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The 7 most important announcements from Microsoft Ignite

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It’s Microsoft Ignite this week, the company’s premier event for IT professionals and decision-makers. But it’s not just about new tools for role-based access. Ignite is also very much a forward-looking conference that keeps the changing role of IT in mind. And while there isn’t a lot of consumer news at the event, the company does tend to make a few announcements for developers, as well.

This year’s Ignite was especially news-heavy. Ahead of the event, the company provided journalists and analysts with an 87-page document that lists all of the news items. If I counted correctly, there were about 175 separate announcements. Here are the top seven you really need to know about.

What was announced: Microsoft was among the first of the big cloud vendors to bet big on hybrid deployments. With Arc, the company is taking this a step further. It will let enterprises use Azure to manage their resources across clouds — including those of competitors like AWS and Google Cloud. It’ll work for Windows and Linux Servers, as well as Kubernetes clusters, and also allows users to take some limited Azure data services with them to these platforms.

Why it matters: With Azure Stack, Microsoft already allowed businesses to bring many of Azure’s capabilities into their own data centers. But because it’s basically a local version of Azure, it only worked on a limited set of hardware. Arc doesn’t bring all of the Azure Services, but it gives enterprises a single platform to manage all of their resources across the large clouds and their own data centers. Virtually every major enterprise uses multiple clouds. Managing those environments is hard. So if that’s the case, Microsoft is essentially saying, let’s give them a tool to do so — and keep them in the Azure ecosystem. In many ways, that’s similar to Google’s Anthos, yet with an obvious Microsoft flavor, less reliance on Kubernetes and without the managed services piece.

What was announced: Project Cortex creates a knowledge network for your company. It uses machine learning to analyze all of the documents and contracts in your various repositories — including those of third-party partners — and then surfaces them in Microsoft apps like Outlook, Teams and its Office apps when appropriate. It’s the company’s first new commercial service since the launch of Teams.

Why it matters: Enterprises these days generate tons of documents and data, but it’s often spread across numerous repositories and is hard to find. With this new knowledge network, the company aims to surface this information proactively, but it also looks at who the people are who work on them and tries to help you find the subject matter experts when you’re working on a document about a given subject, for example.

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What was announced: Microsoft is combining its ConfigMgr and Intune services that allow enterprises to manage the PCs, laptops, phones and tablets they issue to their employees under the Endpoint Manager brand. With that, it’s also launching a number of tools and recommendations to help companies modernize their deployment strategies. ConfigMgr users will now also get a license to Intune to allow them to move to cloud-based management.

Why it matters: In this world of BYOD, where every employee uses multiple devices, as well as constant attacks against employee machines, effectively managing these devices has become challenging for most IT departments. They often use a mix of different tools (ConfigMgr for PCs, for example, and Intune for cloud-based management of phones). Now, they can get a single view of their deployments with the Endpoint Manager, which Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella described as one of the most important announcements of the event, and ConfigMgr users will get an easy path to move to cloud-based device management thanks to the Intune license they now have access to.

What was announced: Microsoft’s Chromium-based version of Edge will be generally available on January 15. The release candidate is available now. That’s the culmination of a lot of work from the Edge team, and, with today’s release, the company is also adding a number of new privacy features to Edge that, in combination with Bing, offers some capabilities that some of Microsoft’s rivals can’t yet match, thanks to its newly enhanced InPrivate browsing mode.

Why it matters: Browsers are interesting again. After years of focusing on speed, the new focus is now privacy, and that’s giving Microsoft a chance to gain users back from Chrome (though maybe not Firefox). At Ignite, Microsoft also stressed that Edge’s business users will get to benefit from a deep integration with its updated Bing engine, which can now surface business documents, too.

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What was announced: At Build earlier this year, Microsoft announced that it would soon launch a web-based version of its Visual Studio development environment, based on the work it did on the free Visual Studio Code editor. This experience, with deep integrations into the Microsoft-owned GitHub, is now live in a preview.

Why it matters: Microsoft has long said that it wants to meet developers where they are. While Visual Studio Online isn’t likely to replace the desktop-based IDE for most developers, it’s an easy way for them to make quick changes to code that lives in GitHub, for example, without having to set up their IDE locally. As long as they have a browser, developers will be able to get their work done..

What was announced: Power Virtual Agents is Microsoft’s new no-code/low-code tool for building chatbots. It leverages a lot of Azure’s machine learning smarts to let you create a chatbot with the help of a visual interface. In case you outgrow that and want to get to the actual code, you can always do so, too.

Why it matters: Chatbots aren’t exactly at the top of the hype cycle, but they do have lots of legitimate uses. Microsoft argues that a lot of early efforts were hampered by the fact that the developers were far removed from the user. With a visual too, though, anybody can come in and build a chatbot — and a lot of those builders will have a far better understanding of what their users are looking for than a developer who is far removed from that business group.

What was announced: Cortana lives — and it now also has a male voice. But more importantly, Microsoft launched a few new focused Cortana-based experiences that show how the company is focusing on its voice assistant as a tool for productivity. In Outlook on iOS (with Android coming later), Cortana can now read you a summary of what’s in your inbox — and you can have a chat with it to flag emails, delete them or dictate answers. Cortana can now also send you a daily summary of your calendar appointments, important emails that need answers and suggest focus time for you to get actual work done that’s not email.

Why it matters: In this world of competing assistants, Microsoft is very much betting on productivity. Cortana didn’t work out as a consumer product, but the company believes there is a large (and lucrative) niche for an assistant that helps you get work done. Because Microsoft doesn’t have a lot of consumer data, but does have lots of data about your work, that’s probably a smart move.

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SAN FRANCISCO, CA – APRIL 02: Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella walks in front of the new Cortana logo as he delivers a keynote address during the 2014 Microsoft Build developer conference on April 2, 2014 in San Francisco, California (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Bonus: Microsoft agrees with you and thinks meetings are broken — and often it’s the broken meeting room that makes meetings even harder. To battle this, the company today launched Managed Meeting Rooms, which for $50 per room/month lets you delegate to Microsoft the monitoring and management of the technical infrastructure of your meeting rooms.

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Windows.com bitsquatting hack can wreak “unknown havoc” on PCs

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Bit flips are events that cause individual bits stored in an electronic device to flip, turning a 0 to a 1 or vice versa. Cosmic radiation and fluctuations in power or temperature are the most common naturally occurring causes. Research from 2010 estimated that a computer with 4GB of commodity RAM has a 96 percent chance of experiencing a bit flip within three days.

An independent researcher recently demonstrated how bitflips can come back to bite Windows users when their PCs reach out to Microsoft’s windows.com domain. Windows devices do this regularly to do things like making sure the time shown in the computer clock is accurate, connecting to Microsoft’s cloud-based services, and recovering from crashes.

Remy, as the researcher asked to be referred to, mapped the 32 valid domain names that were one bitflip away from windows.com. He provided the following to help readers understand how these flips can cause the domain to change to whndows.com:

01110111 01101001 01101110 01100100 01101111 01110111 01110011
w i n d o w s
01110111 01101000 01101110 01100100 01101111 01110111 01110011
w h n d o w s

Of the 32 bit-flipped values that were valid domain names, Remy found that 14 of them were still available for purchase. This was surprising because normally, Microsoft and other companies buy these types of one-off domains to protect customers against phishing attacks. He bought them for $126 and set out to see what would happen. The domains were:

  • windnws.com
  • windo7s.com
  • windkws.com
  • windmws.com
  • winlows.com
  • windgws.com
  • wildows.com
  • wintows.com
  • wijdows.com
  • wiodows.com
  • wifdows.com
  • whndows.com
  • wkndows.com
  • wmndows.com

No inherent verification

Over the course of two weeks, Remy’s server received 199,180 connections from 626 unique IP addresses that were trying to contact ntp.windows.com. By default, Windows machines will connect to this domain once per week to check that the time shown in the device clock is correct. What the researcher found next was even more surprising.

“The NTP client for windows OS has no inherent verification of authenticity, so there is nothing stopping a malicious person from telling all these computers that it’s after 03:14:07 on Tuesday, 19 January 2038 and wreaking unknown havoc as the memory storing the signed 32-bit integer for time overflows,” he wrote in a post summarizing his findings. “As it turns out though, for ~30% of these computers doing that would make little to no difference at all to those users because their clock is already broken.”

The researcher observed machines trying to make connections to other windows.com subdomains, including sg2p.w.s.windows.com, client.wns.windows.com, skydrive.wns.windows.com, windows.com/stopcode, and windows.com/?fbclid.

Remy said that not all of the domain mismatches were the result of bitflips. In some cases they were caused by typos by people behind the keyboard, and in at least one case the keyboard was on an Android device, as it attempted to diagnose a blue-screen-of-death crash that had occurred on a Windows machine.

To capture the traffic devices sent to the mismatched domains, Remy rented a virtual private server and created wildcard domain lookup entries to point to them. The wildcard records allow traffic destined for different subdomains of the same domain—say, ntp.whndows.com, abs.xyz.whndows.com, or client.wns.whndows.com—to map to the same IP address.

“Due to the nature of this research dealing with bits being flipped, this allows me to capture any DNS lookup for a subdomain of windows.com where multiple bits have flipped.”

Remy said he’s willing to transfer the 14 domains to a “verifiably responsible party” and in the meantime will simply sinkhole them, meaning he will hold onto the addresses and configure the DNS records so they are unreachable.

“Hopefully this spawns more research”

I asked Microsoft representatives if they’re aware of the findings and the offer to transfer the domains. The representatives are working on getting a response. Readers should remember, though, that the threats the research identifies aren’t limited to Windows.

In a 2019 presentation at the Kaspersky Security Analysts Summit, for instance, researchers from security firm Bishop Fox obtained some eye-opening results after registering hundreds of bitflipped variations of skype.com, symantec.com, and other widely visited sites.

Remy said the findings are important because they suggest that bitflip-induced domain mismatches occur at a scale that’s higher than many people realized.

“Prior research primarily dealt with HTTP/HTTPS, but my research shows that even with a small handful of bitsquatted domains you can still siphon up ill-destined traffic from other default network protocols that are constantly running, such as NTP,” Remy said in a direct message. “Hopefully this spawns more research into this area as it relates to the threat model of default OS services.”

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SpaceX Starlink factory in Texas will speed up production of Dishy McFlatface

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Enlarge / The SpaceX Starlink satellite dish partway through a teardown.

SpaceX says it is building a factory in Austin, Texas, to design systems that will help make satellite dishes, Wi-Fi routers, and other equipment for its Starlink satellite broadband network. The news comes from a job posting for an automation and controls engineer position flagged in a story Tuesday by local news channel KXAN.

“To keep up with global demand, SpaceX is breaking ground on a new, state of the art manufacturing facility in Austin, TX,” the job posting said. “The Automation & Controls Engineer will play a key role as we strive to manufacture millions of consumer facing devices that we ship directly to customers (Starlink dishes, Wi-Fi routers, mounting hardware, etc).”

The factory apparently won’t make the dishes and routers on site but will instead design systems that improve the manufacturing process. “Specifically, they will design and develop control systems and software for production line machinery—ultimately tackling the toughest mechanical, software, and electrical challenges that come with high-volume manufacturing, all while maintaining a focus on flexibility, reliability, maintainability, and ease of use,” the job posting said.

Starlink is in beta and is serving over 10,000 customers, and it has asked the Federal Communications Commission for permission to deploy up to 5 million user terminals in the US. SpaceX calls this piece of hardware “Dishy McFlatface,” and it receives transmissions from SpaceX’s low-Earth orbit satellites. See our article about a Dishy McFlatface teardown for more details on the hardware’s inner portions, and this article for more pictures of the dish in its fully intact state.

Starlink has been charging $99 per month plus a one-time fee of $499 for the user terminal, mounting tripod, and router. Starlink recently began taking preorders for service that would become available in the second half of 2021.

Shipping to 25 countries this year

The new job posting said the successful applicant will work in Austin but spend up to 25 percent of the time at SpaceX headquarters in Los Angeles “until [the] Austin facility is fully established.” The new engineer will make an impact on Starlink’s ability to ship hardware this year. The person will “set, implement, and maintain schedules and budgets to ensure project completion as we strive to ship to 25+ countries by the end of the year,” the job posting said.

The engineer will be expected to “design, develop, and manage automation and controls projects to manufacture consumer electronics that are easy for humans around the world to use, but are technically very sophisticated—this includes initial factory ideation, on-line commissioning and proof of rate capability, and eventual hand-off to operational teams.” The engineer will also “spearhead facility bring up and initial equipment conceptual development by carefully balancing product specifications, process requirements, layout complexity, cost, and lead-time limits,” the job posting said.

We asked SpaceX for more detail on plans for the Austin facility and when it will open, and on where exactly the dishes and routers will be manufactured. We’ll update this article if we get an answer.

The new SpaceX factory would be near Tesla’s planned car factory in Austin. SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk is also the CEO of Tesla.

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Comcast hides upload speeds deep inside its infuriating ordering system

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Comcast just released a 2020 Network Performance Data report with stats on how much Internet usage rose during the pandemic, and it said that upload use is growing faster than download use. “Peak downstream traffic in 2020 increased approximately 38 percent over 2019 levels and peak upstream traffic increased approximately 56 percent over 2019 levels,” Comcast said.

But while upload use on Comcast’s network quickly grows—driven largely by videoconferencing among people working and learning at home—the nation’s largest home-Internet provider with over 30 million customers advertises its speed tiers as if uploading doesn’t exist. Comcast’s 56 percent increase in upstream traffic made me wonder if the company will increase upload speeds any time soon, so I checked out the Xfinity website today to see the current upload speeds. Getting that information was even more difficult than I expected.

The Xfinity website advertises cable-Internet plans with download speeds starting at 25Mbps without mentioning that upstream speeds are just a fraction of the downstream ones. I went through Comcast’s online ordering system today and found no mention of upload speeds anywhere. Even clicking “pricing & other info” and “view plan details” links to read the fine print on various Internet plans didn’t reveal upload speeds.

Even after adding a plan to the cart and going through most of the checkout process, I could not find any mention of upload speeds. I got to the point where you have to enter credit card information to continue, so I initially stopped there. I later confirmed that Comcast’s ordering system will show upload speeds after it checks whether your credit card is valid, in the final page where you submit an order.

Deliberately keeping customers in the dark

I’ve long known that it’s difficult to find upload speeds on Comcast’s website, but I’m not sure exactly when it became virtually impossible. There were complaints about this very problem on Comcast’s customer support forums in 2020 and in 2019, though. “What is my upload speed now? No where in the world can I find documentation,” one customer asked. The answer was that existing customers can find upload speeds for their own plan in their account settings after logging in and navigating to the correct section.

But that does not help people who are signing up for service and want to find out what upload speeds they’ll get or compare upload speeds of different plans. Even the Xfinity.com comparison tool that lets you compare details of different plans doesn’t reveal their upload speeds. The absence of upload speeds from Comcast’s website is so thorough that it is clearly a deliberate attempt to keep customers in the dark. This gallery shows how the Comcast Xfinity website displays Internet plans without mentioning upload speeds and continues that tactic through nearly the entire checkout process:

Thankfully, the third-party website CableTV.com lists both download and upload speeds, showing that Comcast’s 25Mbps download plan comes with 3Mbps uploads; the 100Mbps and 200Mbps download plans both have 5Mbps uploads; the 300Mbps download plan has 10Mbps uploads; the 600Mbps plan has 15Mbps uploads; and the 1Gbps download (1.2Gbps in some areas) comes with 35Mbps:

Comcast speeds and prices, no thanks to Comcast's website.
Enlarge / Comcast speeds and prices, no thanks to Comcast’s website.

Comcast’s website does list the 35Mbps upload speeds for the gigabit plan at this page, but I couldn’t find anything similar for Comcast’s other cable-Internet plans. Comcast also offers a fiber-to-the-home service with 2Gbps speeds both downstream and upstream. But Comcast’s residential fiber requires installation charges of up to $500, and the service costs $300 a month, which is more than three times as much as the gigabit-cable plan that has 35Mbps downloads.

Comcast, why did you make this so hard?

I contacted Comcast today with two primary questions: is there any way to find upload speeds on Comcast’s website before submitting an order for Internet service, and does Comcast have any plans to raise its cable upload speeds?

Comcast’s answer on where to find upstream speeds was as follows:

Our network report shows that, despite the growth in upstream traffic in 2020, patterns remain highly asymmetrical as downstream volumes were 14x higher than upstream throughout 2020. Our website reflects the way customers use the Internet with downstream overwhelmingly dominating usage, but upstream speeds are included in your cart and are visible upon check out when you submit your order.

Despite Comcast claiming that “upstream speeds are included in your cart,” I could find no evidence of this. Adding a Comcast Internet plan to the cart and then clicking the cart icon brought me to an ordering page that does not mention upload speeds. I confirmed this behavior on Xfinity.com in both Chrome and Safari.

I circled back to the Comcast spokesperson and asked what exact steps I need to take to make upload speeds show up in the cart. It turns out the upload speeds never show up in the cart at all unless you define “cart” to include the entire ordering process. Comcast told us the upload speeds will finally appear “when you are at the step when you review your order.”

Despite my earlier reluctance to enter my credit card information for service I am not ordering, I finally did so to check whether this is accurate. I submitted my address, phone number, and credit card information, and I clicked “Next.” This triggered a step in which Comcast’s system checked to see whether I had entered a valid credit card. I accidentally entered a recently expired card number, so Comcast’s system “declined” my card and made me re-enter it. After I entered a card number that Comcast could charge, I finally got to this page, where the 300Mbps download-plan’s 10Mbps upload speeds are shown:

The last page in Comcast's ordering system.
Enlarge / The last page in Comcast’s ordering system.

Xfinity.com

At this page, with Comcast having already verified your card, you can view upload speeds and decide whether to submit the order or exit the ordering system. The part of Comcast’s statement that upload speeds are “visible upon check out when you submit your order” is thus accurate. But refusing to tell a prospective customer what they’re paying for until after they submit credit card information is simply ridiculous. You can probably get upload speeds earlier by asking a Comcast rep in an online chat or phone call, but that shouldn’t be necessary.

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