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What to do When You Get Shut Off – How Web Hosts Can Avoid Internet Outages

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When web hosting providers have to deal with internet outages, particularly those outside of their internal network, it can be difficult to convey to customers what is happening without appearing unwilling to take responsibility. Like security-related breaches, getting cut off by an upstream provider can
cause extended internet outages for web hosting customers.

Downtime, for a web hosting provider, can mean upset or even lost customers since, for those customers, that downtime can mean lost dollars. On February 29, a software glitch caused an extended outage of the Windows Azure cloud hosting platform. In January, web hosting company DreamHost suffered an outage when an OS update encountered a problem.

Downtime caused by such a shutdown can be particularly embarrassing if the web host has not paid its bill, which Cogent Communications CEO Dave Schaeffer says is actually the most common reason a web host gets turned off. In a phone interview with the WHIR, Schaeffer discusses the reasons a web host could be cut off, how to avoid it, and what to tell customers when it happens.

Four Reasons a Web Host Can Expect to be Cut Off from an Upstream Provider

In addition to non-payment of a bill, which Schaeffer says is more common than you might expect, security-related issues like DoS attacks or spam can cause at least temporary disconnects. Finally, a court order or a legitimate government order can force a disconnection.

“If there were repeated instances of Dos attacks against that particular site it may result in permantly turning off the site but at least initially you would end up with a few warnings and temporary disconnects,” Schaeffer  says. “I think the third reason could be that if the site was propagating a large amount of spam or some other activity that violated the company’s acceptable use policy.”

A Web Host Can Expect a Warning from its Upstream Provider

While there have been rumored cases of web hosts being cut off without warning, and with no idea of what caused the disconnect, Schaeffer says it is not Cogent’s policy to skip warnings.

“We have a group within the company that deals with abuse complaints on a regular basis that is there primary function,” Schaeffer says. “They will deal with either customer or general public allegations. They will then do some diagnostics and investigation and then if they conclude that the allegations at least have some merit they will communicate with the site owner, explain the allegation, and kind of try to listen to both sides and gather evidence but it’s always done in an iterative process with warning.”

How a Web Host Can Expect to Get Back Online

If it took itself offline:

If the web host took itself offline, it would have reconnect , and if it was running BGP it would have to contact the connectivity provider’s NOC to reactivate the BGP session since it doesn’t automatically reset, Schaeffer says.

If it didn’t pay its bill, or experienced a DoS attack:

“If it was non-payment,” he says, “they could have cured the non-payment deficiency, and may be required to post additional deposits if there’s been a history of poor payments, in which case they’d be reactivated. A denial of service attack, we would look at the temporary measures that we have taken and automatically turn up the site once the inbound packet overload was eliminated.”

If the customer requested it:

Schaeffer says that the customer would have to initiate a request to turn it back up. “In other words they may have requested that we blackhole traffic that was destined to a particular IP address. In which case we would remove that blackholing in our routing cable and restore service,” he says.

If it was a governmental or court order:

The website owner would have to prove to Cogent, or other upstream provider, that the criminal or civil charges lodged against it (that resulted in the governmental order to shut the site down) have been reversed.

If it was spam:

“We would look to see that the site is no longer emitting unwanted emails to end users,” Schaeffer says.

Web Hosts Need to Be Transparent with Customers, and Be “Good Net Citizens”

While web hosts’ policies and contracts with customers vary greatly, Cogent thinks transparency is the best policy with customers in the case of an upstream outage.

“I know with our customers we always strive to be as transparent as possible,” says Schaeffer. “I encourage our web hosting customers to do the same with their customers, but again that’s our view, they could each have their own policies.”

Following the outage in January, DreamHost’s CEO Simon Anderson discussed the impact internet outages can have on a web hosting company and its customers, with the WHIR.

Overall, Shaeffer says all of this can be avoided if a web host adheres to common business practices like being timely in payment, and ensuring customers are obeying the laws of the countries where their equipment is and to where traffic is destined.

“Finally, making sure web hosts are good net citizens and not violating some of the protocols that have allowed the Internet to grow and flourish with a minimum of regulations,” Schaeffer says.

Talk back: Have you ever been cut off by an upstream provider? What was the reason for the outage? How did you find the process of getting back online? Let us know in the comments section.

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2 Comments

  1. It seems like this happens a lot more frequently than we realize but the problem is that the customer (webmaster) really doesn't have any recourse. Without that, what's to make hosting companies step up?

    Reply
    • @Keith Koons unfortunately a webmaster's best recourse is probably reading its contract carefully. There are some hosting providers that are really serious about quality of service and delivering on their SLAs. Could be a reason that reputation matters in the hosting business. Thanks for the comment.

      Reply