How a DDoS attack works, types and how to prevent them


Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks can inflict significant damage. Learn about how DDoS attacks operate, their common types, and methods to prevent them on your website.

You may have encountered the term “DDoS attack” in online discussions, particularly when discussing website security, but what exactly is it? A DDoS, or distributed denial-of-service, attack is an attempt by a cybercriminal to inundate a server with traffic to overwhelm its infrastructure. This results in a website slowing down to a crawl or even crashing, rendering it inaccessible to legitimate visitors. Such an attack can wreak havoc on your online business.

These cyberattacks can serve various purposes, ranging from annoyance and “hacktivism” to causing massive business losses. What sets them apart from other hacking methods is the motivation behind them. While other forms of malware, such as ransomware and scareware, aim to extract money from their victims, DDoS attacks are purely geared toward inducing chaos and disruption.

The extent of downtime and destruction they can cause is why they are frequently discussed. Hackers employ DDoS attacks regularly, and it’s imperative to remain vigilant against them to minimize their impact on your operations.

How Does a DDoS Attack Work?

Most DDoS attacks are carried out using botnets, which are groups of computers acting in unison. These computers simultaneously attempt to access a website, overwhelming the server and causing it to malfunction.

But how do hackers acquire these botnets? By hijacking other machines. Often, a hacker will use malware or exploit an unpatched vulnerability on someone else’s server to gain access to it via Command and Control (C2) software. By leveraging these exploits, hackers can amass a large number of computers in a relatively inexpensive and straightforward manner, which they can then deploy for their malicious purposes.

Once they gain control over enough machines, the hackers can issue commands to the entire botnet, which then attempts to access the target server. When too many computers simultaneously try to access a server, service outages become common. The result is an interruption in service and lost productivity.

This can range from a juvenile prank to revenge against a business. And while it may sound harmless initially, it’s essential to note that the average cost of a DDoS attack on even small businesses can be as much as $120,000, enough to cripple many small enterprises. Large corporations can suffer losses in the millions.

An Analogy to Illustrate

Imagine a two-lane highway. It’s robust, safe, reliable, and you drive on it every day without any issues because it serves its purpose. The city placed that highway there based on a reasonable estimate of the daily traffic it would handle.

Now, envision a sudden event that leads to thousands of cars trying to use that road simultaneously. You attempt to merge onto the onramp, but when you reach the highway, you can’t get on. The road is completely congested with traffic, and now you’re going to be late to your destination, if you even manage to arrive at all.

That, essentially, is what a DDoS attack represents.

Common Types of DDoS Attacks

These attacks assume various forms and continue to evolve. Often, without the appropriate monitoring system in place, you could fall victim to a silent attack without your knowledge, and by the time you realize it, your business has already ground to a halt. The most prevalent types include:

  • Application layer attack, or “layer 7 DDoS attack,” aims to deplete your website’s resources and consume all available bandwidth. When a hacker sends a surge of traffic from numerous computers to a site, the server becomes overwhelmed swiftly. The traffic repeatedly sends reload requests to the server, akin to repeatedly hitting the “refresh” button in your browser. Eventually, the server starts returning errors because it can no longer handle the workload.
  • Protocol attack is somewhat more sophisticated, as it specifically targets server weaknesses by sending connection requests from different IP addresses. This doesn’t necessitate a large network of computers. Each connection request necessitates a response, and the server quickly becomes overwhelmed as its resources are exhausted.
  • Volumetric attack is a variation of the “overwhelming traffic” type of attack. In this scenario, the bots send data to the server and await a response. With enough iterations, the response becomes excessively lengthy. This data is artificially amplified before being sent to the server, quickly exhausting resources as it attempts to manage the influx.

Depending on the type of DDoS attack, they can be challenging to defend against without the latest detection and mitigation tools at your disposal.

How to Prevent a DDoS Attack

If you find yourself already in the midst of a DDoS attack, time is of the essence. Continuous monitoring is a crucial component, and you want a reliable alert system in place that provides real-time notifications. If a DDoS attack begins on your server, you need to detect it early and respond swiftly. By acting promptly, you can hopefully minimize the impact on your regular users. You can block IP addresses using your firewall to prevent them from gaining access to your server. Additionally, you might be able to isolate the targeted system and close off inbound traffic to it.

If an attack hasn’t occurred on your website yet, and you’re seeking to prevent this exceedingly common type of attack, consider the following steps:

Develop a Response Plan

It might sound counterintuitive to say that prevention starts with a response plan since it implies you didn’t prevent the attack in the first place. However, before anything else, you must have a step-by-step plan in place. You can’t respond to a DDoS attack on the fly; it necessitates preparation and advance planning to prevent unnecessary damage to your business.

  • Check all your systems. Every asset you have online could be vulnerable to a DDoS attack. Create a checklist of every system susceptible to such an attack. When you’re under attack, you can refer to the list to see if you can isolate and protect systems that haven’t been affected yet.
  • Assemble a response team with clearly defined roles. An attack is not the time for debate or delegation; that should have been done beforehand. Ensure everyone knows their responsibilities.
  • Compile a list of emergency communications. It’s crucial to understand who needs to be informed and when. Your customers, service provider, and other security vendors should be kept informed so that they can respond appropriately.

Now, that’s for after an attack. What can you do right now to prepare and, ideally, prevent the attack from affecting you at all?

Keep Your System Updated

This step is critical, not only for DDoS mitigation but also for all aspects of online security. Attempting to mitigate any risk to your system without keeping it updated is futile. Timely updates address vulnerabilities, close the doors that hackers could exploit, and reduce risk right from the start.

If your website operates on WordPress, visit the updates page and ensure everything has been recently updated. Remove outdated plugins that are no longer in development. You don’t want to take any chances.

By taking this step, you can close off more potential attack vectors than nearly anything else you can do. Fortunately, even those with limited technical expertise can handle it. Most updates are automated and can be initiated with a single click.

By keeping your infrastructure up to date, you can significantly minimize the threat of an attack.

Practice Basic Online Security

When it comes to safeguarding your digital presence, simplicity often reigns supreme. Implement these fundamental practices for enhanced online security:

  • Strong Passwords: Create robust and unique passwords for all your online accounts. Avoid easily guessable combinations and consider using a password manager to keep track of them securely. Regularly update your passwords to minimize the risk of unauthorized access.
  • Secure Firewalls: Employ secure firewalls to fortify your network defenses. These barriers help block unauthorized access and malicious traffic, reducing the chances of a successful DDoS attack.

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