AWS security thwarts DDoS attack on Freshdesk website

Hackers attacked a helpdesk software maker's website, putting tens of thousands of customers at risk. But a move to Amazon Web Services saved the day.

One enterprise has this endorsement for AWS security: It thwarted an attack on the company's website when another provider couldn't.

A static website that belonged to Freshdesk, Inc., a helpdesk software maker based in San Francisco, came under a distributed denial of service (DDoS) attack in July 2014, according to Krishnenjit Roy, Freshdesk's director of IT operations. At the time, most of the company's infrastructure ran on Amazon Web Services (AWS), but the website was hosted in a cloud managed by Linode LLC.

Freshdesk first began to suspect there was a problem when requests began queuing up on its Web server, and there was a decrease in the number of requests being processed. The hackers behind the DDoS attack then contacted Freshdesk to demand ransom money to stop the attack, to the tune of $50,000. That's when Freshdesk moved its website to AWS' infrastructure as a service platform.

AWS security engineers put the Web server behind an Elastic Load Balancer (ELB), and scaled the load balancer out rapidly to accommodate the traffic. "Within a few minutes they spun off multiple instances, so they basically threw more gear at the problem, and that caused the issue to subside," Roy said.

AWS also successfully blocked the IP addresses of the servers that were generating the DDoS attack. "We really got saved by AWS."

Linode has load balancers as a service, but the ELB from AWS had more rapid scalability, Roy said. Also, the amount of bandwidth capacity AWS had was massive when compared to Linode.

"We were also running out of time, hence we didn't want to experiment much," Roy said. "We wanted to go with something that we were confident [would] work."

Linode declined to comment for this article.

AWS offers security and savings

Freshdesk turned to AWS because a year earlier, the company had a period of explosive growth in which it shot up to 28,000 customers, expanded its IT team and switched most of its infrastructure to AWS and away from a deployment with Engine Yard, a platform as a service (PaaS) offering.

When it first selected Engine Yard in 2010, Freshdesk's staff was made up of developers with little infrastructure experience. As it expanded, it hired four DevOps engineers with more experience in IT operations, and wanted more control over the underlying infrastructure than Engine Yard's PaaS provided.

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While hiring the engineers to manage the infrastructure was an added expense, moving away from Engine Yard saved Freshdesk 50%, or about $50,000, in infrastructure costs, since less of the application stack was being managed for Freshdesk than at Engine Yard.

"When we were having any kind of issues with our applications, we had to rely on Engine Yard folks to troubleshoot that and to give us the results," Roy said.

Using that information, Freshdesk needed to debug the problem which took longer than expected during a time of rapid growth, Roy said. An Engine Yard spokesperson pointed out that Freshdesk had to hire staff to take over managing the infrastructure, which it says negates Freshdesk's cost savings.

However, Freshdesk has grown exponentially in the last year and a half, and there are many more platforms its IT team manages internally apart from AWS, Roy said.

"The cost is shared," he added.

Today, with some 40,000 customers around the world, Freshdesk uses a broad array of AWS Services beyond its 300 Elastic Compute Cloud instances, including the Elastic Beanstalk PaaS platform, Elastic Load Balancers, Simple Storage Service (S3), OpsWorks, DynamoDB, RedShift and Relational Database Service (RDS). OpsWorks, a configuration management system based on Chef, is the centerpiece of Freshdesk's AWS deployment.

"We don't just deploy our code through OpsWorks, but the entire infrastructure, the code, everything," Roy said. "We write recipes and automate those recipes to deploy. It's a fully automated system."

OpsWorks is preferable to Chef because it comes pre-integrated with AWS Services, Roy said.

The company also uses a variety of databases for data analysis. DynamoDB is used for persistent storage of various data assets; MySQL RDS is used for transactional database work; and the Amazon Redshift data warehouse runs analytics reports on up to a year's worth of data.

"We could turn around one year of data [analysis] in about one minute's time with Redshift," Roy said. "Before moving to Redshift [from a MySQL database] we were having issues in terms of running queries and our reporting, and after we went to Redshift those problems went away."

Freshdesk also pays for Enterprise level support from AWS, and has found working with AWS engineers on architectural design helpful in addition to solving troubleshooting problems.

"Whenever we're designing a new solution we go back to them and they always have good feedback," Roy said.

Beth Pariseau is senior news writer for SearchAWS. Write to her at [email protected] or follow @PariseauTT on Twitter.

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