SMBs Need Denial-Of-Service Action Plan

Once you've been attacked, you need to respond quickly. These five expert tips will help small and midsize businesses prepare.
So you've taken steps to minimize the risk of a denial-of-service (DoS) attack--but what if one happens anyway?

Small and midsize businesses (SMBs) need to be ready with what Neustar director of security operations Ted Swearingen terms an "instant response plan." Staying prepared can help control the damage of a DoS or distributed-denial-of-service (DDoS) attack and get you back to business as usual. Without such a plan, you might resemble the proverbial headless chicken if things go haywire.

"If you don't plan, when you do actually have an event your response time and general reaction will be much more chaotic, and you'll have a much harder time defending against and mitigating a DDoS attack," Swearingen said in an interview. Here are five basic areas a good plan should cover, according to Swearingen.

Identify the triggers. Start by defining what kicks your plan into gear--in other words, what traffic numbers and other data set off your internal alarm bells. These will be unique to each SMB and should be tied to the normal baselines you set after putting monitoring in place. If you can automate alerts, all the better.

List procedures and personnel. List the scenarios relevant to your particular business and the ways different moving parts might be affected. If an attack targets your search function, for example, lay out the steps necessary to disable it without taking down the entire site. To the extent that you can follow a similar approach for other pieces, do so as a way to cut off smaller applications before taking down the entire site. Another potential scenario: If it's a bandwidth assault, are you able to flex additional resources--either internally or externally--until the storm passes?

Identify who's responsible for taking action--even if the answer is always "me." Training a backup from elsewhere on staff is always a good idea.

[How can SMBs plan ahead for new IT services if they're busy putting out fires all day? See SMB IT Pros Saddled With Support Tasks]

Who ya gonna call? Swearingen points out that the ultimate goal of any DoS or DDoS attack is to consume resources. Many SMBs will hit a point where those resources--whether people, money, bandwidth, or other--simply run out. Your response plan should include a contingency step for bringing in outside help if an attack overwhelms internal resources.

Start with your Web hosting provider if your site is hosted off premises. If you host your own site--or if your hosting provider is unreliable--consider keeping a phone number on hand for an outside security firm, consultant, or other relevant vendor. You could even discuss putting agreements in place with your ISP, hosting provider, or a third-party DDoS specialist that only kick in if there's an attack. That can help trim down response time if outside help is necessary. You should at least keep contact info handy.

"You need to know how to reach out for help," Swearingen said. "At some point, businesses run out of resources and the only way to fix that is to add [more] resources."

Know what you'll say. This one's critical to SMBs of all stripes: Your response plan needs to include at least a template for how, what, and when you'll communicate with customers should your website or other customer-facing application become temporarily unavailable. Otherwise, you risk a customer service nightmare. Some SMBs may want a similar messaging framework for the media, though that's more commonly needed by large enterprises and government agencies.

"If you're under a DDoS attack, the worst thing would be not knowing what you're going to say to your customer about it," Swearingen said.

Practice makes perfect. As with other kinds of IT disaster preparedness, your plan is only good if it actually works. Test it in simulated conditions to put it through its paces and ensure you and key personnel know how to deploy it in various situations.

"You can have great plans, but if no one knows what they are, where they are, and have never used them, they're not much use," Swearingen said.

SaaS productivity apps are good to go--if you can get past security and data ownership concerns. Read all about it in the new, all-digital issue of InformationWeek SMB. Download it now. (Free with registration.)