Conn’s HomePlus CIO Todd Renaud spent the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic’s office shutdowns and store restrictions “just trying to get through the next day.” One month later, he’s setting his sights on what the next new normal might be, and what it will mean to the appliance retailer’s IT strategy over the next year.
“I’m going to assume that our remote workforce will be a larger percent than it is today,” he says. “How will that impact the company, assets and data? I’m thinking about the impact in our stores if we continue to have restrictions on the number of people” inside and other safety requirements. For example, Renaud is considering videoconferencing capabilities that could enable customers to virtually walk through the store with a sales rep serving as a guide to simulate an in-store sales experience.
“The unspoken expectation is of me staying as far ahead of the curve from a technology and an impact perspective as I can,” Renaud says.
That same expectation has been heaped onto most CIOs as organizations look to technology to help them pivot quickly. The coronavirus pandemic is affecting IT leaders’ roles and priorities, and forcing them to consider its long-term impact on their IT organizations and on business as a whole.
An IDG survey of 414 IT leaders in April found that most budgets will either hold steady or increase in the next 12 months. They also expect a renewed emphasis on operational efficiency, expense management and cost controls. Meanwhile, business collaboration, hiring and training will take a back seat in the coming months. CIO.com compared these responses to its 2020 State of the CIO Survey, which posed similar questions to IT leaders in September 2019 about their organizations’ IT budgets and priorities for the coming year.
Disclosure: Most of the vendors mentioned are clients of the author.
This last week was surprisingly busy, given that most of us are locked in our homes, trying to recall what normal is like. Microsoft announced significant changes with its Chromium Edge browser that significantly addressed the problems we focused on before the pandemic, and both Intel and AMD drove laptop refreshes.
Still, those designs originated from conditions that existed before the Pandemic, not the world that now exists.
So let’s talk about where I think the next security focus for browsers will be and what laptops post COVID-19 may begin to look like this week.
Browser user protection
The Chromium-based Edge browser is a wonder in that it combines the core code from Google with the unique user-oriented features from Microsoft. It is my Go-To browser, and these updates include better password management (including Dark Web alerting) and far more aggressive privacy features eliminating tracking and history when needed. They also include a whole host of productivity features like preserving formatting with copy and past and vastly improved favorites management.
All of those things are still important. But with the COVID-19 outbreak, another more substantial threat has become far more problematic: false information.
Atlas VPN research just released a study showing there has been a whopping 1,900% increase in scam websites from February to March – and as of April 2, 35,500 websites were pushing false information and products. According to VPN Research, Interpol is reporting that people in Europe have been scammed out of $2 million, with individual losses as much as $100,000 each. And this is still just the start.
So I expect that the next version of Microsoft Edge Chromium will have a feature that helps users identify scam sites and fake news, much as Microsoft addressed the threats from last year with the current release.
The way we worked with laptops before the outbreak is that they generally went to highly mobile people; thus, the emphasis was on size, weight, and battery life, not performance or large screen size. The most common size was, and is, 13 inches, which is great for portability but not that great for productivity. Now, while road warriors won’t go away, the demand is for a product that gives you a home office with full functionality, that can help you work where you need to be, whether that be in the living room or kitchen while you watch your kids.
Performance becomes more critical because you’ll probably not only be doing more creative work; you are also going to want to unwind (with games) – making performance, screen size, and productivity more important than portability. I’m going back and forth on battery life because, while that may not be critical in the living room or kitchen, it could be necessary on the patio and to avoid cord trip hazards.
As I was thinking on this, HP sent over an HP Envy 17; I think it is an ideal configuration for those working from home than a 13-in. laptop. It has a 17-in. screen, the 10th Generation Intel Core i7 processor, an NVIDIA GeForce MX330 discrete graphics system, Wi-Fi 6, 124GB of memory, and a 512GB drive. It does weigh 6 pounds, and the four-cell battery will only give you a few hours of battery life. But that is adequate when you are mostly stationary and are rarely away from a plug. (It also appears to have decent Bang & Olufsen speakers in case you want to drown out the kids.)
Given the current-use model, this design makes more sense to me – though for a future product, I’d want a higher NIT screen so it would work outside better and some cosmetic changes that might make it easier to disinfect.
I also wonder whether the market would now accept a 21-in. product, given the changed usage model. For this kind of work-at-home model, a larger screen, more power, and a more easily cleaned format will – if this pandemic goes on for months – become a much more viable option.
We are going to see a lot of changes as a result of COVID-19. I’ve focused on two in terms of browser security focus and laptop design. We are working very differently, and until an anti-virus exists, most of us will likely still be working from home, avoiding travel, and keeping away from significant events. I doubt CES 2021 will happen because we aren’t expected to have an anti-virus until at least next February.
The related behavior changes also suggest that if you are buying a new laptop, you may want to adjust your priorities to take into account your current needs and not buy based on what they might have been the standard before the outbreak. Consider something more substantial, with more performance over smaller designs because the size of the display does matter, and productivity, not portability, is what pays your bills.
The nice and renice commands let you fine-tune how the kernel treats your processes by adjusting their priorities. Read this tutorial to learn how to use them in Linux and Unix-like operating systems such as macOS.
It’s All a Matter of Process
Inside your Linux or Unix-like computer, there will be many processes running even before you launch the application you want to use. The majority of these processes are vital elements of Linux itself or supporting processes for your graphical desktop environment. There’s a lot going on behind the scenes. Of course, there are only so many system resources and CPU time to go around. The Linux kernel is the controller for all of these processes.
It is the kernel that has to decide which processes get attention and resources right now, and which ones have to wait. The kernel is continually juggling processes and priorities to ensure that the computer runs as smoothly as it can and that all processes get their appropriate share. Some processes get preferential treatment. They are so important to the general operation of the computer that their needs have to come first ahead of, say, your browser.
The nice Value
One of the criteria used to determine how the kernel treats a process is the nice value. Every process has a nice value. The nice value is an integer in the range of -19 to 20. All standard processes are launched with a nice value of zero.
The trick here is that the higher the nice value, the nicer your process is being to the other processes. In other words, a high nice value tells the kernel that this process is happy to wait. A negative number is the opposite of being nice. The larger the negative nice value, the more selfish the process is. It is trying to get as much CPU time as it can, with no regard for the other processes.
We can use the nice command to adjust the nice value for a program as we launch it. This allows us to increase or decrease the priority given to the process by the kernel, relative to the other processes.
Let’s suppose a programmer has written a program called ackermann . This calculates Ackerman functions. It is CPU and memory intensive. The programmer can launch the program with the following command:
We can use the top command to view the running program.
We can see the details of the ackermann program in top. The nice value is the figure in the “NI column”. It set to zero as we’d expect.
Let’s restart it and this time make it less demanding. We’ll set a nice value of 15 for the ackermann program as follows. Type nice, a space, -15, another space, and then the name of the program you wish to launch. In our example, our fictitious programmer is using ./ackermann.
nice -15 ./ackermann
Take careful note, the “-15” is not negative fifteen. It is positive fifteen. The “-” is required to tell nice we’re passing in a parameter. To indicate a negative number you must type two “-” characters.
If we now start top again, we can see the change in the behavior of ackermann.
With a nice value of 15, ackermann is not consuming the most CPU time. GNOME and Rhythmbox are both using more. We’ve reined ackermann in a bit.
Now let’s do the reverse and give ackermann a negative nice value. Note the use of two “-” characters. To make an application more selfish and less nice, you must use sudo. Anyone can make their application more nice, but only superusers can make one more selfish.
sudo nice --10 ./ackermann
Let’s run top and see what difference that has made.
This time ackermann has a nice value of -10. It is back on the top line and consuming more CPU time than before.
The renice Command
The renice command lets us adjust the nice value of a running process. We don’t need to stop it and relaunch it with nice. We can set a new value on-the-fly.
The renice command takes the process ID, or PID, of the process as a command line parameter. We can either extract the process ID from the “PID” column in top , or we can use ps and grep to find it for us, as follows. Obviously, you’ll type the name of your user instead of dave and the name of the process you’re interested in instead of ackermann.
ps -eu dave | grep ackermann
Now that we have the PID we can use this with renice. We’re going to set ackermann back to a nicer behavior with a nice value of five. To change the nice value for a running process you must use sudo. Note that there is no “-” on the 5 parameter. You don’t need one for positive numbers and you only need one, not two, for negative numbers.
sudo renice -n 5 2339
We get confirmation that renice has changed the nice value. It shows us the old value and the new value.
The kernel usually does a great job of handling priorities and handing out CPU time and systems resources. But if you have a long, CPU intensive task to run and you don’t care when it concludes, it’ll make your computer run a bit smoother if you set a higher nice value for that task. That will be nicer for everyone.