So I’ve started to see some press getting way down on Vista about things I haven’t experienced and decided to go and see if I could figure out what was going on. First off, let me summarize my house’s trip to vista.

  • Machines
    • 3 older machines
    • 1 brand new nice 64 bit box
  • Issues
    • Memory
      • Most of my machines needed a memory upgrade to be happy on vista.  Where I Couldafford it machines went to 2Gb.
    • RAW photo support for my camera on 64 bit windows
      • Canon was in no rush to release it and I still don’t have RAW support on 64bit (which is where I do photo stuff)
    • Media Center on 64 bit
      • It was either the 64bitness or trying to also use the machine as a desktop while it was a media center, but this led to a lot of crashes of media center.
    • Loud machines
      • Since vista supports sleep better then previous versions, I started used it for my desktops. I then started to notice the noise difference between on and off.


And while I’m at it, the BS issues that people complain about, but I don’t get the issue.

  • DRM
    • Everyone gripes about it and it’s the default reason people give for anything that is broken, but it probably has nothing to do with anything since I’m not aware of anyone using it’s new features yet. It’s a passive, when the application asks for it, feature not an active (lets look for violations) system.
  • UAC
    • When you get a okay/cancel UAC prompt, you are running as an administrator and if you weren’t you would have been asked for administrator account and password. Even when you run as administrator with UAC, you are not administrator. The prompt authorizes a process to run as true administrator. There is a reasonable amount of security value here. The main question is “Should this require administrator rights to run?” whenever you see a prompt. Frankly I don’t get prompted often, and when I do, I find it’s appropriate. The notable exception is when I want to see details of what driver is loaded for my network card or video card. The UI for viewing and setting the settings weren’t separated and so you get a prompt even when you don’t want to change anything.
    • If you think UAC is annoying, the question is, what did it prompt you for that it shouldn’t have?
    • It’s very amusing when people comment about UAC and get recommend another OS that does the same thing, except requires you type in a password.

Okay, so now that I have that out of the way… I’ll next write on where and what I’ve learned

Finally, some good arguments against OpenXML

Stéphane Rodriguez has an article about issues one hits when trying to implement or use OpenXML. They don’t have the idiotic and artificial type of arguments that lists like groklaw has created, but some of his examples feel a bit extended to make a good story.

Lets see what the summary of his issues are with my bottom line comments. Also note I’m no expert at this stuff, I’m a geek, not a word processing file format geek and I certainly don’t speak for Microsoft on these issues.

  1. Self-exploding spreadsheets
    • Removing formulas from a spreadsheet is non trivial because there are other files with references to the forumla to update, such as the calculation chain
    • You can’t rebuild the calculation chain without going through the whole document.
    • While the calculation chain can be excluded it is non optimal to do so because some one who does need to understand the whole spreadsheet will have to recalculate it.
    • Some ZIP libraries don’t deal efficiently with doing the sort of operations needed to manipulate these zip based documents structures
    • Bottom Line 1: Invalidating the Calculation Chain should be automatic, so that simple manipulation tools work better
    • Bottom Line 2: Classic engineering tradeoff, you can precalc stuff if you want, but then you have to be able to precalculate it and keep some sort of invalidating state.
  2. Entered versus stored values
    • The intuition that what you type in excel is what is stored is incorrect. Excel does magic to make it more user friendly like automatically adjusting to local convention (like , instead of . in number formatting) and auto converting to a type instead of treating everything as a string or forcing the user to be explicit
    • The stored number values are affected by IEEE rounding rules
    • Stored values are not locale dependant (This is a bad thing?)
    • Bottom Line: It’s not clear how this affects the usability or usefulness of the format to me. Maybe a different example where values that aren’t in this format (generated by a third party tool) fail in excel?
  3. Optimization artefacts become a feature instead of an embarrasment
    • Worksheet shared forulas are listed as “copy from Cell X” instead of having a neutral non cell reference that everything uses
    • This leads to a lot more work to change a formula in one place if others reference it.
    • Bottom Line: Sounds like a valid complaint to me
  4. VML isn’t XML
    • VML is supposed to be deprecated but gets used in some places like comments
    • 10 year old memo from Gates that has little to no bearing on the world or Microsoft today
    • Bottom Line: I’m not familiar enough with the spec to know if this is an issue or not, but it sounds like comments in Excel is hard to work with and that’s bad.
  5. Open packaging parts minefield
    • You can’t delete a part and know who relies on it without parsing through everything in the file
    • Bottom Line: sounds sucky
  6. International, but US English first and foremost
    • The functional things in the format for excel is in english (like the SUM() function)
    • VML and DrawingML have a number of encoding notes to help with localization which aren’t documented well
    • Applications on top of OpenXML have to localize everything themselves
    • Bottom Line: Maybe I’m missing it, but this seems like a feature, my spreadsheet manipulator doesn’t have to be aware of all the possible language encoding of the word “SUM”

I’m going to cut off this post here for now (wife wants my attention 🙂 ) and maybe continue it another day

Major themes from the list so far:

  • The excel format seems to be not well designed for targeted modification of existing files. You have to load an understand the whole thing and then write it all back out again. (unless you are using the custom schema stuff, but that is out of scope)
  • VML interacts with parts of openXML is not well describe ways

— Ari

Windows Security Boundaries

I was reading Raymond’s post on Escalation of Privilege bugs that don’t actually escalate your privilege and then quickly read the earlier episode of the series. There I saw a lot of commenter rebilling against the concept of post by drawing new security boundaries which the hypothetical exploit would cross. This crystallized a concept for me that there are certain security boundaries in windows that are harder then others and there is much confusion in this area. Since I haven’t seen this information in one place anywhere, I’ll try to consolidate my understanding of it here.

Security Boundaries control the flow of information and execution between two distinct environments. We consider a boundary breached when arbitrary data or execution is no longer prevented from occurring. Most of the time we consider one of the environments a superset of the other, for example, going from executing as a single user to controlling the entire Operating System. However any attack that gives you more privileges then you currently have can be considered an escalation of privilege.

  • Primary Security Boundaries
    1. The Remote Boundary (is there a better name?)
      • This boundary separates things executing off your computer and on your computer. When an attacker can remotely make your computer do arbitrary things in a security context that would be crossing the remote/machine boundary.
    2. The User Principle Boundary
      • This refers to the security boundary created by executing code under a security principal and the ACLs that details which user has access to which resources. This is what keeps one user from snooping on another user’s files. If untrusted code manages to run in your user account, it’s not really your user account any more. This can also refer to non user accounts such as services.
    3. The Administrator/Kernel vrs Not Boundary
      • This is the boundary between a normal user and running as administrator or executing code in the kernel. Once untrusted code is running in either administrator or in the kernel, it is not your box anymore.
    4. Privileges
      • These carve out boundaries like ACLs.
    5. The Operating System Boundary
      • This boundary refers to the ability to read files and execute when it is allowed to execute outside the context of the operating system normally in control of the resources. If the OS isn’t running it can’t protect secrets. Technologies like bitlocker and the one-way encryption of passwords are attempt to deal with breaches of this boundary. Vitalization is making this area more interesting.This is also the point of Immutable Law #3.
    6. Managed Code (CLR/Java) sandboxing
  • Mitigation Boundaries (These are bypass-able, have uses and may be put together to make something stronger but alone do not form a primary security boundary, see Mark’s blog)
    1. Power User/Administrator/Kernel/System
      • You can switch between these without much difficulty.
    2. Vista Admin account UAC
      • The split token helps but doesn’t make a full boundary
    3. Session boundaries
      • Different user sessions have different named object namespaces ACL’d to them, however one user could reach over and mess with then session of another instance of the same user.
    4. Restricted Tokens
    5. IL Levels
    6. Software Restriction Policies
    7. UAC elevated processes in a user session
    8. Kernel Driver Signing
    9. NATs/Most Firewalls
    10. Kiosk style, certain applications only hacks/setting changes
    11. System File Protection
    12. Windows Data Protection – DPAPI
    13. Code Signing

Much of the confusion occurs from “breaching” a Mitigation Boundary instead of one of the Primary Security Boundaries. Aside from some nice new Mitigation Boundaries, the main thing that Vista does is move most users from the Administrator/Kernel side to the rest side or the primary boundaries #3, and that is a big deal.

Google decides to be evil

According to a number of articles like this one, Google is the source of an antitrust complaint against Windows Vista because of a change of the default implementation of Desktop file search. In Windows XP, when you searched for files it would do a actual, go scan your harddrive search, and at the end of the search you got an option to turn on indexing to make your search faster. This would search anvista indexingd make notes about your harddrive in advance so that the requested search became much faster. I’m guessing that it was off by default in XP because it wasn’t really optimized for a desktop both in performance, the type of data it indexed about the files and it wasn’t something people did a whole lot so it wasn’t worth the weight on the system. Enter Vista and the world has changed, indexing is the standard approach to search on the desktop as demonstrated by the improved indexers shipped in MacOSX, Google desktop and MSN one. So the good old xp indexer gets a lot of attention, a nice upgrade, some very nice usability improvements and, Oh yeah, the indexer is now on by the default instead of just for power users. Well, that last step is one step too far according to Google.

According to the article they are worried about interactions between their indexer and the vista one. While a lot of people, on digg at least, are calling BS. It is especially weird to me since a number of applications that I’m running these days are busy indexing the harddrive. The photo gallery software and all three music applications are going at it. They manage to coexist in vista, what’s wrong with Google’s indexer? This sounds like a technical limitation in their product they wish to use to harm vista’s indexer.

They have plenty of business reasons for such a desire, they used XP’s deficiencies in this area as a big reason to get people use the Google toolbar (which includes their desktop indexer). This is important to them because it has all sorts of tie backs to Google services where they make money. It was a good gig, the MSN team developed and did the same thing. The Vista indexer doesn’t have any such ties, but now people have lost a huge reason to install the Google toolbar (and the MSN toolbar for that matter). So they have a business problem, and from their complaint a minor technical problem. Business model problems don’t make good complaints to the DOJ, but maybe they could make hay with their technical issue. Unfortunately most techies would predictably call BS if they heard the complaint (I guess that’s why it was a confidential complaint) which leads back to the premise, It appears that Google has unabashedly decided to be evil.

On the other hand, indexers are programs that are not just running all the time, but constantly trying to do work. Smart applications attempt to do more and more stuff when the user wouldn’t notice, such as checking for and downloading updates or pre-creating image thumbnails so they don’t have to be generated at run time. On a logical level there is some theoretical maximum to how much time a computer has for such background tasks. Google seems to be implying that there is not enough room for anyone but them. Even in this worse case, this is something that a years worth of Moore’s law will fix faster then any legal remedy. Oh and I should point out it has been years since the first of this generation of indexers were downloaded and used on computers.

It’s going to be interesting to see the arguments on the other side of this one.

Disclosure: I work in windows networking, I don’t have anything to do with the indexer technologies except complain about how slow the early versions of it in pre-reset longhorn were.

Cleaning up a minor security argument

I saw a slashdot article this morning about Apple releasing more vuln fixes. In the comment section, discussion broke into the usual “why do people think Macs are safer then Windows” arguements. The two major points of “it has less of a market” and “it’s just more secure” went back and forth. I happen to think both are an oversimplification of the subject.

Vuln finding is a function people of going after whatever is currently easiest. Many attackers have broaden their horizons to other platforms once Windows became significantly more secure and harden against attack. Oracle was the next major target and Apple might be the one after. I admit that I love the irony of the switch after both companies choose to market on how they must be more secure since people weren’t finding vulns in them.

Exploits on the other hand is based on the business case these days. The vulns are available but Windows didn’t have the magnitude of the problem it did until there was a profit motive to create bot networks.

So to put it together, vulns found help you tell about the security of an area, exploiting tells you about how profitable a particular OS is to attack. The corollary of this rule is that as a random host you are as profitable as the OS, as a specific host with specific data or rights you are as valuable to attack as that data or rights. The result being that if your data is valuable is doesn’t matter that there are few exploits for your box when there are plenty of vulns.

Popfly looks damn cool

Go watch the screencast about Microsoft Popfly. It’s a mashup builder using Silverlight. It looks awsome and the screencast includes using World of Warcraft data to build a Mashup Site.

Get together my thoughts on OOXML/ODF

An attempt to respond to the latest thing I’ve read and stake out my feelings on ODF/OOXML.

From what I understand of the market, you have a number of (free) add-on ODF plugins for Microsoft Office. This means that the simple requirement being able to read and write the format will be satisfied to the level of quality of the plugins and the ability of the interoperable aspects of the ODF standard to handle office semantics. I feel that the blogoshpere has made it clear that the only way ODF will be able to handle the body of existing office documents (Bugs and features) at full fidelity is for there to be a large number of extensions that would render ODF something not ODF anymore, especially from the standpoint of other ODF implementations. It might be in the vaguely “right” looking container, but it would not be interoperable. Any movement in this space would (rightly?) be branded Embrace, Extend, Extinguish.

I believe it is clear that users want something like OpenXML. We’ve seen that previous movements in this direction by office in the 2003 products are never used because of the loss of fidelity. I’m just not going to migrate my spreadsheets to ODF format if my formulas are going to break, and that is the type of user complaints that you will start to get when you tell your customers you must move over. If you don’t get how complex this type of thing gets, you should start reading Raymond Chen’s blog. It is quite obvious how hostile the ODF crowd appears to be to backwards comparability with the amount of hoopla generated around supporting the 1900 excel/lotus 123 date issues in OOXML.

Could all the the technical issues been worked out in ODF? Maybe. I think the hostile environment, the time required to work on modifications to ODF in an open way and the timeline for the politics and government mandates pretty much precluded that option for the short term. On the brightside, ODF folks can take the out there and free OOXML spec and decide how they want to absorb it for future versions of ODF. Thus somday the promised nirvana of ODF being the native interoperable format of all office suites that it’s supporters want might be realized. In the here and now, there is a pretty cool creative energy that both formats competing right now has created. In an attempt to score points in some insane “Who is Right” contest both sides are pointing out the flaws in the other, and the pragmatists will pick up the real stuff and just make thier stuff better. This is a good thing no matter how ugly the process is to get there.

In the background of this debate, It appears that their are two camps in the world when it comes to this stuff, purists who believe that future technology should be clean slates not marred with the real world and those who muck around in the complex world of user demand and prior work. I have to admit out of college I was very much in favor of the purist view of the world. This little debate is making me realize that I’ve now firmly landed in the other camp. The purist typically ends in the worst hacks and/or low adoption. There are a lot of people out there who use software and just don’t care about the religious battles. It doesn’t matter what your standard is or how you architected the code is, if it doesn’t solve the user’s needs.  Put simply, users are more important then you or I and placing requirements down that are tangential to their needs is just a speedbump for them to roll over. The coders who love and support these users are going to have to help carry forward whatever hack someone came up with to get around the artificial speedbump. The sooner one grok’s this concept the better the world might be.

If ODF solves a user’s needs, they will use it, if OOXML solves it better it will be used regardless of which of them have ISO certification. There is already ECMA certification and good IP promises for OOXML. (The inability to use without IP considerations a file embded in either format is a red herring). It appears that Microsoft is supportive of having OOXML ISO certified, which sounds great to me. If there are considerations unrelated to ODF then they should be fixed, but the notion of which sausage factory produced the 1.0 spec or that you can’t have both formats be standards seems silly to me. Both are too new on the scene to have proven that they are going to be the end all. If anything, office via market share and caring about backwards compatability has a huge leg up.

Disclaimer: I work for Microsoft but nothing to do with office.

Live (on Video) Blogging the Vista Launch

  • Bill Gates takes stage
    • Reminds us of the GUI bet 12 years ago in Windows 95
    • Everything is focused on how to represent in a Digital format
    • What’s the new innovations?
      • Making it easier: search, flip3d, etc
      • Safer: anti-spyware, anti-phising, etc
      • Entertainment: DX10, Photo Gallery, DVD Maker, HiDef support
      • Better Connect: Diagnosing, RSS platform support, XML file formats
    • Platform Renovation
    • Installing
      • Upgrade Advisor
      • new system
  • Mike, corperate vice president demo
    • thanks familys and beta testers
    • Familly focused demo
    • Photos
      • Tagging in Photo gallery via drag and drop
      • Search via the tagging
      • One beta tester with 40K photos in the library
      • Basic adjustments
    • DVD Burning
      • Videos and pictures into a nice preview
    • Document editing
      • Live Previews of the entire format of the document changing
      • Add a photo and drag it to the size you want in the document, no guessing percents
      • Ribbon UI
      • Extra effects on photos in the document, shadows and the like
    • Games
      • Game Explorer
      • DX10
      • Using the Xbox360 controller
      • Cross-platform playing, EX: uno
    • Parental Controls
      • Time-Limits
      • Game ratings
      • IM sessions, Games played, Web sites went to/attempted to go to
    • Xbox360 media center extender
      • Cable Card support -> HiDef TV Recording
      • Media Center interface
      • Music explorer
      • picture explorer
    • Extras
      • DreamScene – Motion Video on the Desktop
  • WoW campaign Commercial
    • nice music… look up later
  • Steve Ballmer
    • Biggest Launch in software history and the broadest
    • Today/Tommorow fun across the globe
    • 19 Languages today, 99 by EOY
    • 39,000 retail outlets
    • thousands of OEMs
    • 1 million people in europe by EOY
    • 2 million in US
    • 2,500 certified software products
    • NY Times reader application
    • 5 Mil beta testers
    • Partners Video
    • Dell CEO Kevin ??
    • Intel Sean Melony(sp?)
    • Toshiba CEO and president of computer devision ??
    • AMD Chairman and CEO Hector Ruitz
    • HP ??
    • editorial comment: How much money is on that stage right now?
  •  Bill Gates
    • Thanks to the employees
    • Jim Allchin thank you from Bill
    • 5 Million People Downloaded Vista and Office 2007
    • Highest quality ever
    • Test Automation
    • Performance Testing
    • Watched 1 billion office beta sessions
    • What Famillies said about the product
      • 50 famillies in 7 countries
      • > contact
      • 800 changes
      • Lots of DVD burning feedback out of this program
      • “Microsoft listened to me”
    • One of the Famillies on the stage
    • Burn to Disc button in photo gallery was one of thier feedbacks
    • Got the first copy in the US.
    • Kids push the button, and Screens in Times Square Start going
  • Video of Launch events across the world.
  • Live Band starts playing
  • Caffiteria Ballons drops
  • Event is over at Microsoft

Vista DRM

There a pretty reasonable podcast about Vista DRM in Security Now #75. Key points:

  • Worse case is that you can’t play content that demnands a super secure path.
  • No known media is requesting the super secure path. It is very questionable if anyone will ever want to take the PR hit of actually using it.
  • Constriction or “fuzzyness” is for the high quality content; not everything on your screen and only if the content requires it.
  • The main device you are probably playing HD-DVD’s on is laptops who have onboard graphics and are exempt from a number of things that people are concerned about.

Update: Just to be fair, there are a number of legit concerns that the Gutmann paper talks about, but even in that paper there are examples that people have let thier imagination run away with. The legit concerns include: side effects to how open hardware is when hardware needs to authenticate to the driver (They should do a public key thing here IMHO), Hardware/CPU costs in dealing with encrypting content across an open pci bus, potential cost for splitting out drivers to mitigate potential protect content trust revocation, the potental for hardware manufactures to destablize a PC when creating an implementation of tilt bits and IP/Licencing costs for the content protection hardware. To me these are pretty minor or requires assuming the worst for a true bad effect.