The future is black - boxes, holes, clouds, hats,
eyed peas, Sabbaths and magic - hoorah!
annerachel at gmail.com
Fri Aug 17 18:56:25 SAST 2007
A* look at the future of computing, extreme computing, cloud computing,
secure computing, cosmic and not so cosmic energy levels *
Free association is not so free - it follows well-worn mental groves. I
started sliding along some of those grooves after reading the latest edition
of *Scientific American*. I've been reading *SciAm* so long that the monthly
feature, '*50, 100 & 150 Years Ago in Scientific American',* which
traditionally opens the magazine, is just a bit of personal reminiscence.
The latest issue, August 2007, had an article called, "*Data Center in a
Box"*. Although, this is not exactly a new idea, this is the first time that
so much computing power was packed into a container and the first time it
was designed to be mass-producible. Earlier versions were one-off, much
lower power, special purpose deals. I had heard recently that Sun
Microsystems had done something of this sort, but I never looked into it; I
never realized just how awesome and significant it might be.
The data centre, the result of Sun Microsystems' *Project* *Black Box*, is a
study in extreme computing. Indeed, the whole centre is crammed into a
standard 8x8x20 foot (a bit less than 35 cubic meters) shipping container.
Okay, they stuffed a lot of computers into a box - what's noteworthy about
that? To start with, the boxes have more computing power than most
traditional corporate - big corporate - processing centres. Anyone who has
followed corporate computing trends in recent years can tell you that
managing the energy consumption and heat output of their centres so they can
expand is one major concern that CIOs regularly moan about.
A rack of servers uses about 25 kilowatts of electricity. Most of that
energy turns into heat - enough heat to turn a rack into a molten puddle.
Squeeze racks, the Black Box has eight, into a small box and the problems
increase exponentially as the box gets smaller. It all reminds me - okay,
I'm a physicist and this is *my* free association - of the enormous heat and
energy concentrated when a star implodes into a black hole. This black hole,
though, comes with a very sophisticated system to vent and channel the hot
air generated into heat exchangers cooled by water - a tremendous bit of
engineering, a marvellous technological feat.
The self-contained system is *complete*; it needs only electricity, a data
line and water to work. Of course, you can't plug it into a wall outlet; it
needs a direct connection to the power grid - a 600-amp industrial-grade
power feed. Your telco's DSL also falls a bit short of what this 250-server
box needs to gulp down fresh data and spew out results; it needs a big, fat
broadband pipe - a dedicated fibre connection is recommended. The box also
needs 60 gallons of chilled water each minute to keep it from melting down.
Other than that, the box is ready to go with seven terabytes of memory and
two petabytes of storage, enough they say to support ten thousand desktop
According to the article, the data centre can be up and running for
one-hundredth the cost, and a tiny fraction of the time, of a traditional
centre of similar power. Each centre, by itself, has enough computing muscle
to rank among the world's top 200 super-computers. Need more computing
power? Just drop in another box. It would help if you are located next to a
major telco, a good-sized power generation facility and a sizeable
waterfall, but if you can supply the power, communications and water, even a
rooftop, a ship, an offshore platform, a basement or parking lot will do.
Why are these centres, the Black Boxes, so significant? Well, according to
the article, the boxes are an ideal, truly cost-effective, way to quickly
expand the Internet's computing capacity and drive us into the next phase of
the information revolution, 'cloud computing' - also called utility
computing, where users rely on software and storage from the Web that they
access anywhere - including from their personal, hand-held, carry
everywhere, devices. If that sounds familiar, then you have been reading
some of my recent eLetters.
The black boxes, then, may be the critical - quite providential - piece of
the infrastructure that was missing in the plans to make mobile, personal
computing the driving force in the next phase of the information revolution.
Practical, mobile, personal computing may just be the glue to put together a
truly worldwide information society.
Black also reminds me of the recent *Black Hat* hacker's conference. I've
never been to one, but they are increasingly significant, increasingly
crowded events. Some four thousand people were there this year.
Hackers, for those who still don't know it, are not the bad guys - those are
crackers. Serious hackers perform an extremely important public service.
Hackers poke and prod software to find the vulnerabilities to correct them
before the crackers (the black hearted bad guys) exploit them - and you.
The keynote speaker at Black Hat was Richard Clarke, a 30-year veteran of
the US Government and Bill Clinton<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bill_Clinton>'s
chief counter-terrorism adviser on the U.S. National Security
Since his retirement, Clarke has been writing books. Clarke was quoted as
saying at Black Hat that, "we're building more and more of our economy on
cyberspace 1.0, yet we have secured very little of cyberspace 1.0." He went
on to talk about the software that splits processing between the Web site's
server and the client - the user's browser, and how this has re- opened Web
2.0 to some standard, long-used, attacks. Wireless broadband access, is one
of the areas where this lack of security is most evident. This is a real
danger facing the expansion, the expected expl osion, of mobile personal
Errata Security's CEO, Robert Graham, demonstrated this danger during his
presentation at Black Hat. According to the reports, he used a software tool
called *Hamster and Ferret* to examine the airwaves for Web 2.0 sites.
Graham quietly used the software, while speaking of other matters, to
'sniff' the wireless packets transmitted and received by those in the
audience. He 'grabbed' their Web 2.0 clear text session cookies, and pasted
the captured URLs into his browser. According to the report, the cookie
eliminates the need for a password. As a vivid demonstration of the dangers,
Graham opened his Hamster tool at the end of his talk and very rapidly
displayed and cleared - on the conference room's screen - a Gmail account
that someone in the audience had accessed during his talk.
A great demonstration, a scary demonstration, of one of the security
problems facing the growth of wireless, cloud computing, mobile personal
computing, Web 2.0 communities and all the other services and applications
the information society depends upon.
The security problem won't go away, but with better defensive software,
prudent habits, encryption and the like, the risks can be managed. All we
need is a bit of traveling music to get the mobile computing show on the
road. How about something from the Black Eyed Peas or Black Sabbath? Maybe
the old standard, *That Old Black Magic*, should be the theme song.
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