Microsoft problems have far-reaching effects

When Microsoft websites became inaccessible to web users for several days last week because of domain name server problems and denial-of-service attacks, the effects were far-reaching.

          When Microsoft websites became inaccessible to web users for several days last week because of domain name server problems and denial-of-service attacks, the effects were far-reaching.

          A technician working with Charles Henderson, a network administrator at Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois, was unable to log in to Microsoft’s Knowledge Base technical support site to find answers to a niggling system problem, causing delays in resolving the issue. At the same time, some of the college’s 3000 students were calling Henderson’s office to complain that they couldn’t access email in their Hotmail accounts, which are hosted by Microsoft.

          "It created some confusion," Henderson says.

          The problems prompted him to spend time checking his own systems to be sure there were no internal foul-ups. "I didn’t suspect it was [Microsoft], though, with their good track record," he says.

          In Brockton, Massachusetts, Bob Garber, a systems analyst at Merchandise Testing Laboratories, also found the Microsoft sites to be inoperative as he and others tried to do their work.

          "It wasn’t really a major problem; it was more of a nuisance," says.

          But in Seattle, David Follis, a lead systems integrator at Datatune, which does network and systems consulting, says that if the timing had been slightly different, his problems would have been significant.

          Four out of five days each week, Follis and his two fellow technicians are out in the field, resolving networking and other computer problems for clients. A key tool is Microsoft’s own TechNet website, where they can find answers to the problems they have found.

          "Luckily, [it] was kind of a moderate day for us," he says of last Wednesday, when the website problem was being tracked down and fixed by Microsoft. But when the DNS disturbance briefly popped up the next day, causing the sites to again be unreachable, Follis became concerned.

          "If this continues to happen, for the technicians and programmers who use [TechNet], it’s pretty detrimental," Follis says. "That’s a serious resource we rely on."

          Without a reliable TechNet site, technicians will have to carry CD-ROMs containing the TechNet information, causing delays and adding to the equipment technicians will have to carry, Follis says.

          The problems early in the week, according to Microsoft, occurred when the company’s four DNS servers, which convert easy-to-remember internet domain names into numeric IP addresses, became unable to make the words-to-numbers translations. The software giant blamed the problem on a Microsoft technician who incorrectly changed some network DNS settings. Later in the week, Microsoft sites were adversely affected by denial-of-service attacks aimed at the company’s routers.

          But since all four of the company’s DNS servers are located next to one another in the same place, with no external backups, the foul-up kept Microsoft customers from being able to access the sites until technicians figured out the problem and changed the settings back. Affected sites included Microsoft.com, Carpoint.com, MSN.com and MSNBC.com.

          Adam Sohn, a Microsoft spokesman, says the company is reviewing whether it’s wise to have all of the DNS servers in one place on one network.

          One-Man Shop Has Lesson for Giant

          Sometimes, Goliath rules, and on other days, he is humbled by David.

          Last week, as Microsoft suffered through two major DNS server problems that left customers unable to access Microsoft’s widely used websites for extended periods, Carl Byington laughed quietly to himself.

          Byington, owner of 510 Software Group, a one-man network administration operation in Lake Arrowhead, California, had read news stories describing Microsoft’s DNS dilemma.

          But what struck Byington as odd was that Microsoft’s system of DNS servers, are all in the same location, right next to one another, with no external redundant backup units.

          "It’s called shooting yourself in the foot," he says.

          Even Byington’s tiny network administration firm has a more secure installation, he says, with a mail and DNS server right in his office, along with a redundant mail and DNS server located over the state line in Incline Village, Nevada.

          "All of Los Angeles could go black [from a power outage], and people could still find [my customers’ websites]," he says.

          If Microsoft had a similar system of redundancy, the inability of customers to reach the company’s websites probably wouldn’t have occurred, he says.

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