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ACM TechNews
July 9, 2008

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Welcome to the July 9, 2008 edition of ACM TechNews, providing timely information for IT professionals three times a week.


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Herculean Device for Molecular Mysteries
New York Times (07/08/08) P. D2; Markoff, John

A team of scientists and engineers has almost finished working on Anton, a special-purpose supercomputer that promises to improve the performance of complex molecular simulations a thousandfold. Anton, named in honor of microbiology pioneer Anton van Leeuwenhoek, could be used to investigate significant computational problems such as the folding of protein molecules or the design of drugs based on the simulated activity of specific molecules. Anton, expected to be operational by the end of this year, is described in the current issue of Communications of the ACM. The new supercomputer features 512 application-specific integrated circuits working in parallel and designed to calculate the three-dimensional characteristics of molecules. Molecular modeling using supercomputers has been going on for more than a decade, but the field is still developing. Simulations of processes such as the folding of a protein into a 3D structure, the interactions between proteins, or the interaction between a protein and a drug molecule could lead to advancements in science and drug development. However, following each simulation, the results must be validated by experimental scientists in a laboratory, so improving the speed of the simulations, which currently takes thousands of hours on the fastest supercomputers, will allow scientists to test the results sooner.
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Major DNS Flaw Could Disrupt the Internet
Network World (07/08/08) Messmer, Ellen

Security researcher Dan Kaminsky has discovered a fundamental flaw in the Domain Name System (DNS) protocol that could allow an attacker to massively disrupt the Internet, causing CERT to issue an alert and major DNS software vendors to issue patches. Kaminsky says this is the first time such a coordinated multi-vendor synchronized patch release has ever been executed. Not applying the patch to the ISP infrastructure would allow a hacker to attack an ISP and redirect traffic however they wanted, Kaminsky says. Both current and older versions of DNS may be vulnerable, although patches may not be available for older DNS software. Kaminsky says the problem centers around a lack of sufficient port randomization related to the transaction ID of a query, but he is waiting to further discuss the vulnerability until most DNS patching has been completed. Kaminsky found the problem by accident about six months ago, and organized an industry-wide response that culminated in 16 researchers meeting at the Microsoft campus in late March to fix the problem. CERT Coordination Center's Art Manion says ISPs have been informed and several government agencies are working closely with CERT to correct the DNS flaw. Kaminsky says the DNS patch upgrade should go smoothly, but there is the potential that if the DNS patch is not applied correctly people could experience a "sudden outage."
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Computer Jobs Hit Record High
CIO Insight (07/07/08) Chabrow, Eric

U.S. information technology employment is approaching an all-time high as nearly 4 million workers are now employed in IT-related jobs, according to a CIO Insight analysis of U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data. The IT unemployment rate increased one-tenth of a percentage point last quarter to reach 2.3 percent, but it is still near historic lows. In fact, at 4.7 percent, overall unemployment in the United States is more than double IT's jobless rate, writes Eric Chabrow. He says IT employment remains strong because IT performs a critical role in business productivity and the efficiencies IT creates are crucial for employers looking to cut costs. Even those looking to reduce payroll are employing IT professionals because better IT systems allow them to eliminate other positions. Furthermore, companies cannot operate without functioning IT systems, so certain business technology skills cannot be eliminated if a company wants to remain competitive. Over the past four quarters, the IT workforce has grown by 10.2 percent. Meanwhile, the number of workers employed by IT services firms, defined by the U.S. government as computer systems design and related services, rose by 56,100 over the past year, a 4.1 percent increase.
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Nanotubes Hold Promise for Next-Generation Computing
Wired News (07/09/08) Tweney, Dylan

Papers published by two separate research groups detail the possibility of carbon nanotubes finding use in electronics thanks to breakthroughs in their creation, sorting, and organization. Until recently nanotubes were produced in a random fashion, and ordering the nanotubes in regular patterns as well as growing exclusively semiconducting or exclusively metallic nanotubes were extremely difficult. A paper presented at the VLSI Symposium by Stanford University researchers offers a solution to the disorder exhibited by nanotubes grown on silicon wafers by using crystalline quartz, which facilitates more orderly growth, after which the aligned nanotubes can be transplanted onto the silicon wafer. Stanford and Samsung chemical engineers recently published a paper in Science explaining how semiconducting and metallic carbon nanotubes can be selectively cultivated by changing the substrate on which the nanotubes are grown. Almost entirely semiconducting nanotubes can be produced using a substrate of aminosilanes, while substrates of aromatic compounds can produce metallic nanotubes. Prior to this discovery, the only option was to sort semiconducting and metallic nanotubes after they were made using electrical or magnetic fields, which was commercially impractical. The application of nanotubes to electronics may come at an opportune time, since modern chip fabrication technologies are approaching their physical limits.
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Soft, Squishy Robots Can Change Shape, Size
Computerworld (07/08/08) Gaudin, Sharon

Tufts University scientists are developing soft, squishy robots that are able to squeeze through tight spaces and then return to their original size and shape. Tufts professor Barry Trimmer says creating soft robots could lead to a new way of approaching robotics. He says such robots could use biological materials such as silk proteins to make muscles and sensory organs. They could be used for detecting land mines or for search-and-rescue efforts in hazardous areas. Trimmer says the robots would be like an octopus, which can radically change its shape and compress itself down to the size of its eyeball. "We have no idea how to do that yet, but this project is trying to understand the technology that is needed to do that," he says. Researchers have spent a significant amount of time studying the caterpillar, which can control its body with a relatively simple nervous system despite its lack of bones or joints. The caterpillar is particularly interesting because it can move itself with only two muscles controlling each leg because of the way its body responds to the simple contraction and release of muscles. Soft robots would be controlled by tiny, flexible computer chips. "If you look at a soft-bodied animal, in a traditional engineering approach, you'd expect to use more computation to control it," Trimmer says. "It should have a bigger brain, but you don't see that."
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Google Introduces a Cartoonlike Method for Talking in Chat Rooms
New York Times (07/09/08) P. C4; Stone, Brad

Google Labs has released Lively, an online application that enables users to create a cartoonish avatar for text-based conversations in virtual chat rooms. The chat rooms can be added to any blog or Web site. Lively could revolutionize how people interact on the Internet. Traditional online chat rooms are limited to text with the occasional video or voice chat. Lively tries to make conversations three dimensional and more interactive, as if users were playing a game. Users can select their own avatar and create their own chat rooms, incorporating videos from YouTube and photos from Google's photo service Picasa as pieces of art. Up to 20 people can occupy a single chat room, with text appearing above the avatars as cartoon-style bubbles. Similar products include Linden Labs' Second Life, which boasts a much larger virtual world that hundreds of thousands of users can enter at the same time, and Vivaty, a virtual world startup that creates similar 3D chat rooms that run on Facebook and AOL Instant Messenger. Vivaty CEO Keith McCurdy says Google's entry into the field is validation of the concept.
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A Picowatt Processor
Technology Review (07/08/08) Greene, Kate

University of Michigan professor David Blaauw says his research team has created a 1-millimeter-square processor that could be powered for a decade or more by emerging thin-film batteries. Blaauw's Phoenix processor consumes only about 30 picowatts of power in sleep mode, and just 2.8 picojoules of energy per computing cycle when active, which amounts to only about 10 percent of the power consumed by the most energy-efficient chips on the market, says University of California, Berkeley professor Jan Rabaey. The processor requires 500 millivolts per operation, which is one-75th the voltage needs of PC microprocessors. Blaauw says parts of the chip do not function well at so low a voltage, so his team reworked the processor's memory and its internal clock so that it could run with minimal electrical input. When combined with a battery, the Phoenix chip would be just a cubic millimeter in volume. Phoenix's transistors were fabricated using a 180-nanometer process, which Blaauw says makes them big enough to have minimal electrical leakage yet sufficiently small for the researchers to plant a large number of transistors on the chip. When the processor is in standby mode, special "power-gating" transistors completely shut off the power supply to the processing transistors to reduce leakage even more. Challenges ahead for the Michigan team include adding a battery to the chip, developing a method for offloading data from the Phoenix for further analysis, and fully integrating the device within a biological system.
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Making Sure the Internet Delivers
ICT Results (07/04/08)

The European Go4IT project has developed free software suites that businesses can use to test whether their software will work with Internet Protocol version 6 (IPv6). Internet applications are currently being re-engineered in anticipation of the transition to IPv6, but before companies can make IPv6 products available they must be tested for performance, standards compatibility, and interoperability. In addition to IP test suites, Go4IT researchers have proposed new Testing and Test Control Notation-3 (TTCN-3) specifications for IPv6 compatible Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol-type servers. TTCN-3 is a computer language developed to test telecommunications software that has received the support of major commercial companies. Project leaders say the Go4IT TTCN-3 test suites will also be useful to a variety of other industry sectors. The Go4IT team has established a global open source community devoted to the development of TTCN-3 tests. The open source approach to TTCN-3 development allows small and medium businesses and academics to participate in the development of the standard, and has accelerated the development and acceptance of TTCN-3.
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Doctor Establishes Brain-Computer Interface Lab
Daily Gleaner (CAN) (07/02/08) Dobrovnik, Frank

A brain-computer interface (BCI) lab has been founded by Algoma University professor George Townsend, who is pursuing a patent for technology that might one day give paralysis victims the ability to communicate, send email, and surf the Internet using brain signals. The technology is designed to enable computers to recognize these signals and translate them into action. One of the biggest hindrances to the development of BCI technology is cost: An electroencephalograph amplifier that measures electrical activity generated by the brain as recorded from electrodes positioned on the scalp typically costs as much as $10,000. Townsend and intern Michael Lajoie are working on technology for extremely small EEG microchips that they hope will eventually lower the cost to "a few hundred dollars at most," Townsend says. He adds that in addition to being cheaper, the microchips will be more reliable. Townsend admits that BCI technology is still in an early developmental phase, and suffers from clumsiness. The current system requires subjects to focus on a screen of 72 letters, numbers, punctuation marks, and short commands, so that the computer can "read" the one the subject is focusing on by registering a change in his brainwaves.
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Google Releases 'Protocol Buffers' Data Language
InformationWeek (07/07/08) Claburn, Thomas

Google has released its Protocol Buffers data description language as open source software. Initially developed for internal use, Protocol Buffers is a simpler, smaller, and faster alternative to XML. "It's the way we encode almost any sort of structured information which needs to be passed across the network or stored on disk," says Google's Chris DiBona. Google's Kenton Varda says the company developed Protocol Buffers because it uses thousands of different data formats, most of which are structured, and XML is unable to handle such large-scale encoding. "By sticking to a simple lists-and-records model that solves the majority of problems and resisting the desire to chase diminishing returns, we believe we have created something that is powerful without being bloated," Varda says. Protocol Buffers files are said to be three to 10 times smaller than comparable XML files and can be parsed 20 to 100 times faster. However, Google says files such as text documents will work better with XML.
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As Web Traffic Grows, Crashes Take Bigger Toll
New York Times (07/06/08) P. 1; Stone, Brad

The Internet has become an essential part of many businesses and personal lives, which is why when a Web site goes down it can be devastating. About a month ago, Amazon.com's site was shut down for several hours over two business days, costing the company an estimated loss of a million dollars an hour in sales. The Internet has always been susceptible to unforeseen problems, but fewer people used the Internet in its early days and the importance of a company's Web site was significantly less than it is today. Companies that provide online services need to provide around-the-clock availability, which even some of the Internet's biggest and most successful companies occasionally have trouble doing. The problems that cause blackouts can vary from unintended consequences resulting from system upgrades, to human error, to old-fashioned electrical failure. In June, an electrical explosion in a Houston data center of a Web hosting company caused thousands of Web businesses to be inaccessible for up to five days. Web addicts who find themselves unable to access their favorite sites often write angry posts on Web sites and blogs about the down site's failure to keep promises. Former Amazon executive Jesse Robbins, who was responsible for keeping Amazon online from 2004 to 2006, says outcries over Web site failures are understandable. "When these sites go away, it's a sudden loss," he says. "It's like you are standing in the middle of Macy's and the power goes out." Robbins says Web services should be held to the same standard of reliability as the offline service they aim to replace.
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Will the QC Kill the PC?
Telegraph.co.uk (07/01/08) Highfield, Roger

Quantum computing experts project that working quantum computers could be realized in a matter of years as experiments demonstrating their practical applications stoke enthusiasm. "I believe that in 20 years at the most, quantum computers will be used in everyday life on people's desktops," says Vienna University quantum physicist Anton Zeilinger. Physicists are convinced that quantum computers could perform many calculations concurrently by tapping the unique properties of small particles, such as their ability to be in two places--or in two different states--at once. In quantum computers, the atoms and subatomic particles that act as switches can be on and off at the same time, and the quantum bit, or qubit, can be engaged in multiple calculations. In addition to computing speed advances, quantum computers could be used to mine the unstructured data on the Internet for video and images rather than for keywords, and facilitate more realistic game play in video games by adding a truly random element, to name a few examples. The possibility that quantum computing could be used to defeat cryptographic security measures is worrisome, while another security-related aspect of quantum computing is its ability to detect people who try to intercept quantum-encrypted data by exploiting a phenomenon in which the state of a quantum particle is changed by the act of observation. Zeilinger says that communication between quantum computers could be effected by entangled particles. MIT professor Seth Lloyd has conducted research demonstrating that quantum computing could be employed to maintain the privacy of personal information.
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Most Network Data Sits Untouched
Government Computer News (07/01/08) Jackson, Joab

Most data on enterprise networks rarely gets accessed after it is stored, largely because users are too busy writing new data to access old data, researchers say. University of California computer science researcher Andrew Leung presented these findings at the recent USENIX conference in Boston. Leung says because much of an organization's data rarely gets accessed, organizations should consider moving their data to slower but less expensive storage units. The researchers studied the traffic flow on NetApp's enterprise file servers, which manage more than 22 terabytes of material. Leung says the study is the first large-scale examination of network traffic patterns. "How people have been deploying network file systems has been changing over the past five to 10 years," Leung says. During the three-month observation period, more than 90 percent of the material on the servers was never accessed. Additionally, among the files that were opened, 65 percent were only opened once, and most of the other files accessed were opened five times or fewer. However, about a dozen files were opened 100,000 times or more. The researchers also noticed that the ratio of data being read from storage versus the amount of data written to storage had changed from what had been seen in previous studies. Bytes written compared to bytes read was a ratio of about 2-1, while previous ratios saw read-to-write ratios of 4-1 or higher. "The workloads are becoming more write-oriented, so the decrease in read-only traffic and the increase in write traffic suggests that file systems want to be more write-oriented," Leung says.
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Electronic Path to Bridge Safety
The Australian (Australia) (07/01/08) Foreshew, Jennifer

Australian researchers are developing bridge management software that uses an artificial neural network to predict the safety of 10,000 bridges in Queensland, Australia. Griffith University's Michael Blumenstein says the artificial intelligence (AI) technologies used in the system will improve maintenance strategies and minimize costs. "We are trying to incorporate our technology into a bridge management system for the purpose of assisting predictions of bridge deterioration, inspection, and maintenance," Blumenstein says. He says the technology could save between 10 to 20 percent on bridge maintenance costs. The software uses the artificial neural network to learn from the historical performance of a bridge and predict future problems. The system can reconstruct the past by generating missing historical performance data on older bridges. "We are taking data that is available from inspection records and we are using that to back-predict and fill in the gaps to produce a larger historical record so we can predict future deterioration issues for bridges," Blumenstein says. The AI technologies are used in conjunction with routine inspections to generate data that fills in the large missing gaps between inspections. The goal is to be able to input variables such as bridge location, construction and material type, weather conditions, and traffic volume and predict the structural condition of the bridge. The researchers have tested the system using data from Maryland's Department of Transportation in the United States.
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The SocialDNS Project ... and Why DNS Is Not the Phone Book of the Internet
CircleID (06/30/08) Lopez, Pedro Garcia

The SocialDNS Project is a unique naming and directory system for the Web that is designed to become an open standard with scores of top-level domains (TLDs) and to complement the existing Domain Name System to provide advanced services that the current infrastructure for Web settings cannot support, writes computer engineering professor Pedro Garcia Lopez at Spain's Rovira i Virgili University. The system's major benefits include limitless TLDs because of no restrictions for assigning names and TLDs. SocialDNS also offers a directory service and cloud search engine, and the support of additional metadata fields besides description, tags, and geotags. SocialDNS' services and information are based on open systems, and thus are public and free, says Garcia Lopez. "Third-party search engines and tools can parse and index this information without cost or restrictions," he notes. The WebTLD server software is available as open source in Sourceforge, which means that everyone can study the system's workings. Another advantage of SocialDNS is its ability to facilitate the development of meta-services around domain names. Challenges to the proper development of SocialDNS that Garcia Lopez identifies include the threat of domain name speculation, which must be countered by a combination of simple naming policies and conflict resolution schemes; the selection and rewarding of moderators; system scalability for the root TLD; and clashes with ICANN and DNS registrars, which will be avoided through SocialDNS' maintenance of ownership in its namespace for TLDs assigned by ICANN.
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Identity Problems
National Journal (07/05/08) Vol. 40, No. 27, P. 22; Carney, Eliza Newlin

Outfitting virtually all U.S. citizens with fraud-resistant IDs has proven to be a major challenge from a practical as well as emotional point of view, with a multitude of technical, legislative, administrative, and ethical obstacles impeding progress. Events and trends fueling the drive for more reliable IDs include the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the push to deter illegal immigration, credit-driven commerce, the threat of identity theft, and technological innovations in identity verification methods. A sore point among various parties is the Real ID Act, which has come under fire for being passed without public debate or hearings, and for receiving inadequate federal funding. Real ID sets up federal standards for issuing driver's licenses, and dictates that states must link their databases in order to enforce the law's prohibition on drivers holding licenses from multiple states, which critics warn would create an irresistible target for hackers and ID thieves. Some experts believe a national, biometric ID card is the solution. "Right now, we are proceeding in hundreds of different ways, for dozens of different IDs, at tremendous expense," says Robert Pastor, co-director of American University's Center for Democracy and Election Management. Privacy experts favor a scheme in which Americans carry multiple smart cards with different applications, arguing that a single ID would reduce Americans' security. "Uniformity in IDs across the country would create economies of scale" for snoops and could help bring about a surveillance society, warns the Cato Institute's Jim Harper.
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Incubating Next-Gen.Edu
Campus Technology (06/08) Vol. 21, No. 10, P. 26; Schaffhauser, Dian

Incubator classrooms can serve as testbeds for new technologies and teaching and learning concepts to see which ones work best prior to a broader campus implementation, and several universities are engaged in such initiatives. The University of California-Riverside's project includes "flex classrooms" equipped with wraparound whiteboards, movable tables and chairs, and dual-projection systems with multiple control points, as well as the Hyperconstruction Studio, a space for testing new technologies before rolling them out in classrooms. Among the studio's features are slate and maple tables to allow flexible groupings, carpeting arranged in contrasting squares to aid in the creation of groupings, a sophisticated video wall and instructor workstation, and multiple displays, all of which are arranged to create an atmosphere "where everyone is engaged with everyone else," says UC-Riverside's Leo Schouest. The creation and presentation of new ideas--and the technology controls--are also physically separated, and both students and instructors are empowered to present information and make annotations on any or all of the displays in the room, from any of the room's computer terminals. Meanwhile, Santa Clara University has set up its new Learning Commons, Technology Center, and Library, which features incubator rooms configured for power and networking, and to support a wide array of potential applications. The rooms include ceiling-mounted projectors, electric motorized screens, audio-video hookups, and video recording facilities, while other spaces in the building boast flexible configuration. SCU CIO Ron Danielson hopes that these experimental spaces will encourage faculty to rethink the kinds of classroom spaces they want and need.
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