Attacks on computing systems take on different forms, depending on the goal and resources of the attacker. Some attackers desire to be disruptive, while others desire to infiltrate your machines and utilize the resources for their own nefarious purposes. Still others are targeting your data for financial gain or blackmail. Here are three major categories of attacks:
Denial of Service (DOS) — The easiest attacks to perpetrate are Denial of Service attacks. The primary purpose of these attacks is to disrupt the activities of a remote site by overloading it with irrelevant data. DOS attacks can be as simple as sending thousands of page requests per second at a Web site. These types of attacks are easy to perpetrate and easy to protect against. Once you have a handle on where the attack is coming from, a simple phone call to the perpetrator's ISP will get the problem solved.
Distributed Denial of Service (DDOS) — More advanced DOS attacks are called Distributed Denial of Service attacks. DDOS attacks are much harder to perpetrate and nearly impossible to stop. In this form of attack, an attacker takes control of hundreds or even thousands of weakly secured Internet connected computers. The attacker then directs them in unison to send a stream of irrelevant data to a single Internet host. The result is that the power of one attacker is magnified thousands of times. Instead of an attack coming from one direction, as is the case in a normal DOS, it comes from thousands of directions at once. The best defense against DDOS attack is to contact your ISP to see if it can filter traffic at its border routers.
Many people use the excuse, "I have nothing on my machine anyone would want" to avoid having to consider security. The problem with this argument is that attackers have a lot of reasons to use your machine. The attacker can turn your machine into an agent for later use in a DDOS attack. More than once, authorities have shown up at the door of a dumbfounded computer user asking questions about threats originating from their computer. By ignoring security, the owners have opened themselves up to a great deal of liability.
Intrusion attacks — To remotely use the resources of a target machine, attackers must first look for an opening to exploit. In the absence of inside information such as passwords or encryption keys, they must scan the target machine to see what services are offered. Perhaps one of the services is weakly secured and the attacker can use some known exploit to finagle his way in.
A tool called nmap is generally considered the best way to scan a host for services (note that nmap is a tool that can be used for good and bad). Once the attacker has a list of the available services running on his target, he needs to find a way to trick one of those services into letting him have privileged access to the system. Usually, this is done with a program called an exploit.
While DOS attacks are disruptive, intrusion type attacks are the most damaging. The reasons are varied, but the result is always the same. An uninvited guest is now taking up residence on your machine and is using it in a way you have no control over.