DoS: A Single Point of Failure

Homer Simpson: Fail Whale

Homer Simpson: Fail Whale
Homer Simpson: Fail Whale
It seems that Twitter, Facebook and even LiveJournal were victims of DoS (denial-of-service) attacks this past week. Actually, DoS attacks are a daily occurrence in the information age. This one got some headlines because Twitter is the site de jour.

The technical descriptions of all the hacker tactics that are commonly called DoS attacks lie outside the scope of this article. But, if you want to get your inner geek on, Wikipedia has a pretty good page about the subject.

In general, the goal of a DoS attack is to overwhelm a computer resource (like a Web site) by hitting it with excessive amounts of service requests, thereby denying the services to legitimate users. DoS attacks require the concerted efforts of motivated evildoers and a bunch of technology. In some cases, bots or computer viruses can be created that ultimately result in a DoS attack, there are literally hundreds of variations on this theme. And, as you can imagine, it is a literal “arms race.”

There were several things that interested me about Twitter’s DoS tribulations, and most of them had nothing to do with technology. First, I was struck by how many people were twittering around the office because they couldn’t Twitter. What a bizarre case of digital DT’s. It was like taking away everyone’s Crackberry. I’ve never seen anything like it.

As the Twitter outage went past an hour, I was doubly amzazed at how quickly people got back to the doing of life as if it were BT (before Twitter). I saw some Txt messages being sent, a few emails, even a phone call or two. Hummm …

All of this is just fun and games, though. The real teaching moment happened right after everyone figured out that this was not just a temporary Fail Whale outage. It was at that moment that people, who have come to rely on Twitter as a form of direct communication, realized that Twitter was a “single point of failure” in their communications world. It is an unduplicated service, with unique attributes and, if it goes away, you cannot replicate it.

Hey, I saw that! You rolled your eyes and said something like, “Who cares if a few techno-addicted, ne’er-do-wells couldn’t communicate with their precious, virtual time-waster friends for an hour. They should get a life.”

Perhaps they should, but that is not the point. Twitter was a practically harmless example of what happens when your technology is single-threaded and not backed-up. What if this attack happens a year from now, after the administration has the healthcare industry digitize your records? Would the outcome be “harmless” if your medical records were not available in an emergent situation? How about your online banking or your important business documents?

Several million people got an up close and personal view of what happens when you come to rely on a cloud-based technology and it goes away. This should serve as a huge wake-up call for everyone in every part of the technology, media and entertainment world.

We live in the information age. Everything about us is represented by ones and zeros. (See
Metamerica: Evolving the Governance of a Digital Democracy
). We are also in the nascent stages of the age of cloud computing. And, very, very soon, we are going to learn just how scary it is to have a single point of failure in our technological lives.

Did you take the triple play from your Cable company or Telco? If so, have you lost 100% of your video, voice and data during an outage? Of course you have. Do you use one service to upload, transcode and syndicate all of your video? If so, what happens when their site goes down? Are all your pictures, music, videos and important documents on one hard drive? If they are, you are in for a very interesting encounter with a data recovery service in the near future. Is your cell phone also your address book and your music player and your video player and your camera and your note pad, etc? Got a big battery? Got a second phone? Got a back-up of the data?

There are very good reasons not to “put all of your eggs in one basket.” The Twitter DoS attack was a pretty good virtual parable with the same lesson. Let’s hope everyone tweets about it … when Twitter is back up! Shelly Palmer


About Shelly Palmer

Shelly Palmer is the Professor of Advanced Media in Residence at Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications and CEO of The Palmer Group, a consulting practice that helps Fortune 500 companies with technology, media and marketing. Named LinkedIn’s “Top Voice in Technology,” he covers tech and business for Good Day New York, is a regular commentator on CNN and writes a popular daily business blog. He's a bestselling author, and the creator of the popular, free online course, Generative AI for Execs. Follow @shellypalmer or visit



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