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DDoS Attacks Wreak Havoc On Data Centers

Distributed-denial-of-service attacks are a growing cause of costly data center outages, according to a new study.

Having established just how much data center professionals dread outages, the Ponemon Institute has discovered that a particular culprit has been causing them fits: distributed denial-of-service attacks.

Ponemon's latest study, the second of a two-part look at data center outages, finds that DDoS attacks, which typically target specific servers, have joined the growing list of events damaging companies' ability to keep their larger technology environments running.

DDoS attacks have become one of the most common triggers of data center outages, causing 18% of those experienced at the 67 U.S. data centers that participated in the study, which was conducted independently but sponsored by Emerson Network Power. When Ponemon first polled data centers on outages in 2010, DDoS attacks accounted for just 2% of outages.

Eric Hanselman, chief analyst at 451 Research, said via email that DDoS attacks have been growing dramatically, but it's unusual for a data center to be the real target of an attack--it's more often a case of collateral damage. DDoS attacks have increased as attack tools have improved and network speeds have increased, making it easier to generate massive amounts of dummy traffic. What happens is the primary carrier links into the data center become saturated, knocking out access to applications hosted behind them, he said.

The increasingly disruptive profile of DDoS attacks is made more problematic by the relative complexity in addressing the outages that result.

"It appears that these attacks are much more frequent and more difficult to contain than other root causes of data center outages," Larry Ponemon, founder of the privacy and security think tank that bears his name, said in an email interview. "Specifically, in most cases, dealing with these causes required specialized technologies and forensic expertise."

And it wasn't just the frequency and difficulty in overcoming outages caused by DDoS attacks that caught Ponemon's eye. "The most surprising factor was the lack of readiness or preparedness of companies," he said. "In general, we found several companies completely unprepared to deal with this type of outage event.

At the same time, DDoS attacks result in some of the most expensive outages in the data center, the study found. DDoS-spurred outages cost an average of $822,000 to mitigate, second only to the $959,000 it cost to fix outages caused by IT equipment failure. By comparison, outages caused by accidental human errors -- one of the most common triggers -- cost companies an average of $380,000.

The high costs associated with DDoS-caused outages have contributed to another data center trend the Ponemon study identified: The length of data center outages has shrunk over the past few years, but the costs of overcoming those outages have risen sharply.

Specifically, the average cost of overcoming a data center outage has grown to $690,204, a nearly 37% increase since 2010, when Ponemon pegged the average cost at $505,502. Meanwhile, the average length of an outage shrunk to 86 minutes, down from 97 minutes in 2010.

In other words, the average cost per minute jumped more than 40%, from $5,617 to $7,908, which should provide plenty of motivation for companies to address outages quicker. Ponemon said the growing use of data center infrastructure management technologies is allowing them to do just that.

[Read why the nation's power and water systems may be more susceptible to cyberattacks that previously believed in "Critical Infrastructure Vulnerabilities Unearthed."]

That said, data center outages are a reality of modern business companies must plan for, no matter how many tools they have at their disposal.

"The cost of unplanned downtime -- whether it is the entire data center or one rack of servers -- can be a huge unplanned cost for most organizations," said Ponemon. "Companies should factor the total cost consequences when planning for availability and business continuity."

Other findings from the Ponemon study include:

• Business disruption, loss of revenue and loss of user productivity together account for more than 80% of costs related to data center outages.

• Among the industries represented in the study, data centers in the communications industry faced the highest average outage costs ($976,344) while the lone hospitality industry data center that participated logged the lowest average costs of $392,922.

• Financial services, the most represented industry in the study with 10 participating data centers, experienced average outage costs of $773,286.

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