How easy is it to knock a website offline? Easier than you might think

There are many ways that a website can be knocked offline. Most are malicious attempts to exploit a vulnerability or some sort of equipment failure. Sometimes the issue is much more simple and yet so embarrassing.

Amazon is one of the largest and most profitable companies in the world and the companies that they own or manage includes more than just the online retailer. It also includes services like the Q&A forum Quora, the image hosting service Giphy, the Internet Movie Database, the audiobook service Audible and the shoe retailer Zappos. Many of these services use the Amazon Web Service (AWS) for hosting via the cloud and they are not alone with over 150,000 sites using this service.

Website maintenance is a constant in the online world. Your website from Nicely Done Sites requires regular maintenance and occasionally debugging. One morning, during a routine debugging of an issue that was slowing down Amazon Simple Storage Service (S3) billing system to fix an issue, a typo was made. Only a handful of servers that the billing service used were to be taken offline. The command entered increased the number of servers that would be debugged taking down two subsystems that used the servers and wound up requiring a restart of the whole system which took much longer than expected. Amazon had not restarted many of these systems for years which meant they had to check for corrupted files before resuming normal activity. Many of the problems arose because the restart inadvertently targeted the S3 servers as well. This service let users store images, files and video on the cloud that their websites would draw from. The S3 server had trillions of these files on it. The websites themselves did not go down completely but those files could not be loaded and many links were broken leading to thousands of partially functioning websites.

In a fitting bit of irony, the website Down Detector, which monitors website’s downtime, was one of the websites that was hit. Anything that used the billing system or anything on the affected servers were offline for about five hours. The maintenance had begun at around 9:30 AM Pacific Time and everything was back to normal by around 2:00 PM.

Since then Amazon has rewritten its software tools to prevent something like this from happening again as well as bringing the issue to light with its engineers. For anyone who does website maintenance something like this is always front and center when doing it. While your website is probably not as popular as Amazon’s regular maintenance does need to be performed on it as well. If you are not comfortable with doing it yourself, lest you enter a typo and knock your site offline, Nicely Done Sites can help. We offer maintenance agreements to help keep your website up and running the way it should be and we promise we won’t make any typos.

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