App developers stung by Twitter's DOS woes

Efforts to mitigate the attacks had a harmful knock-on effect for external developers

Developers who built applications for Twitter and generate money from them have been hard-hit by the micro-blogging service's many hours of downtime in the past day, as hackers pummel Twitter with an ongoing denial-of-service attack.

Although the site's functionality for end-users has been fairly stable on Friday after a lengthy outage Thursday, that's not the case for third-party applications that use the Twitter API (application programming interface).

Twitter acknowledged on Friday afternoon that some of the defensive measures it has taken to deal with the attack have negatively impacted third-party applications and thus the developers who created them.

TweetLater.com, which provides productivity tools to more than 100,000 Twitter users, came to a "virtual standstill" on Thursday and was operating in a scaled-back mode on Friday.

"We had to pause all Twitter account automation processes, and at time of writing those processes are still paused because the API is still actively refusing high-volume API calls," TweetLater owner Dewald Pretorius said via e-mail.

"Our service makes in excess of 40 API calls per second, 24 by 7, during normal operations, and Twitter is still not allowing that type of volume while they are recovering from the attack."

Twitter could have done a much better job of communicating with the developer community, said Andrew Badera, president and CEO of Higher Efficiency, an IT consulting and software development company that has built several Twitter applications.

"The outreach was fair to poor," he said in an e-mail interview. While Twitter focused on providing updates about the performance problems affecting end-users, it was late in addressing specific issues with its developer platform, Badera said.

"Twitter worried about their infrastructure first, as was proper, then the media, before ever bothering to talk to the developer community in any fashion. And if it weren't for the third party ecosystem that has sprung up around Twitter, Twitter wouldn't have blown up the way it did, and the media wouldn't care about Twitter to begin with," Badera said.

Developer Jonathan Griggs calls the external application problems on Thursday and Friday "extremely disruptive" to his Twitcaps.com application, a real-time search engine for Twitter photos.

"The functionality of Twitcaps depends solely upon its ability to frequently -- once every several seconds -- poll the Twitter Search API for new results. Without that ability, no new images are coming into the site and it is no longer effectively 'real-time' in nature. Also, ad-hoc user searches are completely non-functional beyond what my application has previously cached," Griggs said via e-mail.

Griggs was also unhappy with the Twitter outreach to developers. "They gave us no warning that they would be throttling and blocking applications, and they gave us no direction for what we should do," he said.

Apparently, Twitter recognizes it didn't communicate as well as it could have with its external developers. On Friday afternoon, a Twitter official named Ryan Sarver apologized for the slight in a discussion forum for Twitter developers.

"In order for us to defend from the attack we have had to put a number of services in place and we know that some of you have gotten caught in the crossfire. Please know we are as frustrated as you are and wish there was more we could have communicated along the way," wrote Sarver, a member of the Twitter application development platform team.

Sarver, who also detailed a number of outstanding issues with the Twitter platform while the company deals with the ongoing attack, said Twitter will do its best to keep developers informed as things continue to develop.

"We will try to communicate as much as we can so you guys are up to speed as things change and progress. I personally apologize for not communicating more in the meantime but there hasn't been much guidance we have been able to give other than hold tight with us," Sarver wrote.

Sarver also cautioned that the attack is ongoing and that its intensity and nature have changed several times since it started on Thursday, and as such Twitter is having to modify its defensive strategy along the way.

Twitter isn't alone in dealing with the attacks Friday afternoon. Google's Blogger got hit as well, according to a Google spokesman.

"A small percentage of Blogger users have experienced error messages this afternoon as the result of what appears to be an ongoing distributed denial of service attack aimed at multiple services across the web," the Google spokesman said via e-mail.

"Google has a variety of systems in place to help counteract these types of attacks, and we believe the majority of affected users can now access their blogs. We're continuing to work to minimize the impact to affected Blogger users. No other Google products have been affected," the spokesman said.

On Thursday, a portion of the service that redirects third-party-owned URLs to Google Sites or the Blogger service also was affected for about an hour by the DOS attack, a source told IDG News Service.

Facebook and LiveJournal also got hit on Thursday. According to news reports and information from companies affected, the attacks appear directed at silencing a blogger in the country of Georgia who has been critical of Russia's actions and policies toward that neighboring country.

Hayes Davis, founder of Appozite, saw his company's Twitter applications impacted, including its social search engine for shopping deals and promotions, CheapTweet.

However, he feels Twitter has handled the situation as well as can be expected for a young, small company. "They did a good job of communicating with the developers," he said in a phone interview.

"I have a lot of sympathy for Twitter. It's a big target right now, and a denial-of-service attack is really hard to defend against. I don't begrudge Twitter the downtime by any means."

TweetLater's Pretorius trusts in Twitter engineers' ability to solve the problem.

"Twitter's approach of overcompensating in the defense and then selectively restoring legitimate access is probably the same approach that I would have taken under the same circumstances. I have full faith in their engineers that full access will be restored as soon as they can safely do so," he said.

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Juan Carlos Perez

IDG News Service
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