A distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack can happen to anyone, at any time. If you have a website that’s running on a dedicated web server, it’s important to understand what a DDoS attack is, how to identify it, and what to do to stop and prevent it.

What Is a DDoS Attack?

A distributed denial of service attack is when a hacker uses a botnet to send your web server an overwhelming number of HTTP requests in a very short period of time.

A botnet is a very large network of computers across the internet that are infected with a virus that transforms them into a relay for the hacker’s software. Most computers on a botnet are regular computers that have become infected by a virus, and the user doesn’t even realize it.

During normal operation, a web server provides your web page to visitors as follows:

  • A person types your URL into their web browser.
  • The web browser issues an HTTP request to the website URL.
  • Your ISP’s DNS servers converts the URL into the correct IP address of the web server.
  • The HTTP request gets directed across the internet to the web server.
  • The web server uses the page requested in the URL to find the correct HTML file.
  • The web server responds with all of the content contained in that HTML file.
  • The user’s browser receives the HTML file and displays the page to the user.

Most web servers are sized with CPU and network hardware to handle the average expected traffic per day. For some websites, that could be up to a hundred thousand, or even a million visitors in one day.

However, a hacker hoping to attack your website with a DDoS attack will utilize a botnet of millions of computers from around the world, to send thousands of HTTP requests per second to your web server.

Since your web server wasn’t sized for that volume of traffic, the web server will respond to your regular website visitors with the error message, Service Unavailable. This is also known as HTTP error 503.

In rare cases where your site is running on a very small web server with few available resources, the server itself will actually freeze or crash.

How To Identify a DDoS Attack?

How do you know if your website just went down because of a DDoS attack? There are a few symptoms that are a dead giveaway.

Usually, the HTTP Error 503 described above is a clear indication. However, another sign of a DDoS attack is a very strong spike in bandwidth.

You can view this by logging into your account with your web host and opening Cpanel. Scroll down to the Logs section and select Bandwidth.

A normal bandwidth chart for the last 24 hours should show a relatively constant line, with the exception of a few small spikes.

However, a recent disproportionate spike in bandwidth that remains high over an hour or more is a clear indication that you’re facing a DDoS attack against your web server.

If you believe you’ve identified a DDoS attack in progress, it’s important to act fast. These attacks consume a lot of network bandwidth and if you’ve paid for a hosting provider, that means their data server will experience the same spike in bandwidth. This can have an adverse impact on their other customers as well.

How To Stop a DDoS Attack

There is nothing you can do yourself if you’re facing a DDoS attack. But by calling your web hosting provider, they can immediately block all incoming HTTP requests headed toward your web server.

This instantly relieves the demand on your web server, so that the server itself won’t crash. It also prevents the attack from adversely affecting the hosting provider’s other customers.

The next step is to wait until the DDoS attack is over.

Such an attack actually requires significant resources for hackers. Usually, the attack is paid for by someone who wanted to shut your website down. These payments are for an attack that last a specific period of time, from an hour to several hours.

The good news is that there will be an end to the attack. The bad news is that by blocking all traffic to your web server until the attack is over, the person who wanted to shut down your website essentially won.

How To Beat a DDoS Attack

Unfortunately, DDoS attacks are a simple and inexpensive way to shut down a website for a short period of time.

The attacks are never permanent, but they’re intended to send a message. It means that something you’ve published on your website upset someone enough that they were willing to pay hackers to attack your site.

If you run a critical online operation such as a large business, and need your site to be resistant to DDoS attacks, it’s possible but it isn’t cheap.

DDoS protection services work by establishing a sort of counter botnet that’s larger than the botnet running the DDoS attack. This creates a distributed response to the incoming HTTP requests, even if there are hundreds of thousands or millions of those requests.

There are monthly service fees that come with those services. But if you find yourself a frequent victim of DDoS attacks, these DDoS protection services may very well be worth the cost.

DDoS attacks can be at best a minor nuisance that causes you a few hours of website downtime. At worst, it could cost you a significant amount of lost online business, not to mention a drop in customers who trust your website.

Understanding how to identify a DDoS attack and how to stop it could reduce your downtime, and reduce the time it takes for you and your hosting provider to recover from it.