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Miss Hong Kong data-typhoon

Stefan Hammond | Aug. 31, 2012
At a Computerworld Hong Kong event years ago, I heard a senior executive explain how online retailer Amazon re-engineered their e-commerce process for the Christmas gift-giving season.

The Miss Hong Kong telecast provided a 10-minute window not only for viewers to vote for their favorite ingenue, but also enter a lucky draw for a HK$480,000 Mini Cooper automobile. Voting for TVB's Miss Hong Kong 2012 could be done via a Web application and a mobile application--the mobile app is called "TVB fun."

The results were catastrophic: "...our engineers identified some unusual data traffic targeting the TVB fun application in the operating records of the related voting system," said Microsoft Hong Kong in a statement issued just after the incident. "Within the voting period, the system already recorded unusual data traffic which was many times higher than the original expectation. This was substantially higher than the total number of people watching the program and also the total population of Hong Kong."

MS HK posited at that time that this was "grounds to suspect that the application was attacked by malicious hackers, causing abnormal disruption in the operation of the application and thus the subsequent uploading of related data to the cloud system for further processing." But our sister technology site Asia Cloud Forum followed up on the story--ACF editor Carol Ko conducted an interview with Chin-Tang Chin, Microsoft Hong Kong's director of developer and platform evangelism group, which shed more light on the situation.

"Assumptions are made in any application systems design, such as that on the expected number of voters," said Chin. "In reality, when there's unusual traffic pattern that breaks the original assumptions, the system'd behave differently from how it's supposed to behave...Systems fall apart when traffic pattern is usual and behave widely different from the assumptions."

Chin said that "the Miss Hong Kong voting application [TVB fun] was jointly developed by TVB and Cherry Picks while Microsoft provided technical support with the underlying cloud platform [Windows Azure]...However, Microsoft may not have complete information on the project because the company wasn't involved in developing the voting application. Technology is part of the entire app design process during which a company has to take many business-related issues into consideration."

The Microsoft Hong Kong director also said: "I'd like to clarify that there's an app on top of the voting system while Windows Azure is underneath the same system. Throughout the entire process of Miss Hong Kong voting, Windows Azure did not suffer any impact, and Azure was functioning exactly the way it was supposed to do."

So what happened? TVB has said they plan to hire a third-party consulting firm to investigate the incident. So, I'm going to speculate. I'm a tech journalist, this is a blog post and I'm going to examine filtered bits of data from the past few days and give it my best guess.

 

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