Coding Horror

programming and human factors

To ECC or Not To ECC

On one of my visits to the Computer History Museum – and by the way this is an absolute must-visit place if you are ever in the San Francisco bay area – I saw an early Google server rack circa 1999 in the exhibits.

Not too fancy, right? Maybe even … a little janky? This is building a computer the Google way:

Instead of buying whatever pre-built rack-mount servers Dell, Compaq, and IBM were selling at the time, Google opted to hand-build their server infrastructure themselves. The sagging motherboards and hard drives are literally propped in place on handmade plywood platforms. The power switches are crudely mounted in front, the network cables draped along each side. The poorly routed power connectors snake their way back to generic PC power supplies in the rear.

Some people might look at these early Google servers and see an amateurish fire hazard. Not me. I see a prescient understanding of how inexpensive commodity hardware would shape today's internet. I felt right at home when I saw this server; it's exactly what I would have done in the same circumstances. This rack is a perfect example of the commodity x86 market D.I.Y. ethic at work: if you want it done right, and done inexpensively, you build it yourself.

This rack is now immortalized in the National Museum of American History. Urs Hölzle posted lots more juicy behind the scenes details, including the exact specifications:

  • Supermicro P6SMB motherboard
  • 256MB PC100 memory
  • Pentium II 400 CPU
  • IBM Deskstar 22GB hard drives (×2)
  • Intel 10/100 network card

When I left Stack Exchange (sorry, Stack Overflow) one of the things that excited me most was embarking on a new project using 100% open source tools. That project is, of course, Discourse.

Inspired by Google and their use of cheap, commodity x86 hardware to scale on top of the open source Linux OS, I also built our own servers. When I get stressed out, when I feel the world weighing heavy on my shoulders and I don't know where to turn … I build servers. It's therapeutic.

Don't judge me, man.

But more seriously, with the release of Intel's latest Skylake architecture, it's finally time to upgrade our 2013 era Discourse servers to the latest and greatest, something reflective of 2016 – which means building even more servers.

Discourse runs on a Ruby stack and one thing we learned early on is that Ruby demands exceptional single threaded performance, aka, a CPU running as fast as possible. Throwing umptazillion CPU cores at Ruby doesn't buy you a whole lot other than being able to handle more requests at the same time. Which is nice, but doesn't get you speed per se. Someone made a helpful technical video to illustrate exactly how this all works:

This is by no means exclusive to Ruby; other languages like JavaScript and Python also share this trait. And Discourse itself is a JavaScript application delivered through the browser, which exercises the mobile / laptop / desktop client CPU. Mobile devices reaching near-parity with desktop performance in single threaded performance is something we're betting on in a big way with Discourse.

So, good news! Although PC performance has been incremental at best in the last 5 years, between Haswell and Skylake, Intel managed to deliver a respectable per-thread performance bump. Since we are upgrading our servers from Ivy Bridge (very similar to the i7-3770k), the generation before Haswell, I'd expect a solid 33% performance improvement at minimum.

Even worse, the more cores they pack on a single chip, the slower they all go. From Intel's current Xeon E5 lineup:

  • E5-1680 → 8 cores, 3.2 Ghz
  • E5-1650 → 6 cores, 3.5 Ghz
  • E5-1630 → 4 cores, 3.7 Ghz

Sad, isn't it? Which brings me to the following build for our core web tiers, which optimizes for "lots of inexpensive, fast boxes"

2013 2016
Xeon E3-1280 V2 Ivy Bridge 3.6 Ghz / 4.0 Ghz quad-core ($640)
SuperMicro X9SCM-F-O mobo ($190)
32 GB DDR3-1600 ECC ($292)
SC111LT-330CB 1U chassis ($200)
Samsung 830 512GB SSD ×2 ($1080)
1U Heatsink ($25)
i7-6700k Skylake 4.0 Ghz / 4.2 Ghz quad-core ($370)
SuperMicro X11SSZ-QF-O mobo ($230)
64 GB DDR4-2133 ($520)
CSE-111LT-330CB 1U chassis ($215)
Samsung 850 Pro 1TB SSD ×2 ($886)
1U Heatsink ($20)
$2,427 $2,241
31w idle, 87w BurnP6 load 14w idle, 81w BurnP6 load

So, about 10% cheaper than what we spent in 2013, with 2× the memory, 2× the storage (probably 50-100% faster too), and at least ~33% faster CPU. With lower power draw, to boot! Pretty good. Pretty, pretty, pretty, pretty good.

(Note that the memory bump is only possible thanks to Intel finally relaxing their iron fist of maximum allowed RAM at the low end; that's new to the Skylake generation.)

One thing is conspicuously missing in our 2016 build: Xeons, and ECC Ram. In my defense, this isn't intentional – we wanted the fastest per-thread performance and no Intel Xeon, either currently available or announced, goes to 4.0 GHz with Skylake. Paying half the price for a CPU with better per-thread performance than any Xeon, well, I'm not going to kid you, that's kind of a nice perk too.

So what is ECC all about?

Error-correcting code memory (ECC memory) is a type of computer data storage that can detect and correct the most common kinds of internal data corruption. ECC memory is used in most computers where data corruption cannot be tolerated under any circumstances, such as for scientific or financial computing.

Typically, ECC memory maintains a memory system immune to single-bit errors: the data that is read from each word is always the same as the data that had been written to it, even if one or more bits actually stored have been flipped to the wrong state. Most non-ECC memory cannot detect errors although some non-ECC memory with parity support allows detection but not correction.

It's received wisdom in the sysadmin community that you always build servers with ECC RAM because, well, you build servers to be reliable, right? Why would anyone intentionally build a server that isn't reliable? Are you crazy, man? Well, looking at that cobbled together Google 1999 server rack, which also utterly lacked any form of ECC RAM, I'm inclined to think that reliability measured by "lots of redundant boxes" is more worthwhile and easier to achieve than the platonic ideal of making every individual server bulletproof.

Being the type of guy who likes to question stuff… I began to question. Why is it that ECC is so essential anyway? If ECC was so important, so critical to the reliable function of computers, why isn't it built in to every desktop, laptop, and smartphone in the world by now? Why is it optional? This smells awfully… enterprisey to me.

Now, before everyone stops reading and I get permanently branded as "that crazy guy who hates ECC", I think ECC RAM is fine:

  • The cost difference between ECC and not-ECC is minimal these days.
  • The performance difference between ECC and not-ECC is minimal these days.
  • Even if ECC only protects you from rare 1% hardware error cases that you may never hit until you literally build hundreds or thousands of servers, it's cheap insurance.

I am not anti-insurance, nor am I anti-ECC. But I do seriously question whether ECC is as operationally critical as we have been led to believe, and I think the data shows modern, non-ECC RAM is already extremely reliable.

First, let's look at the Puget Systems reliability stats. These guys build lots of commodity x86 gamer PCs, burn them in, and ship them. They helpfully track statistics on how many parts fail either from burn-in or later in customer use. Go ahead and read through the stats.

For the last two years, CPU reliability has dramatically improved. What is interesting is that this lines up with the launch of the Intel Haswell CPUs which was when the CPU voltage regulation was moved from the motherboard to the CPU itself. At the time we theorized that this should raise CPU failure rates (since there are more components on the CPU to break) but the data shows that it has actually increased reliability instead.

Even though DDR4 is very new, reliability so far has been excellent. Where DDR3 desktop RAM had an overall failure rate in 2014 of ~0.6%, DDR4 desktop RAM had absolutely no failures.

SSD reliability has dramatically improved recently. This year Samsung and Intel SSDs only had a 0.2% overall failure rate compared to 0.8% in 2013.

Modern commodity computer parts from reputable vendors are amazingly reliable. And their trends show from 2012 onward essential PC parts have gotten more reliable, not less. (I can also vouch for the improvement in SSD reliability as we have had zero server SSD failures in 3 years across our 12 servers with 24+ drives, whereas in 2011 I was writing about the Hot/Crazy SSD Scale.) And doesn't this make sense from a financial standpoint? How does it benefit you as a company to ship unreliable parts? That's money right out of your pocket and the reseller's pocket, plus time spent dealing with returns.

We had a, uh, "spirited" discussion about this internally on our private Discourse instance.

This is not a new debate by any means, but I was frustrated by the lack of data out there. In particular, I'm really questioning the difference between "soft" and "hard" memory errors:

But what is the nature of those errors? Are they soft errors – as is commonly believed – where a stray Alpha particle flips a bit? Or are they hard errors, where a bit gets stuck?

I absolutely believe that hard errors are reasonably common. RAM DIMMS can have bugs, or the chips on the DIMM can fail, or there's a design flaw in circuitry on the DIMM that only manifests in certain corner cases or under extreme loads. I've seen it plenty. But a soft error where a bit of memory randomly flips?

There are two types of soft errors, chip-level soft error and system-level soft error. Chip-level soft errors occur when the radioactive atoms in the chip's material decay and release alpha particles into the chip. Because an alpha particle contains a positive charge and kinetic energy, the particle can hit a memory cell and cause the cell to change state to a different value. The atomic reaction is so tiny that it does not damage the actual structure of the chip.

Outside of airplanes and spacecraft, I have a difficult time believing that soft errors happen with any frequency, otherwise most of the computing devices on the planet would be crashing left and right. I deeply distrust the anecdotal voodoo behind "but one of your computer's memory bits could flip, you'd never know, and corrupted data would be written!" It'd be one thing if we observed this regularly, but I've been unhealthily obsessed with computers since birth and I have never found random memory corruption to be a real, actual problem on any computers I have either owned or had access to.

But who gives a damn what I think. What does the data say?

A 2007 study found that the observed soft error rate in live servers was two orders of magnitude lower than previously predicted:

Our preliminary result suggests that the memory soft error rate in two real production systems (a rack-mounted server environment and a desktop PC environment) is much lower than what the previous studies concluded. Particularly in the server environment, with high probability, the soft error rate is at least two orders of magnitude lower than those reported previously. We discuss several potential causes for this result.

A 2009 study on Google's server farm notes that soft errors were difficult to find:

We provide strong evidence that memory errors are dominated by hard errors, rather than soft errors, which previous work suspects to be the dominant error mode.

Yet another large scale study from 2012 discovered that RAM errors were dominated by permanent failure modes typical of hard errors:

Our study has several main findings. First, we find that approximately 70% of DRAM faults are recurring (e.g., permanent) faults, while only 30% are transient faults. Second, we find that large multi-bit faults, such as faults that affects an entire row, column, or bank, constitute over 40% of all DRAM faults. Third, we find that almost 5% of DRAM failures affect board-level circuitry such as data (DQ) or strobe (DQS) wires. Finally, we find that chipkill functionality reduced the system failure rate from DRAM faults by 36x.

In the end, we decided the non-ECC RAM risk was acceptable for every tier of service except our databases. Which is kind of a bummer since higher end Skylake Xeons got pushed back to the big Purley platform upgrade in 2017. Regardless, we burn in every server we build with a complete run of memtestx86 and overnight prime95/mprime, and you should too. There's one whirring away through endless memory tests right behind me as I write this.

I find it very, very suspicious that ECC – if it is so critical to preventing these random, memory corrupting bit flips – has not already been built into every type of RAM that we ship in the ubiquitous computing devices all around the world as a cost of doing business. But I am by no means opposed to paying a small insurance premium for server farms, either. You'll have to look at the data and decide for yourself. Mostly I wanted to collect all this information in one place so people who are also evaluating the cost/benefit of ECC RAM for themselves can read the studies and decide what they want to do.

Please feel free to leave comments if you have other studies to cite, or significant measured data to share.

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Building a PC, Part VIII: Iterating

The last time I seriously upgraded my PC was in 2011, because the PC is over. And in some ways, it truly is – they can slap a ton more CPU cores on a die, for sure, but the overall single core performance increase from a 2011 high end Intel CPU to today's high end Intel CPU is … really quite modest, on the order of maybe 30% to 40%.

In that same timespan, mobile and tablet CPU performance has continued to just about double every year. Which means the forthcoming iPhone 6s will be almost 10 times faster than the iPhone 4 was.

iPhone single core geekbench results

Remember, that's only single core CPU performance – I'm not even factoring in the move from single, to dual, to triple core as well as generally faster memory and storage. This stuff is old hat on desktop, where we've had mainstream dual cores for a decade now, but they are huge improvements for mobile.

When your mobile devices get 10 times faster in the span of four years, it's hard to muster much enthusiasm for a modest 1.3 × or 1.4 × iterative improvement in your PC's performance over the same time.

I've been slogging away at this for a while; my current PC build series spans 7 years:

The fun part of building a PC is that it's relatively easy to swap out the guts when something compelling comes along. CPU performance improvements may be modest these days, but there are still bright spots where performance is increasing more dramatically. Mainly in graphics hardware and, in this case, storage.

The current latest-and-greatest Intel CPU is Skylake. Like Sandy Bridge in 2011, which brought us much faster 6 Gbps SSD-friendly drive connectors (although only two of them), the Skylake platform brings us another key storage improvement – the ability to connect hard drives directly to the PCI Express lanes. Which looks like this:

… and performs like this:

Now there's the 3× performance increase we've been itching for! To be fair, a raw increase of 3× in drive performance doesn't necessarily equate to a computer that boots in one third the time. But here's why disk speed matters:

If the CPU registers are how long it takes you to fetch data from your brain, then going to disk is the equivalent of fetching data from Pluto.

What I've always loved about SSDs is that they attack the PC's worst-case performance scenario, when information has to come off the slowest device inside your computer – the hard drive. SSDs massively reduced the variability of requests for data. Let's compare L1 cache access time to minimum disk access time:

Traditional hard drive
0.9 ns → 10 ms (variability of 11,111,111× )

0.9 ns → 150 µs (variability of 166,667× )

SSDs provide a reduction in overall performance variability of 66×! And when comparing latency:

7200rpm HDD — 1800ms
SATA SSD — 4ms
PCIe SSD — 0.34ms

Even going from a fast SATA SSD to a PCI Express SSD, you're looking at a 10x reduction in drive latency.

Here's what you need:

These are the basics. It's best to use the M.2 connection as a fast boot / system drive, so I scaled it back to the smaller 256 GB version. I also had a lot of trouble getting my hands on the faster i7-6700k CPU, which appears supply constrained and is currently overpriced as a result.

(Also, be careful, as some older M.2 drives can use the older ACPI connection type. Make sure yours is NVMe.)

Even though the days of doubling (or even 1.5×-ing) CPU performance are long gone for PCs, there are still some key iterative performance milestones to hit. Like mainstream 4k displays, I believe mainstream PCI express SSDs are another important step in the overall evolution of desktop computing. Or its corpse, anyway.

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Our Brave New World of 4K Displays

It's been three years since I last upgraded monitors. Those inexpensive Korean 27" IPS panels, with a resolution of 2560×1440 – also known as 1440p – have served me well. You have no idea how many people I've witnessed being Wrong On The Internet on these babies.

I recently got the upgrade itch real bad:

  • 4K monitors have stabilized as a category, from super bleeding edge "I'm probably going to regret buying this" early adopter stuff, and beginning to approach mainstream maturity.

  • Windows 10, with its promise of better high DPI handling, was released. I know, I know, we've been promised reasonable DPI handling in Windows for the last five years, but hope springs eternal. This time will be different!™

  • I needed a reason to buy a new high end video card, which I was also itching to upgrade, and simplify from a dual card config back to a (very powerful) single card config.

  • I wanted to rid myself of the monitor power bricks and USB powered DVI to DisplayPort converters that those Korean monitors required. I covet simple, modern DisplayPort connectors. I was beginning to feel like a bad person because I had never even owned a display that had a DisplayPort connector. First world problems, man.

  • 1440p at 27" is decent, but it's also … sort of an awkward no-man's land. Nowhere near high enough resolution to be retina, but it is high enough that you probably want to scale things a bit. After living with this for a few years, I think it's better to just suck it up and deal with giant pixels (34" at 1440p, say), or go with something much more high resolution and trust that everyone is getting their collective act together by now on software support for high DPI.

Given my great experiences with modern high DPI smartphone and tablet displays (are there any other kind these days?), I want those same beautiful high resolution displays on my desktop, too. I'm good enough, I'm smart enough, and doggone it, people like me.

I was excited, then, to discover some strong recommendations for the Asus PB279Q.

The Asus PB279Q is a 27" panel, same size as my previous cheap Korean IPS monitors, but it is more premium in every regard:

  • 3840×2160
  • "professional grade" color reproduction
  • thinner bezel
  • lighter weight
  • semi-matte (not super glossy)
  • integrated power (no external power brick)
  • DisplayPort 1.2 and HDMI 1.4 support built in

It is also a more premium monitor in price, at around $700, whereas I got my super-cheap no-frills Korean IPS 1440p monitors for roughly half that price. But when I say no-frills, I mean it – these Korean monitors didn't even have on-screen controls!

4K is a surprisingly big bump in resolution over 1440p — we go from 3.7 to 8.3 megapixels.

But, is it … retina?

It depends how you define that term, and from what distance you're viewing the screen. Per Is This Retina:

27" 3840×2160 'retina' at a viewing distance of 21"
27" 2560×1440 'retina' at a viewing distance of 32"

With proper computer desk ergonomics you should be sitting with the top of your monitor at eye level, at about an arm's length in front of you. I just measured my arm and, fully extended, it's about 26". Sitting at my desk, I'm probably about that distance from my monitor or a bit closer, but certainly beyond the 21" necessary to call this monitor 'retina' despite being 163 PPI. It definitely looks that way to my eye.

I have more words to write here, but let's cut to the chase for the impatient and the TL;DR crowd. This 4K monitor is totally amazing and you should buy one. It feels exactly like going from the non-retina iPad 2 to the retina iPad 3 did, except on the desktop. It makes all the text on your screen look beautiful. There is almost no downside.

There are a few caveats, though:

  • You will need a beefy video card to drive a 4K monitor. I personally went all out for the GeForce 980 Ti, because I might want to actually game at this native resolution, and the 980 Ti is the undisputed fastest single video card in the world at the moment. If you're not a gamer, any midrange video card should do fine.

  • Display scaling is definitely still a problem at times with a 4K monitor. You will run into apps that don't respect DPI settings and end up magnifying-glass tiny. Scott Hanselman provided many examples in January 2014, and although stuff has improved since then with Windows 10, it's far from perfect.

    Browsers scale great, and the OS does too, but if you use any desktop apps built by careless developers, you'll run into this. The only good long term solution is to spread the gospel of 4K and shame them into submission with me. Preach it, brothers and sisters!

  • Enable DisplayPort 1.2 in the monitor settings so you can turn on 60Hz. Trust me, you do not want to experience a 30Hz LCD display. It is unspeakably bad, enough to put one off computer screens forever. For people who tell you they can't see the difference between 30fps and 60fps, just switch their monitors to 30hz and watch them squirm in pain.

    Viewing those comparison videos, I begin to understand why gamers want 90Hz, 120Hz or even 144Hz monitors. 60fps / 60 Hz should be the absolute minimum, no matter what resolution you're running. Luckily DisplayPort 1.2 enables 60 Hz at 4K, but only just. You'll need DisplayPort 1.3+ to do better than that.

  • Disable the crappy built in monitor speakers. Headphones or bust, baby!

  • Turn down the brightness from the standard factory default of retina scorching 100% to something saner like 50%. Why do manufacturers do this? Is it because they hate eyeballs? While you're there, you might mess around with some basic display calibration, too.

This Asus PB279Q 4K monitor is the best thing I've upgraded on my computer in years. Well, actually, thing(s) I've upgraded, because I am not f**ing around over here.

Flo monitor arms, front view, triple monitors

I'm a long time proponent of the triple monitor lifestyle, and the only thing better than a 4K display is three 4K displays! That's 11,520×2,160 pixels to you, or 6,480×3,840 if rotated.

(Good luck attempting to game on this configuration with all three monitors active, though. You're gonna need it. Some newer games are too demanding to run on "High" settings on a single 4K monitor, even with the mighty Nvidia 980 Ti.)

I've also been experimenting with better LCD monitor arms that properly support my preferred triple monitor configurations. Here's a picture from the back, where all the action is:

Flo monitor arms, triple monitors, rear view

These are the Flo Monitor Supports, and they free up a ton of desk space in a triple monitor configuration while also looking quite snazzy. I'm fond of putting my keyboard just under the center monitor, which isn't possible with any monitor stand.

Flo monitor arm suggested multi-monitor setups

With these Flo arms you can "scale up" your configuration from dual to triple or even quad (!) monitor later.

4K monitors are here, they're not that expensive, the desktop operating systems and video hardware are in place to properly support them, and in the appropriate size (27") we can finally have an amazing retina display experience at typical desktop viewing distances. Choose the Asus PB279Q 4K monitor, or whatever 4K monitor you prefer, but take the plunge.

In 2007, I asked Where Are The High Resolution Displays, and now, 8 years later, they've finally, finally arrived on my desktop. Praise the lord and pass the pixels!

Oh, and gird your loins for 8K one day. It, too, is coming.

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Welcome to The Internet of Compromised Things

This post is a bit of a public service announcement, so I'll get right to the point:

Every time you use WiFi, ask yourself: could I be connecting to the Internet through a compromised router with malware?

It's becoming more and more common to see malware installed not at the server, desktop, laptop, or smartphone level, but at the router level. Routers have become quite capable, powerful little computers in their own right over the last 5 years, and that means they can, unfortunately, be harnessed to work against you.

I write about this because it recently happened to two people I know.

In both cases, they eventually determined the source of the problem was that the router they were connecting to the Internet through had been compromised.

This is way more evil genius than infecting a mere computer. If you can manage to systematically infect common home and business routers, you can potentially compromise every computer connected to them.

Hilarious meme images I am contractually obligated to add to each blog post aside, this is scary stuff and you should be scared.

Router malware is the ultimate man-in-the-middle attack. For all meaningful traffic sent through a compromised router that isn't HTTPS encrypted, it is 100% game over. The attacker will certainly be sending all that traffic somewhere they can sniff it for anything important: logins, passwords, credit card info, other personal or financial information. And they can direct you to phishing websites at will – if you think you're on the "real" login page for the banking site you use, think again.

Heck, even if you completely trust the person whose router you are using, they could be technically be doing this to you. But they probably aren't.


In John's case, the attackers inserted annoying ads in all unencrypted web traffic, which is an obvious tell to a sophisticated user. But how exactly would the average user figure out where this junk is coming from (or worse, assume the regular web is just full of ad junk all the time), when even a technical guy like John – founder of the open source Ghost blogging software used on this very blog – was flummoxed?

But that's OK, we're smart users who would only access public WiFi using HTTPS websites, right? Sadly, even if the traffic is HTTPS encrypted, it can still be subverted! There's an extremely technical blow-by-blow analysis at Cryptostorm, but the TL;DR is this:

Compromised router answers DNS req for * to 3rd party with faked HTTPS cert, you download malware Chrome. Game over.

HTTPS certificate shenanigans. DNS and BGP manipulation. Very hairy stuff.

How is this possible? Let's start with the weakest link, your router. Or more specifically, the programmers responsible for coding the admin interface to your router.

They must be terribly incompetent coders to let your router get compromised over the Internet, since one of the major selling points of a router is to act as a basic firewall layer between the Internet and you… right?

In their defense, that part of a router generally works as advertised. More commonly, you aren't being attacked from the hardened outside. You're being attacked from the soft, creamy inside.

That's right, the calls are coming from inside your house!

By that I mean you'll visit a malicious website that scripts your own browser to access the web-based admin pages of your router, and reset (or use the default) admin passwords to reconfigure it.

Nasty, isn't it? They attack from the inside using your own browser. But that's not the only way.

  • Maybe you accidentally turned on remote administration, so your router can be modified from the outside.

  • Maybe you left your router's admin passwords at default.

  • Maybe there is a legitimate external exploit for your router and you're running a very old version of firmware.

  • Maybe your ISP provided your router and made a security error in the configuration of the device.

In addition to being kind of terrifying, this does not bode well for the Internet of Things.

Internet of Compromised Things, more like.

OK, so what can we do about this? There's no perfect answer; I think it has to be a defense in depth strategy.

Inside Your Home

Buy a new, quality router. You don't want a router that's years old and hasn't been updated. But on the other hand you also don't want something too new that hasn't been vetted for firmware and/or security issues in the real world.

Also, any router your ISP provides is going to be about as crappy and "recent" as the awful stereo system you get in a new car. So I say stick with well known consumer brands. There are some hardcore folks who think all consumer routers are trash, so YMMV.

I can recommend the Asus RT-AC87U – it did very well in the SmallNetBuilder tests, Asus is a respectable brand, it's been out a year, and for most people, this is probably an upgrade over what you currently have without being totally bleeding edge overkill. I know it is an upgrade for me.

(I am also eagerly awaiting Eero as a domestic best of breed device with amazing custom firmware, and have one pre-ordered, but it hasn't shipped yet.)

Download and install the latest firmware. Ideally, do this before connecting the device to the Internet. But if you connect and then immediately use the firmware auto-update feature, who am I to judge you.

Change the default admin passwords. Don't leave it at the documented defaults, because then it could be potentially scripted and accessed.

Turn off WPS. Turns out the Wi-Fi Protected Setup feature intended to make it "easy" to connect to a router by pressing a button or entering a PIN made it … a bit too easy. This is always on by default, so be sure to disable it.

Turn off uPNP. Since we're talking about attacks that come from "inside your house", uPNP offers zero protection as it has no method of authentication. If you need it for specific apps, you'll find out, and you can forward those ports manually as needed.

Make sure remote administration is turned off. I've never owned a router that had this on by default, but check just to be double plus sure.

For Wifi, turn on WPA2+AES and use a long, strong password. Again, I feel most modern routers get the defaults right these days, but just check. The password is your responsibility, and password strength matters tremendously for wireless security, so be sure to make it a long one – at least 20 characters with all the variability you can muster.

Pick a unique SSID. Default SSIDs just scream hack me, for I have all defaults and a clueless owner. And no, don't bother "hiding" your SSID, it's a waste of time.

Optional: use less congested channels for WiFi. The default is "auto", but you can sometimes get better performance by picking less used frequencies at the ends of the spectrum. As summarized by official ASUS support reps:

  • Set 2.4 GHz channel bandwidth to 40 MHz, and change the control channel to 1, 6 or 11.

  • Set 5 GHz channel bandwidth to 80 MHz, and change the control channel to 165 or 161.

Experts only: install an open source firmware. I discussed this a fair bit in Everyone Needs a Router, but you have to be very careful which router model you buy, and you'll probably need to stick with older models. There are several which are specifically sold to be friendly to open source firmware.

Outside Your Home

Well, this one is simple. Assume everything you do outside your home, on a remote network or over WiFi is being monitored by IBGs: Internet Bad Guys.

I know, kind of an oppressive way to voyage out into the world, but it's better to start out with a defensive mindset, because you could be connecting to anyone's compromised router or network out there.

But, good news. There are only two key things you need to remember once you're outside, facing down that fiery ball of hell in the sky and armies of IBGs.

  1. Never access anything but HTTPS websites.

    If it isn't available over HTTPS, don't go there!

    You might be OK with HTTP if you are not logging in to the website, just browsing it, but even then IBGs could inject malware in the page and potentially compromise your device. And never, ever enter anything over HTTP you aren't 100% comfortable with bad guys seeing and using against you somehow.

    We've made tremendous progress in HTTPS Everywhere over the last 5 years, and these days most major websites offer (or even better, force) HTTPS access. So if you just want to quickly check your GMail or Facebook or Twitter, you will be fine, because those services all force HTTPS.

  2. If you must access non-HTTPS websites, or you are not sure, always use a VPN.

    A VPN encrypts all your traffic, so you no longer have to worry about using HTTPS. You do have to worry about whether or not you trust your VPN provider, but that's a much longer discussion than I want to get into right now.

    It's a good idea to pick a go-to VPN provider so you have one ready and get used to how it works over time. Initially it will feel like a bunch of extra work, and it kinda is, but if you care about your security an encrypt-everything VPN is bedrock. And if you don't care about your security, well, why are you even reading this?

If it feels like these are both variants of the same rule, always strongly encrypt everything, you aren't wrong. That's the way things are headed. The math is as sound as it ever was – but unfortunately the people and devices, less so.

Be Safe Out There

Until I heard Damien's story and John's story, I had no idea router hardware could be such a huge point of compromise. I didn't realize that you could be innocently visiting a friend's house, and because he happens to be the parent of three teenage boys and the owner of an old, unsecured router that you connect to via WiFi … your life will suddenly get a lot more complicated.

As the amount of stuff we connect to the Internet grows, we have to understand that the Internet of Things is a bunch of tiny, powerful computers, too – and they need the same strong attention to security that our smartphones, laptops, and servers already enjoy.

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I Tried VR and It Was Just OK

It's been about a year and a half since I wrote The Road to VR, and a … few … things have happened since then.

  • Facebook bought Oculus for a skadillion dollars

  • I have to continually read thinkpieces describing how the mere act of strapping a VR headset on your face is such a transformative, disruptive, rapturous experience that you'll never look at the world the same way again.

I am somewhat OK with the former, although the idea of my heroes John Carmack and Michael Abrash as Facebook employees still raises my hackles. But the latter is more difficult to stomach. And it just doesn't stop.

For example, this recent WSJ piece. (I can't link directly to it, you have to click through from Google search results to get past the paywall).

I’ll spare you the rapturous account of the time I sculpted in three dimensions with light, fire, leaves and rainbows inside what felt like a real-life version of a holodeck from “Star Trek.” Writing about VR is like fiction about sex—seldom believable and never up to the task.

If you really want to understand how compelling VR is, you just have to try it. And I guarantee you will. At some point in the next couple of years, one of your already-converted friends will insist you experience it, the same way someone gave you your first turn at a keyboard or with a touch screen. And it will be no less a transformative experience.

I don't mean to call out the author here. There are a dozen other similarly breathless VR articles I could cite, where an amazing VR wonderland is looming right around the corner for all of us, any day now. And if you haven't tried it, boy, you just don't know! It can't be explained, it must be experienced! There are people who honestly believe that in 5 years nobody will make non-VR games any more. The hype levels are off the charts.

Well, I have experienced modern VR. A lot. I've tried both the Oculus DK1, the Oculus DK2, and a 360° backpack-and-controllers Survios rig, which looks something like this:

Based on those experiences, I can't reconcile these hype levels with what I felt. At all. Right now, VR is not something I'd unconditionally recommend to a fellow avid gamer, much less a casual gamer.

To be honest, when I tried the DK1 and DK2, after a few hours of demos and exploration, I couldn't wait to get the headset off. Not because I was motion sick – I don't get motion sick, and never have – but because I was bored. And a little frustrated by control limitations. Not exactly the stuff transformative world-changing disruption is made of.

Here's what that experience looks like, by the way. You can practically taste the gaming excitement dripping off me.

And if you don't find watching me experience my virtual world fascinating (although I can't imagine why) I suppose you can enjoy what's on my screen:

Chroma-shifted, stereographic, fisheye VR gibberish.

I've always been the first kid on my block to recommend an awesome, transformative gaming experience, from the Atari 2600 to the Kinect. I mean, that's kind of who I am, isn't it? The alpha geek, the guy who owned a Vectrex and thought vector graphics were the cat's pajamas, the guy who bought one of the first copies of Guitar Hero in 2005 and would not shut up about it. For that matter I dragged my buddies to a VR storefront in Boulder, Colorado circa 1993 so we could play Dactyl Nightmare. And I have to say, in my alpha geek opinion, modern VR has a long way to go before it'll be ready for the rapturous smartphone levels of adoption that media pundits imply is a few months away.

I apologize if this comes off as negative, and no, I haven't tried the magical new VR headset models that are Just Around The Corner and Will Change Everything. I'll absolutely try them when they are available. Let me be clear that I think the technical challenges around VR are deep, hard, and fascinating, and I could not be happier that some of the best programmers of our generation are working on this stuff. But from what I've seen and experienced to date, there is just no way that VR is going to be remotely mainstream in 5 years. I'm doubtful that can happen in a decade or even two decades, to be honest, but a smart person always hedges their bets when trying to predict the future.

I think the current state of VR, or at least the "strap a nice smartphone or two on your face" version of it, has quite a few fundamental physical problems to deal with before it has any chance of being mainstream.

It should be as convenient as a pair of glasses

Nobody "enjoys" strapping two pounds of stuff on their face unless they are in a hazardous materials situation. We can barely get people to wear bicycle helmets, and yet they are going to be lining up around the block to slap this awkward, gangly VR contraption on their head? Existing VR headsets get awfully sweaty after 30 minutes of use, and they're also difficult to fit over glasses. The idea of gaming with a heavy, sweaty, uncomfortable headset on for hours at a time isn't too appealing – and that's coming from a guy who thinks nothing of spending 6 hours in a gaming jag with headphones on.

For VR to be quick and easy and pervasive, the headset would need to be so miniaturized as to be basically invisible – akin to putting on a cool pair of sunglasses.

Maybe current VR headsets are like the old brick cellphones from the 90's. The question is, how quickly can they get from 1990 to 2007?

It should be wireless

The world has been inexorably moving towards wireless everything, but in this regard VR headsets are a glorious throwback to science fiction movies from the 1970s. Your VR headset and everything else on it will be physically wired, in multiple ways, to a powerful computer. Wires, wires, everywhere, as far as your eyes … can't see.

Even the cheaper VR headsets that let you drop a high end smartphone in for a limited VR experience have to be wired to power, as phone batteries are not built for the continuous heavy-duty CPU and GPU rendering that VR requires. Overheating is a very real problem, too.

Wireless video is hard to do well, particularly at the 1440p resolutions that are the absolute minimum for practical VR. On top of that, good VR requires much higher framerates, ideally 120fps. That kind of ultra low latency, super high resolution video delivered wirelessly, is quite far off.

It should have 4k resolution

Since the VR device you're looking at is inches from your eyes – and the resolution is effectively divided in half for each eye (there are a few emerging VR headsets that use two smartphones here instead of one) – an extremely high resolution screen is needed to achieve effective visual resolutions that are ancient by modern computer standards.

The Oculus DK1 at 720p was so low resolution that I consider it borderline unusable even as a demo unit. I'd estimate that it felt roughly DOOM resolution, or 320×240.

The DK2 at 1080p was marginally better, but the pixelation and shimmer was quite bad, a serious distraction from immersion. It felt roughly Quake resolution, or 640×480.

I know many upcoming VR devices are 1440p or 2560×1440. I strongly suspect that, in practice, is going to feel like yet another mild bump to effective 1024×768 resolution.

I'm used to modern games and modern graphics resolutions. Putting on a VR headset shouldn't be a one-way ticket to jarring, grainy, pixelated graphics the like of which I haven't seen since 1999. There are definitely 4k smartphones out there on the horizon which could solve this problem, but the power required to drive them, by that I mean the CPU, GPU, and literal battery power – is far from trivial.

(And did I mention it needs to be a minimum of 60fps, ideally 120fps for the best VR experience? I'm pretty sure I mentioned that.)

Still, the 4k resolution problem is probably the closest to being reasonably solved on current hardware trajectories in about five years or so, albeit driven by very high end hardware, not a typical smartphone, which brings me to …

It should not require a high end gaming PC or future gen console

VR has massive CPU and GPU system requirements, somewhat beyond what you'd need for the latest videogames running at 4k resolutions. Which means by definition cutting edge VR is developed with, and best experienced on, a high end Windows PC.

Imagine the venture capitalists who invested in Oculus, who have probably been Mac-only since the early aughts, trying to scrounge together a gaming PC so they can try this crazy new VR thing they just invested in. That's some culture shock.

Current generation consoles such as the Xbox One and PS4 may be fine with (most) games running at 1080p, on the PS4 at least, but they are both woefully under-specced to do VR in both GPU and CPU power. That's bad news if you expect VR to be mainstream in the lifetime of these new consoles over the next 5-8 years, and were counting on the console market to get there.

VR on current generation consoles will be a slow, crippled, low resolution affair, about on the level of the Oculus DK2 at best. You'll be waiting quite a while for the next generation of consoles beyond these to deliver decent VR.

Hands (Gloves?) must be supported

I was extremely frustrated by the lack of control options in the Oculus DK1 and DK2. Here I was looking around and exploring this nifty VR world, but to do anything I had to tap a key on my keyboard, or move and click my mouse. Talk about breaking immersion. They bundle an Xbox controller with the upcoming Rift, which is no better. Experiencing VR with a mouse is like playing Guitar Hero with a controller.

The most striking thing about the Survios demo rig I tried was the way I could use my hands to manipulate things in the VR world. Adding hands to VR was revelatory, the one bit of VR I've experienced to date that I can honestly say I was blown away by. I could reach out and grab objects, rotate things in my hands and move them close to my face to look at them, hold a shotgun and cock it with two hands, and so forth. With my hands, it was amazing. The primary controllers you should need in VR are the ones you were born with: your hands.

A virtual world experienced with just your head is quite disappointing and passive, like a movie or an on-rails ride. But add hands, and suddenly you are there because you can now interact with that VR world in a profoundly human way: by touching it. I could see myself playing story exploration games like Gone Home in VR, if I can use my hands – to manipulate things, to look at them and open them and turn them in my hands and check them out. It was incredible. Manipulating that world with my hands made it infinitely more real.

The good news is that there are solutions like Oculus Touch. The bad news is that's it's not bundled by default, but should be. This device tracks hand position, plus rotation, and adds some buttons for interaction. Even better would be simple gloves you could wear that visually tracked each finger – but sometimes you do need a button, because if you are holding a gun (or a flashlight) you need to indicate that you fired a gun (or turned on the flashlight) which would be quite hairy to track via finger movement alone.

I'm optimistic that VR and hand control will hopefully become synonymous, otherwise we're locking ourselves into a "just look around you" mindset, which leads to crappy, passive VR that's little more than a different kind of IMAX 3D movie.

It must compete with mature 2D entertainment

I get frustrated talking to people who act like VR exists in a vacuum, that there are suddenly no other experiences worth having unless they happen in glorious stereo 3D.

I've experimented with stereo 3D on computers since the days of junky battery powered LCD shutter glasses. And we all know the world has experienced the glory of 3D television … and collectively turned its head and said meh.

Experiencing something in 3D, in and of itself, is just not that compelling. If it was, people would have scarfed up 3D TVs, see only 3D movies, and play only 3D video games on their PCs and consoles regularly. The technology to do it is there, battle tested, and completely mature. I know because I saw Captain EO at Epcot Center in 3D way back in 1985, and it was amazing thirty years ago!

I recently saw Gravity in IMAX 3D and I liked it, but it didn't transform my moviegoing experience such that I could never imagine seeing another boring flat 2D movie ever again.

People have so many wonderful social experiences gathered around common 2D screens. Watching a movie, watching a TV show, watching someone play a game. These are fundamentally joyous, shared human experiences. For this to work with VR is kinda-sorta possible, but difficult, because:

  • You need a proper flat 2D representation of what the VR user is seeing

  • That 2D representation must be broadcast on the primary display device

VR is ultra resource intensive already, so rendering yet another copy of the scene at reasonable framerates (say, constant 60fps) isn't going to be easy. Or free.

On top of that, the VR user is probably wearing headphones, holding a pair of hand controllers, and can't see anything, so they can't interact with anyone who is physically there very well.

I've had incredible gaming experiences on 2D screens. I recently played Alien: Isolation, or as I like to call it, Pants Crapping Simulator 3000, and I thought it was one of the most beautiful, immersive, and downright goddamn terrifying gameplay experiences I've had in years. I was starring in a survival horror movie – it felt like I was there in every sense of the word.

At no point did I think to myself "this would be better in 3D". In many ways, it would have been worse.

Good God man, do you ever shut up?

Sorry. I had some things to get off my chest with regards to VR. I'll wrap it up.

I apologize, again, if this post seems negative. Writing this, I actually got a little more excited about VR. I can see how far it has to come to match its potential, because the technical problems it presents are quite hard – and those are the most fun problems to attack.

I guess I might be the only person left on Earth who said, hey, I tried VR and it was just OK. I think VR ought to be a hell of a lot better, and has to be if it wants to be truly pervasive.

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