What is SolarWinds? A look at the hacked software company in crosshairs

SolarWinds is a networking software company

Austin, Texas-based SolarWinds is at the forefront of one of the largest hacking operations in U.S. history. But until recently, few, if any, had heard of the company.

So what exactly does SolarWinds do?

Though its name conjures up images of alternative energy, it's actually a networking software company that helps other companies manage their entire IT portfolios.

TickerSecurityLastChangeChange %
SWISOLARWINDS CORPORATION16.16-0.41-2.47%
MSFTMICROSOFT CORP.233.87-3.07-1.30%

"In a nutshell, SolarWinds' Orion product provides centralized monitoring across an organization's entire IT stack. That means the attackers who were able to compromise this platform had an extremely high level of access to all of these client systems," David Kennedy, CEO of TrustedSec, recently told Fox News.

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Largely considered a "back office" software company, according to Baird research analyst Rob Oliver, SolarWinds was founded in 1999 by former Walmart executive Donald Yonce and his brother, David. It has also been likened to a smaller Microsoft by some industry experts.

(AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, file)

According to the company's website, its first products, Trace Route and Ping Sweep, “arrived on the scene to help IT pros quell everyone’s world-ending fears" just before the turn of the millennium and the Y2K computer bug.

Like its larger competitor Microsoft, SolarWinds' products are widely used in both the public and private sectors. Almost all Fortune 500 companies are reported to use SolarWinds products to scan their networks, including major defense contractors such as Boeing, according to the New York Times.

Among the public sector, its roster includes a number of highly sensitive federal agencies ranging from the Department of Justice to the Centers for Disease Control.

Over the weekend, the U.S. government acknowledged reports that hackers backed by a foreign government breached the U.S. Treasury Department and the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration, which is responsible for putting together internet and telecommunications policy.

“The United States government is aware of these reports and we are taking all necessary steps to identify and remedy any possible issues related to this situation,” National Security Council spokesman John Ullyot told FOX Business on Saturday.

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According to Reuters, the hack was so serious it led to a National Security Council meeting on Saturday.

On Sunday, SolarWinds started to alert approximately 33,000 of its customers that an “outside nation state" — widely suspected to be Russia — had found a back door into some updated versions of its premier product, Orion. The ubiquitous software tool, which helps organizations monitor the performance of their computer networks and servers, had become an instrument for spies to steal information undetected.

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Though the hack of SolarWinds' Orion software is widely believed to have started in March, it wasn't until Sunday, when one of its customers, the cybersecurity firm FireEye, revealed its own systems were breached that the operation was discovered.

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Since the news of the breach, shares of SolarWinds have dropped by nearly 33%, as the Orion software product accounts for approximately half of its revenue, according to the Associated Press.

Fox News' Hollie McKay and FOX Business' Bradford Betz and Lucas Manfredi contributed to this story.