Cyberpunks: Pick on someone your own size!

Some lessons from the tiny country of Estonia, which has ground to a halt under a brutal DoS attack

A tiny news item on Friday caught my attention: the country of Estonia has been enduring a vicious cyber attack for three weeks, effectively crippling many of its government, financial and media websites.

Yes, there's actually a country called Estonia (unlike Freedonia, the country the Marx Brothers fabricated which Spy Magazine used to embarrass Congress in the 1990s by asking and getting their views on it). On the map, Estonia is up there in a corner with the Scandinavian countries, just below Finland and to the left of Russia. It has a bit over a million people, about twice the size of Vermont (not including cows).

So who'd launch a denial of service attack against this tiny speck of humanity?  It seems that Estonia's government is blaming Russia, its former occupier. Apparently the cyber attacks started right after Estonia tore down a memorial statue to Russian Army soldiers killed fighting the Nazis in World War Two. Websites that normally got 1,000 visits a day suddenly started getting 2,000 per second.

There are lots of questions here. Was the Kremlin behind the cyber attack? Is such a devastating econo-knockout punch comparable to military aggression and should it be punished by bodies such as NATO and the European Union? Would we send ships into the Taiwan Strait if Beijing launched a crippling virus against that country?

The Estonian incident was even higher impact because Estonia is one of the world's heaviest Internet users, it turns out. Two-thirds of the population has broadband access (ahead of the U.S. of course) and most of the country's bills and taxes are paid online.

As an IT manager, should you care about Estonia? Not particularly. Should you care about the possibility of geopolitical turmoil leading to cyberattacks affecting your company? You bet.  So let's keep an eye on Estonia and see what happens.

Meanwhile, back on the grid: The one silver lining of the Estonian attack was that it probably cut their national energy consumption temporarily (depending on whose servers were hijacked for the bot farm). Researchers everywhere are racing to figure out how to cut server power consumption. I came across a couple of interesting wrinkles this week.

One is a study by ABI Research on the relative power consumption of the various mobile broadband platforms (WCDMA, EVDO, WiMAX, Wi-Fi etc). It turns out that energy is the third highest operating expense for cellular carriers (after clueless salespeople and bad advertising?) -- and that the coming of broadband data will push these costs through the roof if they don't integrate WiMAX and Metro Wi-Fi into their platforms. According to the study, Metro Wi-Fi is 50 times more energy cost effective than WCDMA.

Another opportunity for energy efficiency on the network is apparently to make Ethernet more efficient, in particular the ability to seamlessly switch between 10Mbps and 10Gbps connections, depending on need. IEEE recently formed a new study group to look at this issue, which could save $1B a year worth of energy worldwide, half of that in the U.S. alone. Most laptops and PCs ship with Gig-E cards now, which require lots of power even if a fraction of that capacity is used. Good luck to this new committee, to the cellular carriers, and to Estonia. I'm pulling for you all this week.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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