US 20050198039 A1
The invention disclosed herein enables a collection of computers and associated communications infrastructure to offer a new communications process which allows a requestor to receive configuration information of a computational device from a responder. The requestor first sends query documents that contain queries for configuration information of a computational device to the responder; the responder automatically collects the answers for the queries and sends a response document that contains the configuration information of the computational device to the requestor. The queries are written in a formal descriptive language which is transparent, safe for network evaluation, and extensible, and the configuration reader of the responder can parse the queries and automatically invoke a set of standard inspectors to obtain the corresponding configuration information.
1. A communications network, comprising:
a computational device;
a requester of configuration information of said computational device; and
a responder associated with said computational device further comprising:
a configuration reader for retrieving configuration information of said computational device;
wherein configuration information is securely transferred from said responder to said requestor.
This application is a divisional application of U.S. patent application Ser. No. 10/226,709, filed on Aug. 22, 2002 (Attorney Docket No. UNIV0004) which claims benefit of U.S. provisional patent application Ser. No. 60/314,775, filed on Aug. 24, 2001 (Attorney Docket No. UNIV0004PR).
The invention relates to a new process of communication using computers and associated communications infrastructure. More particularly, the invention relates to a method to obtain configuration information about a computational device and communicate that configuration information to a requester.
Nowadays computational devices are used in almost every area of our daily life, and the range of hardware devices and software applications installed on such devices, as well as the possible interactions and configuration options, is expanding rapidly. The development of the Internet and wireless communication networks adds another element—communications—where each device also has neighboring devices in its environment with which it interacts and communicates. Moreover, as devices become mobile, and as networks become dynamic—with devices being attached and withdrawn to networks in an ad-hoc fashion—describing the environment of a computational device becomes increasingly challenging and, at the same time, essential for understanding its function.
Against this background, we observe that an important task in many settings is to know the state or configuration of a remote computer. For example, it can be highly desirable for a vendor or technical support provider to know details of the configuration information of such a computational device in order to provide better customer service. Indeed, when the customer is experiencing difficulties with a product of the vendor, the technical support department of the vendor often needs to know the configuration information of the customer's computational device in order to trouble-shoot the product and provide a fix to solve the customer's problem. In another application, the technical ‘help desk’ of an enterprise—charged with keeping various personal computers, servers, and other network devices in good operating order—may need to know the configuration information of one or more such computational devices to perform trouble shooting or routine maintenance tasks. In another application, the manager of a ‘server farm’—charged with offering services across the Internet from an array of computational devices—may need to know the process status of one or more server devices.
We remark that the term configuration is best interpreted in a broad sense, including the location of mobile devices, the status of connected devices, the status of links to connected devices, the activity and configuration of devices in proximity, and the status of remote devices in a relationship of trust and intimacy.
In the current state of art, the method of requesting, gathering and transmitting of configuration information of a computational device is often informal, manual, insecure, and time-consuming. In the example of the technical support scenario, a support technician has to communicate with a customer over telephone (sometimes even for hours) to instruct the customer in step-by-step fashion how to collect the configuration information that the support technician needs. It is usually very tedious to explain the detailed steps that the customer must take to gather the information, and many customers are unable or unwilling to apply the concentrated effort it would require to obtain the needed information. As a result, the process—where attempted—is often frustrating and difficult. An alternative approach may include exchanging e-mails between the support technician and the customer. This approach still faces problems of customer compliance, and in addition, it exposes the configuration information of the computational device to the hackers over the Internet. Furthermore, this process—if it works at all—may require several rounds of e-mail exchange before the customer can collect the right configuration information that the support technician needs.
Still another approach might be to use remote program execution (RPE), which includes the steps of: dispatching a codebody from the requestor to the target computer; executing the codebody on the target computer; performing a computation which obtains the desired result, and returning the result to the requester. The persistent problem with RPE is security. Computational Devices offering RPE services are vulnerable to attack: if a general-purpose codebody is allowed to be remotely executed, this creates a security hole whereby hackers, impersonating the trusted authority or infiltrating the trusted domain, can insert general purpose programs which can be used to attack the remote machine. Perhaps more importantly, RPE is vulnerable to mistake, so that RPE is dangerous even in the presence of strong network security. Indeed, the configuration requester, operating in good faith, can make a mistake in writing its query which can create an “infinite loop” or similar resource bind on the target computer, rendering the computer useless. Therefore, RPE is a dangerous option to employ.
Donoho et al disclose in U.S. Pat. No. 6,262,362 a method for inspecting the properties of a computer, the computer's configuration, the contents of the computer's storage device, the computer's peripherals, the computer's environment, or the computer's affiliated computers. The method involves phrasing queries of the computational state in a formal language, called the relevance language, and then automatically evaluating the queries in order to probe the state of the computational device. The evaluation requires first parsing a relevance clause in the relevance language, and then translating that into a sequence of desired “inspector evaluations”. Inspectors are pre-defined measurement tools resident on the target computer. They are invoked to inspect the state of the computer. The invention also provides a method to extend the relevance language by building additional inspectors.
However, in the invention disclosed in the U.S. Pat. No. 6,262,362, the configuration information of computer is only used to perform relevance determination of an advice that is received by the computer. The primary purpose of the invention was not the communication or display of the configuration information, although it mentions a need to avoid the possibility of communicating information about a target computer to other party.
What is desired is a communication network that a configuration information provider retrieves the queries from a configuration requestor, interprets the queries and automatically builds a human-readable, easily understood answer set.
What is further desired is a communication network allowing a configuration provider to communicate the configuration information securely to the configuration requestor.
What is further desired is a communication network allowing a configuration requestor to view and compare the received configuration information from the configuration information provider.
What is further desired is that a process satisfying the above desiderata be transparent—the queries should be written in an intuitive and non-threatening language reminiscent of plain English or other natural language and the answers can be read and understood by non-experts.
What is further desired is that a process satisfying the above desiderata be safe—robust against poorly formed or mistaken queries—in fact so robust that no well-formed query can contain infinite loops and other resource-monopolizing features.
What is further desired is that a process satisfying the above desiderata is extensible—the query language can expand over time as new properties need to be examined, within a natural and secure scheme.
The invention disclosed herein enables a collection of computers and associated communications infrastructure to offer a new communications process. This process allows requestors to compose and transmit query documents containing queries about configuration information to one or more targeted computational devices for those devices to compose and transmit response documents containing corresponding configuration information to requestors.
This process supports efficient solutions to a variety of problems in modern life, including assistance for the technical support of modern computers, assistance for the management of enterprise computing networks, and assistance for the management of server farms and other network resources. One can envision applications in many other areas as well, for example in the management of home appliances (as home appliances evolve to become networked computing devices) and in the management of maintenance of complex systems like automobiles and aircraft (as they evolve towards modular systems combined together as networks of many computational devices). In the technical support application, the disclosed invention provides an automatic, secure and fast way for a support technician of a technical support organization to query for configuration information of a customer's PC and receive an accurate, comprehensive response. The configuration information is delivered in encrypted form until it reaches the secure zone of the technical support organization where it is decrypted. So the privacy of configuration information of the customer's PC is protected and the security is guaranteed.
The presently preferred embodiment of this invention is specially tuned to address the concerns of consumers and providers in a technical support application. This particular embodiment of the invention is summarized as follows:
The responder obtains an identity number from the provider and passes the identity number to a configuration query reader associated with the computational device. The requestor constructs a query document by associating a query script to the identity number and sends the query document from a private server 105 to a public server 104. The configuration query reader retrieves the query document, parses the queries, inspects the configuration, and obtains answers containing configuration information, constructs a response document, encrypts the response document and posts it to the public server 104. The private server 105 pulls the encrypted response document from the public server 104, decrypts the response document and displays it to the support technician.
The queries are written in a formal language called relevance language naming certain properties of the environment of the consumer computer, such as system configuration, file system contents, attached peripherals, or remotely accessible data. As a special purpose language explicitly for querying properties of computers, the relevance language has special features that make it distinguishable from a general programming language. These features include:
The configuration reader parses the queries written in the relevance language and invokes specific inspectors which can return specific properties of the computer, its configuration, its file system, or other component of interest. In effect, the list of properties of the environment which may be referred to in the relevance language is determined by the contents of the inspector library installed at run-time. Because the relevance language has an appearance similar to simplified English, it is very intuitive and non-threatening, and responder review and approval of information transfer is a reasonable option. Also, because the relevance language is a descriptive rather than procedural language, routine evaluation of relevance clauses offers a degree of safety not possible in traditional settings like remote program execution. For example, the relevance does not offer traditional programming language constructs, like do-loops, variables, and subroutine calls, which can cause infinite loops. In fact, the relevance language does not suffer from the famous Turing halting problem affecting high-level procedural languages. Every evaluation of a relevance clause must halt.
The existence of standard inspector libraries provides the requestor with a rich vocabulary for describing the state of the consumer computer and its environment. Since the collection of inspector libraries can be dynamically expanded by implementing new inspectors, the configuration information of the computational device the requestor is able to receive is easily expanded to areas that the current set of inspectors do not cover.
The invention implements a process of communication which systematically solves the problem of allowing a trusted authority to obtain configuration information about a remote computational device over a communications network. The invention provides a communications system which depends on the use of computational devices connected by communications networks. In practice, these devices may range from traditional large-scale computers to personal computers to handheld personal information managers to embedded computational devices in the ambient environment, including consumer appliances such as remote controls and smart TVs, or other common computationally dense environments, such as transportation vehicles. The communications mechanisms could include a modem or other wired media, or wireless communications, using the Internet or other protocols, and could include the physical distribution of media. Whatever the specific instance, for purposes of the discussion herein, the computational device is referred to as a computer and the communications infrastructure is referred to as a network. Typical examples of such infrastructure include Intranets (private computer networks), and the Internet, the large public computer network that hosts the World Wide Web and related services.
The invention architecture is best understood if a specific terminology is adopted, which evokes a focused instance of the above described communications problem. The computational device whose configuration information is to be provided is referred as the target computer. The special digital documents conveying requests to retrieve certain configuration information of the computational device are referred to as query documents. The special digital documents conveying responses to the query documents to provide certain configuration information oft he computational device are referred to as response documents. An information requestor is an organization or individual which requests configuration information of the target computer by sending query documents and receives responses. The requestor is represented by one or more server computers in a communicating network of computers. The information provider is an organization or individual which receives query documents from the requestor and provides response documents to the requestor. The provider is represented by the target computer in a communicating network of computers.
It is helpful to think in concrete terms, and to suppose that the requester is in fact a large organization running a large-scale server computer, that the provider is in fact an individual represented by a single personal computer, smart TV, personal information manager, computationally-enabled cell phone or other personal computational device; and to suppose that the network of computers may communicate according to a protocol similar to the TCP/IP protocol now in use by the Internet. In practice, many variations can be expected. For example, a requester may constitute an individual represented by a personal computer, an advice provider may be a corporation represented by a large-scale computing engine, and the communications process underlying the invention may be realized with other protocols operating over other physical means of communication.
Using this terminology, it is now possible to describe a key purpose of the invention. The invention allows the information requestor to send requests to the information provider and receive configuration information of the target computer using the relevance language that makes the queries and responses easily understood by both participants.
Techinical Support Application
The invention is best illustrated by a technical support application that implements the invention. This application enables a support organization to obtain information about the configuration of an end-user PC, including the current configuration as well as the original configuration, or a configuration at some earlier time. In startup mode, a configuration reader running on the user PC observes various aspects of the configuration of a brand-new system and records a snapshot of that configuration information in escrow on the user PC for later retrieval by the technical support organization. In interactive mode, the configuration reader interacts with a support technician, in real-time over the Internet, to provide information about the current configuration of an end-user PC, or to retrieve previously escrowed files. The interaction between the technician and the user is easy and understandable to both participants, and the technician is able to get comprehensive information about a wide range of PC attributes very efficiently.
The communication network of a typical embodiment of the current invention is depicted in
The private server 105 is responsible for sending query documents to the public server 104, retrieving response documents from the public server 104 and server response documents to the Web browser where the response documents can be displayed.
The public server 104 run by the support organization is responsible for serving the query documents to the client application 107, receiving response documents from the client application 107, and serving the response documents to the private server 105.
The client application 107 running on the customer PC 101 is responsible for retrieving query documents from the public server 104, inspecting the customer PC 101 to obtain configuration information and constructing response documents, and sending the response documents to the public server 104.
In standard use, the customer 103 obtains a Customer ID from the Tech Support technician 102, as a result of telephone, Web or e-mail contact. The customer 103 runs the client application 107 on his/her PC and provides the Customer ID to the client application 107. The client application 107 communicates with the public server 104, which then serves up a query document associated with that Customer ID. The query may ask about the properties of a few or many attributes of the PC configuration. The client application 107 inspects the PC to obtain the desired properties, and returns a response document in encrypted form to the public server 104 listing those properties. The public server 104 passes the response along to a private server 105 that decrypts and displays the configuration information to the support technician 102. Note that in certain deployments of the invention, there is no need for the Customer/Tech Support interaction to involve exchange of a unique Customer ID.
The query documents contains queries written in a formal language known as the relevance language. The relevance language has an intuitively understandable plain-English appearance, and can invoke the hundreds of existing Inspectors for the process of analyzing PC configuration and behavior. The queries can thus inspect the user PC for presence of certain hardware, software, files, registry entries, and configuration settings.
The technical support organization deploying the application as part of their support escalation process typically creates a collection of one or more query scripts, which direct the query process towards specific issues. Specific scripts can be invoked by the support technician 102 in response to specific symptoms or issues reported by the user. This library is a core asset for the technical support organization's call acceleration and support escalation procedures.
Because the invention uses the relevance language and its associated inspector technology, the scope of the query document is easily extensible: new vocabulary to the relevance language can be added simply by publishing new inspectors as the need arises. As new support issues arise, the support organization can write new query documents and make them available to their support technicians for use in future support sessions.
The invention is designed to streamline the configuration inquiry process while maintaining the concern for user privacy and trust. Following a consumer-oriented ‘opt-in’ philosophy, the invention sets up an interaction with the consumer's machine in which the consumer is aware that a transaction is taking place and is notified of all information being gathered by the technical support organization. The invention has a user interface component which notifies the user of a pending information exchange, requests approval prior to sending that information out from the user's computer, and allows the user to review the information to be sent. Further, to insure that the consumer's information is only made available to the intended technical support organization personnel, the information is securely encrypted before transmission. A chain of authentication is used to allow the support organization to control the extent of information collected during the process.
The current invention involves creating and transferring of documents between the support organization and the end-user PC. These documents come in six different types:
Question-Set Document is the most important type of document used in current invention. It is a text file, containing questions written in the relevance language; the answers to these questions drive the next steps of the support process. Question-set scripts are composed by authorized technicians to diagnose key issues and problems, and are typically used in one of two ways. For interactive use, they are placed in a library made available to all support technicians to collect key configuration data; in escrow use, a specific question set is distributed with a new machine, for processing after the machine's first initialization.
The relevance language is an intuitive, English-like language, which is extremely powerful and provides access to enormous amounts of detail about the user's computer. For more information about the Relevance language, see U.S. Pat. No. 6,263,362, Donohue et al.
The Answer-Set Document is the result of passing a Question Set document through the relevance engine. It is a text file that can be read and understood by laypersons or support technicians.
The Instruction-Set Document is a document describing the interaction to be performed on the end-user's PC. Interactions can be constructed which capture current configuration data to local storage and transfer current and prior configuration data to the support organization. Configuration data may contain one or more Answer-Set Documents as well as the contents of arbitrary data files specified via the relevance language.
The Query Document is a digitally signed document, which serves as an envelope for an Instruction Set document, and which also contains identification and security parameters. This document is transmitted from the support organization to the User's PC; its arrival initiates analysis of the User's machine.
The Pointer Document is a Query document containing instructions that cause the configuration reader to query a server to collect a Digest document assigned to this customer by the support technician 102. This document is used to collect a Digest document, which then completes the collection process. It is used to set-up the exchange, by associating a technical support technician's query with a certain customer PC.
The Response Document is the result of processing a Digest document and may contain multiple Answer-sets as well as local files. This document is encrypted on the client prior to transmission to the technical support organization.
Description of Components
The technical support application is organized to offer performance and scalability on both client-side and server-side processes and to guard user privacy. It includes the following components:
The configuration reader contains a client application 107 that runs on the user PC, processing the Digest documents and Pointer documents. In interactive use, it performs the following steps:
The client application 107 typically uses http to communicate with the ‘uagent’ on the public server component.
The client user interface design streamlines the entire process for the user; the user can easily scroll through a window to see what is being returned, and can simply click ‘Send’ to send the information back to the public server 104. Because the relevance language is intuitive and reminiscent of plain English, users who choose to inspect an answer set has no difficulty understanding what queries are being posed and what answers are being returned.
The public server 104 hosts the ‘uagent’ cgi that provides services for the client application 107 and hosts the ‘tagent’ cgi that provides services for the Private server component (described below). These components are typically implemented as cgi applications that are invoked when certain http GET and POST operations are received from the configuration reader. The server stores Query documents and encrypted Response documents as they move back and forth during the process. Response documents are never decrypted in this environment, so even if this server is attacked, the users data remain private in this environment.
The Private Server 105 is a Customer Assisted Support Interface application (CASI) that executes in a more protected environment. It typically uses http to access the public server ‘tagent’ component. It is a stand-alone application which provides various services including:
This application is so designed that it can be easily integrated into existing systems.
The Support Technician Interface is typically composed of several perl scripts. This application has the following characteristics and functions:
The invention guards the data integrity and privacy in two ways. First, underlying the publishing of queries is a chain of authorization to ensure that only Question-sets that have been explicitly authorized by the appropriate individuals in the technical support organization are recognized on customer PCs by the Configuration reader. Second, underlying the communications process is an encryption of the Response document before it leaves the Customer PC 101 for transit across the Internet, with decryption only taking place it once the Response document arrives at the Private Server 105, which typically is only accessible from inside the support organization.
Both features rest on the use of public-key/private-key cryptography infrastructure. As a result, the invention requires creation and management of digital certificates and private key files. Publishing Tools are typically included to provide all the needed functionality, and these tools may be invoked through a command line interface.
Client Application Processing
The processing of the invention is friendly and natural to the end-user. When the client application 107 is run, it typically splashes a welcome screen that welcomes the customer into the process with the important information that he/she is in control of whatever information leaves the computer.
After the user opts to continue, the application next displays a screen, asking for the Customer ID that was provided by the support technician 102.
Note that in some environments as described above, this step is skipped, because the Customer ID is already known/knowable to the application.
Behind the scenes, an exchange takes place, and at the heart of that exchange, a Question-set is transmitted from the Tech Support organization to the user PC. A simple example of such a question set is shown in
This fragment provides only a superficial example of the types of queries that can be made in the Relevance language. More sophisticated queries can drill down to obtain extreme levels of detail about the system configuration.
The client application 107 inspects the Customer PC 101 to obtain the requested information, and constructs a corresponding answer set. The answer set contains all the Q: lines from the question-set, and interleaves corresponding A: lines which contain the answers to the Q: questions. Before sending the answer set to the technical support organization, the application displays a preview window as shown in
Because the Relevance language is very intuitive and non-threatening, user review and approval of information transfer is a reasonable option. In the above window, the user can see that the questions being answered concern the time at which the query was taken and the name of the operating system; using the scroll bar, more questions and answers would be revealed.
In certain settings, the support technician 102 may request not merely information about the configuration, but actually a literal copy of a certain file. The application can comply with this request upon user approval.
The user can thereby verify that the information being sent from the computer is information he/she is willing to share with the support organization.
Technician Interface Processing
We now describe how the process of the invention from a support technician's viewpoint. To begin with, the process is hosted on a standard Web browser, and an interaction starts with the technician entering a Customer I D.
The support technician 102 may have an option to send the Question-set by e-mail
No matter what method of query transport is chosen, the next stage of the interaction shows a history page, detailing the queries that have been sent, and the response status.
An important feature of the technician interface is the availability to compare snapshots taken at different times.
If the support technician 102 so chooses, the interface can proceed to a correlation stage, where two or more files are compared to see what differences exist among the snapshots.
The method steps described herein can be embodied in a set of computer readable instructions or codes which can be stored in any computer readable storage medium and can be transferred and downloaded over the Internet.
Although the invention is described herein with reference to the preferred embodiment, one skilled in the art will readily appreciate that other applications may be substituted for those set forth herein without departing from the spirit and scope of the present invention.
Accordingly, the invention should only be limited by the claims included below.