Jan 25, 2006
It is becoming more and more difficult to surf the web safely. Consider the WMF flaw, which made the headlines in late 2005. The simple act of loading an image led to thousands of people becoming infected with malware.
It didn't matter if they had all their patches installed and if they had all manner of protective software running. It didn't matter which browser they were using. All it took was one bad graphic and they were infected.
Although it may seem hopeless, you still can surf the web in safety. In fact, you can surf in complete safety, without the slightest worry that something bad is going to happen from it. Let me introduce you to the VMware Browser Appliance.
VMware Inc. makes several virtual machine emulators. These are programs which pretend to be computers. A virtual machine allows the user to work with one operating system, inside of a window, that is running on another operating system.
VMware has released a free virtual machine player. You can't create a VM (virtual machine) with it. You can use a VM put together by someone else. VMware has put together a number of VMs and offers them for free on their web site. One of these VMs is the Browser Appliance.
The Browser Appliance is a virtual machine running a very minimal installation of the Ubuntu Linux operating system. By default, only a very few programs are installed. The most important of these programs is Firefox, which is what you are going to use to surf the web.
Surfing the web with the Browser Appliance is 99.9% safe. There are a number of very good reasons for this.
I will concede that, despite what I said in my newsletter recently, the Browser Appliance is not 100% safe. I'll grant the .1% chance that something might defeat all of this security. However, I believe aliens will invade Kansas before it happens.
Of course, you could always download a program yourself that installs spyware and transfer it to your real computer. The weakest link in any chain of security is the end user. Nothing but common sense can help that.
First, let's check to see if your computer can use the Browser Appliance.
This is taken from VMware's Player FAQ page:
What are the minimum PC requirements to install and use VMware Player?
For a typical host system, we recommend that you have a 400MHz or faster processor (500MHz recommended) and 128MB RAM minimum (256MB RAM recommended). You must have enough memory to run the host operating system, plus the memory required for each guest operating system and for applications on the host and guest. See your guest operating system and application documentation for their memory requirements. VMware Player requires approximately 150MB of disk space to install the application. For more details on minimum PC requirements, see the Player specs.
Any computer built in the last few years will meet those requirements easily.
Download and install the virtual machine player, then download the Browser Appliance. If you have a different, current VMware product installed already, then you probably won't need the VMware Player to use the Browser Appliance.
Both of these are very large downloads, especially the Browser Appliance. If you connect to the internet over dialup, it is going to take hours to download them. Be patient - it is worth the wait.
The Browser Appliance comes in a zip file. Unzip the folder that is inside and save it somewhere (I suggest My Documents\vmplayer\). After you have done that, be sure to save the zip file somewhere, in case you need an unaltered copy of it. If you mess up the Appliance and need a fresh copy, you certainly don't want to have to download it again.
If the Browser Appliance does become messed up, you merely have to delete the folder and unzip the copy you saved. If only all computer problems were that easy to fix.
Open the vm player, navigate to where you saved the unzipped folder and load the Browser Appliance file (Browser-Appliance.vmx). Ubuntu Linux will boot up and log into a Gnome graphical desktop, then pop up a copy of Firefox. If you have never used Firefox before, click the "Getting Started" link in the bookmark toolbar for information.
When you are done with it, just click the X button to close the VM Player window. It will minimize itself, suspend Ubuntu and then close. The next time you start it up, it will load much faster.
This is Linux, which means that Internet Explorer is not an option (*see note below). It means that any page requiring ActiveX will not work. Generally, that is a good thing, since ActiveX can be dangerous. However, if you have a favorite site which uses safe ActiveX, you can't use it with the Browser Appliance.
You cannot watch movies on the Browser Appliance, whether embedded within web pages or downloaded. The only exception is if a site embeds a movie within the Flash player. I fought with it for hours - literally - trying to make it play movies. All I managed to accomplish was to crash the appliance several times.
For some reason, you cannot change the screen resolution to anything above 1024 x 768, even if you edit the .vmx file. That's a pain in the butt, if your real computer uses a much higher resolution.
*Actually, Internet Explorer is an option - just not a very easy one. I will try it myself and update this article, if I manage to make it work.
Just because you are now safe while surfing the web does not mean that you can neglect security on your real computer. You still have to connect it to the internet in order to make the Browser Appliance work. Make certain that you install security updates, an antivirus and a firewall for your computer.
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