MOO’s non-excellent adventure

16th November 2010 by Simon L

As you might be aware experienced some technical challenges this month in the form of a DDoS attack. When we blogged about it about it last week we were still fighting the attack on a few fronts. When I say we were fighting the attack, what I really mean is that Mike (our super sysadmin) was doing what he does best – keeping the site up and running… pretty much single-handedly. Many of you asked us on Twitter and Facebook ‘how?’ and ‘why?’, so we thought who better to answer than Mike:

It was while watching 8 Out of 10 Cats the other day that an earnest Jimmy Carr informed me that the Internet was invented in 1990, by Tim Berners-Lee. That’s one of those moments, I guess, when you realise you’re watching 8 Out of 10 Cats and not QI (both wrong and out by about 20 years), but it’s also one of the moments where you get to wear a wry smile and reflect on change. Although I still consider myself a relative newcomer, I was a prolific Internet citizen long before the World Wide Web was born, and something was true in those days that’s still true today. The Internet, both in terms of its technology and its physical manifestation, relies on co-operation. It requires us, as Bill and Ted would have it, to be excellent to each other.

Recently, we encountered somebody who elected to be decidedly non-excellent to our network infrastructure. They used ten of thousands of innocent home computers, some without sufficient virus protection and some with insufficiently careful owners, to attack in an effort to knock the site off the air.

You build your infrastructure to cope with highs and lows of what’s normal for you. At our current size, we can’t cope with a billion requests a week for pages people don’t even want to look it. Well, actually we can, but it requires a little work.

Periodically, it’s normal for a site such as ours (in short, one you’ve heard of on the Internet) to get attacked from distant lands for no readily apparent reason. You don’t take it personally, you just block the traffic from that person and get on with your day. The problem with what’s called a DDoS attack is that you’re attacked by computers all over the world whose owners are oblivious to their nefarious activities. It takes time to pick out the bad traffic from the good, just as it takes time to block out 20,000 IPs. The good news is how easily, cost effectively and speedily we can get access to greater resources on this modern, if sometimes less friendly, version of the Internet. Whether through virtual cloud computing services or renting dedicated hardware, we are able to spin up servers to externalise the business of dealing with all that nonsense, leaving our core infrastructure to do what it’s best at – serving our customers.

On Twitter, Facebook and the MOO Blog, a common question for some has been to ask why somebody would do this. As I’ve mentioned, the people doing the actual work are simply oblivious. In less developed countries, use of anti-virus and firewalling software is greatly reduced, in part simply because people can’t afford it. Behind all that, though, somebody did choose to direct all these machines at us, it’s true. The reality is that we don’t know their agenda; it’s all bathed in anonymity; there’s nobody to call to ask why, but in truth it really doesn’t matter. Some attackers have further criminal intentions but some simply haven’t found a positive creative outlet for their talents and sadly disrupting those who have is the only way they’ve found to feel empowered. Either way, we just have to deal with it, and move on.

Some of our customers have had an annoying experience. On behalf of whoever is behind the curtain, and all those people who didn’t care for their PCs as well as they might have, I apologise. The site is currently stable, even though the battle rages on behind the scenes. This has all done our local Café Nero some good, and done wonders for the providers of our various SMS warning services. I am left with an overall sense, however, that everyone involved could have found something much more constructive to do with our resources.

And for those who like to put a face to a name, here’s Mike:

PS. MOO HQ (sadly) doesn’t have its own waterfall, but we do have an awesome coffee machine, beer ‘o’ clock on Fridays and a inspirational “Silicon Roundabout” location. If you’d like to join the team, take a look at our current vacancies!

Comments (6)

  1. Sharon:

    bless you, Mike and your efforts. It’s hard fighting something you can’t see…

  2. dawn:

    Great job Mike! Just keep thinking of that waterfall to stay calm when everything’s exploding around you. :)

    Guess that explains the weird slowness when I was trying to order last week– luckily I had something else to work on and just kept my Safari window open in the background to glance for signs of change.

  3. Nick Ward:

    Well done Mike, and much love to Cafe Nero and their Caramel Lattes

  4. Carmen:

    “Silicon Roundabout” is frightening.

  5. Ralph Corderoy:

    Hi Mike, I’m confused. Are you suggesting QI also said t’Internet was invented by TBL in 1990? Cheers, Ralph.

  6. Mike Ashton:

    Hi Ralph,

    Sorry I didn’t see your question before now.

    No, I was suggesting that QI’s researchers might have done a better job of getting their facts right.

    Apologies if you’re a researcher for 8 out of 10 cats :)

    Merry Christmas.

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