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Case study: How NIWA survived a supercomputer hack with its disaster response and recovery

Sathya Mithra Ashok | July 17, 2014
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 last 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 IT disaster preparedness and response plan, which turned out to have worked. "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

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.


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