Amazon’s ability to shake off an attack by saboteurs attempting to overwhelm and crash its servers last week highlights the importance for etailers of having a good IT infrastructure in place

Why are we talking about this?

Amazon was targeted by saboteurs who staged a distributed denial of service (DDoS) cyber attack. It was one of several organisations targeted by the Anonymous group, acting in support of whistle-blower website WikiLeaks. It also caused problems for payment firms MasterCard, Visa and PayPal, which had stopped money going through to WikiLeaks. But Amazon, which withdrew web hosting services, was unaffected.

What happened to Amazon?

Anonymous announced it would attack the etailer on Thursday December 9 but later posted on Twitter that Amazon was “too big” to bring down. The group said it had decided not to attack Amazon because it did not want consumers to feel “threatened” by preventing them from buying Christmas presents. Anonymous said its aim was not to cause chaotic disruption but to “express dissent” by interfering with websites’ performance. Amazon did experience some performance problems over the weekend, but said these were hardware related and not caused by an attack.

What is a DDoS attack?

Large numbers of computers send repeated requests to a website’s server to try to overwhelm it, undermining performance. It can mean sales are lost. It is relatively easy to carry out, and in this case involved people voluntarily offering their computers to the hackers.

Why was Amazon difficult to attack?

The etailer is used to dealing with a high volume of site visitors. While MasterCard and Visa might not expect high traffic at any one time, Amazon probably tests its software with levels of traffic way above what it would actually expect to get. That means a DDoS attack would have to be massive to overwhelm it. Amazon also has a diverse IT infrastructure. If one server was overwhelmed, others could take over.

What can retailers do?

They should make sure a site is able to cope with at least 10 times the amount of traffic it is expected to get. They can also subscribe to third-party services that will monitor websites and send a phone alert if problems are found. Retailers should get out-of-hours numbers from internet service providers.

Is DDoS a form of hacking?

No, nobody is breaking into IT systems. To combat hackers, retailers should keep anti-virus software and security patches up to date, educate staff on online safety, encrypt sensitive information and use data loss protection software.