Sunday, February 08, 2004

Linux, Firewalls & System Mechanic

I want to start his column by taking a minute to thank the members of the Linux community who sent me detailed, thoughtful, useful ideas on how to resolve my firewall issue (see my Silicon tears column). While I specified a non-Linux solution, enough of you wrote and suggested that I try a particular, easy-to-implement Linux firewall. Based on the most kind suggestions, I’m going to give it a try. I have an old Gateway box with a 350MHz Pentium II processor that I am willing to sacrifice to the cause.

My plan is to download the software, burn an ISO CD and see how successful I am in getting it to install on the Gateway box. If it is as easy and straightforward as some of the readers have suggested, this might mean a giant step in getting me to reconsider my long-hold position that Linux is not suitable for the non-technical user. I’m not anti-Linux as some people choose to believe, I just think of it as a niche operating system, like Solaris or OS/2 (Gee, will there every be an OS/3?). I also appreciate the kind invitation to attend the Portland Linux Users Group Saturday Clinic that was held on February 21. Geography prohibited my attendance, but I appreciate the gracious invitation.

I also want to thank the handful of Linux users who felt obliged to send me e-mails with attachments containing viruses -- simply because I said unkind things about the operating system they love. As if this were going to change my mind. Incidentally, my virus protection software caught all of them, and I especially enjoyed the childish anti-Windows rants that accompanied some. I’ve been writing for Computerbits long enough to know that I always update my virus protection software before writing about Linux. I’ve always wondered if the OS gets many converts that way. I’m waiting to hear a testimonial along the lines of: “I used to be a happy Windows users until someone in the Linux community sent me a virus. Now I’m a happy Linux users and I don’t correspond with anyone who is not.” What ever happened to live and let live?

-- -- --

While lamenting the demise of my router, I realized that I needed to do something to protect my system against the everyday worries of being a very active web surfer. I had recalled that a press release from iolo Technologies had recently hit my inbox, announcing that they had integrated System Mechanic with Panda Antivirus software. Now this really intrigued me. I’d long loved Norton Antivirus, but last summer I was involved in a bank’s desktop conversion and upgrade process in which we rolled out Panda Antivirus across the enterprise. This was right around the time that all the big viruses and worms were raising havoc, and I was dutifully impressed with how well the Panda software handled the crisis. Besides, how many other software products do you know of that come from Spain?

So I ordered up a review copy. Now you have to give the public relations crew at Iolo Technologies their dues for having lots of guts. After all, who in their right mind, having read a couple of my columns, would want me to review their product? But, they sent me a CD and I’ve been using the product.

So, what exactly is the product? Well, it consists of six modules:

  • System Mechanic 4, which helps find and fix PR problems.
  • Panda Antivirus, which I discussed above.
  • Search and Recover, which lets you find lost or deleted files.
  • System Shield which wipe out personal data on your system.
  • Internet firewall software.
  • Drive scrubber.

I’ve found the System Mechanic toolbox to be very useful. the current box I am running only has 256MB of memory, and I use the memory management software to keep as much memory free as possible. It offers two levels of had drive defragging, with one mode that simply defrags but does not try and repack the hard drive. It runs nicely in the background and you can actually work while defragging. The latter is a very nice touch.

The pop-up stopper was less successful. As part of my volunteer work with the Open Directory Project, I regularly log onto the discussion board at www.resource-zone.com. With the pop-up stopper software enabled, I’d click on the URL and it would crash my browser. I had the same problem with another website that I regularly visit. So I had to disable that part of the package.

The Panda Antivirus has completely won me over. I use a dual monitor setup and fairly high resolution, and some of the message boxes don’t display well, but it is fast, it updates well, and has caught everything that has come my way. The Panda software also provides the firewall services, and while I am heavily biased towards having a hardware firewall, I’m getting more and more comfortable with this implementation. It is nice to know that there are alternatives, especially if my experiments with the Linux firewall don’t pan out.

The Search and Recover software was a nice surprise. It even worked on my USB memory drive. I never really expected that.

Now there is a lot in this package that I simply haven’t tried. I’ve had no need to scrub a drive, or eliminate my personal information (although I’m thinking that I might need to do that soon). The documentation says it can increase my download speeds by up to 300%, but with my cable modem I have a nice fast pipe, so I haven’t tried that yet, either.

For me, the bottom line is that this is a pretty useful product. Not flawless, but a much nicer and tighter integration than I would have imagined.

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