To a lot of people, you say ‘DoS’ and they think MS DOS, that old command line tool we used to control Windows.
DoS stands for denial-of-service attack and DDoS is distributed denial-of-service attack. It’s a fancy way of saying ‘Someone’s hitting my server with a hammer so hard, it can’t get up.’ Sometimes you can cause an accidental DoS, like by embedding an image from your server into a public Google Spreadsheet. 1 And sometimes other people will do it to you by hotlinking your images. 2 Even the scanning people have done for TimThumb can look like an attack.
Some people like to say that this sort of attack is new, that the Internet used to be good and kind and safe. In the 90s, I remember clearly accidental DoS attacks happening when a site was so popular, having over 500 people log into it at once would crash it. And once it was learned that this happened on accident, it was used as a weapon. Even before then, you could demon dial a number over and over again, until it crashed. I probably just showed my age, but the point is we could always take down a site via overwhelming it, it’s just easier to do it now and not get caught. Picture a thousand people all coming and knocking at your door, or ringing your doorbell, over and over and over.
So now that you have a general idea of what a denial of service attack is, what can you do about it? If you’re on shared hosting, not a whole lot. The vast majority of ‘good’ fixes for this sort of thing has to take place on a server level. It’s sort of like trying to prevent your house from flooding when a water main bursts. You can put up sand bags, but until the city turns off the water, or diverts the flow, you’re probably going to lose.
A lot of people suggest blocking by IP address, or using a tool like Bad Behavior to stop the trouble making bots. The problem with this is the troublemakers are still ringing the doorbell. Not as many, perhaps, but quite a lot. I’ve said this many times. IP blocking is a bad idea. Yes, blocking by IP address can work, it’s amazingly powerful, and it’s easily circumvented. The TOR Project is consistently lowering the bar for people to get a new IP even faster than the old days, when I could just re-dial my modem. This is a great thing for groups like Anonymous, and annoying for anyone who has to fight the hidden masses. While I fully support your freedoms, I also retain the right to defend mine, and sometimes that means I have to dig in and sort out how to handle the crazy.
The first thing you can do on Shared Hosting is protect yourself against hotlinking. I don’t know how many times I’ll have to say it for the world to pay attention, but linking directly to images on someone else’s website, unless they specifically say it’s okay, is bad. I firmly feel hotlinking is theft of services (bandwidth) as well. Please don’t do it. Every half-baked host in the world now supports mod_rewrite, so grab Perishable Press’ ultimate anti-hotlinking strategy and protect yourself.
Another useful tool is applying the http:bl (HTTP Blacklist) to your server. That sounds like a lot of work, but the payoff is surprisingly awesome. You see, catching more flies with honey is easy when Project Honey Pot tracks all the naughty people. Naturally there are a few WP plugins for that. In addition, if you just need to punt people who are trying to hack you, I would use the 5G Blacklist 2012 by Perishable Press. Combine that with Bad Behavior and most script kiddies are turned away without you having to fuss.
That may seem a little contradictory, since I don’t advocate blocking IPs. There’s a subtle difference between you running around blocking every IP for every jerk, and using a well supported tool to do so. When you get around to blocking IP ranges, you shouldn’t be trying to block individual people, but the robots.
If you get hit anyway, the thing to do is contact your webhost and start a dialogue. They’ll be as helpful as they can, and if not, may I suggest Liquidweb as an alternative? I pay more because I get great service. A good host will take a look at what’s going on and tweak their servers to help carry the load. A good host will help you tweak what you can. Of course, their DOS service runs about $500 a month and I don’t know about you, but I can’t afford that. The little guy has to survive too. Thankfully the other reason I support Liquidweb is that I, as the little guy, get fantastic support. The point is you need to have a good rapport with your host. It’s like they’re your landlord. Respect them, and they come fix your dishwasher ASAP.
Sadly, at the end of it all, the only thing to do about a DOS attack when you’re on shared hosting is to wait it out. Shared hosting is great for what it is, but if that kind of downtime is cutting into your bottom line, you need to consider moving up to the next level. Remember, if this is something that earns you your living, treat it well! It’s like your car. If you make your living driving, you put money into preventative maintenance, and a VPS (or dedicated server) is very much the same. You can only get out of it what you put into it, so put the effort in to make it secure, or hire someone to do if for you. There’s no shame in hiring a mechanic, after all.