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Microsoft hacker challenge foiled

An act of God beats both hackers and beta testers to the punch as lightning crashes a Windows 2000 test site.

An act of God beat both hackers and beta testers to the punch this week when lightning crashed a Microsoft test site.

Tuesday, Microsoft began testing a Windows 2000 site that challenges beta testers to find and exploit potential security holes or vulnerabilities in a server running the company's forthcoming operating system. Expected to launch by the end of this year, Windows 2000 is the company's most secure and stable operating system yet, Microsoft says.

Naturally, the site had drawn the attention of a number of would-be crackers.

But before anyone could get a crack at it, the site came down on its own and has remained hard to reach.

As Microsoft prepared to go live, the site's router was struck by lightning caused by electrical storms near corporate headquarters in Redmond, Washington, according to the company. After the router was fixed, the site's availability remained limited as the company dealt with greater-than-expected traffic.

"The traffic was a lot bigger than we expected," said Keith White, director of marketing for the business and enterprise group at Microsoft. Its Web address was unexpectedly published on a variety of independent Web sites, including, a popular site dedicated to Linux and the open source software movement.

"The good news is that it has been a popular site," he said.

Is it an omen? Microsoft, which will test rigorously before releasing Windows 2000 to the public, certainly hopes not. In the months before official software release, a limited group of testers consisting of individuals, hardware manufacturers, and software developers, will attempt to find and fix any remaining bugs before the product is released to the public.

The operating system will eventually be used by large organizations and companies hosting and developing Web sites, so the reliability and security of the software is of paramount importance to Microsoft and its customers.

Traffic to the site surged as crackers and testers alike responded to Microsoft's apparent challenge.

Although White insists that the site was never intended as a "PR stunt, a challenge, or a contest," the company did post "Ground Rules," instructing testers to "Change something you shouldn't have access to" and "Find the interesting 'magic bullet,' that will bring the machine down."

Despite the heavy traffic, White says the site hasn't been "compromised." But a guest book application on the site was changed.

"That's an application, not Windows 2000," he said. However, the site has been brought down to analyze data and because of traffic constraints, he said.

"It's been up for most of the day today," he added. Now configured to withstand heavier traffic, the site is expected to stay up until the second release candidate of Windows 2000's first beta version is released in four to five weeks.