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DDoS attacks prevention with Nginx

A distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attack is a malicious attempt to disrupt legitimate traffic of a targeted server, service or network, by bombarding it with so much traffic from multiple machines.  Typically, the attacker tries to saturate a system with so many connections and requests until the server it is no longer able to accept new traffic, or becomes so slow that it is effectively unusable. DDoS attacks can cost an organization both time and money while their resources and services are inaccessible. Luckily, servers can be configured to fight back.

How does a DDoS attack work?

A DDoS attack requires an attacker to gain control of a network of online machines in order to carry out an attack. Usually computers and other devices are infected with malware, turning each one into a bot. The attacker then has remote control over the group of bots, which is called a botnet. Once in control, an attacker can command their botnet to conduct DDoS on a target. In this case, the infected devices are also victims of the attack.

When the IP address of a victim is targeted by the botnet, each bot will respond by sending a large number of requests or very large requests to the target, potentially causing the targeted server or network to overflow capacity, resulting in a denial-of-service to normal traffic. Because each bot is a legitimate Internet device, separating the attack traffic from normal traffic can be difficult.

How do you know if an attack is happening?

Symptoms of a DDoS attack can resemble non-malicious availability issues, such as technical problems with a particular network or a system administrator performing maintenance. However, the following symptoms could indicate a DoS or DDoS attack:

  • Unusually slow network performance
  • Unavailability of a particular website
  • Unable to access any website

The best way to detect and identify a DDoS attack would be via network traffic monitoring and analysis. Network traffic can be monitored via a firewall, intrusion detection system and system or application logs.

Using NGINX to prevent DDoS Attacks

Nginx, a highly popular server system for Unix machines, comes with enough built-in functionality to greatly limit the effectiveness of DDoS attacks. These features could handle a DDoS attack by regulating the incoming traffic and by controlling the traffic as it is proxied to backend services.

Before you change any settings, make sure you make a quick backup of your server’s configuration. The following command works for this:

sudo cp /etc/nginx/nginx.conf /etc/nginx/nginx.conf.backup-original

Nginx worker connections

One of the important parameters that we tweak is the number of worker process and number of worker connections in the Nginx configuration file /etc/nginx/nginx.conf.

We’ll gradually adjust the worker process and worker connections to a higher or lower value for handling DDoS attacks.

events {
    worker_connections 50000;

This setting allows each of the worker process to handle up to 50000 connections.

Limiting requests rate

Among the many useful tactics worth trying for staving off DDoS attacks, one of the simplest and most effective is the limiting of incoming traffic rates. You can limit the rate at which NGINX accept incoming requests to a normal value for your service from a particular client IP address within a certain period.

We tweak the limit_req_zone directive in the Nginx configuration file to rate limit requests.

limit_req_zone $binary_remote_addr zone=one:1m rate=30r/m;

server {
    location /wp_login.php {
        limit_req zone=one;

This example creates a memory area called one, that can hold up to 16,000 (1m) unique IPs, and the 30r/m means that only 30 requests per minute are allowed. Then, we use the limit_req directive to rate limit the connections to a particular location or file, in this case wp_login.php.

Limiting number of connections

You can limit the number of connections that can be opened by a single client IP address,

Here we tweak the limit_conn_zone and limit_conn directives to limit the number of connections per IP address.

limit_conn_zone $binary_remote_addr zone=two:1m;

server {
    location / {
        limit_conn two 10;

This example creates a memory zone called two to store requests for the specified key, in this case the client IP address, $binary_remote_addr. Then the limit_conn directive sets a maximum of 10 connections from each client IP address.

Timeout parameters

Slow connections can represent an attempt to keep connections open for a long time. As a result, the server can’t accept new connections.

server {
    client_body_timeout 5s;
    client_header_timeout 5s;

In this example, the client_body_timeout directive defines how long Nginx is waiting between the writes of the client body and  client_header_timeout means how long Nginx is waiting between the writes of client header. Both are set to 5 seconds.

Limit requests size

Similarly, large buffer values or large HTTP requests size make DDoS attacks easier. So, we limit the following buffer values in the Nginx configuration file to mitigate DDoS attacks.

client_body_buffer_size 200K;
client_header_buffer_size 2k;
client_max_body_size 200k;
large_client_header_buffers 3 1k;

Blacklist IP adresses

If you can identify the client IP addresses being used for an attack, you can blacklist them with the deny directive so that NGINX and NGINX Plus do not accept their connections or requests.

location / {

In this example, the first deny directive blocks an specific IP, and the second deny, blocks a complete range of IP’s.

Whitelist IP adresses

If access to your website or application is allowed only from one or more specific sets or ranges of client IP addresses, you can use the allow and deny directives together to allow only those addresses to access the site or application.

location / {
    deny all;

You can restrict access to only addresses in a specific local network, Here, the deny all directive blocks all client IP addresses that are not in the range specified by the allow directive.

Blocking access to a file or location

It is possible to use Nginx to completely block the access to a file or a location. For example if you notice that the file register.php is the target of  the attack, you can completely block the access to this file.

location /register.php {
    deny all;
    return 444;

This will drop all request that try to reach this file. The code 444 closes the connection without response.

Enable sysctl based protection

Additionally we can tweak kernel and system variables in our server. Edit the file /etc/sysctl.conf, and set these two lines to 1 like this:

net.ipv4.conf.all.rp_filter = 1
net.ipv4.tcp_syncookies = 1

The first parameter enables protection against IP spoofing, and the second allows TCP SYN cookie protection.

Nginx as load balancer

When Nginx is used as load balancer, it is possible to adjust parameters to limit the connections number for each server:

upstream domain {
server max_conns=100;
server max_conns=100;
queue 20 timeout=10s;

Here the max_conns directive specifies the number of connections Nginx can open up for the server. The queue directive limits the number of requests that have been queued when all servers in this group have reached the connection limit. Finally, the timeout directive specifies how long a request can be retained in the queue.


DDoS prevention is a very important step to ensure security in your servers and networks. This can help you to avoid headaches, loss of time and money.


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