 30-50 messages of around 3000 emails where blank). I tried re-downloading by deleting my Hotmail account and adding it again, however this seems to make things worse with more blank email being downloaded.

Exporting Contact Information from Hotmail

This was fairly straight forward, you just export your Hotmail contacts in a .csv file (options > more options > Export Contacts), which can then be imported into Google Contact manager.

Conclusions/Lessons Learned

Exporting email from Hotmail to Gmail using the above method took absolutely  ages, if i’d known how long it would take, I would have been very tempted to give up my folder structure, move all my email into the inbox and get gmail to import it all via POP (assuming Hotmail will make the entire inbox available through POP). This would have lost my folder structure, but it would have been a lot quicker, and I wouldn’t have  had the issue of losing some of my email to the Outlook connector blank email problem. Suffice to say even with the loss of some email, i’m very glad to have escaped Hotmail. Gmail is by far the better product, i’m very tempted to upgrade to a payed account in order to get the outlook sync and Postini features.

Another surprising development, was that the data syncing capabilities of Google apps with Windows Mobile 6.1  are far better than that with Hotmail! I will put a post up about that at some point.

Amazon “Items dispatching soon”

When processing an order (especially ones with  super-saver delivery), Amazon tend to have an intensely annoying habit of setting the order to “items dispatching soon”, so it cannot be ammended or cancelled, and then leaving it at that stage for ages (I think nearly a day for my current order). In the past I’ve had this go on for days for other orders.

I think this is something Amazon should really look at, especially if you get annoyed with how long its taking them to fulfill an order but can’t cancel it! (I don’t buy that an order can be “dispatching soon” for several days)