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Griffin on Tech: Optus outage nightmare, OpenAI’s app store moment

Peter Griffin, Editor. 10 November 2023, 6:53 am

There was some sympathy for our telecoms operators in February when cyclone Gabrielle slashed fibre optic cables and cut power to cell sites across the North Island.

Most people recognised that our mobile networks are fairly reliable, even if the lingering coverage blackspots highlighted numerous issues that need to be addressed to make our telecommunications infrastructure more resilient to extreme weather events.

But what happened this Thursday in Australia with the massive outage that hit millions of Optus customers was a disaster of a different kind. It’s the biggest single telecommunications failure in Australia’s history and saw millions of customers without service for up to 14 hours, with ‘000’ emergency service access also cut off for many of them.

The closest event we’ve had to this is the numerous large-scale outages that hit Telecom’s XT mobile network in 2009 - 2010 and which saw hundreds of thousands of customers unable to make calls. The issue was blamed on faults with  RNCs (rational network controllers) on the Alcatel Lucent network, equipment that connected mobile phone traffic back to Telecom’s core network.

It was an embarrassing and costly set of failures for Telecom as it faced the brave new world of structural separation which saw its wholesale network spun off to form Chorus. It appears that the Optus outage may lie in a similarly technical screw-up.

“The outage does appear to have been caused by one of Optus’ routers, which control how data is shuttled across the internet, and which receive instructions on how to do so via regular updates to their internal databases, known as routing tables,” The Australian Financial Review reported yesterday.

“Updates are done via a global network of routers running what is known as the Border Gateway Protocol. The router that appears to have brought down Optus’ entire network receives BGP updates from Optus’ Singtel headquarters, China Telecom and the global cloud provider Akamai, as well as a UK telecommunications company and two other Optus routers.”

The fact that a dodgy update to routing tables was able to take the entire Optus network offline, including the internal communications channels the telco uses across the country, will be a major cause for concern, not just for Optus and its customers, but the Australian Government, alarmed at the disruption to emergency services as Australia enters bushfire season.

Coming on top of last year’s epic data breach at Optus, which saw millions of customer records stolen, it's clear Australia’s second largest telco has plenty of work to do to regain the trust of customers. The gauge of how well a company deals with a crisis is how it communicates with customers, and the outage seems to have once again seen Optus slow to react. It’s an arch lesson for our own telcos around what work to do upfront to try and avoid cascading network failures, but also how to act when the proverbial hits the fan.

OpenAI’s Dev Day numbers

We are almost at the first anniversary of ChatGPT and OpenAI celebrated this week with its first Dev Day in San Francisco, a conference featuring a flurry of announcements from the generative AI leader.

Most significantly was the launch of customisable AI agents called GPTs, which will feature in a kind of marketplace for AI bots that OpenAI users can build and use. The GPT Builder application used to create them does not require coding expertise - this is the no-code approach to building AI agents, so anyone can draw on OpenAI’s large language models to develop a bot for a particular purpose.

“You can build a GPT for almost anything, with instructions, expanded knowledge and actions,” OpenAI co-founder Sam Altman explained. It reminded me of the launch of the Apple App Store back in 2010, which took the iPhone to a new level by facilitating developers all over the world to create apps to run on the smartphone.

It’s a clever move by OpenAI and will hopefully build a greater degree of consumer confidence in generative AI, with a plethora of AI agents drawing on OpenAI’s GPT technology already cluttering up the space and delivering results of dubious quality. OpenAI said it now has 100 million active users and two million developers onboard, which is an incredible feat in such a short period of time. It also received US$10 billion in investment at the start of the year from Microsoft, which has built OpenAI’s technology into everything from the Windows 11 menu bar to its Copilot agent for Microsoft 365.

Is an OpenAI hardware device on the horizon? “I do believe that every time a new . . . technology of this magnitude comes along, there’s supposed to be an amazing new computing device,” Altman told the Dev Day audience. With numerous hardware makers gearing up to launch smartphones and other devices capable of handling generative AI features drawing on personal data kept on the device, it's a logical next step for OpenAI and may explain the company’s new collaboration with Apple’s former design guru Johhny Ive. 


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