Acronym Monday: DDoS
In our technological world, there are hundreds of technology-related acronyms that programmers and developers have been able to define since they were in their coding diapers. Sometimes it doesn’t come as easy for everyone else. Wildcard deals with tons of non-technical clients, and we have perhaps just as many non-technical team members. In honor of these people, we have decided to take one day out of every week to explain some of these acronyms. We are calling this day “Acronym Monday” in an arguably fruitless effort to make Mondays exciting and something to look forward to.
Today's Acronym Monday is brought to you by the acronym DDoS.
DDoS stands for distributed denial of service, and it refers to a type of attack that wicked folk can make on a website. Before we get into what the “distributed” part is all about, I’ll discuss the root form of this acronym, DoS or denial of service.
Why is it Called Denial of Service?
This definition is pretty straight forward. A denial of service attack denies service to people. Which people? Well, when you initiate a denial of service attack, you are sending a flood of fake traffic to a website, overwhelming it, causing everything to scream to a halt. You have essentially denied whatever service that website usually provides to its legitimate visitors: ordinary folks just trying to carry on with their day. It is for this reason that denial of service attacks are seriously frowned upon.
Of course, they’re also illegal to launch in many countries, including the United States, so that’s also a pretty reasonable deterrent. In the UK for example, under Police and Justice Act 2006, people executing denial of service attacks could face up to 10 years in prison or a substantial fine, or both, depending on the case. So it's something you really don't want to do.
What’s so Distributed About Them?
You can launch a denial of service attack locally, sure. But they can also be launched from anywhere in the world and be made to affect any website that’s improperly secured. The “distributed” prefix comes from this geographic diversity. Just like an ordinary denial of service attack, when a DDoS attack is launched, a hacker floods a website with fake traffic, where a computer program creates thousands of fake accounts aimed at slowing the website down to a crawl.
But they don't stop there. They use what are called bot networks, commonly called botnets, which are collections of machines, sometimes in the hundreds of thousands, all working together from around the world to do one thing. In this case, to flood websites and bring them down. You could think of it like this: the single hacker launching the attack is copied a hundred thousand times, and all the copies appear around the world all at once. These botnet machines are often called "zombies" and understandably so.
How to Protect Yourself
Firewalls are parts of a computer system that are meant to stop unauthorized users from accessing your system. But they still let you do everything you need to do. This isn’t just important for preventing denial of service attacks, but general security as well. We deploy web application firewalls for many security conscious organizations and agencies. Because of the best security measures, none of our clients have ever experienced a successful denial of service attack.
Updates are also important if you want to protect yourself. Almost every update you install for any program you run will patch some security issue or another. If you’re using an old version without the security patches, attackers will be able to use the known vulnerabilities to launch their attacks against you. Keeping all your systems up to date can help prevent these kinds of vulnerabilities.
How to Manage an Attack
Even if an attacker gets past your defenses, there are a few ways you can minimize the damage. One way is to have your systems backed up on redundant servers. If your server goes offline due to a DDoS attack, the system will automatically failover to the secondary system. This means that the backup server will take over the tasks of the primary server that has failed. And this process goes unnoticed by any site visitors you have.
Having redundant servers can also be a good idea for natural disaster management, especially if your backup servers are located across the country from your primary servers. For example, if you have servers both in California and New York, the chances of a disaster shutting them both down at the same time is very small.
Another tool to help manage an attack is a content delivery network or CDN. You remember the CDN from last week’s Acronym Monday article. The CDN is a step beyond redundancy, so if both your servers go offline (and during an attack, that's likely), the CDN will serve out a cached copy. Even if what your site visitors see is just cached content—or “stale” content—that may not necessarily be up to date, it sure beats not having any content to show your visitors at all. The CDN buys you time to stop the attack and get the regular site online again.
Many CDNs have built-in DDoS protection that can deflect attacks before anyone even knows they are happening. There are several different options for CDN providers available, and we have worked with several of the best to protect some of America’s most targeted federal websites. Determining which provider will work best for you depends on your specific organization.
Above all, you have to be aware of known risks in the cybersecurity world. What are some best practices for security? What viruses are going around right now? What new techniques are attackers trying so that you can protect against them?
The team at Wildcard will work with you to figure out your best and most budget-friendly cybersecurity solution. We follow the latest cybersecurity trends and keep ahead of those “wicked folk” who are trying to bring your systems down. Contact us today to see how we can help defend you.
Join us next week for another Acronym Monday article where we will explore CAPTCHA: those fuzzy little words you have to type in to prove to everyone, even your family, that you’re not a cyborg… as for me, I'm not so easily convinced...