by Esther Schindler

The Bots that Ate the Internet

Feb 08, 20073 mins
Data Center

If the Internet seems to be running slowly, lately, don’t blame it on your network admins. The problem hasn’t been excessively reported (except among techies, who have generated plenty of forum traffic about it), but the Internet is currently suffering a massive slowdown because the spam bots have gone out of control. The conclusion among some admins, at least, is that it’s caused by a bug in one of the zombie viruses (the ones that take over a Windows computer and turn it into a spam factory). Wherever the bots are coming from, it’s slowing down—and bringing down—servers. Including yours.

The result is that email that used to arrive in a few minutes is taking hours. Your servers may have hundreds or thousands of inactive connections that just sit there and don’t do anything but consume bandwidth. We’ve taken to calling them “barnacles,” and my techie spouse has written custom software to scrape ’em off every so often. And even so, he tells me that the mail servers are running out of connections every five minutes.

As a manager or team leader, you’re stuck. This isn’t a problem that you can solve in-house. It isn’t a matter of buying another box of technology.

Some companies are apparently coping by throwing more hardware at the problem. For example, one large midwest insurance firm (a household name) had a single mail server for quite some time. They have added three additional servers (one every week) in the last month. (That knowledge wasn’t brilliant investigative journalism; it comes from reading message headers and email log files. Doesn’t everyone?)

But “more hardware please!” isn’t a longterm solution, because there isn’t much being done to kill the source of the problem. That awful Stration virus (which I mentioned in another context some weeks ago) is the likely culprit (people who write viruses don’t follow QA testing practices, I suppose), and it’s evolving faster than the anti-virus tools can respond.

Assuming that such tools are installed in the first place, that is. A few weeks ago, I was called to familial tech-support duty to detoxify a nephew’s system, which had 43 (!) separate infections, at least one of which was a “you’re infected—click here to spend $49 on an anti-virus app” shudder-inducer. David’s system is no longer contributing to the problem (I hope!) but how many other unprotected home computers are giving your admins the heebie-jeebies?

This is the point where I’d ordinarily spell out the alternatives and then ask which of them is the one you personally consider most wise. Except, in this case, I don’t know what the alternatives really are. (I’ve discounted the spouse-suggested, “Turn off all Windows computers” as regrettably unfeasible. Besides, he’s cranky because he’s having to squash someone else’s bugs.)

It’s left me to mull over the fact that John Brunner was right in his predictions about the Internet in his 1975 novel Shockwave Rider; perhaps his solution (a worm sent out to eat the worm) is the most plausible as well.

How are you dealing with it? Or haven’t you noticed this problem?