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When Do Availability and Security Overlap?
The recent compromise of 40 million credit cards and debit cards of Target shoppers before Christmas of this year was a terrible security breach. However, it was not an availability issue. Target’s systems not only stayed up, but Target was unaware of the breach.
The multiple failures of three U.K. banks, reported in this month's Digest, were availability issues. The banks’ systems went down three times in the last eighteen months. However, these outages were not security breaches. There was no data stolen, nor was there any attempt being made to illegally access data.
Typically, security breaches are perpetrated by hackers. Availability issues are caused by unanticipated events such as weather, power outages, equipment failures, and user errors. The two do not overlap. However, there is one area in which security and availability do overlap, and that is Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks. DDoS attacks are launched by malicious individuals; and the effect is to take down systems, often for days. Even worse, these attacks are becoming so large that it is growing ever more difficult to defend against them.
We cover DDoS attacks extensively in our seminars on high availability, and we have written much on this serious availability issue in the Availability Digest. DDoS attacks have the potential of becoming the most serious cause of system outages. Companies are well advised to prepare themselves for a potentially devastating DDoS attack.
Dr. Bill Highleyman, Managing Editor
For the third time in eighteen months, the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) and its subsidiaries, NatWest and Ulster Bank, went offline. Customers could not access cash via ATMs. They could not use their credit cards or debit cards. They could not access their accounts via the Web or via their mobile apps. Customers were unable to pay for the fuel that they had just pumped or the dinners they had just eaten.
The outage occurred Monday evening, December 2, 2013, at 6:30 PM local time. It happened to be Cyber Monday, the busiest online shopping day of the year. Services were restored three hours later.
Ross McEwan, the new CEO of RBS, blamed the outage on his predecessors. For years, RBS had made little investment in its IT systems, preferring instead to struggle with aging infrastructure.
McEwan stated that British banking technology lags behind Australia, which has experienced its own share of outages due to aging infrastructure.
McEwan has committed the spending of £700 million over the next three years to bring RBS’ systems up-to-date. However, RBS executive bonuses for this year will total about £500 million. That would be welcome money to solve RBS’ availability problems.
IT services have now become so important to us that we expect them to be available around the clock. A decade ago, if a service was down for a few hours, that was often expected. However, the amount of acceptable downtime today has moved from hours to minutes and even to seconds for many applications. For these applications, planned downtime is even unacceptable.
The requirement for extreme availability has led to the deployment by many organizations of active/active data centers, in which no component failure or even the loss of an entire data center will affect the services that are being provided.
Forrester Research and the Disaster Recovery Journal jointly conducted a survey of top management to determine their views on today’s availability requirements. The findings of this survey are summarized in this article.
The organizations that were surveyed lacked confidence in existing DR solutions. They avoid invoking a DR plan unless absolutely necessary. They face the decision of whether it is better to wait out the current outage or to risk a failover fault while trying to bring up the backup system. Many of them are moving to a solid, continuously available environment by adopting active/active architectures.
The American power grid is aging and vulnerable to collapse. From 1989 to 2009 – a 20-year period – there were 54 major power outages. Most of these failures were weather-related.
However, the danger of weather is now being compounded by the danger of cyberattacks. Thousands of cyberattacks hit the U.S. power grids every day. So far, they have been stopped by firewalls and other intrusion-prevention systems.
A recent exercise called GridEx II revealed the damage that determined terrorists could inflict on power systems in the U.S. The GridEx II exercise demonstrated that terrorist attacks, both physical and cyber, can today cause major damage to the U.S. electric grid. This concern is compounded by the discovery by a pair of researchers of a serious security vulnerability in the power monitoring and control systems. The vulnerability could be exploited to take down major portions of the power grid in the U.S. and elsewhere.
It is probable that power utilities around the world are subject to these same challenges. Thus, it is incumbent upon all utilities to gauge their exposure to terrorism and to introduce appropriate protective policies.
Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks are on the rise. The number of attacks increased over 50% from 2011 to 2012. Of more concern are their sizes. The volume of malicious traffic during an attack has grown from five gigabits per second (Gbps) to over 300 Gbps. It is imperative that companies be prepared for an eventual attack, as the question is no longer if they will be attacked but when they will be attacked.
A company can take several precautions to prepare defenses against a DDoS attack on its online services. They include increasing its bandwidth and investing in a variety of defensive appliances within its data center. However, with the increasing size of DDoS attacks, it is growing more likely that these approaches will prove inadequate.
The best strategy is to arrange with a cloud-mitigation service provider to take over the defense against an attack if the company’s own defenses become overwhelmed. The company’s compromised traffic is sent to the data centers of the cloud-mitigation provider, and the provider returns clean traffic to the victim company. Verisign’s cloud-mitigation services are an excellent example of the benefits of a cloud-mitigation defense against DDoS attacks.
A challenge every issue for the Availability Digest is to determine which of the many availability topics out there win coveted status as Digest articles. We always regret not focusing our attention on the topics we bypass.
With our new Twitter presence, we don’t have to feel guilty. This article highlights some of the @availabilitydig tweets that made headlines in recent days.
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© 2013 Sombers Associates, Inc., and W. H. Highleyman