Wednesday, 15 November 2017

Johannesburg Cable Heist: Money or Something Else?

Officials in Johannesburg, South Africa have been left scratching their heads, following a brazen cable heist that resulted in the loss of 2 million rand (£110,000) worth of power cables during a burglary some are calling an inside job. The theft occurred at a brand-new data centre in Braamfontein.

News sources say the data centre is a combination data and recovery centre designed to increase the server space and infrastructure necessary for the city to end its reliance on outside service providers. The city essentially wants to host its own data on city-owned servers powered by city infrastructure.

Those plans took a step back after burglars broke into the data centre by entering through an emergency exit on the ground floor. However, there were no signs of forced entry. Once inside the building, the thieves broke into a room where contractors had been storing their tools. They used some of those tools to cut the cables that they eventually stole.

Apparently, the cables were attached to new generators that contractors were testing. There was no loss of power, indicating that the generators were turned off prior to the theft. There were no reports detailing whether the generators were damaged or not. Investigators are now left to speculate as to the motive behind the theft.

Several Possibilities


The first assumption is that the thieves stole the cables for money. After all, they are worth more than £100,000. But how would the thieves off-load the stolen cables without being discovered? This is a question that investigators are still trying to answer. However, there is another possible motive...

In an official statement released after the burglary was discovered, Mayor Herman Mashaba indicated that the heist was an inside job given how little damage was done. He maintained that whoever stole the cables knew exactly what they were looking for and where to find them. He believes the theft may have had nothing to do with money.

Mayor Mashaba has suggested that perhaps the heist occurred in order to dissuade the city of Johannesburg from continuing to build. If it was not to dissuade them, then at least to slow down the progress. If the mayor is right, this would indicate an action taken by one of the companies providing data centre services to the city. They do not want the city to succeed because that would mean a loss of contracts for them.

An Impressive Theft


Right now, there is no clear indication as to the motive behind the theft. Whether it was for money or competitive purposes, one thing is certain: the theft was a rather impressive event in terms of what it took to get in, find the tools, cut the cables and run.

The Mayor has made it clear that the theft will not deter his city's efforts to finish the data and operational centre. It is probably a safe bet that the city will beef up security until the centre is up and running, perhaps even beyond that.

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Wednesday, 1 November 2017

WhatsApp and Facebook: Non-Compliance with EU?

Are WhatsApp and Facebook guilty of non-compliance with EU law? That is what a special task force wants to know, according to a 26 October (2017) story published by the BBC. That story says that a data protection task force has been established to consider practices related to data sharing between WhatsApp and Facebook.

Facebook purchased the WhatsApp messaging app in 2014 in order to better compete against Microsoft and other rivals. At the time of purchase, company officials pledged to keep the two platforms completely independent from one another. That changed in 2016 when officials at WhatsApp announced plans in August to begin sharing user information with Facebook.

Under EU law, any such information sharing can only be conducted with the explicit consent of users. Then UK Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham complained that WhatsApp's plan for obtaining user consent was insufficient to comply with the law. Still, WhatsApp and Facebook went ahead with their plans to share friend suggestions and advertising information on the two platforms.

Deficient User Consent


According to the BBC report, the Information Commissioner's new task force has invited officials from both WhatsApp and Facebook to meet with them. There is no word yet about whether they will or not. However, do not rely on the Information Commissioner going easy on Facebook and its subsidiary. People in positions of power are already unhappy and that will not change unless WhatsApp and Facebook change what they are doing.

The BBC report cited a letter the Working Party to WhatsApp officials. That letter apparently pointed out a number of deficiencies with WhatsApp's current user consent practices, including the following:

  • An unclear pop-up notice that does not fully explain that user information will be shared with Facebook;
  • A misleading implication that WhatsApp's privacy policy has been updated to ‘reflect new features’;
  • Requiring users to uncheck a pre-checked box that otherwise gives consent; and
  • A lack of easier means to allow users to opt out of data sharing.

Greater Scrutiny of Digital Companies


The complaints against WhatsApp and Facebook come at a time when the EU is subjecting digital companies to greater scrutiny over privacy concerns. As to whether WhatsApp and Facebook will face any real penalties for their alleged lack of compliance remains to be seen. But the fact that a task force has been established shows that the government believes it has a fairly compelling case.

If the case goes against WhatsApp and Facebook, it could set the stage for other digital companies revamping their privacy policies. That is not necessarily a bad thing. We already know that people are rather careless about protecting their own data online, so it seems to make sense to implement privacy policies that protect users as much as possible, thereby forcing them to make a conscious decision to be less careless.

In the meantime, WhatsApp users should be aware of what the company is doing with their data. They are probably sharing it with Facebook.

Tuesday, 24 October 2017

London Embracing Square Mile Broadband Innovation

London's “Square Mile” city centre is a hotbed of economic activity and cultural development. It is not all that great when it comes to superfast broadband. London ranks 26th out of 33 European capitals for broadband speed, according to a recent report published by City A.M. But city officials intend to change that.

City A.M. reports that the City of London Corporation is on the cusp of launching a brand-new wi-fi network capable of achieving speeds as high as 180 Mbps within the Square Mile. If the plan comes to fruition, it will make London's city centre one of the fastest places in Europe for wi-fi internet access.

In addition, the government will be investing millions of pounds in the Square Mile over the next few years to upgrade fibre optic networks capable of delivering internet at 1 GB per second. City leaders have their eyes firmly focused on 5G wireless as well, with the intent of ensuring that mobile data services are the fastest in the world.

By February, City of London Corporation chair Catherine McGuinness says some 7,500 residents in 12 City Corporation housing estates will enjoy upgraded fibre optic. London eventually expects to expand the faster broadband throughout the City's seven boroughs.

Broadband the Future of Communications

So why exactly is the City of London pouring so much money into broadband and mobile communications? In a phrase, it is the future of communications. The UK has long been a technology leader in broadband and data delivery services and city officials want London to be at the forefront in both the short and long terms. City leaders believe it is worth the money to develop broadband and mobile services in the Square Mile.

You could make the case that part of the recent push by the City of London Corporation is a direct result of 2016's Brexit vote in as much as experts are warning of a business exit from the capital once the UK pulls out of the EU. Whether that exit actually occurs is of no consequence in this regard. Simply the fear of an exit is enough to spur city leaders to do whatever they can to encourage more businesses to stay in the city. If that means upgraded fibre optic broadband networks and faster wi-fi and mobile services, so be it.

Faster broadband and mobile services in the Square Mile area will certainly benefit local residents and businesses and it will benefit the rest of the UK as well. Over time, what is implemented in the City of London will gradually spread across the entire UK. The only question is whether it will happen fast enough to make us the legitimate leader in Europe.

Irrespective of if it does or not, London's city leaders believe it is imperative to keep the Square Mile at the cutting-edge of communications. They are backing up those beliefs with money; now we will see what that money buys. Hopefully it buys remarkably faster data services very soon.

Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Court Clears Way for New Apple Data Centre in Ireland

The Commercial Court with jurisdiction over County Galway in western Ireland recently dismissed two cases, clearing the way for Apple to take the next steps in developing a group of data centres planned for the county. Apple will spend upwards of €850 million (£762 million) to build the 8-facility campus.

New reports say that two law suits were brought against the project after the local Board gave its permission back in August. Commercial Court justice Paul McDermott rejected the lawsuits on different grounds. Apple may now proceed, though there is still no guarantee that the data centres will be built. Other hurdles will have to be cleared.

Local Objections

The first lawsuit to challenge Apple's plan was brought by a local couple whose home is located near the proposed site. They claimed that Apple failed to carry out a proper environmental impact assessment, making the original Board decision invalid. Justice McDermott disagreed.

The second case was brought by another local resident who believed that proper planning procedures were not being followed. The plaintiff claimed to not be opposed to Apple's plans per se, he was just convinced that there were some planning procedure issues. Apple maintained that the plaintiff had made no submissions to the Galway County Council in opposition to the project, nor had he appealed to the local Board. The Commercial Court sided with Apple.

Big Plans by Apple

Since the project was first proposed, Apple has had big plans for Galway. They have maintained all along that building the new data centres will add hundreds of jobs to the local area while also helping to meet the growing demand for data processing and storage in Ireland.

Apple has not detailed exactly what they plan to do with the data centre, but it is not beyond the realms of possibility to assume it could be a very important data processing hub for the British Isles, if not most of Western Europe. Some news reports have speculated that Apple wants to use the new facilities to power everything from the iTunes Store to iMessage throughout Europe.

Irish Minister for community development Seán Kyne greeted the Commercial Court ruling with delight, calling it "very positive news for Galway and the West of Ireland." He and some 4,000 local members of an Apple Facebook page are encouraged by the ruling, especially given that the project has been delayed numerous times over the past two years.

It is understandable that there are objections whenever a data centre of this size is proposed. However, the courts have to be very careful about ruling based on public opinion. The digital world is expanding exponentially with every passing quarter and we are going to need a lot more data centres in the very near future to keep up with demand. Unless the world is ready to go back to the pre-digital era, both consumers and courts have to be willing to allow data centres to be built.

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

New Microsoft Data Centre Powered by Natural Gas

No matter what you think of Microsoft software and licencing, it is hard to argue against the fact that the American company is among a small handful of technology leaders paving the way to a greener future. The latest iteration of Microsoft's efforts in the green arena come by way of a brand-new data centre – they are calling it a 'lab' instead – powered entirely by natural gas.

Built in Seattle in the United States, Microsoft's Advanced Energy Lab is a new kind of data centre designed around Microsoft's decades-old 'Tent City' concept. What makes the lab so unique is the fact that it was built from the ground up with the goal of being completely separate from grid infrastructure. Microsoft officials say this is a distinct difference in as much as other efforts to use renewable energy to power data centres have been pursued in parallel with grid energy. Microsoft wanted to be the first to come up with a design that required absolutely no power from the grid.

Natural Gas and Fuel Cells

The Advanced Energy Lab powers its servers with energy derived from natural gas. Servers are hooked directly to a natural gas connection that utilises highly efficient fuel cells for power. The fuel cells convert energy from the gas into electricity for both server power and cooling. The benefits to this design are numerous:

  • Keeping power separate from the grid allows the data centre to continue operating even if the surrounding grid goes down due to natural disaster or infrastructure failure
  • The system is more efficient because it reduces the waste and loss of traditional grid distribution, transmission and conversion
  • The design is a comparatively simple one as well, reducing the likelihood of failure by reducing the number of 'moving parts' in the system
  • Data centres based on this design will cost less to build, operate and maintain across-the-board
Microsoft began working on the lab in earnest after developing a partnership with the National Fuel Cell Research Centre in 2013. Their first promising breakthrough came in 2014 when a pilot project proved that fuel cells do not necessarily require clean natural gas to work. The pilot proved that biogas, a renewable fuel, would work just as effectively.

According to Microsoft, the Advanced Energy Lab encapsulates everything the company has learned thus far about natural gas and fuel cells working in tandem to generate electricity. In the coming months and years, they will be refining the technology with the goal of eventually putting it into service.

Microsoft eventually hopes to put together an energy-independent, green and efficient data centre, capable of meeting our ever-expanding data needs without having any negative impact on the environment. It would appear as though the Advanced Energy Lab is a rather large step in that direction. Where they go from here is anyone's guess, but you can bet whatever Microsoft does will probably break new ground. If nothing else, it will be fascinating to watch…

Wednesday, 27 September 2017

New Undersea Cable Comes at a Critical Time

Hurricane Sandy and the damage she unleashed on the US north-east coast in 2012 was a wake-up call for Microsoft. In the aftermath of the storm, international network communications were disrupted for hours as a result of undersea cables that terminated in New Jersey being damaged. Officials at Microsoft suddenly realised it was not wise to have a single location on the East Coast for incoming data. They set out to change that.

Microsoft has since teamed up with Facebook and Telxius, a Spanish technology company and subsidiary of Telefónica, to lay a brand-new subsea cable linking the US and Spain. They have named the cable Marea. On either side are the now sister cities of Virginia Beach, Virginia in the US and Bilboa in Spain. The two locations were chosen because they are well south of connection points in both countries, increasing the likelihood that a natural disaster will not simultaneously knock out both Marea and other connection points farther north.

According to Microsoft president Brad Smith, the new cable "comes at a critical time." The cable is capable of 160 TB per second which, according to a Microsoft blog, is 16 million times faster than the average residential internet connection. At a time when the amount of data flowing across the world's networks is increasing exponentially, the new cable offers more than just redundancy. It also increases capacity.

"Submarine cables in the Atlantic already carry 55 per cent more data than trans-Pacific routes and 40 per cent more data than between the U.S. and Latin America," Smith said. "There is no question that the demand for data flows across the Atlantic will continue to increase and Marea will provide a critical connection for the United States, Spain and beyond."

More Connected Every Day

It is interesting to note that Microsoft and Facebook are normally internet rivals competing for the largest possible market share. The fact that they teamed up along with Telxius is proof of just how vital a new undersea cable was and is. There is no denying that we are becoming a more connected world with each passing day, and we are going to need ever greater capacity and redundancy to keep up as technology evolves.

Marea is a highly advanced data cable that is remarkably different in a number of ways. Most notably, the technology behind the cable involves a highly flexible design that will allow for better future scalability and modification. Right now, it also represents an entirely new and previously unused route for transatlantic data between Europe and North America. Increased capacity is critical in a day and age in which mobility and the Internet of Things are both growing exponentially.

Marea has come at a critical time. It was obvious following Sandy that something had to be done to increase capacity and redundancy. Had Microsoft and its two partners not acted when they did, someone else probably would have picked up the baton. At any rate, global communications will be the main beneficiary.

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Sound: The Next Frontier for High Speed Computer Processing?

When most people think about sound in relation to high-speed networking, they think about the quality of sound embedded in their high-definition videos or streaming from their favourite music services. What if we told you that sound could be the next frontier in high-speed computer processing? Well, it looks like that might be the case in the not-too-distant future...

Breakthrough research out of the University of Sydney (Australia) has led to the development of a process capable of converting optical data into storable sound waves. The process makes it very possible that future iterations of network technology could store and send data as light waves to receivers that would then convert those light waves into sound waves that computer chips could interpret as meaningful data.

The idea of using light waves to store and transmit data is nothing new. Scientists have known about the potential for years. The problem has always been converting optical data into a format computer chips could work with, in a way that was both fast and efficient.

University of Sydney researchers described the problem of converting optical data into something more usable as comparable to the difference between thunder and lightning. In other words, the speed of light in air is more than 880,000 times faster than the speed of sound. Even if computer chips could read data in the optical domain, they would not be able to keep up with the speed at which that data travels. Thus, the need to slow it down during the conversion process.

Phononics Is the Answer

The field of storing and transmitting data in the audio domain is known as phononics. Both private enterprise and public institutions have been researching phononics for quite some time in the hope of developing some sort of technological advantage over the current process of converting optical data into electrons. The Australian researchers may finally have come up with the answer via phononics.

Current technologies that transmit optical data before converting it into electrons that can be read and stored by computer chips still produces pretty amazing results compared to our capabilities of a decade ago. The process has an inherent weakness though: it produces an incredible amount of waste heat. That waste heat limits the practical use of optical-electron applications. Phononics has solved the problem.

The process developed by the Australian researchers eliminates waste heat by converting optical data to sound waves. More importantly, computer chips can more quickly read, analyse and use audio data as compared to electron data. Researchers say that the process has proved successful enough to open the door to more powerful signal processing and future quantum computing applications.

Those of us in the data centre industry eagerly await further development from Australia. If it turns out their process possesses both mass-market appeal and financial viability, it will completely transform our understanding and application of high-speed computer processing. There will be huge implications in everything from global financial transactions to scientific research to global media access.