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Blogs: Another Tool in the Security Pro's Toolkit (Part One)
Scott Granneman, 2003-07-16

My name is Scott, and I'm an information addict.

I'll admit, I love information. No, make that I love and need information. If you're interested in keeping up with trends and changes in security, you're probably an information addict as well. You absorb security-related information and then ponder, examine, and analyze it before reshaping it in a way that helps protect your data, your systems, and your networks.

Here's the problem: security delayed is security denied. There is more information than you can read or absorb. That means you might miss some key points, trends, warnings, or fixes. And the price for missing them can be enormous.

There is a solution. You can feed your addiction, get better security results, and spend less time doing it. I'm living proof. In order to gather information, I use the Web, of course, and email. In fact, I once subscribed to an unbelievable number of email newsletters. But lately, I've unsubscribed to many of them. Yet my gathering of information has increased in terms of content, timeliness, efficiency, and effectiveness. You can experience the same benefits. How?

Blogs.

What the Heck is a Blog?

It's short for "Web log." Blogs have been gaining in popularity over the last several years as Web journals, usually composed of short, pithy postings around an area of interest, and they almost always appear in reverse chronological order so that the newest items are at the top of the Web page. To see a blog in action, take a look at one of my favorites, "Wi-Fi Networking News," and then head back.

(pause)

Let's continue. That pause was necessary because you have to see a blog in action to understand blogs. You can start to reap their value in three ways: by reading them on the Web, by getting an automatic feed of their content, or by writing them. "Wi-Fi Networking News" has all the characteristics of a good blog. It's both private and public. It is one person's views on things, but it's published for the world to see and react to. It's informal, but informative. It displays the author's interests, passions, and mastery (or at least incisive curiosity) of his subject. It is up-to-date and relevant.

Wi-Fi Networking News is a great blog, but if you want to keep up with everything on the site you'd have to visit it every day. You could bookmark it, but as you find other great blogs, you'd have to bookmark those others as well. Eventually, you'd give up on that process. Security pros are too busy to view all the sites they find useful, and even if a blog is really, really useful and really, really cool, most people are not going to make it part of their daily or even weekly routine to come visit it. This is a serious limitation with blogs, but there is a solution: RSS.

"RSS" is an acronym for several things, but in this instance, it's "Really Simple Syndication." It is a variant of XML that is designed not for people, but for programs called "RSS aggregators" or "news aggregators." Most blogs make it easy to post new entries; even better, most blogs automatically turn new posts into RSS feeds so news aggregators can subscribe to the feeds and gather the latest news without having to go to the blog.

Try it. Download a news aggregator (most are free, and those that cost money are pretty inexpensive), or create a Web-based aggregator. Some lists of RSS aggregators can be found at Google Directory, hebig.org, and Abbe Normal. Once you've installed and set up your aggregator, enter in this URL as an RSS feed you'd like to subscribe to: http://wifinetnews.com/index.rdf. You should now be subscribed to the Wi-Fi Networking News RSS feed. Once an hour or so, your news aggregator will poll that URL to see if there are any new additions. If there are, they will show up in your news aggregator. If there are not, nothing will happen, and the URL will be polled again in another hour. It's really pretty simple.

Blogs fulfill several needs that can make them superior to email in certain information-gathering situations. Email listservs tend to produce a flood of poorly targeted material, often covering subjects outside the supposed topic of the list. Blogs, on the other hand, cover topics you find relevant and are written by people who know what they're talking about. If you don't find a blog useful, unsubscribe from its feed.

When I was subscribed to Wired News' email notification service, I received an email each day listing several of the latest news stories. I didn't always have time to check out that one story I wanted to examine. Days later, I would have to parse the entire email to find it, a real time-waster. Now, I get Wired News in my blog. I delete the stories I don't want to read, and keep the one or two that pique my interest. I return to my list at any time, knowing I'll see only the items of interest. That's much faster, and much more efficient. And since my aggregator is Web-based, I can search those items at any time, and sort them in any way that suits my needs. It's my information, when I want it, the way I want it.

Should You (Or Your Organization) Blog?

So you know the value of a blog, and how you can subscribe to a blog's RSS feed. Now comes the question: should I write my own blog?

First, consider your audience. Blogs don't have to be world-readable: they can be organization-readable. If you want to create a blog just for your fellow employees, you can (and you might find it's an excellent knowledge management tool). Just host it internally and keep it behind the firewall. Remember that whether your blog is for the Internet or your intranet, since it's Web-based you can keep track of visitors using common log analysis software and that can help you better serve your audience.

The most important factor you should consider is your enjoyment of writing. A good blog requires a dedicated author. That doesn't mean you need to post every hour, but you should plan to post regularly. If you don't enjoy writing, you probably won't enjoy blogging.

If you want to try blogging, you need some blogging software. A good list can be found at Google Directory or at Al Macintyre's Radio Weblog or, if you're interested in using a third-party to host your blog, check out this page at Google Directory. The most-used tools are probably Radio Userland, Movable Type, and Blogger. Most blogging software is free; most hosting services cost a small amount of money.

Next, start writing. A common tack is to post a link to an item in the news and react to it. This could be an excellent value-add for your readers. If you see a news story that you think should get wider circulation, then post a link and tell folks why they should be concerned. If you find a new tool, or develop a new process, then post an explanation. If you get an email from a co-worker asking about a new virus that you know is a fake, then post the email (with permission) and patiently tell your readers not to buy into virus hoaxes. And if you read another blog's post and want to respond, by all means, include a link to the post and then give your take. The subjects you choose to blog are limited only by your imagination.

In my next column, I'll continue with some best practices new bloggers should consider following, and I'll provide links to some of the best security blogs on the Net. Until then, search Google for "security blog" and "security weblog" and see what you can find. I think you'll be pleasantly surprised.


Scott Granneman teaches at Washington University in St. Louis, consults for WebSanity, and writes for SecurityFocus and Linux Magazine. His latest book, Linux Phrasebook, is in stores now.
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