Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Weirdest problem you ever had to solve?

A common question in job interviews is "What is the weirdest problem you ever had to solve?". Every time I am asked this, I can never think of something on the spot. I vaguely remember debugging things like nutty mod_perl caching through apache restarts, issues with variables ending up with some info from other variables due to memory overflows and such.

But today, I am pretty sure I discovered the weirdest thing I have ever seen. FTP servers blocking my connection attempts, AFTER letting me put in the password.

In migrating my application to a new machine, located on Linode in the Fremont data center, I was obviously allocated a new IP address. Everything seemed hunky dory for a day or so. Then I started noticing an increasing number of users saying that FTP connections from that IP address to their webhost were being rejected with password failed. This is nothing new, failed passwords are extremely common for my application. But the rate at which these complaints were coming in were becoming hard to ignore.

So I started debugging. I grabbed a short list of 5 of the supposed bad credentials and tested them from the new server and sure enough, I got a bad password error. Not a "connection refused" error or anything like that, all was normal in the connection process, the FTP server headers appeared, the username was requested and given, etc. I then went over to the old server, and a few other random servers I had access to. All connections were absolutely fine from these other servers.

Now I was completely confused. If web hosts out there were blocking my new IP, why weren't they blocking at the network level with a "host unreachable" or "connection refused" response. Why let it connect only to reject the password. This would imply the blocking is being done in the FTP server software itself, which just doesn't sit right with me.

In any case, I could not figure it out. I asked the kind folk at Linode to change my IP address and they obliged. All FTP connections are now working perfectly again. A few customers will be annoyed at having to update their firewalls with new IP addresses twice in the last few days, but it was that or have a whole bunch of users not even able to connect.

What could it be? Surely the IP is not blocked at the FTP server level. Surely not that fast after only just setting up the machine 5 days ago. Perhaps that IP previously belonged to some hax0r and was already blocked, but as mentioned, why block with FTP servers instead of iptables. Hopefully I haven't been MITM'd somewhere along the way!

Edit: The second IP Linode gave me started experiencing the same problems after a day or 2. The end result was a few web hosts out there blocking my IP after supposed "suspect" activity. Connections work from other servers as a once off, but prolonged use from my server is what causes them to ultimately block the IP in the weird manner mentioned originally. The resolution is that affected clients will need to whitelist my IP in the FTP section of their web hosting control panel.

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