Australian College Kids Build Alternative Census Site for $500

(Photo: Flickr, Creative Commons)

(Photo: Flickr, Creative Commons)

Two freshman college students in Australia took just 54 hours and $500 to create an alternative website to the ABS Census site that was recently shut down after being attacked by foreign hackers.

The site was created by Austin Wilshire, 18, and Bernd Hartzer, 24, during the Queensland University of Technology’s Code Network Winter hack-a-thon held last weekend. It took just over two days for the duo to create the site, coming at a cost of $500, which is significantly less than the $10 million spent by the Australian government on their website.

The ABS Census site was shut down after being targeted by four distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks, in which the hacker attempts to crash a system by flooding it with bot accounts.  While the first three attempts only caused minor disruptions, allowing 2.33 million census forms still to be transmitted successfully, the site was eventually shut down after a “gap” in the security measures was found after the fourth attack, writes Kate Aubusson for The Sydney Morning Herald.

Intelligence agency Australian Signals Directorate, located within the Australian Department of Defense, is currently investigating the incident.

The government site crashed for more than 24 hours after the servers were overloaded as a result of millions of residents logging on to take a survey performed every five years.  Many people trying access the site at 5 p.m. on Tuesday were met with a “code 31″ error that continued through the night.  The site was shut down at 7:45 p.m.

Meanwhile, the alternative site makes use of “serverless architecture” by having the site hosted on Amazon servers, which avoids the possibility of the site potentially becoming overloaded, writes Freya Noble for The Daily Mail Australia.

“From the outset we designed the system to scale using cutting-edge serverless architecture,” Mr Wilshire told Daily Mail Australia.  “The technology is new, only two years old. It allowed us to run little snippets of code (called Lambda functions) on Amazon’s servers.  This means that their system operation staff (arguably some of the best in the world) are the ones taking care of scaling for us for us,” he said.

The ABS Census site had been load tested to handle one million page loads per hour, which cost the government half a million dollars.  However, the alternative site has been load tested to handle four million pages per hour, costing the pair who created it nothing.  The alternative can handle 10,000 submissions a second, while the government can only take in 260.

“We made something that was really simple because it didn’t need to be complex,” Mr Hartzer told Daily Mail Australia.  “We were able to work without a lot of limitations, that the people who made the Census website would have had tons of,” the 24-year-old added.

However, the two admitted that the alternative site could not have been used by the government due to privacy laws.  The new site makes use of the cloud infrastructure, which Wilshire states should be used in the future.

The pair won first place at the hack-a-thon for their project, titled “Make Census Great Again.”