As if the UK’s emergency services didn’t have enough on their plate, the troubled plan to replace their communication network appears to be hitting choppy waters once more.
In a pithy document released earlier this month [PDF], Buckinghamshire & Milton Keynes Fire Authority pointed out that the current system, Airwave, is set to be turned off well before the deadline for rolling out the new Emergency Services Network (ESN), which is intended to provide fully featured voice and data comms for fire, rescue, police and ambulance services across the UK.
“The latest national version [of the National Delivery Plan] released in April 2020 indicates that all Fire Services will have transitioned from the Airwave system onto the ESN by Q4 2024,” it said. “This would mean that the earliest point at which the Airwave system can be switched off would be Q4 2024, however the official date for this is still December 2022.”
That is the current plan, as far as this particular fire service sees it. But it also hints at another proposal regarding the network’s future, which “shows the earliest possible date for Airwave switch off as being Q4 2024 however this has not officially [been] confirmed at this stage”.
The fire service said it would also like to see a year pass between the ESN going live and Airwave turning off.
The document also shows that detailed business cases for the whole show is yet to materialise. Remember, this is a system that was supposed to be implemented by <checks notes> 2017. Although to be fair, the project was completely revised in 2018.
“The Full Business Case was due to have been completed early in 2020 and should have passed through various governance stages in order to be released around May 2020,” the Buckinghamshire document said. “However, we have received notification that it will not now be released for some time. This is in part due to Programme resources being re-assigned to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic, assessment of impact of the pandemic and how it might affect ways of working and the delivery of the various aspects of the project.”
A Home Office spokesperson said: “The ESN will provide police, fire services and ambulance crews with an innovative mobile-based communications system that can transform their emergency response. We will continue to monitor progress to ensure the successful delivery of this programme.”
The central government department said that if Airwave was required after December 2022, then it would “extend the existing contract with Motorola, for the additional period, to minimise the cost and disruption to operational Users of Airwave”.
The spox added that work on the full business case was paused to make resources available to support the departmental response to COVID-19. “This work has now resumed and the FBC will enter formal approvals governance in the Autumn.”
Anyone surprised at the gigantean cock-up at the centre of this plan for a piece of communication infrastructure vital to public safety might be unfamiliar with the £3bn overspend and five-year delay that has attracted no less than eight appearances before the Public Accounts Committee (the UK’s Parliamentary spending watchdog) and been the subject of two National Audit Office reports.
Realising the new system would not be ready in time, the Home Office shifted to extending contracts to support the old kit, and implement the new system.
In March, Capita won a contract to ensure existing Airwave emergency radios can work with the ESN, which is set to run on EE’s 4G network.
In June last year, the Home Office extended its ESN contract with Motorola until December 2024, at an additional cost of £82m, bringing the total value to £401m.
Given the apparent state of the project, concerns that 4G might not even be the right technology for it, and the pandemic-related disruption, no one would be surprised to see further delays, not least its main customers.
In a member meeting report [PDF] from March, the Fire Services Management Committee of the Local Government Association said: “Work is ongoing on deployment planning, but there remain a number of areas where greater certainty or clarity is required to provide individual, sector and (three emergency services) implementations plans of higher confidence.”
We suppose those set to use the ESN might be more confident if the Home Office was not currently planning to turn off the old system before the rollout of the new one is due to finish. ®
Facebook is leaky, creepy, and trashy. Now it wants to host some of your customer data
Facebook wants to host some of your customer data, an offer that hurts its own partner community.
The antisocial giant says it will host data generated by WhatsApp, specifically when used alongside the messaging service’s Business API. That interface lets businesses manage messages to and from customers, and to integrate e-commerce and other apps into the messaging platform. Facebook lets partners implement the API and choose where data is stored.
The Social Network™ on Thursday announced “a new way for businesses to store and manage their WhatsApp chats with customers using Facebook’s secure hosting infrastructure which will roll out early next year.”
Facebook says customers who take up its offer “will make it easier to onboard to WhatsApp Business API … respond to WhatsApp messages faster, keep their inventory up to date and sell products through chats.”
But the Silicon Valley giant also says that using a third party – even Facebook – breaks end-to-end encryption.
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“If a business chooses to use a third party vendor to operate the WhatsApp Business API on their behalf, we do not consider that to be end-to-end encrypted since the business you are messaging has chosen to give a third-party vendor access to those messages,” Facebook said. “This will also be the case if that third-party vendor is Facebook.”
Facebook will therefore disclose when it is hosting chats on behalf of a customer albeit without revealing the degraded encryption.
The web goliath said it will also “expand our partnerships with business solution providers we’ve worked with over the last two years,” so while it says it will offer a better on-boarding experience, it’s throwing them another unspecified bone.
The Social Network™ said its hosting services will emerge in coming months, which gives us all plenty of time to ponder whether you want to get into business with a corporation that has failed to suppress misinformation, allowed live-streaming of a racist terror attack, leaked personal data, and took years to figure out that holocaust denial has no place in public conversations. ®
How to get started with Intel Optane
Sponsored If you take your data centre infrastructure seriously, you’ll have taken pains to construct a balanced architecture of compute, memory and storage precisely tuned to the needs of your most important applications.
You’ll have balanced the processing power per core with the appropriate amount of memory, and ensured that both are fully utilised by doing all you can to can get data off your storage subsystems and to the CPU as quickly as possible.
Of course, you’ll have made compromises. Although the proliferation of cores in today’s processors puts an absurd amount of compute power at your disposal, DRAM is expensive, and can only scale so far. Likewise, in recent years you’ll have juiced up your storage with SSDs, possibly going all flash, but there are always going to be bottlenecks en route to those hungry processors. You might have stretched to some NVMe SSDs to get data into compute quicker, but even when we’re pushing against the laws of physics, we are still constrained by the laws of budgets. This is how it’s been for over half a century.
So, if someone told you that there was a technology that could offer the benefits of DRAM, but with persistence, and which was also cheaper than current options, your first response might be a quizzical, even sceptical, “really”. Then you might lean in, and ask “really?”
That is the promise of Intel® Optane™, which can act as memory or as storage, potentially offering massive price performance boosts on both scores. And drastically improve the utilisation of those screamingly fast, and expensive, CPUs.
So, what is Optane™? And where does it fit into your corporate architecture?
Intel describes Optane™ as persistent memory, offering non-volatile high capacity with low latency at near DRAM performance. It’s based on the 3D XPoint™ technology developed by Intel and Micron Technology. It is byte and bit addressable, like DRAM. At the same time, it offers a non-volatile storage medium without the latency and endurance issues associated with regular flash. So, the same media is available in both SSDs, for use as storage on the NVMe bus, and as DIMMs for use as memory, with up to 512GB per module, double that of current conventional memory.
It’s also important to understand what Intel means when it talks about the Optane™ Technology platform. This encompasses both forms of Optane™ – memory and storage – together with the Intel® advanced memory controller and interface hardware and software IP. This opens up the possibility not just of speeding up hardware operations, but of optimising your software to make the most efficient use of the hardware benefits.
So where will Optane™ help you? Let’s assume that the raw compute issue is covered, given that today’s data centre is running CPUs with multiple cores. The problem is more about ensuring those cores are fully utilised. Invariably they are not, simply because the system cannot get data to them fast enough.
DRAM has not advanced at the same rate as processor technology, as Alex Segeda, Intel’s EMEA business development manager for memory and storage, explains, both in terms of capacity growth and in providing persistency. The semiconductor industry has pretty much exhausted every avenue available when it comes to improving price per GB. When it comes to the massive memory pools needed in powerful systems, he explains, “It’s pretty obvious that DRAM becomes the biggest contributor to the cost of the hardware…in the average server it’s already the biggest single component.”
Meanwhile, flash – specifically NAND – has become the default storage technology in enterprise servers, and manufacturers have tried everything they can to make it cheaper, denser and more affordable. Segeda compares today’s SSDs to tower blocks – great for storing something, whether data or people, but problems arise when you need to get a lot of whatever you’re storing in or out at the same time. While the cost of flash has gone down, endurance and performance, especially on write operations, means “it’s not fit for the purpose of solving the challenge of having a very fast, persistent storage layer”.
Moreover, Segeda maintains, many people are not actually aware of these issues. “They’re buying SSDs, often SAS SSDs, and they think it is fast enough. It’s not. You are most likely not utilising your hardware to the full potential. You paid a few thousand dollars for your compute, and you’re just not feeding it with data.”
To highlight where those chokepoints are in typical enterprise workloads, Intel has produced a number of worked examples. For example, when a 375GB Optane™ SSD DC P4800X is substituted for a 2TB Intel® SSD DC P4500 as the storage tier for a MySQL installation running 80 virtual cores, CPU utilisation jumps from 20 per cent to 70 per cent, while transaction throughput per second is tripled, and latency drops from over 120ms to around 20ms.
This latency reduction, says Segeda, “is what matters if you’re doing things like ecommerce, high frequency trading.”
The same happens when running virtual machines, using Optane™ in the caching tier for the disk groups in a VMware vSAN cluster, says Segeda. “We’re getting half of the latency and we’re getting double the IO from storage. It means I can have more virtual machines accessing my storage at the same time. Right on the same hardware. Or maybe I can have less nodes in my cluster, just to deliver the same performance.”
A third example uses Intel® Optane™ DC Persistent memory as a system memory extension in a Redis installation. The demo compares a machine with total available memory of 1.5TB of DRAM and a machine using 192GB of DRAM and 1.5TB of DCPMM. The latter delivered the same degree of CPU utilization, with up to 90 per cent of the throughput efficiency of the DRAM only server.
These improvements hold out the prospect of cramming more virtual machines or containers on the same server, says Segeda, or keeping more data closer to the PC, to allow real time analytics. This is important because while modern applications generate more and more data, only a “small, small fraction” is currently meaningfully analysed, says Segeda. “If you’re not able to do that, and get that insight, what’s the point of capturing the data? For compliance?” Clearly, compliance is important but it doesn’t help companies monetise the data they’re generating or giving them an edge over rivals.
The prospect of opening up storage and memory bottlenecks will obviously appeal, whether your infrastructure is already straining, or because while things are ticking over right this minute, you know that memory and storage demands are only likely to go in one direction in future. So, how do you work out how and where Optane™ will deliver the most real benefit for your own infrastructure?
On a practical level, the first step is to identify where the problems are. Depending on your team’s engineering expertise, this could be something you can do inhouse, using your existing monitoring tools. Intel® also provides a utility called Storage Performance Snapshot to run traces on your infrastructure and visualise the data to highlight where data flow is being choked off.
Either way, you’ll want to ask yourself some fundamental questions, says Segeda: “What’s your network bandwidth? Is it holding you back? What’s your storage workload? What’s your CPU utilisation? Is the CPU waiting for storage? Is the CPU waiting for network? [Then] you can start making very meaningful assumptions.” This should give you an indication of whether expanding the memory pool, or accelerating your storage, or both will help.
As for practical next steps, Segeda suggests talking through options with your hardware suppliers, and Intel account manager if you have one, to take a holistic view of the problem.
Simply retrofitting your existing systems can be an option he says. Add in an Optane™ SSD on NVMe, and you have a very fast storage device. Optane™ memory can be added to the general memory pool, giving memory expansion at a relatively lower cost.
However, Segeda says, “You can have a better outcome if you do some reengineering, and explicit optimization.”
Using Optane™ as persistent memory requires significant modification to the memory controller, something that is currently offered in the Intel® Second Generation Xeon® Scalable Gold or Platinum Processors. This will enable the use of App Direct Mode, which allows suitably modified applications to be aware of memory persistence. So, for example Segeda explains, this will allow an in memory database like SAP Hana to exploit the persistence, meaning it does not have to constantly reload data.
Clearly, an all-new installation raises the option of a more efficient setup, with software optimised to take full advantage of the infrastructure, and with fewer but more compute powerful nodes. All of which gives which the potential to save not just on DRAM and storage, but on electricity, real estate, and also on software licenses.
For years, infrastructure and software engineers and data centre architects have had to delicately balance computer, storage, memory, and network. With vast pools of persistent memory and faster storage now in reach, at lower cost, that juggling act may just be about to get much, much easier.
Sponsored by Intel®
The hills are alive with the sound of Azure as Microsoft pledges Austrian bit barns
Microsoft has announced yet another cloud region, this time in Austria.
As is ever the case, Microsoft has not said where the facility will be or detailed its disposition, or revealed said when it will open. But it has said that the facility will bring Azure, Microsoft 365, Dynamics 365 and the Power Platform to Austrian soil.
The region will be Microsoft’s 64th Azure facility.
Local politicians all lauded the decision, suggesting it will bring the land of Mozart, Strauss, Freud, radio pioneer Heddy Lamarr and strudel roaring into the digital age and let a thousand startups bloom.
Microsoft has also committed to work with Austria’s Ministry of Digitalization to launch a “Center of Digital Excellence”, establish a security network with business, academia and government, and train public servants and private citizens alike in cybersecurity.
Here at The Register we think an Austrian cloud also creates terrific chance for some show tunes, as the new facility will mean the hills are alive with the sound of Azure. The improved resilience that a full Microsoft bit barn brings will mean salespeople can break into a chorus of “You are six nines, I am seven nines.”
If that resilience proves as elusive as an Edelweiss, we can imagine spontaneous outbursts of “So Long, Farewell”.
We’ll leave it to readers to decide how to deal with “The Lonely Goatherd” and its frequent yodeling interjections. ®
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