Usually we use Google Hangouts for group video calling and also for screen sharing with more than two participants. If you’re not using Google Hangouts yet for your video conferences (full video and audio with more than two participants) and software demos, you really should. It’s a great product, it works on all platforms (Windows, Linux and Mac), and it’s free.
However, one of our clients unfortunately cannot use Google Hangouts due to company policy, so I went out searching for alternatives. Skype was one of the first that came to mind.
Skype only supports group video calling (i.e. more than two people) and group screen sharing (i.e. sharing your screen with more than one person) if you get a premium subscription of around €8 per month in my case. That’s not an issue; if a product solves a problem, it may of course cost money, although in this case one might raise the question why skype premium still exists if a superior product is available for free. It’s probably kept alive by company policies all around the world.
To test, I arranged for a one-month test premium subscription. Fortunately this is free.
Unfortunately, it turns out that even with a premium subscription, the Linux version of Skype 126.96.36.199 (I’m serious about development and technology in general, so I use Linux) does NOT support group video and it also does NOT support screen sharing with a group.
So there you have it. Skype fits perfectly into Microsoft’s product portfolio of overpriced and inferior software that survives purely due to marketing and politics. Unless you have a very good reason not to, you should definitely prefer Google Hangouts for all of your video conferencing needs. Remember that the days of Skype being a peer-to-peer “secure” network are long gone, all of your traffic is running through Microsoft servers, so your chances of being eavesdropped upon by NSA and friends are about equal, except that in Skype’s case, you’re even paying for the privilege! 🙂
(tl;dr / post summary: Many current SSDs do super fast hardware AES encryption, but only a very few expose this correctly to the user, meaning you often still need a third-party software solution. Information on this is incredibly hard to find.)
Imagine that your laptop or your PC gets stolen. That would be terrible. However, it would be even worse if your laptop contained confidential data, either your own or that of your employer or client. It’s clear that encrypting one’s hard drive has become a necessity. There are good open source software solutions for this, for example TrueCrypt (Windows, Linux and OSX) and the LUKS/dm-crypt system. However, such software encryption systems require a small chunk of your CPU capacity, and also affect SSD performance and durability to a lesser or greater extent, depending on the controller.
A number of SSD drives now implement real-time AES encryption in hardware. Usually the reason for this is to enable fast secure erase: When the AES keys are destroyed by the firmware, a very cheap operation that requires almost no writing to the flash, no data on the whole SSD can be read, and can thus the data can be considered securely erased. The encryption and decryption take place in the controller hardware, so there is no performance hit. The Sandforce SF2281 controller is one of the more well-known SSD controllers that does this. In some cases, the manufacterer uses the HDD password or ATA password (configurable via many laptop BIOSes, very few desktop BIOSes, or the ATASX BIOS extension) to encrypt the AES keys. This means that even if the manufacturer got hold of your drive, and you had set a strong ATA password, they would probably never be able to decrypt your data. I call this usable built-in-hardware-based full disk encryption. In these cases, you do NOT need to install third-party software full disk encryption, and can enjoy the full performance of your SSD. In many other cases, the encryption keys are stored in the drive firmware, but are NOT explicitly encrypted with a user-supplied password. This is non-usable encryption, because in theory the manufacturer or a sufficiently skilled hardware hacker can extract the encryption keys from the drive firmware and decrypt all of your data. In these cases, you ABSOLUTELY have to use a third-party software disk encryption software tool. The purpose of this post is to keep a list of current SSDs with usable and non-usable built-in hardware-based full disk encryption. Whilst recently shopping for a suitable SSD, this information was unreasonably hard to come by, hence this list. If you have additions or corrections, please let me know in the comments.
SSDs with USABLE built-in encryption:
This post and this post by an Intel representative confirm that the AES keys on the Intel 320 SSD are encrypted with the user’s ATA password. The second gives more detail on the implementation details, for example that the ATA password itself is also stored in non-reversible hashed form in the drive firmware. The white paper linked to under the Intel 520 heading below confirms the working of the 320 encryption setup.
This is the first Intel SSD making use of the Sandforce SF-2281 controller. Due to a bug in the controller, the drive does AES-128 encryption (instead of the advertised AES-256). AES-128 is still considered to be sufficient for most purposes. After two unsuccessful attempts getting a clear answer on the details of the Intel 520 encryption directly from Intel support, I finally stumbled on this white paper by Intel: Managing Intel Solid-State Drives Using Intel vPro Technology (mirror here). On page 3, in the grey box at the bottom of the page, we see the following text (bold words by me):
How Self-encrypting drives (SEDs) Work: SEDs, such as the Intel® SSD 320 Series and Intel® SSD 520 Series, have a drive controller that automatically encrypts all data to the drive and decrypts all the data from the drive. The disk encryption key is never present in the computer’s processor or memory, where it could be accessed by hackers. The key used to encrypt and decrypt is securely stored only on the drive. Because the disk encryption key is encrypted with the ATA (Advanced Technology Attachment) passwords, the key is made accessible to the drive only after successful user authentication; without the key the data remains encrypted on the media. Authentication of the user is done within the SED by supplying the ATA user password, which is isolated from the OS. Therefore, attacks on OS vulnerabilities cannot affect an SED’s pre-boot process.
That’s a pretty conclusive statement by Intel that both the 320 and the 520 encrypt their AES encryption key with the user-supplied ATA password. After a few weeks and some mails with Intel tech support, I also received the following confirmation concerning the Intel 520 SSD:
Yes, ATA password is used to encrypt the encryption keys stores on the SSD. In other words: The Encryption Keys depends on the ATA password to decrypt them. The ATA password is not used in combination with the Encryption Keys to encrypt the data.
Intel support furthermore confirmed that the Intel 520 is compliant with FIPS-197.
SSDs with PERHAPS USABLE built-in encryption
In these cases there are indications that the mentioned drives are encrypting the encryption keys with the ATA user password, but I have not been able to find more conclusive confirmation. If you find anything, please let me know it the comments, because eventually I’d like to move them out to the list of USABLE or NON-USABLE encryption.
Plextor M5 Pro
On the product page the graphic shows quite clearly that ata passwords are related to encryption keys, but it does not specify in which way these are linked. A reasonable approach would of course be that the key is encrypted with the ATA password, but until that’s confirmed, this drive remains on the “perhaps”-list.
Samsung 840 Pro
Again it’s far too hard to find conclusive information on the encryption implementation. On this product page, we find the following text:
Keep your data safe with Self-Encrypting Drive (SED) Technology Simply enable an HDD password via your computer’s BIOS, and Samsung’s SSD 840 applies data encryption automatically.
This is not as conclusive as I’d like, but there is an implication that there’s a link between the HDD password and the encryption on the Samsung.
This drive is not to be confused with the consumer-oriented Samsung 830. The PM830 is a special professional OEM version, found for example in Dell Latitude laptops. There are indications, such as this great 2012 overview paper, titled Hardware-based Full Disk Encryption (In)Security Survey, by Tilo Muller, Tobias Latzo, and Felix C. Freiling (accompanying website with demonstration videos), which mention the PM830 as an example of hardware-based full disk encryption. I’m still searching for the cited spec document that might confirm whether the PM830 encrypts its AES-256 keys with the ATA password, and also the possible password-length limitations.
SSDs with NON-USABLE built-in encryption
OCZ Agility / Vertex 2 / 3 / 4
In this posting on the OCZ Technology Forum, we see that in at least some of the OCZ SSDs, “The encryption key is not directly linked to the ATA Security password (or the BIOS password).” I have not been able to find more specific information about other OCZ offerings. However, my expectations are not very high based on this previous work by OCZ.
Manufacturers of SSDs with built-in encryption are doing an absolutely TERRIBLE job of informing their customers of their specific encryption implementations. For something as critical as full disk encryption, I would expect full disclosure. If the encryption approach is good, disclosing its details won’t affect its security.
The only SSDs that I’d recommend in terms of usable built-in disk encryption are the Intel 320 and 520 drives. It would be great if this list could be expanded. If you have a direct connection to the relevant persons at the various manufacturers, please make use of this and let me know of the results so I can update this blog post.
Your BIOS has to support the full 32 character ATA password specification. The Samsung laptop I’m typing this on only supports 8 character ATA passwords, so I’d think carefully about installing a hardware-based encrypted SSD in here. My desktop with the Intel 520 SSD has the ATASX bios extension and supports up to the full 32 characters. When you buy a new laptop or motherboard, make sure it has a good ATA security extensions implementation, supporting the full 32 characters.
Although ideally the built-in hardware encryption would be usable and secure, the disappointing state of affairs leads me to the conclusion that a good option at this point is still to select an SSD that is impacted as little as possible by the software encryption (avoid the Sandforce controllers, or any other controllers that make use of hardware compression), and then use a solution such as TrueCrypt or luks/dm-crypt (even for a non-Sandforce controller such as on the OCZ Vertex 4, the negative impact is significant, unfortunately). For my next SSD purchase, I will again compare the super-fast hardware encryption of the Intel 520 vs. SSDs that are able to cope to some extent with software encryption, although I am currently leaning towards the Intel 520.
I’ve written another post documenting my successful experience with r0m30’s open source TCG Opal configuration utility and PBA image.
Vincent Tenniglo sent in this article by AnandTech where Anand himself experiments with the TCP Opal 2.0 compliant Crucial M500 and the Windows 8 eDrive support. In theory, with eDrive-compatible drives (meaning Opal 2.0), Windows BitLocker makes use of the drive’s hardware encryption. Ed: Because this is Windows closed-source, we are unfortunately even less sure of what’s happening behind the scenes. It’s an interesting development nonetheless.
I’ve just purchased an Intel 520 SSD drive, which does hardware-based AES encryption of the whole disk, and is clever enough to encrypt the AES passphrase with the ATA / HDD password. This encryption implementation was my primary reason for getting this specific SSD. Many modern SSDs also employ hardware-based AES encryption for randomisation and for fast secure erase (they just reset the AES key!), but do NOT use the ATA password to encrypt the keys, so the encryption is far less effective at protecting your precious data. As far as my current information goes, the Intel 320, 520 and 710 drives do it correctly, as does the Samsung SSD 840 Pro and the Kingston SSDNow 200V+.
However, the AMI-BIOS in the Asus P5KC motherboard in my workstation does not support the ATA Security Mode Feature Set, and hence does not allow me to set the ATA password, or to enter the set ATA password at bootup so that the SSD can be unlocked. Enter the ATA Security eXtension BIOS, or ATASX, a piece of ROM BIOS code that you can add to your system or network ROM in various ways, that then gives you the required ATA Security Mode Feature Set components.
This post documents the exact steps I took to patch the AMI-BIOS of my Asus P5KC motherboard. If you follow these instructions, you do so entirely at your own risk.
I made use of method 2 for the AMI-BIOS, that is to integrate the ATASX as a PCI extension ROM, targeted at the boot room on the built-in network card, into a BIOS ROM image, which I could then flash on the motherboard using the built-in EZ-Flash tool.
The ATASX.ROM needs to be configured with the network and vendor id of your network card. Under Linux, I used “lspci -nn”, which returned “02:00.0 Ethernet controller : Atheros Communications Inc. Attansic L1 Gigabit Ethernet [1969:1048] (rev b0)” for the ethernet card. At the very end, you can see that the vendor id is 1969 and the device id is 1048.
Using bromcfg.exe (part of the ATASX download) in a dosbox (it’s a dos utility, and I only have Windows 7 64bit on my laptop, which can’t run dos EXEs) I loaded ATASX.ROM and entered the correct vendor and device IDs. I left the default passwords blank, and the default Ctrl-S delay at 1 second.
Downloaded the latest Asus P5KC .ROM file from the Asus support site.
Downloaded mmtool.exe, loaded the Asus P5KC.ROM file, selected the PCI Option ROM with the vendor and device ID extracted in step 1 in the RunLoc column, and then used the replace tab to replace it with the BROMCFG configured ATASX.ROM, see below for screenshot. Saved the new .ROM file.
Burn the mmtool-saved ROM with ASUS EZ Flash (Alt-F2 at boot). It should look like this:
After rebooting, make sure you have Enabled the “LAN Option ROM” in the BIOS, under Advanced | Onboard Devices Configuration, else ATASX.ROM will never get a chance to start!
At your next boot, you should see the ATASX CTRL+S message:
If you press Control-S on time, you should be greeted with the ATASX drive selection screen (the Intel 520 SSD is not installed yet, you’re seeing my Barracuda only):
From which you can select a drive and then configure various ATA Security related variables, such as the master and user HDD passwords, which is exactly what we were after:
Update on 2012-12-23
I’ve discovered one more caveat: ATASX unfortunately does not support drives in AHCI mode. AHCI mode can be faster than IDE mode, especially for multi-threaded disk access.
Update on 2012-12-01
I now have this working with an Intel 520 SSD. There is one caveat though: If your machine suspends to RAM (S3), the drive goes into its locked state. At resume, there is no secure way to supply the drive password, and so it remains locked. In many cases this means that S3 suspend-to-ram is not usable for password protected drives. This seems to be a common problem with desktops and also some laptops, as can be seen here on askubuntu, here on the intel communities, here on the ATASX forums, and here in the German C’T magazine.
An important warning: During installation, do NOT activate home folder encryption. Due to bugs 957843 and 509180, you will most probably suffer data loss, and you won’t even know about it until it’s too late. This happened on two of my laptops during normal use, both of which I have since completely reinstalled with LUKS whole disk encryption. It’s a shame that this bug has been known for years, but that Ubuntu still ships with this as its default home folder encryption configuration.
With the release of Ubuntu 12.04 Precise Pangolin on April 26, 2012, I decided that it was finally time to test this on my almost-a-year-old Samsung NP300V3A laptop. I had been procrastinating up to now, due to all the horror stories about the lack of Linux support for the NVIDIA Optimus graphics, a hardware-software combination that auto-switches in this case between the discrete NVIDIA GeForce GT520m and the CPU-integrated Intel HD3000.
I was quite pleasantly surprised. Read on if you’re curious as to why.
With the Linux Startup Disk Utility (actually called the usb-creator-gtk) on my Ubuntu desktop I installed the 12.04 x86_64 image on an old 1GB USB flash drive. A point of criticism is that the final “installing bootloader” part takes some minutes, without much feedback other than a progress bar bouncing horizontally. Booting the live disk went perfectly, and I could test basic functionality. Joining my TP-LINK TL-WR1043ND access point went without a hitch. Even suspend and resume worked out of the box. Resuming is fast, almost MacBook speed! During the installation, I used the partition tool to resize an existing NTFS partition to create space for the Linux installation. It still amazes me how smooth this process has become. From start to final boot, the whole installation took 18 minutes.
NVIDIA Optimus Support
After bootup, the first two issues I ran into were the miserable (estimated) battery life, and the fact that Super-W did not activate Window-Scale, as I was used to on other Ubuntu installations. A “ps uaxw | grep -i unity” revealed that I was running unity-2d, and sniffing through /var/log/Xorg.0.log yielded the tell-tale “(EE) Failed to initialize GLX extension (Compatible NVIDIA X driver not found)” (also that X was getting confused with the seeming presence of both Intel and NVIDIA graphics). It was clear that Ubuntu 12.04 doesn’t support Optimus out of the box.
After this log out and log back in, and you’re in Optimus heaven! My battery estimate was soon 3.5h+ on 80% charge (it was just under 2h at 80% before installing bumblebee), unity 3D was running, and I could start applications, using the optirun prefix, running on the NVIDIA graphics. With glxspheres, I get 1.9 frames/sec and 1.9 Mpixels/sec without and 115 frames/sec and 113 Mpixels/sec with NVIDIA graphics. Importantly, bumblebee automatically switches off the NVIDIA graphics when nothing is using it, resulting in the much longer battery life. All hail the four main developers of Bumblebee: Thulinma, Lekensteyn, Samsagax and ArchangeGabriel.
Unity, Ubuntu’s unique GUI, has improved muchly since 11.10. I gave Unity on 11.04 a serious go, and also on 11.10, but I gave up in each instance after a week or two due to glaring bugs. The 12.04 Unity has made great progress in fixing a number of small but irritating bugs, I think it might be a keeper. The heads-up display (HUD) is indeed awesome: Press “alt” (the default keybinding) and then type away to search through the menus of the currently foreground application. I’ve come to appreciate the screen space savings due to the global menubar, although it doesn’t work for all apps yet, vim-gnome being an example of note. At this moment, my only wish would be to have a window-overview like you get in the gnome3-shell when you press the super key.
There has been much bitching and moaning about the direction Ubuntu has taken with Unity, some of it valid arguments. Especially the fact that much effort is being diverted from the gnome-shell is concerning. However, although I’ve dirtied many a word using previous versions of Unity, I think it’s good that it’s exploring directions that create a new UI experience that represents a counter-pole to the Windows and OS-X approaches.
Fixing Chrome icon grouping in Unity Launcher
At the time of this update (2012-05-04) I did run into one old annoyance again. If you start up Chrome (or Chromium) and then one of its application shortcuts, for example GMail, it groups both under the same icon on the Unity Launcher:
If you start up the application shortcut first, for example GMail, subsequent Chrome windows will be grouped under the GMail icon. Durn.
Fortunately, the devs have been working on this bug, and the fix should soon appear as a stable release update (SRU). Until that time, you can download and install the bamfdaemon, libbamf and libbamf3-0 deb packages from here. Anything with version 0.2.116 and newer has the fix. Note that this only fixes it for the case where you’ve started up Chrome first (scenario 1 above), and not an application shortcut. See my comment on the bug report.
I had low(ish) expectations when I connected my 40″ Sony Bravia TV to the HDMI port of the laptop, so I was more or less speechless for a while when, without me having to touch any part of the interface, Ubuntu simply extended its desktop onto the TV panel. BOOM. Just like that.
What I also like very much, is that Ubuntu by default puts the Launcher and its main menu bar on both displays (this is configurable though) and, even more gratifying, that the Dash appears automatically on the display currently containing the mouse cursor when I press the Super key. In the photo below, you can see the laptop below, on battery, outputting to the Sony TV via HDMI, and glxspheres humming along at just over 90 FPS using the discrete NVIDIA graphics. What you don’t see is me, smiling maniacally behind the camera phone.
The Displays configuration window seems to think the 40″ panel is 72″, but the resolution has been correctly deduced.
Miscellaneous hardware support
Power saving looks pretty good. With the brightness set to 40% (brightness setting is not persisent unfortunately), my power usage at idle is just under 9W:
Actually with normal browsing over wlan, I was not able to push it that far over 10W. This is after having toggled 10 or so powertop tunables from “bad” to “good”. After having installed laptop-mode-tools, the tunables are all automatically and persistently “good”, except for a VM timeout. However, this seems to be a misunderstanding between laptop-mode-tools and powertop, and it is in fact quite OK.
The hardware config panel key (Fn-F1) does nothing, the touchpad disable key (Fn-F5) just works, the volume keys (Fn-F6 to Fn-F8) just work, but the hardware fan (Fn-F11) and wireless (Fn-F12) keys do nothing.
Initially the brightness keys (Fn-F2 and Fn-F3) didn’t really work, only allowing me to switch between two brightness levels (100% and 90%). Adding “acpi_osi=Linux acpi_backlight=vendor” to GRUB_CMDLINE_LINUX_DEFAULT in /etc/default/grub, running sudo update-grub and then rebooting gives you 100% working hardware brightness control. Based on the information on this page, this configures brightness setting to happen through vendor-specific driver modules instead of through the ACPI default driver. Also see my askubuntu answer regarding this issue. Things have unfortunately changed to and fro with subsequent Ubuntu kernel releases, this page is up to date with linux kernel 3.2.0-31.
In the working cases, you get the gorgeous notifier display (and in the case of volume even a mac-like audio feedback as you change levels):
As mentioned before, suspend to and resume from RAM works like a charm, out of the box, and the resume is really fast. Hibernate does NOT work. I tested this with “sudo pm-hibernate”, but when I switched the laptop back on, it acted like it was being cold-started.
I tested the webcam and sound setup (speakers and built-in microphone) with the gmail talk plugin and with the cheese application. These both work fine. However, with Skype 188.8.131.52 for Linux, you get the dreaded too-dark webcam image. The often-posted solution of using luvcview to adjust brightness does NOT work. Here’s a better solution: Install v4l2ucp, the video4linux2 universal control panel. Keep this running when you start Skype. If the video is dark, switch the “Exposure, Auto Priority” off and then back on again. This solves the problem on my setup (built-in WebCam SCB-1100N). Whenever you startup Skype’s video capturing again, it manages to screw up the setting, so you have to retoggle it with v4l2ucp unfortunately.
The touchpad can be easily configured for two-finger scrolling, but not for three-finger gestures like it can be on Windows.
USB tethering with my Android-powered (CyanogenMod 7.1) HTC Desire Z works like a charm. I connect the USB cable, activate USB tethering on the telephone, and my laptop is online. This definitely qualifies as a Just Works(tm), and it seems to connect a whole lot faster than Windows 7 does.
When I bought this laptop, I had resigned myself to not being able to use it for Linux, for the largest part due to NVIDIA Optimus. However, due to the efforts of the Bumblebee people, and also due Ubuntu 12.04 as a whole with the multi-monitor support being a highlight, my verdict is that this laptop is a great buy also when you’re planning to go exclusively Linux.
My gnome-terminal uses the Solarized colour scheme from here, and my vim (both console and gnome) are using the setup from the main Solarized repository.
August 27, 2012: Updated fix for brightness controls.
June 14, 2012: Added warning about the default home encryption being completely broken.
May 6, 2012: Added USB tethering.
May 4, 2012:Added the Unity Launcher icon grouping bug fix.
May 3, 2012: Added the multi-monitor section after testing with my HDMI Sony TV. Added solution for dark webcam capture in Skype. Also, thanks to Ladislav Bodnar, host of DistroWatch.com, this review is now linked from the Ubuntu page.
We’ve all been there: You’re used to the terminal on Linux or OSX, and then for some or other reason you need to work on Windows and you’re confronted with the half-baked monstrosity that is cmd.exe:
To summarise: You can only resize the window vertically (so you’re always restricted to 80 characters width which is just idiotic on modern widescreen displays), copy and paste is so painful that you’ll wish that they’d rather just not bothered with it in the first place and the cmd.exe interpreter itself is primitive when compared with any modern unix shell.
Enter the two-pronged solution of Console2 and Git bash! Console2 is a console that solves the UI problems (resizing! copy and paste! terminal transparency! tabs!) and you can use it together with any combination of command line interpreters, such as for example the existing cmd.exe, bash or anything else.
Here’s my setup, configured with Git bash (you get this for free with the Windows git installer, for this purpose it’s better than Cygwin as it’s a touch closer to Windows) as well as plain old cmd.exe. To configure a Git bash tab, set Shell to “C:\Windows\SysWOW64\cmd.exe /c “”C:\Program Files (x86)\Git\bin\sh.exe” –login -i” (including all quotes) and Startup dir to %HOMEDRIVE%%HOMEPATH%. I’ve also configured Ctrl-Alt-T to invoke Console2. With shift-mouse-drag I can select text (nice editor select, not cmd.exe block select, ptooey!), and I’ve set Ctrl-Shift-C and Ctrl-Shift-V to copy and paste so it’s like the Gnome terminal on Linux. Behold:
My Windows experience is a lot more bearable now, perhaps even slightly pleasant! Did I just say that?!
PowerShell replaces cmd.exe, but by default still runs inside the Windows console. Still much suckage in other words, plus that I don’t feel compelled to learn PS yes.
Cygwin mintty is also often cited as a console replacement, but seems to cause problems (for example with git) as it’s not a full Windows console.
Cygwin itself is really fantastic, but due to that POSIX compatibility layer which is otherwise a useful thing, differs too much from the native Windows goodies so that sometimes native Windows behaviour is interfered with.