December 13, 2010, 1:21 PM

Five Amazon European sites go down briefly on Sunday

Amazon says a hardware malfunction, not a WikiLeaks attack, caused the outage.

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Five Amazon.com sites that serve European customers experienced an outage on Sunday evening. Amazon representatives say a hardware failure at its data center caused the outage, not attacks from web activists.

The sites were unavailable for about a half hour starting at about 3:15 p.m. Central time in the United States, according to Netcraft, an Internet security firm that monitors web site performance. Amazon says there were problems for nearly two hours starting at 2:37 p.m. Central. The sites affected serve customers in the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Italy and Austria.

The outage did not stem from a distributed denial of service attack, such as those organized in the past week by supporters of WikiLeaks, Amazon says. A distributed denial of service attack, or DDOS, attempts to intentionally overload a web site with so many requests that the site stops working and involves many computers acting in concert. “The brief interruption to our European retail sites last night was due to hardware failure in our European datacenter network and not the result of a DDOS attempt,” an Amazon spokeswoman says.

WikiLeaks is an organization that has published online thousands of confidential U.S. government documents during the last few months. Last week, a group claiming to support WikiLeaks launched  denial of service attacks against PayPal, Visa and MasterCard after the companies cut off funds being sent to the WikiLeaks web site. A planned attack on Amazon, which stopped hosting the WikiLeaks site on its servers Dec. 1, was rumored last week.

Amazon’s European data center is in Dublin. According to company posts on Amazon Web Services’ service health dashboard, sites in Amazon’s western Europe region experienced “significantly increased error rates” from 2:37 p.m. Central to 4:32 p.m. Central that rendered the sites unusable for most customers. The post said a backup network device was carrying traffic while a primary network device was being repaired, but that the secondary device failed.

“Though it is somewhat unusual to have two failures like this in this short a period, we will not accept this as a statistical anomaly. We’re going to reassess our strategy for keeping spare devices to have better coverage in situations such as these,” the company wrote. Amazon.com is the No. 1-ranked e-retailer in Internet Retailer’s Top 500 Guide.

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