Software standards

Had the first meeting this week to establish technology recommendations for the incoming 2004 freshmen. Most of the software recommendations look like they will remain the same. We are adding Mozilla this year, since it seems pretty stable (and cross-platform).

The one contentious issue was whether to recommend software firewalls (or, indeed, hardware firewalls) for the students. One suggestion was ZoneAlarm, but there were several others (e.g., Norton). Those not in favor of these utilities suggested that they would be too difficult to understand and use for the average student, and that those who were most vulnerable would be the most likely to disable or never install the firewall.

Do any of the loyal readers have experience or opinions on this, esp. in the context of other campuses? Comments or email would be most welcome.

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  1. Posted 11/7/2003 at 3:38 am | Permalink

    I don’t think new students get any of this kind of advice in the Netherlands, but then again, we don’t have a campus system, so students are living ‘on their own’ throughout the cities where they study.

    With regard to firewalls: A hardware router with NAT and some firewalling capabilities can run without any user knowledge once set up. The snag here of course is setting it up…

    ZoneAlarm or Norton generally come with sensible presets, but always seem to need a little tweaking. ZoneAlarm IMO has the simplest way to add new programs to the allowed list, but it’s also easiest to not think and quickly add programs to the allowed list that should not be there.

    But, let’s rephrase the general problem like this: despite the students’ own responsibilities in this matter, should the university not do everything it can to protect its students computers, when the result can be a campus full of zombified computers on a really fast network that can be put to such uses as spam relays, pr0n servers, or DDOSing?

    I’d say that the sooner students develop safe computing habits, like using strong(er) passwords and being aware what information you leave where, the better. Getting them to use ZoneAlarm seems a minor issue if you take the big picture. Of course, the IT support staff might initially see only more work for them…

  2. Posted 11/7/2003 at 6:33 pm | Permalink

    Most of our students also live off-campus, which is part of the reason we make these recommendations. I have to say, it seems kind of silly in the long run. Nonetheless, many students come to campus toting the cast-offs from their parents from several years ago, and they simply don’t do well with some of the software they are asked to run.

    On the software side, we put a CD in their hands at the beginning of the semester with pre-configured bits of free and licensed software to get them rolling. We roll our own linux distribution, based on RH, as well.

    The is the first year we have thought about the firewall issue: there was a focus last year on the dangers of P2P trojans. I think we want to recommend and even provide some kind of software solution, but one of the members put it this way: considering the expense of buying every student a router with a basic firewall vs. paying for the increased hours at the help desk, introducing the “free” ZoneAlarm could literally cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, and as you note, it’s only as good as its users.

    Of course, we are trying to educate the students about security, and there is a serious effort in this direction. But while many of them are OK with “download AdAware and run it,” few have even a rudimentary idea of what a firewall is or what it does.

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