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2.4 Distribution Effects

Denial of service is possible without using distributed techniques, but it poses a challenge for an attacker. For example, imagine that a DoS attack based on pure flooding originates at a single machine with a 10-Mbps link and is directed toward a victim machine that has a 100-Mbps link. In an attempt to overwhelm the victim's link, the attacker will flood his own network and deny service to himself. To successfully disrupt the victim's communication, the attacker must compromise an agent machine that has more network resources than the victim. Locating and breaking into such a machine may prove difficult, especially if the target of the attack is a well-provisioned site.

However, consider what happens if the same attack is performed in a distributed manner, say, by a hundred machines. Each machine now sends 1 Mbps toward the victim. Assuming all hundred machines have 10-Mbps links, none of them generates enough traffic to cause serious harm to its own local network. But the Internet delivers all attack traffic to the victim, overwhelming its link. Thus, the victim's service is denied, while the attackers are still fully operational.

Distribution brings a number of benefits to the attacker:

  • A typical server machine has more computing, memory, and bandwidth resources than a typical client machine. An attacker with control of only one client machine would thus have difficulty overwhelming the server's resources without first overwhelming his own. By using distributed techniques, the attacker can multiply the resources on the attacking end, allowing him to deny service to more powerful machines at the target end.
  • To stop a simple DoS attack from a single agent, a defender needs to identify that agent and take some action that prevents it from sending such a large volume of traffic. In many cases, the attack from a machine can be stopped only if the machine's human administrator, or network operator, takes action. If there are 10, 100, or 1,000 agents participating in the attack, however, stopping any single one of them may provide little benefit to the victim. Only by stopping most or all of them can the DoS effect be alleviated. Getting thousands of people to take some action to stop an attack from their machine is an overwhelming challenge. [3]
  • If the attacker chooses agents that are spread widely throughout the Internet, attempts to stop the attack are more difficult, since the only point at which all of the attack traffic merges is close to the victim. This point is called the aggregation point. Other nodes in the network might experience no telltale signs of the attack and might have difficulty distinguishing the attack traffic from legitimate traffic. Thus, they cannot help defend against the attack.
  • In a DoS attack executed from a single agent, the victim might be able to recover by obtaining more resources. For example, an overwhelmed Web server might be able to recruit other local servers to help handle the extra load. Regardless of how powerful a single agent might be, the defender can add more capacity until he outstrips the attacker's ability to generate load. This approach is less effective in defending against DDoS attacks. If the defender doubles his resources to handle twice as many requests, the attacker merely needs to double the number of agents—often an easy task.

Another aspect makes both DoS and DDoS attacks hard to handle: Defenses that work well against many other kinds of attacks are not necessarily effective against denial of service. For years, system administrators have been advised to install a firewall and keep its configuration up to date, to close unnecessary ports on all machines, to stay current with patches of operating systems and other important software, and to run intrusion detection systems to discover any attacks that have managed to penetrate the outer bastions of defense. Unfortunately, these security measures often will not help against denial of service. The attack can consist of traffic that the firewall finds acceptable, probably because it bears a close resemblance to legitimate traffic. Since the DoS attack merely needs to exhaust resources, it can work on any port left open, including those that must be open for a node to do its normal business. Attackers can perform DoS attacks on machines that have no vulnerabilities (by the standard definition of that term), so patches to close vulnerabilities may not help. Also, intrusion detection systems are of limited value in dealing with DoS, since, unlike break-ins and thefts, DoS attacks rarely hide themselves. After all, their whole purpose is to interrupt normal business, an event that will usually be noticed.

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