Thursday, 30 June 2016

Lack of Security Taints EU Re-Vote Petition

The Brexit votes had barely been tallied and made official when opponents of the outcome established an online petition calling for a second vote. That much was expected in the days and weeks leading up to the vote, given that polling showed things to be extremely close. What was not expected is an almost ridiculous lack of security that has allowed the petition to be tainted by auto bots.

According to the BBC, the House of Commons petitions committee has said it has already removed 77,000 invalid signatures coming from people allegedly living in Antarctica, North Korea, the Sandwich Islands and even the Vatican. Although officials say that most of the remaining signatures now appear to be from people living in the UK, there is no way to know how many of those signatures were added legitimately as opposed to being placed on the petition through auto bots.

An Appalling Lack of Security

The re-vote petition is already the most active petition ever placed on the Parliamentary website. The BBC says it currently has 3.6 million signatures. However, one computer security expert told the BBC that any site like the House of Commons petition site needs to have security measures in place to defeat intrusions. We clearly agree.

What's most appalling about the lack of security in this case is the fact that stopping auto bots is relatively simple. It's not as if we are talking about encrypted malware or tough-to-detect rootkits that go to the heart of computer networking systems. Auto bots are nothing more than computer scripts that log onto a website and submit or retrieve data without any human intervention. They can be stopped with something as simple as a captcha script.

Because whoever designed the petition site was so careless, there is no way of knowing how many of the signatures on the petition calling for a second EU vote are legitimate. But it goes beyond just this petition. How many other petitions have been affected by the site's lack of security?

The BBC references a group that runs the 4chan message board as being one of the primary attackers of the re-vote petition. According to their report, one of the message boards members claims to have signed the petition some 33,000 times simply by running an auto bot.

Things Must Change Now

For the record, the House of Commons petitions committee says it will continue to monitor the situation for any additional evidence of auto bot activity. Meanwhile, Prime Minister David Cameron has said there would be no second vote, regardless of the petition and its signatures.

That's all well and good, but something must be done to improve the security of the petition site now. If we cannot trust something as simple as online petitions as being secure, we are left to wonder how many other government websites are equally vulnerable. Shame on the House of Commons and their web developer for such a stunning lack of security.

Tuesday, 14 June 2016

Apple Signs Deal to Make Energy from Methane Gas

We all know Apple as a maker of computers, smartphones, tablets and wearables. Now it appears that the California company is getting into the renewable energy business thanks to a deal signed with a US landfill to utilise methane gas. This could be a precursor to other similar projects around the country…

According to various news sources, Apple has reached an agreement with Catawba County in North Carolina, one of the southern states along the US East Coast. Catawba County will lease 3.7 acres to Apple for 16 years. At the conclusion of the lease, Apple will have an opportunity to vacate the premises or sign for an additional five years.

Apple has not detailed what it plans to do with the renewable energy that it creates at the Blackburn Resource Recovery Facility. It could be used to generate green electricity or be sold as-is to customers who need gas fuel.

How It Works

Landfills in the US typically deal with the methane produced via waste decomposition by simply venting it into the air. But a growing number of operators are now installing energy plants to trap the methane gas, process it and then use it for other purposes. This is exactly what Apple will be doing.

Catawba County plans to harness 40% of the methane produced by the landfill and sell it to Quadrogen Power Systems for treatment and processing. They will then pass the processed gas along to Apple. The remaining 60% of the methane will be used by the county to supply some of its energy requirements.

Speculation abounds that Apple will use the methane gas to produce electricity for a data centre it also operates in the county. But that remains to be seen. Such a use would make complete sense given Apple's commitment to eventually powering as many of its facilities as possible using renewable sources, but how much benefit the company will realistically get from the methane harvested from the county landfill may not do much in the grand scheme of things. It may be too little in the end.

Another Piece of the Puzzle

Irrespective of how much power Apple actually generates from the new deal, it is less important than the fact that its plans are yet another piece of the puzzle. As the world's data centre needs expand, the amount of energy consumed by bigger and more robust facilities will only increase. We have to find ways to power the data centres of the future without relying on fossil fuels. That may mean a combination of renewable sources that include sun, wind, water and biomass.

Harnessing methane is a particularly exciting prospect because we are already producing the gas anyway. Just by burying our rubbish and letting it decompose, we are creating a gas that can be harnessed for multiple purposes. Indeed, methane is one of the greenest biomass energy sources available to us. Apple's decision just helps it take one step closer to eventually using only renewables.

Monday, 6 June 2016

Are Data Centres Able to Operate in Tropical Environments?

Given that a large percentage of the power used to run the average data centre is directly related to cooling, builders and designers do their best to locate new facilities in locales with cooler climates and lower humidity. The idea is to save money by reducing the amount of power used for temperature and humidity control. Still, the curious among us want to know if a data centre could still operate at peak performance under conditions twice the current norms.

We are about to find out thanks to a test to get under way shortly in Singapore. News reports say the world's first tropical data centre is now in the planning stages and involves a number of big-name partners including Dell, Hewlett-Packard Enterprise, Intel, ERS, Fujitsu and others. The consortium will set up a controlled test environment in an existing Keppel data centre for the test.

Current standards dictate that data centres not be allowed reach temperatures in excess of 20°C with a relative humidity of no more than 50-60%. Those numbers will be almost doubled for the test. The test centre will be allowed to reach 38°C and the relative humidity upwards of 90%.

Researchers appear to be at least somewhat optimistic that their test will prove data centres do not have to be kept under such tight controls. If they are proven correct, the test will open the door to a much larger geographic area in which data centres could be built without compromising performance.

Temperature, Humidity or Contaminants?

Current standards for temperature and humidity at data centres have not really been questioned over the last 30 to 40 years. As with so many other things in the digital arena, there is even considerable debate as to how the industry arrived at the current standards and if these are even scientific at all. Indeed, a number of studies several years ago suggested that air-borne contaminants were more damaging to sensitive data centre equipment than ambient temperature and humidity.

Some researchers have gone as far as to speculate that purifying the air circulating through data centres would do far more to achieve maximum performance than tightly controlling temperature and humidity. Whether that is true or not is a matter for future tests. But if the tropical data centre being established in Singapore does turn out to be successful, it would be worth repeating the test under identical circumstances that would also include air purification controls.

Building Greener Data Centres:

The Singapore test is, at the end of the day, all about learning how we can build greener data centres that do not consume nearly as much power. As the digital world grows, more and more of our energy resources will have to be put toward powering the data centres that make modern life possible. If data centres can truly operate at nearly twice the current standards for temperature and humidity, imagine how much money we could save by not having to control the data centre environment so tightly.