Lots of news on the Twitter attack last week. There’s general consensus that it was a distributed denial-of-service attack (DDOS) that it targeted a particular account.
DDOS attacks are tricky things. There’s no one technique, product, or protocol that will stop them. That’s what makes them so nasty. To defend against one, a company needs to be able to quickly take countermeasures at all the different levels of the protocol stack, including firewalls, routers, load balancers, and even in the application itself. And even more importantly, you need to have experienced, well-trained operations people who know how to quickly identify an attack and come up with a way to minimize its effects.
When a DDOS attack affects a web service – and there’s an good chance that the Twitter attack made use of the Twitter API – then proper traffic management at the API level is an important part of this stack of protection.
For instance, if a DDOS attack targets a particular user account, or API key, it may be possible to block those particular requests before they get to the back-end application servers, so that the effect of the attack is limited. Or, if the attack always sends some of the same parameters in an HTTP query string, or in the body of an HTTP POST, it may be possible to detect those patterns and reject the requests, again before they reach the back-end application servers. In the worst case, it may even be necessary to shut off access to a particular web service or web service operation, allowing other services to function as best they can while the attack is neutralized by other means.
In other words, just as it may be possible to stop a DDOS attack by blocking a range of IP addresses, or redirecting certain URLs, or configuring traffic shaping in a router or an ADC, it may sometimes be necessary to stop a DDOS attack closer to the application level. The ability to inspect requests at the web services level and take action based on the request content gives an operations team one more weapon to use against an attack.
The Twitter API already has a usage quota on each user account, a rate limit on each IP address, and extensive caching. Imagine how much easier a DDOS attack might have been if they didn’t even have those things.