In Computing, what is Clobbering?

Mary McMahon

The term “clobbering” is used in several different ways in computing, with the meaning usually clear from the context. In one sense, it refers to overwriting existing files or memory entries. It can also be used to discuss overwhelming computers such as servers with requests, causing a downgrade in performance. This second usage of the word reflects the common usage of “clobber” as a word to describe taking a beating.

Man holding computer
Man holding computer

Clobbering a file can be done intentionally or accidentally. Many systems have safeguards in place that are designed to prevent inadvertent clobbering so that users will not overwrite files they will need later. People can engage in clobbering intentionally to clean up databases, remove old versions of files and documents, and scrub temporary files generated during downloads, software installs, and similar activities. There are a number of programs that can be set to clobber when users need this functionality and people may also be able to selectively overwrite files from the command line.

This can also happen by accident. A slippery-fingered coder may accidentally execute a command to overwrite working files or memory. The material may be lost beyond retrieval in some cases. Measures designed to prevent these types of accidents include blocks that will not allow files to be overwritten while they are open and in use along with prompts to confirm that a user really does want to execute a given command.

Clobbering in the sense of overwhelming a computer with requests can take a number of forms. Hackers and crackers may utilize this technique to break into the defenses of a system or to disable security by distracting it while entering a system for unauthorized reasons. Clobbering can also be used to test the limitations of a system in a security review. Systems can also be said to be “clobbered” when they are overwhelmed with users who want access, as can happen on retail websites when they announce major sales.

This term can also come up in some more familiar contexts in computing. Competing computer products are sometimes said to be clobbering each other, meaning that one product is outselling and outperforming the other and achieving market dominance. Likewise, people who play networked video games with users in other regions may refer to clobbering opponents, successfully beating their characters and taking them out of the game or severely injuring the characters so they will need to recover before they can enter the game again.

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