Fighting Superfish with White Box PCs and Virtual Machines

Everyone in the tech business has heard about the Komodia/Superfish debacle by now.  If you haven’t heard about it yet, have a quick look here at Lenovo’s Superfish mess.  Basically, Lenovo personal computers were coming pre-installed with some crapware called Superfish (which in turn utilized code from Komodia).  If you are not familiar with the term crapware, it’s slang for the 3rd party software that certain PC manufacturers pre-install on their systems.  Superfish is “search softtware” that is designed to intercept Google search results and modify the results to serve up custom ads.  While this is ugly enough on its own, it gets worse, much worse.   This software executed some hacks that rendered encrypted communications (HTTPS) as unencrypted communications when used over shared WiFi connections.   The Komodia code that they used to implement this installs as a a rootkit, making it very, very hard to get rid of it. Lenovo claims that this software was “only” installed on consumer-grade computers — which does not mean much in the “bring your own device” era.  Hardware vendors like Lenovo are selling the rights to your desktops to the highest bidders, and with the likes of Superfish you can see how dangerous this can be.  The class action lawsuits have already begun.   Good.

The Apple fanboys and Linux desktop fanboys will be jumping all over this post, claiming that THEIR computers don’t have crapware on them.   (I’m a MacBook Pro guy myself).  I’m not going to argue that case.  Let’s just agree that most companies have already standardized on Windows desktops and laptops.   It is much more difficult for a company to switch from Windows to Linux or Mac OS than it is to simply stay on Windows. 

Crapware has always been annoying, but this crosses the line.  That’s why we’ve started seeing white-box computers appearing in our portfolio.  What’s a white box computer?  Basically you buy the various parts: motherboard, disk, memory, network cards, power supply, the operating system and you put together the PC yourself.  It requires a bit of extra work, but it gives you the opportunity to build lean and mean computers.   It’s a little harder to do with laptops, as most people are not going to build their own laptops from parts.  You can come close by simply buying branded laptops and then wiping and reloading them from scratch.   Again, by loading the operating system from an image that you build and maintain, you have very fine grain control over what gets loaded onto your machines — and what DOESN’T get loaded on them — and that means you, Superfish.

There are certainly challenges with this approach,  but it is getting easier everyday with the advent of bare metal hypervisors.  You load a hypervisor onto the iron and then install a virtual machine to run your desktop operating system.  We use a variation of this approach, a hosted hypervisor from Parallels, to run Windows on our MacBooks here at ParkerGale.   Large companies with dedicated internal IT hardware teams have been doing this for years.   It’s time to start doing the same thing in the middle market.  If you lack the dedicated resources, then outsource the work to a local partner.  You get the benefit of having highly customized Windows configurations installed on your machines, which can include your company’s customized desktop software.   You also get the benefit of insuring that garbage like Superfish isn’t being installed on your machines.