Fighting the Disorder of Magnitude

By Peter Coffee  |  Posted 2002-03-18 Print this article Print

Most security breaches involve internal parties performing technically authorized acts.

We amateur astronomers have a particular fondness for the phrase "order of magnitude." For us, merely agreeing on the number of digits in a number is often a major step toward consensus. I bristled, therefore, when the president of Reactive Network Solutions abused this meaningful and valuable expression.

Discussing DDoS (distributed-denial-of-service) attacks, Reactives Edward Komissarchik bewailed lack of concern with the problem that gives him something to sell. "I dont understand how people can sleep well at night without bad dreams," he said at the RSA Conference last month. "The threat of DDoS is an entire order of magnitude higher than our capacity."

Komissarchik doesnt appear to realize that most of us are being awakened by bad dreams several nights a week. Or perhaps hes aware of our nightmares but doesnt actually care unless theyre triggered by a DDoS attack.

We have bad dreams about technology providers abandoning products. For users of Metricoms Ricochet wireless access network, bankrupted last summer, being returned to lower wireless speed or tethered to a desktop again must surely feel like a bad dream that lasts all day. For users of Solaris on X86 machines, Suns January flirtation with "who cares about the customers?" as a marketing plan must have produced more than a few grumpy mornings.

We lose sleep, not over random attacks by unknown vandals, but over the chance that a laid-off employee will leave a logic bomb behind as a farewell gift.

We lie awake reminding ourselves that most security breaches involve internal parties performing technically authorized acts.

As for "an entire order of magnitude"—well, thats ridiculous. If everyone capable of mounting a DDoS attack were to do so, the mess would overwhelm us by more like four or five orders of magnitude—that is, a factor of 10,000 to 100,000. Except that the entire Net would be down, so nothing fun would happen, and the problem would heal itself.

This scenario is unlike any of the problems that actually trouble our sleep, which simple equilibrium processes—and even market forces—seem sadly unable to remedy.

Tell me what keeps you awake at night. Write to me at

Peter Coffee is Director of Platform Research at, where he serves as a liaison with the developer community to define the opportunity and clarify developers' technical requirements on the company's evolving Apex Platform. Peter previously spent 18 years with eWEEK (formerly PC Week), the national news magazine of enterprise technology practice, where he reviewed software development tools and methods and wrote regular columns on emerging technologies and professional community issues.Before he began writing full-time in 1989, Peter spent eleven years in technical and management positions at Exxon and The Aerospace Corporation, including management of the latter company's first desktop computing planning team and applied research in applications of artificial intelligence techniques. He holds an engineering degree from MIT and an MBA from Pepperdine University, he has held teaching appointments in computer science, business analytics and information systems management at Pepperdine, UCLA, and Chapman College.

Submit a Comment

Loading Comments...
Manage your Newsletters: Login   Register My Newsletters

Rocket Fuel