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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 TVB fun mobile app was developed at least in part by Cherrypicks: a Hong Kong firm with an excellent track record. The firm issued a statement that reads, in part: "Cherrypick[s] has been providing [the] TVB Fun mobile apps service for Television Broadcast Limited since 2011. The service includes providing entertainment content and voting features. Generally, it has been effective and well-functioning since [the start of] operation." And TVB has issued a statement with its version of events.

The app is available for both the iOS and Android platforms, and Android malware has been on the rise lately (the number of new malicious programs targeting the Android platform almost trebled in the second quarter of the year, according to figures from Kaspersky Lab, and security firm Sophos offers a free Sophos Mobile Security app for Android devices). But I have yet to hear of any malware aimed at highjacking the TVB fun app, and consider this possibility extremely low.

The general consensus is that the traffic which crashed TVB's Miss Hong Kong online party came via the mobile app. Those of us who live in Hong Kong know that the Miss Hong Kong pageant is a high-profile event (when the local film industry was thriving, MHK-winners were invariably offered movie-contracts). We also know that Hong Kongers are glued to their mobile devices, and keyed into local pop culture.

So let's freeze time at the T-minus 15-minute point for the online votefest of Sunday, August 26, 2012. Flat-screen televisions across the HKSAR announce that voting for your favorite MHK candidate (and entry in the lucky draw) will open soon. Some press the "enter" button on their computer, smartphone or iPad. Some press it on all three devices. Microsoft's engineers "identify some unusual data traffic."

At some point, likely before the stated voting-period, the system reaches critical mass. As MS HK's Chin pointed out: "When an unusual traffic pattern occurs, which breaks the original assumptions made for the application, this will cause the system to behave differently from what it is supposed to behave."

Votes were kicked back due to overload, viewers screamed in frustration and hit the buttons again and again on their devices. Servers howled in anguish. The dreaded "infinite-loop ping" circled from Aberdeen to Sheng Shui (and across the border?) as server-requests were recycled on a Möbius strip of discontent.

That's my best guess. A highly popular event produces great interest in a short time-window, and a massive overload of data-requests shuts down the allocated resources. It's happened before, and it'll happen again (US President Barack Obama's unexpected August 29 "Ask Me Anything" appearance on broke the Web site's servers).


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