On our extended downtime, Amazon and what's coming

As many of you are well aware, we’ve been experiencing some serious downtime the past couple of days. Starting Friday evening, our network storage became virtually unavailable to us, and the site crawled to a halt.

We’re hosting everything on Amazon EC2, aka. “the cloud”, and we’re also using their EBS service for storage of everything from our database, logfiles, and user data (repositories.)

Amazon EBS is a persistent storage solution for EC2, where you get high-speed (and free) connectivity from your instances, while it’s also replicated. That gives you a lot for free, since you don’t have to worry about hardware failure, and you can create periodic “snapshots” of your volumes easily.

While we were down, it was unknown to us what exactly the problem was, but it was almost certainly a problem with the EBS store. We’ve been working closely with Amazon the past 24 hours resolving the issue, and this post will outline what exactly went wrong, and what was done to remedy the problem.


What we were seeing on the server was high load, even after turning off anything that took up CPU. Load is a result of stuff “waiting to happen”, and after reviewing iostat, it became apparent that the “iowait” was very high, while the “tps” (transactions per second) was very low for our EBS volume. We tried several things at this point:

  • Un-mounting and re-mounting the volume.
  • Runing xfs_check on the volume, which reported no errors (we use XFS.)
  • Moving our instances and volumes from us-east-1b to both us-east-1a and us-east-1c.

None of these resolved the problem, and it was at this point we decided to upgrade to the “Gold plan” of support to gain access to the 1-hour turnaround technical support with Amazon.

The Support (0 hours after reporting it)

We filed an “urgent” ticket with Amazons support system, and within 5 minutes we had them on the phone. I spoke to the person there, describing our issue, continuously claiming that everything pointed to a network problem between the instance and the store.

What came from that, was 5 or 6 hours of advice, some of which were obvious timesinks, while others were somewhat credible. What they kept coming back to was that EBS is a “shared network resource” and performance would vary. We were also told to use RAID0 to distribute our load over several EBS instances to increase the throughput.

At this point, we were getting less throughput than you can pull off of a 1.44MB floppy, so we didn’t accept this for an answer. We did some more tests, trying to measure the bandwidth of the machine by fetching their “100mb.bin” files, which we couldn’t do. We again emphasized that this was in fact, in all likelihood, a network problem.

At this point, our outage was well known, especially in the Twittosphere. We have some rather large customers relying on service with us, and some of these customers have some hefty support contracts with Amazon. Emails were sent.

Shortly after this, I requested an additional phone-call from Amazon, this time to our system administrator. He had been compiling some rather worrying numbers over the past hours, since up until now, the support had refused to acknowledge a problem with the service. They claimed that everything was working fine, when clearly, it was not.

This time, a different support rep. called, and this time, they were ready to acknowledge our problem as “very serious.” We sent them our aggregated logs, and shortly thereafter, they reported that “we have found something out of the ordinary with your volume.”

We had been extremely frustrated up until this point, because 1) we couldn’t actually *do* anything about it, and 2) we were being told that everything should be fine. It felt like there was an elephant right in front of us, and a person next to us was insisting that there wasn’t.

Anyway (8 hours after reporting it)

From here on, we had been graced with the acknowledgement we had been waiting for: There was a problem, and it wasn’t us. We had been thinking that, you know, *maybe* we had screwed up somewhere and this was our fault. We didn’t find anything.

So, back to waiting.

What exactly triggered what happened after this, I’m not sure.

The Big Dogs (11 hours after reporting it)

I received an unrequested phone-call from some higher-up at Amazon. He wanted to tell me what was  going on, which was much appreciated.

He wanted to re-assure me that we were now their top priority, and he had brought in a whole team of specialized engineers to look at our case. That’s nice.

I received periodic updates, and frequent things for us to try. We sent them the logs they asked for, and complied with their wishes.

From this point on, we were treated like they owed us money, which is quite the difference from basically being called a liar earlier on.

Closing in (15 hours after reporting it)

OK, so we are finally getting somewhere. We all agreed that there was a serious networking problem between our EC2 instances and our EBS. This is around the time Amazon called me and asked me to try and put the application back online. So I did. And all was well.

I kindly asked the manager I had on the phone to please explain to me what the problem had been. He said he wasn’t really sure, and that he would set up a telephone conference with his team of engineers.

I dial in, and they start explaining what the problem is.

Now, I have been specifically advised not to say what the problem was, but I believe we owe it to our customers to explain what went wrong. Also, we owe it to Amazon to clear it up, since they were looking pretty bad due to this. I’ve already mentioned the cause shortly on our earlier status page, as well as on IRC, but let me re-iterate.

We were attacked. Bigtime. We had a massive flood of UDP packets coming in to our IP, basically eating away all bandwidth to the box. This explains why we couldn’t read with any sort of acceptable speed from our EBS, as that is done over the network. So, basically a massive-scale DDOS. That’s nice.

This is 16-17 hours after we reported the problem, which frankly, is a bit disheartening. Why did it take so long to discover? Oh well.

Amazon blocked the UDP traffic a couple of levels above us, and everything went back to normal. We surveyed the services for a while longer, and after deciding that everything was holding up fine, we went to bed (it was 4am in the morning.)

This morning

So, when we got up again this morning, things weren’t looking good, again. We were having the exact same symptoms as previously, and before our morning coffee, we re-opened our urgent ticket with Amazon. 2 minutes later I had them on the phone.

I explained that the problem was back, and they assured me the team of engineers working on this yesterday would be re-gathered and have a look. Cool.

About… 2 hours later, the problem was again resolved. Seems that the DDOS-ees figured that we were now invulnerable to UDP flood, so they instead initiated something like a TCP SYNFLOOD. Amazon employed new techniques for filtering our traffic and everything is fine again now.

What’s next

Amazon contacted us again after this was over, and told us they wanted to work with us in the coming days to make sure this doesn’t happen again. They have some ideas on how both they and we can improve things in general.

Are we going to do that? Maybe. We’re seriously considering moving to a different setup now. Not because Amazon isn’t providing us with decent service, which they are, most of the time. While we were down, several large hosting companies took direct contact with us, pitching their solutions. I won’t mention names, but some of the offerings are quite tempting, and have several advantages over what we get with Amazon.

One thing’s for sure, we’re investing a lot of man-hours into making sure this won’t happen again. If this means moving to a different host, so be it. We haven’t decided yet.

In conclusion

Let me round this post off by saying that Amazon doesn’t entirely deserve the criticism it has received over this outage. I do think they could’ve taken precautions to at least be warned if one of their routers started pumping through millions of bogus UDP packets to one IP, and I also think that 16+ hours is too long to discover the root of the problem.

After a bit of stalling with their first rep., our case received absolutely stellar attention. They were very professional in their correspondence, and in communicating things to us along the way.

And to re-iterate, the problem wasn’t really Amazon EC2 or EBS, it was isolated to our case, due to the nature of the attack. All the UDP traffic was conveniently spoofed, so we can’t tell where it originated.