Case study: How NIWA bounced back from an attempted supercomputer hack

National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research's GM of IT, Arian de Wit, talks about the organisation's disaster response and recovery plan, and evolutionary culture.

It is not easy when there is an attempted supercomputer hack on your watch. But for Arian de Wit, GM of information and technology at NIWA (National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research), it is less about the attempt, and more about how you bounce back from it.

In May this year, NIWA experienced an intrusion attempt on its supercomputer.

“In this specific case, sometimes when you make decisions to take an action it sounds simple and then it turns out to be technically complex. So some things take longer than you might assume when you are talking about it in a meeting. That’s just the nature of things and the complexity of the situation,” he says.

NIWA followed its existing IT disaster preparedness and response plan.

“I am absolutely happy with the incident response timelines. It was an excellent example of cross-working across the team and beyond, with IBM as well,” he says.

“The incident response part of the plan is a very lightweight and sensible outline of the response process. We don’t have a lot of procedural manuals and we don’t have a prescription for every single scenario. This is the way we respond to every kind of incident because it is a high level general response plan. And it is very simple,” says de Wit.

Though the plan came into place in 2010, the team continues to make changes to it as and when necessary.

“We make modifications as required to reflect changes in the environment and team. The plan lists all the resilience measures we have at the time and we have a section for steps planned to improve resilience in the future. So every year or so we look at it and make sure that the we take things we’ve done to improve resilience off the ‘To Do’ list and put them on the list of what’s in place. The document is high-level enough that it does not need too much change too often,” says de Wit.

An evolutionary culture

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NIWA’s IT team has not only recovered from the incident, but also learned from it for its own benefit. Looking at IT processes and technologies as an evolutionary path for the long term is not new to NIWA, it is a part of the organisation’s culture.

NIWA has around 600 permanent staff, supported by an IT group of 30 people. The main data centre for the organisation is housed in Wellington, with a mirroring site in Hamilton.

“That’s a fairly big team. Because we have all these different research areas we run a variety of different platforms for research support. Some scientific apps require certain types of OSes so we have very diverse IT. We need a fairly large IT group to take care of it.

“We are focused on mainstreaming and automating as much as we can as well so we can free up those IT staff to do more value added things rather than looking after nuts and bolts,” says de Wit.

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NIWA has also moved to be mostly a Microsoft-shop over time as part of its standardisation efforts.

“We are a largely mainstream Microsoft shop now. Mostly Windows servers virtualised on VMware. We do have also a number of Linux servers for various apps. On the desktop end we have mostly Windows seven desktops. We have a small number of Macs for specialist needs and small number of Linux desktops.

“Some of our IT management tools are not Microsoft based at the moment. The video conferencing infrastructure at the moment is Cisco and Tandberg, but we have put out Microsoft Lync to every desktop so that is where we are headed in the future,” says de Wit.

The move to Microsoft happened over time, and in phases.

“It was gradual in one sense and big bang in another sense. If we go back to 2010, we had a stage where we were looking at various different tools for various purposes over the previous years. And I got sick of vendors telling me that they don’t integrate with this, but they do integrate with Exchange or Windows servers or Active Directory. And I thought this is not leading us to make the choices we want to make in applications.

“My ideology is to standardise at the centre and encourage diversity at the edges. For that we needed a base layer that enabled options at the outside. In doing that exercise we looked at some other options too. We looked at the likes of Google and Apple, but their enterprise stuff was not fully cooked at that point. Microsoft was the best choice to make,” says de Wit.

The firm moved to Exchange, Windows servers and Active Directory in one big project, which was followed later by the Lync 2013 deployment.

“The step that we are on right now is putting SharePoint for information and records management, as well as our intranet. Then we will look at if it makes sense to replace our IT systems management tool set with Systems Centre, which we are licensed for under enterprise contract. We are kind of paying for it. I just need to make sure that it stacks up against the three different tools that it would replace. That is kind of the journey we are on,” says de Wit.

The move to Microsoft was minimally disruptive, he says. “It was a long piece of work and there were lots of I’s to dot and Ts to cross. The promise of all the Microsoft things working together is a really nice promise. It is a fair bit of work to deliver on it. I think we did the transition smoothly, which is a credit to the whole team.”

The near future

As the organisation grows and develops, the IT team is constantly challenged and has to move in parallel to the needs of the business.

“One of our big challenges is the data growth that kind of outstrips our financial capacity to handle it. I do see a day coming when we will need to make a major step change so part of next year's work is looking at how we do storage and backup, and analysing if there is a better way to do it. That's an ongoing one.

“Data management and systems for cataloguing data sets is another area of interest. We want to make all the scientific data easily accessible, understandable and reusable for people with their particular use in mind. That's stuff we have to think about a lot more than some other organisations,” says de Wit.

De Wit says the team has already done a lot of work on data management tools, and also enabling services that allow people external to NIWA to access and use the organisation’s data.

“A lot of the work we have done have been around fostering collaboration at a distance and making that really easy. Beyond internal collaboration there is collaboration with our partners outside. We might be doing a project with a research institute in the States or a university in Europe. And so collaboration across global distances is also important and video conferencing has helped with that. Some of the new screen sharing tools and capabilities are much easier inside Lync than it used to be,” says de Wit.

Besides looking at storage more seriously, de Wit envisions certain hardware upgrades as the capex consuming elements for next year.

As for moving to the cloud, it is a case-by-case basis for the NIWA IT team.

“I am looking for a service that would be safe to just try in the cloud – a bit like putting a toe in the water. What I am always after is what gives the best total value proposition for NIWA in any particular service. Whenever we are looking for a refresh on something or deploying something –like a new CRM- we think is this sensible to go cloud first or is it better in terms of integration to keep it in house?

“One thing we might do when we do our next renewal of our Microsoft agreement is consider putting email in the cloud. But then again our email is massive. So maybe it might be too expensive,” says de Wit.

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