Recently we have experienced a series of DDoS attacks against client hosted sites that resulted in varying level of service outages to hosted services across a section of our hosting platform. In my 10+ years of working in the hosting industry this series of attacks was by far the most intense I’ve experienced and certainly was the most successful in terms of achieving the core goal of a DDoS.

On the one hand, as a collective you might think “…we had been lucky to avoid an attack up to this point” while on the other hand you are dealing with the misguided expectations of clients that you are protected against such attacks and when you explain the realities of a DDoS to a customer who is expecting 100% up-time the responses generally encountered is along the lines of “…I thought you said your service will never go down?” or “…I thought you have full redundancy?”

The absolute reality (that I have no problem in explaining to clients) is that most, if not all service providers are pretty helpless against a DDoS dependent on the size and scale of the attack. In our case we where able to mitigate the service disruption by re-routing all traffic to the affected IP to a NULL route at our carrier edge which reduced the load under which the firewall had been placed under which in turn caused the CPU to spike…making the DDoS successful in it’s end game.

So what can be done to mitigate the risk a DDoS presents? Service Providers can look at spending money by purchasing extremely expensive IDS systems and/or larger capacity routing and firewall devices that might only shield against and attack a little more effectively than less expensive options. An example there is that if a firewall device is capable of 10,000 connections per second and 100,000 total connections a DDoS will look to saturate it’s capability to a point where it’s memory and/or CPU resources are consumed trying to process the attack traffic…upgrading to a device capable of 20,000 connections per second and 200,000 total connections will only serve to buffer the resources that little bit longer which might give you more time to mitigate the attack…but the point that’s made here is that…

…service provider resources will always come off second best if an attack is large enough.

And this is the really scary thing for service providers…if someone (individual or organisation) wants to maliciously target your network and/or a client service hosted on your network and they want to inflict maximum service disruption…the best thing that can be done is attempt to mitigate where possible and ride it out.

There are a number of sites that track and list current and trending DDoS attack frequency and origin…one of the better ones I’ve come across is Prolexic’s real time Attack Tracker linked below.

Companies such as Prolexic generally provide services and physical devices that are linked to global networks that act to shield client networks from attacks similar to ways in which shields email users from obvious SPAM. In discussions with Steven Crockett (Anittel CTO) he described a service which effectively re-routes traffic at the upstream providers end to route through overseas carrier networks who’s connectivity throughput allows otherwise crippling DDoS traffic to be filtered and cleaned before being sent onto it’s destination. This service isn’t site or service specific but involved routing entire subnets…so at this level it’s much more expensive and holistic than reverse proxy content delivery networks.

Working with a CDN will add protection in the form of a value-add service to current service offerings.

So what alternative measures can service providers take to add some level of protection to their key client/internal services. Unless the SP is loaded with more cash than it knows what to do with (at which point there is a case to scale out/upgrade the hosting platform itsself) the only option is to utilize the services of bigger companies that run dedicated Content Delivery Networks.

CDN companies are popping up all over internet, and while a company like Akamai have dominated the website caching market for many years, CDN’s are becoming more the norm whereby caching of static site content is making way for reverse proxy DNS redirection. In wake of the DDoS attacks experienced recently I’ve been testing a couple of the better known CDN providers. One of the those is CloudFlare. The way that a CloudFlare, or Amazon Web Services CloudFront works is by taking over a websites DNS records and use geo-routing to distribute visitors through their CDN network which also filters for potential DDoS or other malicious traffic that would otherwise hit the origin web server.

CDN services are charged generally on a usage basis which commoditizes the service, however CloudFlare charge per site, with their business plans going around the $200 per month mark. For a service providers customer after added insurance against a DDoS or even to generally attempt to increase site responsiveness and performance I believe it’s a no brainier in the age of increasingly brutal DDoS attacks to offer these services as a value-add. At the end of the day the more sites a Service Provider fronts with CDN’s the better able their own hosting network will be able to deal with the inevitability of a DDoS.

One final point to make on going down the CDN path is to ensure that customers understand that their sites are still subject to downtime…this is best illustrated by CloudFlare’s recent outage on the 3rd of March 2013, due to a router bug propagated into their network during a routine DDoS prevention exercise. To their credit, they where very open and transparent of the Root Cause while sites where offline for a period of time, there where options available to re-route the site DNS records back to the origin such is the flexibility of offering a service such as this to service provider clients.

A Hypothetical…

So what’s the title all about? DDoS Annihilation? In my opinion we are getting closer to DDoS events on such large scales that they will have the potential to take down the majority of all service provider and carrier networks which, in turn will have huge social and economic impact around the globe. We don’t have to wait for a Coronal Mass Ejection to blackout the planet…a massive DDoS has the ability to inflict severe damage.

Near on 1 Billion internet hosts used against us in an global DDoS?? No network has the ability to handle that!