Vigilance is Best Prescription for Viruses

Do you remember Blaster, the computer virus that hit Trinity last summer? Well, the information technology staff certainly does. That virus and others like it have the potential to interrupt the normal transfer of information through computer networks all over the world. And while Blaster managed to clog up the College’s system and slow operations considerably, it could have been a lot worse. “Blaster was pretty bad,” explains Angie Wolf, director of I.T. planning and operations. “It took advantage of a hole in the Windows operating system. Once it was able to exploit one machine, it automatically infected most computers on the campus network. There was no patch at that time to block it. Considering what happened at some other places across the country and around the world, however, we did okay.”

A virus is essentially a computer program that is designed and written, with malicious intent, to make additional copies of itself and spread from location to location. When a computer virus is introduced into a network, it searches for security holes, known as exploits, in the system and then enters a particular computer via that hole. Once it has identified an exploit, it quickly locates identical holes in other computers throughout the network. Viruses don’t infect the network itself, but instead that is the vehicle by which they typically spread. In a high-speed network, like Trinity’s, it doesn’t take long for a virus to infect a large number of machines. Viruses can also be sent through e-mail and can be activated by opening an infected file or running an infected program. Users can minimize the risk of exposure by promptly installing all security updates and by not opening files or attachments from unfamiliar sources.

The College’s information technology department is vigilant it its ongoing mission to identify and destroy any viruses that find their way into the network. There is a server in the Computing Center whose sole responsibility is to check for viruses against a database of known virus definitions. The I.T. staff also downloads patches, to “patch” the “holes,” and distributes them along the network to prevent future outbreaks of known viruses. While that might not sound like too difficult a task, at any given time there are over 3,000 computers on Trinity’s network that require monitoring. Additionally, Computing Center staff members created a segmented network, known as the “Twilight Zone,” in which they can isolate any infected machines. As a result of these and other adjustments, including improved patches and a more efficient mechanism for their distribution, Trinity is better able to deal with potential threats than it was a year ago.

“Viruses are created by people who have nothing better to do,” says Jason Luis, manager of student services and the help desk. “Sometimes they’re involved in a contest of ‘one-upmanship’ with someone else—we know that sort of thing has been written into virus codes. But they can cause big problems at a place like Trinity just because of the sheer number of machines in use. A virus restricts the bandwidth by over-saturation and bogs down the whole network. Everyone on campus can really help us by not opening attachments that are questionable, and by letting us know immediately if there is a problem. That’s what we’re here for.”

For further information and frequently asked questions about viruses, please go to: www.trincoll.edu/depts/cc/virus.htm.

 

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