Computer Acronyms Detangled – SSL

Man, do computer technicians ever love their acronyms!  TCP/IP, DHCP, DNS, OWA, RDP, RCP, WINS, CMOS, BIOS, PCMCIA; I could list them all day, and the funny thing is that if there’s any other geeks reading this, they can probably tell me exactly what each and every one of those means.  (There’s even a running joke about the last one:  “People Can’t Memorize Computer Industry Acronyms”)  In this series of articles, I’m going to tackle SSL Certificate Computer Networksome of the acronyms that you might need to know in order to get your business computing environment up to spec.  I’ve decided to start with a technology that has become more and more prominent as time goes on; the infamous SSL or Secure Socket Layer.

SSL is a technology that is used primarily on websites.  If you’ve ever done online banking or purchased something from amazon.com, you’ve probably noticed the little padlock that appears on the top of your web browser.  This icon symbolizes that you have an SSL connection to the server.  The function of this is twofold:

  1. It verifies the identity of the website in question, thus preventing sites from typosquatting or cybersquatting, as discussed in my virus article. Obviously, if you are going to share financial or credit card information with a website, you want to make sure that the recipient is who you think it is!
  2. It prevents a hacker from intercepting your data stream and decoding the information (account numbers, passwords, etc) that are flying back and forth across the internet.

The necessity of such technology is obvious for banks, but what does this have to do with the local Naples widget manufacturer?  Well, Microsoft in their infinite wisdom decided to make SSL mandatory for all external Exchange communication starting with their 2007 products.  What this means is that if you are running Exchange Server and you want to check your email from offsite, SSL is now required.  I am glad that Microsoft supports SSL, but there has been a bit of an uproar in the community concerning their decision to make it mandatory.

Well, since it’s now mandatory, is it that big a deal to get it installed on your server?  Well, yes and no.  The biggest problem is that certificates aren’t free; they require yearly registration, similar to a domain name.  The cost is reasonable, but it’s unfortunate to have to deal with this added expense when IT budgets are already stretched to the limit.  Installing SSL on the server for the first time can be a bit of a process, especially if you don’t have ready access to your domain info and passwords.  Server certificates should only be installed by a qualified network technician.

Networking Services SSL

The good news is that once they are running, all you need to do is renew them every year (or every 5 years or more, if you want to prepay) and they pretty much take care of themselves as long as you don’t change domain names.  You will also have the peace of mind which comes with knowing that all email communications between your PC and your server are secure and hack-proof, so even if Microsoft didn’t require them, they are still a good idea to have.  Most computer technicians will recommend SSL certificates as part of any server install, but hopefully after reading this article, you’ll have a little better idea of what they are, and what you’re getting for your money.

Paul Nicodemi

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