Linux, politics, and other interesting things
Jetstar has announced some new changes to the way they manage their IT infrastructure . Some parts of it are obvious things that people have been doing (or wanting to do) for a long time – such as using thin clients with no moving parts (not even cooling fans).
But the really interesting part is their plan for managing laptops. They are using a virtual machine image on a flash storage device that can run on any system. So deploying a new system will only require installing the virtual machine software and inserting a storage device. Moving a user’s environment to a different system (EG due to hardware failure) will merely require inserting the storage device in a new system.
That raises the issue of ownership of the device. It seems that Jetstar are considering using systems that are owned by employees, Stephen Tame said “In two years’ time a laptop should be a condition of employment, and this includes bringing your own laptop“. When introducing that I expect there would be some resistance by employees who don’t want to spend the money. However
I have previously estimated the costs of running a car  which works out to more than $1,650 per year for insurance, registration, basic maintenance, and the interest that would have been received if the car had not been purchased and the money had been invested. Laptops can be purchased for significantly less than $1000 (currently the EeePC 701 is on sale for $219) and can be expected to last for three years or more if you are careful to avoid damage and don’t run demanding software. So a job that demands ownership of a laptop is asking for a much smaller financial investment than one which demands ownership of a car. But I expect that many employees won’t see it that way.
The up-side for employees to bring their own laptops is that they can choose a model that suits their preference. Everyone has preferences regarding the size of keys on a keyboard, the distance that they travel and the pressure required to register a key-press. For desktop machines it’s easy to swap keyboards but for laptops there is no such option. Then there’s the issue of the trade-off between physical size and weight vs display resolution, personal preferences in this regard will depend to some extent on the body mass and strength of the employee.
Now there are a number of security issues related to personal laptop use. Obviously if the laptop has a Trojan-horse program installed then it could sniff any data that goes past on the network. The most trivial case of this could be addressed by running VPN software inside the emulated environment. This would force a Trojan to compromise the virtual environment (EG by modifying the address space) or to compromise the files on disk (insert a Trojan inside the filesystem for the virtual environment). The former would be tricky to get right while the latter would be trivial. Both attack methods have been used in the past and proven to work. This is why many companies prohibit their employees from connecting their own systems to the corporate network.
One example of a system that is based around running virtual machines for all desktop operations is the NSA NetTop project . NetTop involves a SE Linux system that runs multiple instances of VMWare for different desktop environments. Each VMWare instance runs at a particular sensitivity level and uses a VPN connection to a back-end network running at the same level. The aim of NetTop is to prevent applications in the different VMWare instances from communicating with each other. The significant difference between a typical NetTop installation and what JetStar might be doing is that NetTop runs on a secure base – it’s hardware that has been purchased and installed by a military organisation and is run in a secure facility. While personal laptops that are owned by employees can be expected to be infected with viruses and Trojan-horse programs.
In the past I have suggested that an employment package for any skilled employee should include some budget for buying things that facilitate the work . It seems to me that a company like JetStar could best achieve their goals by assigning a budget to each new employee to buy a machine for their use. The employee then gets to choose a machine up to that budget – which would only be for work purposes. Then when the employee leaves or the machine becomes due for replacement it could be sold at auction. When considering all the costs involved in hiring a new person, spending something less than $1,000 to buy a laptop is nothing.
Finally if buying machines for work purposes, you really don’t want employees using them for surfing porn. Porn sites tend to be particularly bad for malware distribution. To reduce the incidence of such problems I think that work machines should have their sound hardware disabled and laptops should not be purchased with overly large displays. There is no need to make work machines totally unsuitable for porn surfing (which would also make them less effective for work), but making them less suitable than a $500 budget PC should dramatically reduce the scope of the problem.