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Brislen on Tech

Paul Brislen, Editor. 08 February 2019, 12:00 pm

Redundancy 

Many years ago, just after Pacific Fibre had folded up its marquee and headed home leaving New Zealand with only one international connectivity provider, I received a call from a nice man at the Treasury.

He worked for the infrastructure investment unit and wanted to know why it was I kept harping on about how we needed a second provider. We have more than enough capacity for the foreseeable future, he quite rightly said.

So we talked volcanos for a bit. Auckland, you see, is built on a volcanic field. Not an extinct one. Not a field that can be described as dormant, even. An active volcanic field. The most recent volcano to pop up (Rangitoto) did so only 600 years ago - barely enough time to draw breath in volcanic terms.

And where, I asked, do the two arms of our international submarine cable meet? One on either side of the Auckland peninsula. Where we keep the volcanos.

So how long would it take to repair, he asked? Anywhere from weeks to months depending on whether the volcanic event was a once off, whether the repair ship was close by and not already in use, whether the landing sites needed to be totally rebuilt or dug out or whatever. Could be many months. Could be years.

He went very pale. Even over the phone I could hear him go pale, he went that pale.

Submarine cables are, by their very nature, exclusionary but fragile things. The fibres are the width of a hair, they're bundled in insulation materials, they're wrapped in armour plating, that in turn is covered in crush-proof casing and waterproofed to cope with any oceanic event conceivable and yet they are regularly pulled up by fishing boats, disrupted by earthquake activity and, in Tonga's case, potentially sabotaged for reasons unknown.

Tonga's only decent internet connection was cut last month and was out of action for two weeks. The country relied on satellite connectivity to do the basics (update the international financial markets, order new cable supplies, that sort of thing) and even for a country as small as Tonga that's a bit of a stretch to be honest.

The current cable connects to the Southern Cross Cable network, went live in 2012 and was paid for by the Asian Development Bank, the World Bank and the Tongan government. Once the Southern Cross is mothballed and its replacement - Southern Cross Next - is brought online later this year, that connection will slowly be phased out.

In its place, Tonga will rely on the Hawaiki cable which was recently powered up, but the day is approaching when Tonga will again have only one serious internet connection with the world.

Redundancy isn't just about capacity - it's also about continuity and Tonga has learned this the hard way.

RNZ - Internet cable down in Tonga

ZDNet - Pacific islands sign on for NEXT subsea cable

RNZ - Internet back at full strength in Tonga after 2 week blackout

Stuff - Tonga director can't rule out sabotage in internet outage

 

Huawei's blues continue

The Chinese telco equipment maker's woes continue with renewed calls from the US for its "allies" to stop using Huawei gear at a network level because of concerns around spying.

While the New Zealand GCSB has declined Spark's request to use Huawei to build its 5G network (despite Huawei saying it wouldn't bid for core network elements if that would be a problem), it hasn't been forthcoming with any reasons or detailed explanations as to what needs to be fixed in order to get a pass mark from the spy agency.

But in the UK the Brit's equivalent agency, the GCHQ, has been talking with Huawei about the problems they perceive in Huawei kit and now the company has said it will take up to five years to resolve all the issues listed.

According to The Guardian newspaper, Huawei has written to the House of Commons select committee on science and technology and committed to spending £1.5 billion over five years to address security concerns.

"Modern communications networks are complex systems that keep evolving in new and innovative ways. Enhancing our software engineering capabilities is like replacing components on a high-speed train in motion," writes Huawei's carrier business group president, Ryan Ding, in the letter.

But for all the accusations and protestations in this case the whole thing does smack of imperial patch protection. Is there really a problem with Huawei's gear or does the US just not want everyone buying billion dollar networks from the Chinese?

To be fair to Huawei, there have been no instances of any security breach in relation to the hardware or software it sells to network operators, and the same simply can't be said for other organisations. Huawei has spent a lot of time and money reassuring governments around the world that it is independent of any Chinese government influence, and you'd have to agree with Ryan Ding when he says the company is scrutinised as no other in the industry.

"Were Huawei ever to engage in malicious behaviour, it would not go unnoticed - and it would certainly destroy our business," writes Ding.

Yet the US view of the world seems likely to continue and with only Nokia and newcomer Samsung likely contenders for any network build in this part of the world, we really do need to figure out how to build cost effective networks that have efficiency, reliability and security baked in.

The Register - Huawei pens open letter to UK Parliament: Spying? Nope, we've done nothing wrong

Huawei - Letter to the Science and Technology Committee

The Guardian - Huawei security issues will take five years to fix, firm tells Commons

Fortune - Huawei Offers to Create Polish Security Lab to Ward Off 5G Bans

Reuters - German ministers meet as US urges Huawei exclusion: sources

TechRadar - US urges EU to reconsider role of Huawei in 5G

The Guardian - No Place to Hide review - Glenn Greenwald's compelling account of NSA/GCHQ surveillance (May 2014)

The Guardian - Glenn Greenwald: how the NSA tampers with US-made internet routers (May 2014)

Atlas Obscura - A Brief History of the US Trying to Add Backdoors Into Encrypted Data (February 2016)

Wired - The Leaked NSA Spy Tool That Hacked The World (March 2018)

 

Flag it

Is January actually four weeks long or have they culled out a couple in the middle there? Because it always seems to me that after Christmas suddenly we're in to February with barely enough time to get a sandal tan on our feet.

This year that short month was double important as February 1 was a hard deadline for DNS Flag Day, the day when a worldwide change to the Domain Name System (DNS) that underpins the internet could have wreaked havoc on the unsuspecting IT departments of the world.

As it was I didn't see any sites down on February 1 despite around 500 New Zealand sites being potentially affected.

InternetNZ, which runs the .nz namespace for us, estimated that in July there had been around 8,000 such sites, so somewhere along the line a bunch of techs hit their deadlines quite nicely thank you. Reminds of me Y2K if I think about it.

The new DNS update includes smarter handling of denial of service attacks, among a host of other capabilities and no doubt will lead to upgrades of various sites around the world in the months ahead.

Well done, all.

NZ Herald - 'Flag day' set to throw hundreds of NZ websites offline for hours or days

Computerworld - InternetNZ saves .NZ domain names from Flag Day failure


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