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User security spotlight: Why one company minimizes Windows

4th Wave Imaging is a company of nine geophysicists who study survey data sent in from their oil company customers. 4th Wave uses a process called cross-equalization to find oil that has been bypassed by previous exploration, and the results can potentially eliminate the need for additional exploration. Dave Markus is a geophysicist and the company's IT specialist. He's managing a Windows 2000 Small Business Server with XP Professional desktops and a Linux-based Beowulf cluster, keeping it secure with an open-source firewall, Web server and e-mail server. Markus talked about why he uses an open-source tool to manage both environments.

Your company seems to have a lot of computing resources for just nine employees.
Yes, we do heavy-duty number crunching. All the data files we work with are tens of hundreds of gigabytes. We have a lot of offline tape storage. We use two competing systems. We have Windows, which we use to run the general Office applications like word processing, Excel, e-mail and the Windows 2000 Small Business Server and XP professional. We also develop code on Sun Solaris, and we have Beowulf clusters where we take 100 computers and wire them on their own networks and install a message passing interface. The software lets users share memory and processors amongst themselves so you can have one application running on 100 computers at one time. The Beowulf cluster runs on Linux. What are you doing for security?
We won't let any Windows device be visible to the outside world. We use a Trustix firewall, mail server and Web server. We lost our previous firewall to the Slapper worm. Microsoft Exchange is wonderful, but we won't let it touch the outside world, so we use a Trustix mail server to relay messages back and forth to Exchange. Trustix sits in the DMZ and has an address that's visible to everyone. Only e-mail messages go to Exchange server. If someone uses a message designed to break security, those are filtered out. We use no Windows-based tool for security just because of their track record. Our clients are every oil company on the planet, and they won't do business with us if they thought anyone could reach our data. Where do you think most people make their biggest mistakes when they are setting up system security?
Most people don't have a plan. They think they need security, so they look for some firewall software, but they don't plan how they want their network to interact. Do your homework, because things never work out the way you expect when you start out. We want our Linux side to do this, and we want our Windows side to do that. Now how do I get them to interact, keeping in mind that we have real security concerns? So information is shared across platforms?
All three need to communicate. We used to move stuff back and forth using FTP. Now it's set up to be interoperable, and we can mount Linux and Solaris directories to Windows machines and vice versa. From the Windows environment, you can just drag and drop. If you are working on some code or have e-mail, instead of using a separate program you can just drag it as if it were a Windows desktop. That ability comes from Windows Services for Unix, which is an add-on to XP and Windows 2000 server. Microsoft has been trying to sell products to the scientific community for some time. Just this summer, the company said it would work with others to develop high-performance clustered applications for scientists and academia, as well as for mainstream customers. Can you see your applications running on Windows 2000 Datacenter Server?
I can never see us running on Windows. It's too top-heavy. Those fancy icons use up tons of memory and processing power. It's amazing just to watch the usage just from running the Windows desktop. Our Linux Beowulf cluster has a minimal operating system. It talks to every node. You have 99.9% of the processing power working on the application.


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Article: Open-source versus commercial tools Did it take a long time to set up the open-source tools?
No. I'm not full-time IT, so I want to make sure I have minimal IT time. They have a good GUI that helps manage the stuff if you don't know a lot about Linux.

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