P2P: The Future of Computing

P2P: The Future of Computing

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Abstract: This paper discusses peer-to-peer file sharing and distributed computing.

In the mid-1980s, the term P2P, or peer-to-peer, was used by local area network vendors to describe the computing nodes on their networks.  Previous to that, the term was used to describe ARPAnet, the military-backed computer network that would become the model for today's Internet[1].  Today however, the term P2P has a very different meaning - it has come to describe applications designed specifically to exploit peer relationships between computers, using the Internet as an extension of the local network[2].  Its primary uses include not only the sharing of huge amounts of information, but also the sharing of free resources on a vast number of computers [3].  The reasons for its success are numerous and the problems that it creates are genuine.


Peer-to-peer networking has existed for years.  The IP routing structure of the Internet is still peer-to-peer, albeit with several layers of hierarchy, and individual routers act as peers in finding the best route from one point on the net to another[4].  However, it is only recently, with the development applications that utilize P2P to create vast stores of media files, that it has become immensely popular.  While these applications only account for a fraction of peer-to-peer networking's uses, they have received the majority of the attention.




These peer-to-peer file-sharing systems have changed the way we think about sharing data over the Net and their success can be attributed to a number of factors.  Firstly, these file-sharing systems have simple implementations that make them accessible to regular people.  Not only is downloading a file using these systems simple, but uploading one is easy as well.  Separate programs need not be used, and the process is often invisible to the user[5].  Further, because these systems are often used with media files such as MP3s, the same data exists on a number of different accessible computers.  Because of this redundancy, accessing this data becomes reliable.  In addition, because of the type of content that is being shared, a trust relationship is not required between the provider of the data and the person accessing it - there is little to no consequence to receiving a corrupted media file[6].


Perhaps the two most crucial elements of the success of such systems are that they allow an incredible number of files to be gathered through the amalgamation of the files on many computers, and that increasing the value of the databases by adding more files is a natural by-product of using the tools for one's own benefit[7].

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  Because of these factors, the selection of files in such systems continues to grow with minimal effort from the users.  This large selection not only maintains the current user base, but also attracts new users, which, in turn, enhances the selection. 


With the success of these peer-to-peer file-sharing systems comes a new breed of problems.  Because they are so effective, and because they make it so simple to share a large number of files, peer-to-peer file-sharing systems have given rise to an unprecedented amount of copyrighted materials sharing.  Fueled by systems such as Napster, the notorious music sharing service, in combination with technologies that make broadband accessible to the masses, copyrighted materials are being propagated all over the Internet.  Shutting down such systems seems to slow the flow of these materials, but it is in no way a complete solution.  By examining these file-sharing systems and the legal issues that envelope them, more appropriate regulatory means may be discovered.


Illegally distributing copyrighted materials is harmful to the industries involved, preventing content providers from receiving money that is rightfully theirs and possibly raising costs for legitimate users.  Doing so on a large scale has never been easier, and regulating this distribution has proven to be extremely difficult. 


For instance, Napster, which follows a peer-to-peer file-sharing model, promotes the distribution of copyrighted materials, namely music.  It allows millions of users to share and search through the union of their files, effectively creating a virtually limitless resource of digital music.  This has led to a number of debates regarding the legality of the software application, as well as several attempts to shut the service down.


Recently the RIAA, the Recording Industry Association of America, has made efforts to shut down Napster, and in rebuttal, Napster has focused on six core arguments that they felt lent "great legal weight to their position that neither the company, nor its users were violating the law"[8].  However, in a Reply Memorandum released by the RIAA, the same legal acts used to support Napster's arguments were used to dismiss them.


For example, Napster claims that, under the AHRA, the Audio Home Recording Act, consumers have an absolute right to create and transfer digital music for non-commercial purposes.  However, it is brought to light in the RIAA's Reply Memorandum that the AHRA applies specifically to digital audio recording devices, which, under the ruling of the court, does not include computers.  Further, in that same act, non-commercial distribution is defined as the uncharged distribution to a household and its normal circle of friends, and not the millions of anonymous users that may potentially access any given file using the Napster system[9].


Napster makes additional arguments, including the claim that users can use the service in a number of ways that constitute fair use, such as music sampling.  In response to this the RIAA states firstly that, according to case law, making a copy in order to avoid paying for a work is in fact a commercial, and not a non-commercial use.  Secondly, the point is made that creating a complete, potentially permanent, copy of a work of music is not sampling, but is copyright infringement, and no court has ever held to the contrary[10].


Because of these attempts to shut down Napster, as well as the Federal Court's ruling that the service that it provides is not protected under federal copyright laws[11], it seems that the end may be near for the music file-sharing system.  Nevertheless, the peer-to-peer file-sharing methodology is far from dead.  Numerous Napster clones are starting to appear, and while they currently do not offer the vast user base, and therefore the incredible number of files, that Napster does, most make it possible to share not only music files but media files of all types, such as video and picture files, as well[12].


The threat that these file-sharing systems pose on the music and film industries is very real.  By allowing users to obtain music and movies without paying for them, these systems are creating a loss in profits in these industries, especially in heavily networked areas such as universities and colleges.  Because of this, efforts are being made to regulate the dissemination of copyrighted works on such systems.


The obvious course of action is to shut down such services, and the United States Department of Justice has made efforts to do so.  However, shutting down unrestricted Internet-based file-sharing may be misguided, simply driving illicit activities underground where criminals are much more difficult to identify and prosecute[13].  Moreover, shutting down such services will prevent their other legitimate uses, and criminals will most likely just move their files to another service or even to another country, where copyright laws and enforcement are weak, and extradition agreements with the United States are nonexistent.  Legitimate users will suffer, and criminals will continue to break the law.


Ideally, digital content providers will come up with measures, such as new types of copy protection and new licensing models to allow for the sale of individual songs[14], to prevent the unrestricted distribution of such content.  Other strategies include flooding a system such as Napster with imposter files, or Trojan downloads, which do not contain the content that is expected, but advertisements for it instead[15].


In the time being, since most content providers have yet to take such actions, file-sharing services may do the following to prevent the spread of copyrighted materials on their systems.  Firstly, the files types that can be shared could be restricted.  For example, limiting picture files to JPGs, which are inherently of lower quality because they are compressed, would prevent a high quality copy of an image from being distributed.  Similarly, sound files could be limited to MP3s that do not exceed a certain bit-rate, and thus a certain quality.  These MP3s would lack the fidelity of their CD counterparts, and thus become a less likely alternative to CDs.  Further, the length of such sound files could also be limited, preventing entire copies of songs from being distributed over such systems.  Additional measures could include the limiting of a user's bandwidth, thereby making it more difficult to share large, or a large number of, files.  Also, filenames could be tracked, and accounts distributing files that appear to contain copyrighted materials could be investigated, and perhaps even shut down[16].


Internet-based file-sharing has progressed a great deal in the past few years, it and the laws that pertain to it are still in their infancy.  The future holds more applications that will make finding and sharing data across the Web even easier, and because of this, content providers and Internet file-sharing systems providers must discover and implement new ways to prevent the illegal sharing of copyrighted materials - the number of different file-sharing systems will soon be too large for third-parties to regulate the activity on each and every one of them.  It is the ubiquitous nature of the Internet that makes it a useful tool for its millions of users, but it is this same trait that makes it a popular medium for dishonest people to share their wares.  Without new measures to prevent this, it is doubtful that it will end.



Distributed computation is another popular use of peer-to-peer networking.  Using this method, large computational problems can be tackled through the use of free-cycles on a large number of computers[17].  For instance, the Space Science Lab at UC Berkeley has released a screen saver that uses the spare cycles from more than one-million personal computers to process radio telescope data in search of signs of extraterrestrial intelligence[18].


This system has several advantages over trying to solve a large problem on a single powerful computer.  Firstly, distributed computing is frugal, making use of every spare moment that a computer's processor sits idle.  In addition, the amount of computing power available as free-cycles on a group of linked computers is immense - if enough computers are linked, the system can surpass the computing power of the fastest supercomputer by a factor of four, all at a fraction of the cost.  Further, the massive redundancy of computing resources allows projects to easily overcome reliability and network availability problems[19].  While the crashing of one supercomputer could halt the progress on a computing problem, the crashing of any given computer in a distributed computing system does not affect any of the other systems, and computations can continue[20].


Distributed computing is not without its flaws, however.  Coordinating a large number of personal computers to work towards one goal is not a simple task.  Server computers are needed to distribute the pieces of data and collect the computed results.  Further, attracting users to run distributed computing software on their personal machines often requires incentives, which range from cool screen savers to cash.


Further, because many Internet users still do so using a regular modem, communicating with fellow participating computers can be slow.  Therefore, the data involved in the computations must take up as little bandwidth and as little disk space as possible.  Also, the data must be independent of each other in order to avoid dependencies on the results of other computers, which could slow down calculations due to the bottleneck created by slow Internet connection speeds.


Because the Internet is out in the open, security is also a very large issue and concerns not only the organization using distributed computing, but also the user whose computer is doing the work.  Because malicious or incorrect data could jeopardize the accuracy of the computations taking place, the organization needs to be able to trust the results that are coming back from the user's computer.  Further, the user needs to be able to trust the organization and its software - there is no easy way to determine what the organization's application is really processing, and it could be digging through the user's files instead[21].


Regardless of these disadvantages, it is clear that distributed computing is an important tool in solving complex problems.  It is both cost-effective and extremely powerful, and is already being used in projects ranging from medicine to cryptography.


            In conclusion, it is clear that peer-to-peer networking is a powerful connectivity tool.  It will be interesting to see what new and innovative uses emerge from the technology within the next few years.  It seems that Sun Microsystems' slogan, "The Network is the Computer", will soon be coming true.


1 John K. Waters, "Component-Based Development," ADT, http://www.adtmag.com/Pub/article.asp?ArticleID=2217 (Jan 01).

2 Hailey Lynne McKeefry, "P2P: Napster for your network," CNET, http://enterprise.cnet.com/enterprise/0-9563-7-4880992.html?tag=ntxt (26 Feb 01).

3 John K. Waters, "Component-Based Development."

4 Tim O'Reilly, "Remaking the Peer-to-Peer Meme," OpenP2P.com, http://www.openp2p.com/pub/a/p2p/2000/12/05/book_ch01_meme.html?page=1 (05 Dec 00).

5 Dan Bricklin, "Thoughts on Peer-to-Peer," Dan Bricklin's Web Site, http://www.bricklin.com/p2p.htm (10 Aug 00).

6 Tim O'Reilly, "Remaking the Peer-to-Peer Meme."

7 Dan Bricklin, "The Cornucopia of the Commons: How to get volunteer labor," Dan Bricklin's Web Site, http://www.bricklin.com/cornucopia.htm (07 Aug 00).

8 "Music Industry, Music Publishers Respond to Napster, Reaffirming District Court's Infringement Findings," RIAA/Press Releases, http://www.riaa.com/PR_Story.cfm?id=320 (28 Jan 01).

9 "Music Industry, Music Publishers Respond to Napster, Reaffirming District Court's Infringement Findings," RIAA/Press Releases.

10 "Music Industry, Music Publishers Respond to Napster, Reaffirming District Court's Infringement Findings," RIAA/Press Releases.

11 "The End is Near," Stopnapster.com, http://www.stopnapster.com/clothes.html (28 Jan 01).

12 "Peer-to-Peer File Sharing," Yahoo!, http://dir.yahoo.com/Computers_and_Internet/Internet/Peer_to_Peer_File_Sharing/ (28 Jan 01).

13 "Commentary: Blow dealt to Net-based file sharing," Tech News - CNET.com, http://news.cnet.com/news/0-1005-202-4576879-0.html (23 Jan 01).

14 "Commentary: Blow dealt to Net-based file sharing," Tech News - CNET.com.

15 "Barenaked Ladies battle Napster with 'Trojan' downloads," CNN.com, http://www.cnn.com/2000/TECH/computing/09/18/trojan.music/ (18 Sep 00).

16 "Commentary: Blow dealt to Net-based file sharing," Tech News - CNET.com.

17 Tim O'Reilly, "Remaking the Peer-to-Peer Meme."

18 "SETI Homepage," http://www.net.berkeley.edu/setiathome/ (28 Feb 01).

19 "Internet-based Distributed Computing Projects," http://www.nyx.net/~kpearson/distrib.html (28 Feb 01).

20 "Distributed Computing's Advantages," DC Central, http://library.thinkquest.org/C007645/english/0-advantages.htm (28 Feb 01).

21 "Distributed Computing's Disadvantages," DC Central, http://library.thinkquest.org/C007645/english/0-disadvantages.htm (28 Feb 01).



"Barenaked Ladies battle Napster with 'Trojan' downloads," CNN.com, http://www.cnn.com/2000/TECH/computing/09/18/trojan.music/ (28 Jan 00).

Bricklin, Dan, "The Cornucopia of the Commons: How to get volunteer labor," Dan Bricklin's Web Site, http://www.bricklin.com/cornucopia.htm (07 Aug 00).

Bricklin, Dan, "Thoughts on Peer-to-Peer," Dan Bricklin's Web Site, http://www.bricklin.com/p2p.htm (10 Aug 00).

"Commentary: Blow dealt to Net-based file sharing," Tech News - CNET.com, http://news.cnet.com/news/0-1005-202-4576879-0.html (28 Jan 00).

"Distributed Computing's Advantages," DC Central, http://library.thinkquest.org/C007645/english/0-advantages.htm (28 Feb 01).

"Distributed Computing's Disadvantages," DC Central, http://library.thinkquest.org/C007645/english/0-disadvantages.htm (28 Feb 01).

"The End is Near," Stopnapster.com, http://www.stopnapster.com/clothes.html (28 Jan 00).

McKeefry, Hailey Lynne, "P2P: Napster for your network," CNET, http://enterprise.cnet.com/enterprise/0-9563-7-4880992.html?tag=ntxt (26 Feb 01).

"Music Industry, Music Publishers Respond to Napster, Reaffirming District Court's Infringement Findings," RIAA/Press Releases, http://www.riaa.com/PR_Story.cfm?id=320 (28 Jan 00).

O'Reilly, Tim, "Remaking the Peer-to-Peer Meme," OpenP2P.com, http://www.openp2p.com/pub/a/p2p/2000/12/05/book_ch01_meme.html?page=1 (05 Dec 00).

"Peer-to-Peer File Sharing," Yahoo!, http://dir.yahoo.com/Computers_and_Internet/Internet/Peer_to_Peer_File_Sharing/ (28 Jan 00).

Waters, John K., "Component-Based Development," ADT, http://www.adtmag.com/Pub/article.asp?ArticleID=2217 (Jan 01).
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