Technology

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from the L.A. Times

Category: ISPs

Interview: Twitter service provider NTT America on DDOS attack

NTT Following an agreement early last year, Twitter's Internet service was taken over by NTT America, a unit of the Japanese telecommunications giant Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Corp. The switch seemed to improve the site's frequently faulty service, and the rate of outages and slowness has decreased considerably. Twitter has weathered major news events such as the 2008 presidential election, this year's election and its aftermath in Iran, and the death in June of Michael Jackson.

The attack yesterday was one of the few major outages the sites has experienced recently. (David Colker has some added details about the attack here.)

Kazuhiro Gomi, NTT's chief operating officer and chief technology officer, agreed to an interview Thursday  night as Twitter was still under siege. He discussed the process that NTT uses to protect Twitter, the intensity of the attack and why Twitter was vulnerable to a DDOS attack.

What happened?

At approximately 9:30 a.m. Eastern Time the attack started coming in. Shortly after that, the Twitter servers became unreachable. At that time we realized it was a DDOS attack. Within the NTT network we have a mechanism to drop the malicious packets of the DDOS. So we correctly tuned it and then turned it on at around 11 o'clock. So that mechanism turned on and the Twitter page became accessible at that time. For the exact time, you'd have to refer back to Twitter's official comment, but by my understanding it was about an hour and a half or two hours that Twitter was inaccessible.

Are there some residual performance issues?

The current situation [as of Thursday evening] is that all the traffic going to Twitter needs to be scrubbed -- basically, filtered -- which was not the case before the incident happened. And another factor is that the attack is still going on -- therefore the traffic needs to be scrubbed continually. That process slows things down a little bit.

So you'll keep scrubbing the packets until the attack stops?

Yes.

How would you characterize the severity of the attack?

That's really hard to quantify, but in my past experience -- that the Twitter page was unreachable is definitely one of the worst-case scenarios. From that perspective, it was pretty bad.

Do you have a sense of how and whether you'd be able to track it back to the source?

To be quite honest, that is very difficult. The nature of a DDOS attack is that it's coming from all over the place, so it's really difficult to identify the source.

In talking to some security analysts, it was suggested that in business-grade applications and online commerce, there's a feature that would automatically protect you from DDOS attacks. Why didn't Twitter have that?

That's purely Twitter's decision and I need to observe their decisions. We are their network provider and we have a mechanism that I explained earlier to protect our customers from DDOS, like we did today. So in one sense they are guarded by using NTT's network -- it's fair to say that. But there's definitely different methods. Like in the financial world, it may be that a quicker response is required -- and [in the financial world] they might have ... a more strict contract to make it happen. 

Is it correct to say that the system that defends against DDOS is not something that's always "on"?

It's pretty much a kicked-on, retroactive system. For this case, we see that the customer is under attack, and we kick it in after the fact.

What can be the motivation of the attacks in these cases?

That varies. I think more recently there's some political parties unhappy with something and do a DDOS attacks to kill servers -- that happened at many U.S. government sites and so forth. I'm not in the position to determine that this is another case of such, but that's one likely scenario. But it's too difficult to determine what that was.

-- David Sarno

Follow my variable-rate stream of tech and culture-related musings on Twitter: @dsarno

How Obama's lifting of rules for Cuba might affect telecom companies

Cubaphone
People using phones in Cuba. Credit: Paul Keller via Flickr

The Obama administration said today that it was changing some U.S. policies toward Cuba, hoping to, among other things, "promote the freer flow of information and humanitarian items to the Cuban people."

The news could create some major changes with regard to cellphones, computers and broadband in Cuba. The administration proposes to let telecommunications companies establish fiber-optic and satellite links between the U.S. and the island, let U.S. carriers enter into roaming service agreements with Cuba's carriers, let U.S. satellite radio and TV companies provide service in the country and allow people to donate consumer telecommunication devices to Cuba without a license.

“This is a big deal. It’s a significant change in U.S. policy,” said David A. Gross, a partner at international telecom firm Wiley Rein who was until January the U.S. Coordinator for International Communications and Information Policy.

The administration's decision means that Cuban Americans can send ...

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In-flight wireless Internet to expand to hundreds of American Airlines planes

Laptop
The future of air travel? Credit: Bekathwia via Flickr.

Flights are getting canceled and you have to pay to check a bag. But, hey, at least you can now obsessively check your Gmail on more planes than ever. American Airlines plans to announce Tuesday that it's installing Gogo Inflight Internet service on 318 of its domestic aircraft, up from the 15 planes that currently allow customers to wirelessly access the Internet.

American isn't the only airline ramping up wireless service. Gogo, provided by Illinois company Aircell, is also available on about 80 Delta/Northwest aircraft and some Virgin America planes. Aircell says it is working on making the in-flight wireless service available on United Airlines and Air Canada as well. 

“We’ve really just been charging forward since August,” said John Happ, a vice president at Aircell. American launched the company's in-flight service on Aug. 20, 2008. So far, the airline has focused the service on routes connecting New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Miami.

The network operates through an air-to-ground system that uses three small antennas installed on the aircraft to connect to Aircell's mobile broadband network, which has 92 cell towers ...

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Verizon Wireless completes Alltel purchase, becomes No. 1

Alltel Verizon Wireless will become the nation's largest wireless provider today with a whopping 83.7 million customers as it completes its acquisition of Alltel. That means about 28% of people in the U.S. are Verizon customers. It also means that yes, Verizon, we can hear you now.

Verizon said in a release today that it would keep using the Alltel brand for the next few months and that it would begin rebranding in the second quarter. Sadly, that probably means slapping Verizon names on the Alltel properties, rather than some strange combination such as AllVerizon, Veritel or Allizon. Too bad they don't want to use an anagram of Verizon Alltel: the best one we could find was Viral Tell Zone, which seems fitting for a wireless company.

The merger was announced in June, when Verizon said it would pay $5.9 billion for Alltel and acquire even more billions worth of debt to add 13 million customers. It took months to clear regulatory hurdles, but the deal received Federal Communications Commission approval in November and Federal Trade Commission approval this month. The FCC had also cleared a merger between Sprint and Clearwire that was completed last week.

Under the terms of the deal, Verizon has to divest overlapping properties in 105 markets. Many of those are in rural areas in South Dakota, Kansas and Montana.

-- Alana Semuels

Photo: Maybe Verizon bought Alltel so it could own this cool car. Credit: szkea via Flickr

Lose your Time Warner Internet connection (again)? You could try Open DNS

Openlogo If you live in Greater Los Angeles and are fed up with Time Warner Cable, there's probably not much you can do about it (unless you're the L.A. city attorney, in which case you can sue). The frequent outages, slow customer service and small number of high-definition channels are a fact of life. But the next time your Time Warner Internet goes down, wait a moment before you shout expletives at your modem. There may be a solution, albeit an unauthorized one.

This week, when an outage prevented some L.A. customers (Time Warner told NBC News it was 1.2 million but told us it was a "small number") from accessing the Internet, a few sages on Twitter suggested checking out OpenDNS. The San Francisco company is a DNS provider, which means that when Time Warner's DNS server is down, Open DNS can help you access the Internet.

Here's how it works: DNS servers convert IP addresses (those numbers formatted something like 123.456.78.90) into domain names. They are basically the "directory assistance" of the Internet, according to Allison Rhodes, a spokeswoman for OpenDNS. Time Warner and other ...

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Column: Filtering Internet porn isn't the government's job

David Lazarus Universal Internet access sounds great. But not the way the head of the Federal Communications Commission envisions it.

FCC Chairman Kevin J. Martin is proposing that free wireless Net access be made available to everyone as part of a sale of public airwaves. At the same time, he wants filters put in place so that no smut slips through to impressionable young Web surfers.

This would be the first time such filters have been imposed by an Internet service provider rather than individual users, allowing government officials or a private company to decide what can and can't be seen online.

"It's very troubling," said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a digital-rights watchdog. "A government-mandated filter at the network level means the government can block anything it finds objectionable."

Read the rest of the column here.

-- David Lazarus

Spam slowdown suggests progress in fight to protect e-mail

Your e-mail inbox may be feeling a little less cramped than usual these days, like a commuter train on a weekend morning. That's because many of the unwanted commercial messages -- also known as spam -- that normally clog it probably aren't there.

After years of trying to combat the scourge through e-mail filters, blacklists, lawsuits and criminal charges, the spam tide finally turned this week (the fascinating story was first reported by Brian Krebs of the Washington Post). Internet security firms say that the volume of unsolicited e-mail has dropped markedly, somewhere in the neighborhood of 66%, in the past few days. As Joseph Menn explains in today's L.A. Times story about the spam decline:

The surprising respite had very little to do with the hundreds of millions of dollars that corporations and consumers have spent on anti-spam software or with the lawsuits and criminal cases brought against spammers in the last decade.

Instead, a ragtag band of researchers pulled off the unprecedented coup of drastically cutting the spam volume by adopting a new strategy: going after mainstream U.S. companies that can unknowingly help spammers, identity thieves and child porn purveyors by carrying their traffic on the Internet.

Researchers don't expect the slowdown to last. But this latest success has given hope to those who fight on behalf of our inboxes. Read Menn's full story for more details about how they slowed the spammers and how the e-mail cops may try to protect us in the future.

-- Chris Gaither

Flower sales boost United Online earnings, stock takes off

The stock market tanked again today, but for one SoCal Internet company everything came up roses. United Online's shares rose nearly 9%, a day after it said third-quarter sales bloomed thanks in large part to its recently acquired FTD business unit.

Flowers United Online has been best known for its dial-up Internet access services, including NetZero and Juno, but that's dying out as the world moves to broadband. So the Woodland Hills company has been diversifying by snapping up businesses such as Classmates.com, a social networking service, and FTD, the seller of flower products.

The company said Wednesday in its earnings report that net income rose 16% to $16.2 million, or 21 cents a share, and revenue rose 33% to $169.2 million. The FTD acquisition, completed in August, contributed $48.3 million in sales. Without it, United Online's revenue would have fallen 5% year-over-year.

It also got help from Classmates.com, which helps people connect with old school chums. The service added 278,000 paying subscribers. Revenue for Classmates Media, which also includes the My Points loyalty online marketing service, rose 18% to $58.7 million. That almost offset a 19% drop in revenue from the Internet access business. To give an indication of how progress is viewed in the dial-up business these days, during a conference call with analysts Chief Executive Mark Goldston bragged that the company lost only 91,000 Internet access subscribers, which he said was the "first time in a long, long time that we’ve been below 100,000 in net subscriber declines."

"Good results at Classmates Media and prospects for growth/margin improvements at FTD are helping the company move further away from its access roots and into growth opportunities," Youssef H. Squali, an analyst with Jefferies & Co., wrote in a report today. He said he was optimistic about the company's prospects for driving sales by promoting FTD through other United Online businesses, but he noted that the company's $423 million in debt has made it a riskier investment.

United Online's shares gained 60 cents, nearly 9%, to $7.40 today. Still, the stock is down more than 57% in the past year.

-- Chris Gaither

Flower bouquet photo by Dyanna via Flickr

AT&T to try limiting subscribers' data use

Capped AT&T customers who obsessively play World of Warcraft while downloading dozens of movies: your days of online impunity may be numbered. AT&T has joined the ranks of telecom companies exploring the idea of limiting the amount of their data subscribers can use each month.

The company began this month to apply such limits, testing the policy first in Reno, Nev. Subscribers to AT&T's slowest Internet service there will be limited to downloading 20 gigabytes of data per month. Those who subscribe to the fastest plan will be able to download up to 150 gigabytes per month. Anyone who goes over the limit will pay $1 per extra gigabyte of data downloaded.

AT&T joins the ranks of Comcast, Time Warner Cable and FairPoint Communications, which are planning their own limits. Comcast began capping Internet use in October and said it would suspend service of customers who exceed the company's 250-gigabytes-per-month limit after repeated warnings.

"Some type of usage-based model, for those customers who have abnormally high usage patterns, seems inevitable," AT&T spokesman John Britton said. "A small group of customers are using the majority of bandwidth on our network."

Half of AT&T's total bandwidth is used by 5% of customers, Britton said.

Most customers don't come close to needing 250 gigabytes a month, but that may change as telecommunications companies offer faster and faster service that makes it easier for customers to download movies, music and other files. Netflix is encouraging users to download movies through its website, for example, rather than waiting for discs to arrive in the mail.

Downloading a full-length standard movie requires about 2 gigabytes, according to Comcast. The website StoptheCap says that a 5-gigabyte cap limits customers to watching 500 minutes of YouTube videos per month or downloading 1,000 songs from iTunes, but once you do either of those things, you won't have enough bandwidth to read your e-mail.

For more information on just how much (or how little) you can download with the caps, you can also check out this cheat-sheet from Silicon Alley Insider. Or you can stop worrying about how many movies you'll be able to download if AT&T decides to cap data use in L.A., and go buy a VCR while you still can. Then you'll be able to watch as many videos as you want.

-- Alana Semuels

Photo: This statue is capped, too. Credit: Artiii via Flickr

BlackBerry and iPhone users get free Wi-Fi at Starbucks

AT&T offers iPhone users at Starbucks free Wi-Fi

The iPhone and BlackBerry have created a class of know-it-alls who can prove their point about anything, be it geography, history or cooties, thanks to their mobile Internet connections. But the rest of us had refuge: Sometimes, they were out of range of a quick cell network.

Now, know-it-alls have even more places that they'll be able to access the Internet to prove their point. AT&T today said it would offer free Wi-Fi in 17,000 hot spots around the country, including Starbucks and Barnes & Noble, to its subscribers who use iPhones and Wi-Fi-enabled BlackBerry handsets. Just what you need: more know-it-alls in Starbucks.

You might be wondering: Many iPhone users already have access to a 3G network -- why do they need Wi-Fi? But Wi-Fi is generally faster. Plus, AT&T spokeswoman Katie Farnham said connecting to a Wi-Fi network instead of a cell site could save battery life. AT&T calls its Wi-Fi network "the nation's largest."

What's more, many areas still can't connect to the 3G network, said Michael Gartenberg, vice president of mobile strategy at Jupiter media. "It is a nice way to amortize the cost by adding some new functionality," he said.

But the service, which AT&T had previously announced twice before immediately and inexplicably shutting it down, is no game-changer in the wireless market. After all, T-Mobile offers its subscribers access to Wi-Fi in lots of locations too, and that hasn't brought in crowds of customers.

AT&T also said today it's expanding the Napster Mobile music service to more handsets, which it says was made possible by less restrictive digital rights management requirements from record labels. However, since they're know-it alls, many AT&T customers, and especially iPhone users, probably know there are lots more ways than Napster to get music on your phone. You can even even jiggle your iPhone to a beat, and, like a DJ, make your own tunes.

-- Alana Semuels

Photo credit: Pinot & Dita via Flickr

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