White hat hackers

Ethical hackers, a growing band of computer professionals, use their skills to work out of hours on projects benefitting society.

Don Christie, founder and director of Wellington’s largest open source service and cloud computing service provider Catalyst, is happy if developers and other IT professionals working for the firm moonlight as hackers.

Thanks to the media, hacker is a term usually associated with people who do bad things with computers. However, the word has taken on a more positive meaning in technology circles. In that world hacking is the art of taking things apart, then putting them back together in ways that are better or where they do something that was never the original designer’s intent.

Read the full story at the ANZ Bank’s Your World site: Meet the weekend ethical hackers.

Open Source Open Society
Billy Meinke – Creative Commons

Few conferences range as wide as the Open Source Open Society 2015 event held in Wellington last week. The material was surprisingly accessible to non-specialists considering this was a two-day event that filled the Michael Fowler Centre with software developers.

Dance between freedom and responsibility
Artists painted slogans and images over the glasswork around the Michael Fowler Centre

You can read more about #OSOS2015 sessions elsewhere, here are ten lessons that don’t fit into the conventional story structure:

1. Modern tech innovation follows the same path as the textile industry at the start of the industrial revolution in Britain.

“Join me in the C18th to remind ourselves about some of the things that haven’t gone so well”

In a talk explaining why the idea of a commons exists, Craig Ambrose from Enspiral Craftworks traced the history of the weaving industry. He says the inventors used patents as instruments of control as well as a way to earn money.

Things didn’t go too well for society in the wake of the industrial revolution. The message from Ambrose is that if you want to understand what a lack of openness might mean today, take a look at the consequences two hundred years ago. He did this with mentioning the word Dickensian, so I’ll just leave it here for you.

2. Good open source is like a marae

Chris Cormack - Catalyst IT
Chris Cormack – Catalyst IT

Chris Cormack draws parallels between the ideas of open source and his Māori culture. He says negotiations take a long time in that culture because Māori believe listening to what others say is as important as telling them what you want. He says you don’t have to agree with what they say, but you do have to respect it.

3. “When we nurture the commons together we all win”

OSOS conference
Billy Meinke – Creative Commons

Billy Meinke from Hawaii says there’s power in the idea of a commons, but it’s increasingly hard to get the gains because of patents and copyright laws. He says that needs changing.

4. Moving away from patents put the US motor on its growth trajectory

Brandon Keepers - GitHub
Brandon Keepers – GitHub

GitHub’s Brandon Keepers calls it the auto-industry, but we know what he meant. Things didn’t take off until car makers ignored existing patents, once that happened there was no stopping the likes of Henry Ford.

It’s a powerful argument against software patents and other brakes on innovation. Keepers’ says Henry Ford and others built the giant US car industry on openness. The same idea could see technology reach even greater heights.

5. As is so often the case at a conference, some of the best sessions weren’t scheduled sessions.

Open Source Open Society 2015 did a great job of recognising participant interaction and discussion can be every bit as powerful as speakers on a stage. The messages painted on the walls were part of this, so was the innovative idea of embedding Massey University students to listen and report conversations, comments and so on in the #overheard at #OSOS2015 by @cocamassey thread.

#Overheard
#Overheard

6. The word open doesn’t necessarily make participation easy

Lillian Grace – Wiki New Zealand

Lillian Grace from Wiki New Zealand stood on stage to point out something many feel: The open source world is intimidation to many people on the outside. She poses a challenge to make it more understandable and to learn to talk in the language of ordinary people.

7. New Zealand’s government is one of the most open

Keitha Booth – NZ Open Government Data Programme

Keitha Booth from the NZ Open Government Data Programme says we often hear that closed is the default position for government data, but she says that’s not right: it’s open.  New Zealand rates as number four out of 86 countries when measured on openness.

8. “If open source is for everyone, it should look like anyone”

Jessica Lord – GitHub

GitHub’s Jessica Lord came up with the defining quote of the two-day conference.

9. Open source culture isn’t all sweetness and light

Chris Kelly - GitHub
Chris Kelly – GitHub

There’s a dark underside to open source culture. Chris Kelly from GitHub says because anyone can take part in open source, the door is open to assholes (he’s American, I’d prefer to say arseholes). That includes bullying white men with a sense of entitlement. Things often end up argumentative.

He says this culture can frighten off outsiders, only a few women coders work in open source and the movement is missing out on the benefits of diversity. There’s a clear need to deal with this and to improve communications between people working in open source.

10. People need help finding their way

Michelle Williams
Michelle Williams — Ideaction

A powerful metaphor about open source and the way knowledge passes between people came from Michelle Williams who wrapped up the conference. She says when she first went to Wellington she heard the city was full of great bars and cafes, but when she wandered around the places she found were average. “It wasn’t until someone showed me that I realised the had great coffee and beer”.

Don Christie - Brandon Keepers

Open source has many advantages, but it isn’t always the right approach. At the Open Source Open Society 2025 conference in Wellington delegates discussed when projects should be closed and when open is best.

…it all depends on the circumstances

GitHub head of open source Brandon Keepers says: “In an ideal world everything would be open source, but that’s not always the case”.

When Open Source is not the best choice

He says at GitHub there are three cases when it is better to stay closed:

  • If it makes money. Remember that money can be used to finance open projects.
  • When it is specific to internal business processes.
  • When you can’t expect to maintain the project in the long-term.

Eventually many of these cases will be brought into the commons.

As an example of this, he says GitHub’s billion code has not been released as an open project. The thinking here is that making it open wouldn’t make the code any better.

Coding not difficult

Catalyst IT founder Don Christie says one argument in favour of open is that coding isn’t difficult.

Most of the time that means others can quickly replicate closed software. He says: “They are going to replicate it anyway. It can be better to make it open source and get the benefits of better code.”

Another argument for keeping projects open is that there is less money in keeping them closed. Christie says: “80 percent of the value in information technology is in services. About 90 percent of New Zealand’s IT exports are in services — that’s despite all the attention given to products.”

Christie says open source also acts as a hiring strategy.

Steven Joyce opening Catalyst Cloud

New Zealand open-source champion Catalyst has taken on the multinationals launching a locally-hosted automated cloud service.

The Catalyst Cloud service uses OpenStack, a free, open-source set of tools. It was built using low-cost commodity hardware.

Catalyst Cloud was officially opened this morning by Economic Development Minister Steven Joyce. See Catalyst Cloud Formally Launched for the company’s own description.

A media statement says the service is: “The product of two years of research and development and millions of dollars of investment”.

It has the capacity for 100,000 virtual servers. New Zealanders aren’t short of cloud computing options. All the big multinational cloud providers serve customers here.

Because they operate around the world they get global economies of scale. And yet a glance at the price list shows costs are in line with brands such as Amazon Web Services.

Catalyst says this means the company could keep as much as NZ$40 million a year of cloud business in New Zealand.

Local customers get the advantage of paying for cloud services in New Zealand dollars, which, given currency volatility, makes it easier to plan spending.

There are also latency benefits. While ping times to Sydney-based servers are in line with times between cities at the extreme north and south ends of New Zealand, users need to pay extra for dedicated international bandwidth to get the best results.

Add all in the arguments about data sovereignty and Catalyst has a compelling sales story.

At the time of writing, there is a web dashboard for real-time provisioning of virtual machines, network and storage. You can buy compute services, a machine image service, block and object storage, software defined networking (SDN), automated monitoring and security. Catalyst says it has VPN-as-a-service in beta.

wellington cloud

Latency is a good reason to build a data centre closer to customers.

Spark Digital has just spent NZ$60 million building a data centre in Takanini, South Auckland. That puts it within spitting distance of New Zealand’s biggest market. According to Spark the Takanini data centre is part of a NZ$200 million investment in New Zealand cloud services.

Rivals Datacom and Catalyst IT have both invested in New Zealand data centres. So have multinationals. In 2011 IBM opened an NZ$80 million facility in Auckland. Earlier this year IBM spent a further NZ$10 million bringing new managed cloud services to New Zealand.

Latency isn’t the only reason to build data centres in New Zealand. Data sovereignty is also important. Some data must be stored in New Zealand by law. There are companies who prefer to keep their data where predictable, manageable New Zealand privacy laws apply. And fears that foreign governments often have the rights to snoop on data stored in their territory also drives some companies to keep data where it is relatively safe.

Price is the downside of buying cloud services in New Zealand. One local start-up told me it would cost almost ten times the going international rate to use local cloud servers. That would put their business at a significant disadvantage.

Yet, latency can mean the higher cost of local cloud services is worth every penny.

The submarine cables connecting New Zealand to the rest of the world are fast — data travels though those pipes at the speed of light. However, over long distances — and from New Zealand that means most places — even light-speed travel times are a problem.

There’s nothing we can do about latency. As they say in Star Trek: “You cannae change the laws of physics”.

Here is a list of round trip ping times to overseas destinations. The numbers come from Verizon statistics and are for direct trips. Think of these numbers as the best case. Some traffic travels over roundabout routes, it is not unknown for NZ-Singapore traffic to go via the USA and routes through the public internet can get held up for all kinds of reasons.

International ping times from New Zealand

 

I’m told latency becomes noticeable on desktop interactive apps when round trip ping times go over 50ms. You may have a different experience. Moving a mouse around a spreadsheet or typing more than a few words into a form is frustrating when there’s a long lag between action and effect.

You’ll notice from Verizon’s numbers, there’s a huge gulf between ping times to Australia and anywhere else. This has implications for New Zealand cloud service providers aiming to compete with multinationals like AWS and Microsoft in Australia.

Ping times to Australia are on a par with domestic times. Reannz (Research and Education Advanced Network New Zealand Ltd) reports domestic latency between the two furthest points of presence on its network, North Shore and Invermay is 22ms. While traffic from New Zealand’s South Island has to travel to Auckland before making the trans-Tasman hop, for New Zealand companies in Auckland, Eastern Australia has domestic-like latency.

What does this mean for New Zealand cloud providers? Putting aside data sovereignty, the issue is how important is latency to your application. You can farm out low priority jobs to the cheapest cloud providers anywhere in the world — the size of the US economy means that’s where there are economies of scale. It makes sense to keep the highest priority workloads, where speed is essential, in New Zealand. Everything else can go to Australia.