Friday, 6 June 2014

Whitehall on top of the cloud


Cloud computing:
"you're relinquishing a lot of control to this system"
Mike Neil, Windows Azure general manager

Anyone read The Fear Index by Robert Harris? DMossEsq has, and it's jolly exciting – "nothing spreads like fear".

It's all about an algorithm called VIXAL-4 that "learns" how to exploit its environment and ensures its survival by disarming its competitors.

VIXAL-4 was written by a physicist at CERN. He gets thrown out of CERN because his work is too dangerous so he sets up a hedge fund. Armed with huge amounts of historical price data and a real-time web-based surveillance system, VIXAL-4 cleans up in the global securities markets.

The hedge fund's compliance officer is a bit of a threat, so VIXAL-4 gets rid of him. The major threat is VIXAL-4's own author, the ex-CERN physicist. He powers down two gigantic data centres to try to stop VIXAL-4 but, would you believe it, there's obviously another data centre somewhere because the physicist ends up looking like nothing more than a psychopathic pyromaniac, while VIXAL-4 sails on unopposed.

Great fun, but quite unrealistic, of course.

Or is it?

Anyone read Inside Microsoft's Autopilot: Nadella's secret cloud weapon by Jack Clark? DMossEsq has, and it's jolly exciting – "Redmond man spills the beans on Microsoft's top-secret software".

You should know that Satya Nadella is the newish CEO of Microsoft ...
Most recently, Nadella was executive vice president of Microsoft’s Cloud and Enterprise group. In this role he led the transformation to the cloud infrastructure and services business, which outperformed the market and took share from competition.
... and that he sees Microsoft's future in the cloud, Satya Nadella: Mobile First, Cloud First Press Briefing, that's the strategy. Microsoft's cloud offering is Windows Azure. Microsoft aren't the biggest cloud operators. That distinction goes to Amazon Web Services. Then there's Google. And some others.

While he was executive vice president of Microsoft’s Cloud and Enterprise group, Nadella oversaw the development of VIXAL-4 Autopilot.

Now, back to Jack Clark's article: "Autopilot is the system that lets Microsoft knit together millions of servers and hundreds and hundreds of petabytes of data into a great, humming lake of compute and storage capacity".

Autopilot: the first software the servers in this ITPAC
will meet when they arrive at a Microsoft data center
Not sure about humming lakes, but you need to understand the sheer scale of Microsoft's cloud operation. The unit they work in is the ITPAC. An ITPAC is 10,000 servers. The picture alongside shows an ITPAC being delivered to a data centre – another 10,000 servers to knit into the humming lake. That's what the cloud is all about.

"Microsoft rarely talks publicly about Autopilot", but Mike Neil, Windows Azure general manager, did talk to Jack Clark:
"Autopilot software now completely automates the entire server operational lifecycle, from power on and OS installation, to fault detection and repair, to power cycling and vendor RMA," explains Microsoft. "The [Autopilot] team can take a bow for a quietly effective operation that has profoundly transformed Internet-scale services at Microsoft."

It also helps assign resources to applications, schedule when jobs should run, gathers information from millions of computers to give up-to-the-minute capacity utilization information, and forms the underlay of other even more-secret technologies, such as the exabyte-scale COSMOS data analysis engine that sits beneath services such as Bing, Xbox Live, and Windows Azure ...

If a server fails, then Autopilot has a "self-healing" capability that can prevent a cluster-scale brownout, he said. "Things are going to fail all the time – Autopilot can take remediation actions for you to address failures. There's a bunch of auto-healing autonomic behavior in the system ...
And then there's the bit Robert Harris would like:
And just like systems in use at Google (Borg and its successor Omega), and Twitter (Mesos), Autopilot's complexity makes it behave more like a skilled yet uncommunicative colleague than a [subservient] system.

"The thing you have to get comfortable with is you're relinquishing a lot of control to this system and allowing it to do the right thing for you, and trusting it – it may take steps you don't know about," Neil says. "These systems are so large that no one person is keeping track. That's what the system is designed to do – take care of the details."
It's big. It's complex. No-one knows how it works. The algorithms do – Autopilot and COSMOS – but not the humans, "it may take steps you don't know about ... no one person is keeping track". Stick your data and your applications in the cloud and you lose control of them, "you're relinquishing a lot of control to this system".

That's how Microsoft see it. And no doubt Amazon and Google. Meanwhile, back at CERN the Cabinet Office, we have the delightful G-Cloud team, welcoming central and local government punters into this new world of the cloud. Nothing to be afraid of, not even a "cluster-scale brownout", what could possibly go wrong? With "auto-healing autonomic behavior in the system", nothing. You think you're still in control? In the cloud? Of course you are.

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Updated 7.6.14

Jack Clark has kindly contacted the DMossEsq news desk to confirm that, for the avoidance of doubt, Microsoft are not alone. Google also has an inscrutable algorithm managing its worldwide estate of servers. They used to use one called Borg. Now it looks as though they're using Omega. And Omega is showing signs of life – "Omega tech just like LIVING thing".

Microsoft, Google and others all confirm that, at the kind of scale they're operating, chaos can emerge from orderly, deterministic processes. They know that. The UK's G-Cloud team should also know that. But somehow their invitation to central and local government departments to ascend into the cloud omits any mention of the resulting loss of control.

Updated 8.6.14

There's a lot of marketing going on for the cloud, luring people and organisations into dependence. Here's a Microsoft example, culled from the Spectatorthe cloud + big data will cure cancer. Just remember David Spiegelhalter's opinion on the matter: "complete bollocks ... absolute nonsense". Still, what does he know about it? Believe the marketing if you will. He's only the Professor of the Public Understanding of Risk at Cambridge university:

Can you face another one?

Another professor, that is.

John Naughton is professor of the public understanding of technology at the Open University. Writing in the Observer today, We're all being mined for data – but who are the real winners?, he says:
Another disturbing thing about the big data bandwagon is its implicit epistemology, which could be crudely summarised by modifying the old Klondike slogan: "There's truth in them thar data". What it boils down to is a naive conviction that the more data you have, the closer you will get to the truth. No more relying on small, potentially unrepresentative samples and misleading averages. Instead the plain, unvarnished truth. This "truth" however, comes in the form of correlations: the discovery, for example, that influenza outbreaks go hand in hand with certain kinds of Google searches. Never mind that Google doesn't know anything about what causes flu. So the knowledge that comes from big data is generally an inference that two things are related, not knowledge of why they might be related. (Or not, as the case may be: it turns out that Google's brief foray into epidemiology came unstuck. A new outbreak of the disease had the search engine completely foxed.)

... In the end, the crippled epistemology of the big data movement may prove to be our biggest problem ...
"Naïve conviction" and "crippled epistemology" are not votes of confidence.


Updated 7.9.16

You remember, please see above, how Azure, Microsoft's cloud service, is controlled by the Autopilot and COSMOS algorithms but not by humans, it may take steps you don't know about, no one person is keeping track, stick your data and your applications in the cloud and you lose control of them, you're relinquishing a lot of control to this system, at the kind of scale they're operating chaos can emerge from orderly, deterministic processes ...?

Well good news. MoD gets top billing as Microsoft Cloud makes UK debut:
The Ministry of Defence (MoD) has become one of Microsoft’s standout public sector reference sites for its Office 365 and Azure services as the Microsoft Cloud opens today ...

Microsoft's secure and transparent cloud service in the UK fits perfectly with the MOD's digital transformation agenda ...

... the MoD has been able to push Microsoft at the highest levels to deliver. For example, providing asynchronous cloud for service delivery on submarines ...

Microsoft is also targeting other parts of the public sector for Office 365 and Azure, notably the NHS and local authorities, for digital transformation ...

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