The future is black – boxes, holes, clouds, hats, eyed peas, Sabbaths and magic – hoorah!
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 users.
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’s chief counter-terrorism adviser on the U.S. National Security Council. 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 explosion, of mobile personal computing.
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.
Our next Connect-World Europe, Middle East & Africa (2007) Issue will be published later this month. The issue will be widely distributed to our reader base and, as well, at shows where we are one of the main media sponsors such as: Carriers World, London, UK, (25-28 September, Victoria Park Plaza, London), Eastern Europe Broadband Convention, (27-29 September, Kiev), Broadband World Forum Europe, Berlin, Germany, (8 -11 October, Berlin, Ukraine) and Broadband Russia, (21-22 November, City: Moscow).
The theme of this issue of Connect-World Europe, Middle East & Africa (2007) will be Access technology trends
Access was once a question of stringing copper – or a string between two paper cups. Wireless access has, in a few years, outpaced wired access so that mobile phones now outnumber all the traditional fixed phones in the world. Today, fibre brings TV, broadband and inexpensive voice. Even power lines are now being used by utilities, or locally at the office, on the factory floor and at home to provide broadband access. Much of the change, the revolution in telecom, is the result of better access technologies. Technologies already in the pipeline, and others on the way, promise to change the way we communicate, work and play to an even greater degree than anything we have seen.
This issue will explore the consequences of these new technologies.