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Posts Tagged ‘Cascading failure’

Unsafe At Any Speed: The Darkside Of Automation

July 29th, 2011 5 comments

I’m a huge proponent of automation. Taking rote processes from the hands of humans & leveraging machines of all types to enable higher agility, lower cost and increased efficacy is a wonderful thing.

However, there’s a trade off; as automation matures and feedback loops become more closed with higher and higher clock rates yielding less time between execution, our ability to both detect and recover — let alone prevent — within a cascading failure domain is diminished.

Take three interesting, yet unrelated, examples:

  1. The premise of the W.O.P.R. in War Games — Joshua goes apeshit and almost starts WWIII by invoking a simulated game of global thermonuclear war
  2. The Airbus 380 failure – the luck of having 5 pilots on-board and their skill to override hundreds of cascading automation failures after an engine failure prevented a crash that would have killed hundreds of people.*
  3. The AWS EBS outage — the cloud version of Girls Gone Wild; automated replication caught in a FOR…NEXT loop

These weren’t “maliciously initiated” issues, they were accidents.  But how about “events” like Stuxnet?  What about a former Gartner analyst having his home automation (CASA-SCADA) control system hax0r3d!? There’s another obvious one missing, but we’ll get to that in a minute (hint: Flash Crash)

How do we engineer enough failsafe logic up and down the stack that can function at the same scale as the decision and controller logic does?   How do we integrate/expose enough telemetry that can be produced and consumed fast enough to actually allow actionable results in a timeframe that allows for graceful failure and recovery (nee survivability.)

One last example that is pertinent: high frequency trading (HFT) —  highly automated, computer driven, algorithmic-based stock trading at speeds measured in millionths of a second.

Check out how this works:

[Check out James Urquhart's great Wisdom Of the Clouds blog post: "What Cloud Computing Can Learn From Flash Crash"]

In the use-case of HFT, ruthlessly squeezing nanoseconds from the processing loops — removing as much latency as possible from every element of the stack — literally has implications in the millions of dollars.

Technology vendors are doing many very interesting and innovative things architecturally to achieve these goals — some of them quite audacious — and anything that gets in the way or adds latency is generally not considered “useful.”  Security is usually one of them.

There are most definitely security technologies that allow for very low latency insertion of things like firewalls that have low single-digit microsecond latency figures (small packet,) but interestingly enough we’re also governed by the annoying laws of physics and things like propagation delay, serialization delay, TCP/IP protocol overhead, etc. all adds up.

Thus traditional approaches to “in-line” security — both detective and preventative — are not generally sustainable in these environments and thus require some deep thought so as to provide solutions that will scale as well as these HFT systems do…no short order.

I think this is another good use for “big data” and security data analytics.  Consider very high speed side-band systems that function along with these HFT systems that could potentially leverage the logic in these transactional trading systems to allow us to get closer to being able to solve the challenges of these environments.  Integrate these signaling and telemetry planes with “fabric-enabled” security capabilities and we might get somewhere useful.

This tees up nicely my buddy James Arlen’s talk at Blackhat on the insecurity of high frequency trading systems: “Security when nano seconds count”  You should plan on checking it out…I know I will.

/Hoff

*H/T to @reillyusa who also pointed me to “Questions Raised About Airbus Automated Control System” regarding the doomed Air France 447 flight.  Also, serendipitously, @etherealmind posted a link to a a story titled “Volkswagen demonstrates ‘Temporary Auto Pilot’” — what could *possibly* go wrong? ;)

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