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May 27, 2014

New Zealand Research Supercomputer Hacked

Tiffany Trader
NIWA supercomputer_credit_dave_allen

Representatives of New Zealand’s National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA) revealed that the organization’s IBM Power 575 supercomputer, known as FitzRoy, is back online after being switched off following a cyber attack late last week.

The 18-tonne, $12.7 million IBM supercomputer was taken offline as a precautionary measure after hackers made several attempts to access the machine. During the downtime, NIWA worked with IBM and the National Cyber Security Centre to ensure the integrity of the system.

Yesterday, NIWA confirmed that while there were “unauthorised attempts” to access the supercomputer late last week, these attempts were “unsuccessful.”

FitzRoy came back online Saturday evening with all normal services resumed. The 34-teraflops system is used to run scientific modeling and no sensitive personal or client information is stored on it.

NIWA chief executive John Morgan explained that at first sign of intrusion, NIWA “isolated the supercomputer, and switched functionality to back-up facilities in Hamilton.”

“We are … confident the intruder did not get beyond the supercomputer,” he added.

The attack has been traced to a Chinese IP address; however, New Zealand officials point out this is not definitive proof that the security breach originated in China. The actual perpetrators could have used unsecured machines within China to hide their tracks. The New Zealand government says it’s still investigating the case.

“I would be very wary of attributing it to any country,” stated Prime Minister John Key. “It is very very difficult to know where these come from … they often hide their identity through an IP address they used and sometimes it might look as though it comes from a particular country but they might just be the host.”

Prime Minister Key also said he has no idea why a research computer with no sensitive data was targeted. “In some of the other attacks I’ve seen, there’s a bit more of an obvious reason, but this one is not at all clear,” he noted in a press briefing. The Prime Minister has called on the government’s spy agency to find the responsible party and uncover their motivations.