5 Things to Know about Peer-to-Peer Networking
P2P is shedding its bad reputation, and soon it could bring fast and cost-efficient downloads to consumers.
P2P Networking
Peer-to-peer networking turns each computer on a network into both a client and a server. (Illustration)
June 11, 2007 by Ron Miller

Peer-to-Peer (P2P) networking has received a bad rap, mostly due to its reputation as a means for distributing content illegally. But P2P networking is also an efficient delivery mechanism that could lead to higher-quality content at a lower cost. ElectronicHouse.com spoke to James McQuivey, an analyst at Forrester Research who covers television and media technology, to learn more about P2P.

What is P2P Networking?
McQuivey says there are two ways to distribute files. In the traditional client-server model, a server (or multiple servers) sits in the middle and serves content whenever a client requests it. This works fine, McQuivey says, so long as the files aren’t too big—like a video file, for example. “As soon as you start requesting big files from a lot of different clients at the same time, the server can’t handle it,” he says.

The P2P approach, says McQuivey, uses network resources more efficiently. “Everything on the network is a peer of everything else, so everything on the network can be both client and server. Instead of having a big old data repository and trying to connect to that sever, each computer on the network has the authority to request information from any other computer on the system, using spare processing power or bandwidth as needed to respond to the request,” McQuivey says.

McQuivey also points out that when you request a file on a P2P network, pieces of that file could be all over the network and in fact might be duplicated across multiple computers. The goal of your computer is to find the easiest way to get all of the pieces in order to download the file in the most efficient manner.

What is the Benefit to Consumers?
P2P offers consumers the potential for instant access to high-quality downloads.

“From a consumer standpoint, the benefit of the technology is that the day will come when you can go to your television and instead of having a hard-to-navigate menu of 500 Video-on-Demand titles provided by your cable system, you will have an Internet-enabled set-top box and you will have access to very high-quality [likely high definition] content that goes right to your television and starts immediately,” McQuivey says.

McQuivey contrasts this with the Xbox 360, which enables you to download and rent high-definition movies today, but on a good day, he says, it takes more than an hour to download, and on a bad day much longer. P2P delivery offers the promise of much faster content delivery than we have today.

How Does P2P Benefit Content Owners?
“P2P enables content owners to deliver higher quality content for a lower price,” McQuivey says. Today, he explains, it costs as much to stream high-definition video as it does to produce a DVD and ship it to a store.

According to McQuivey, BitTorrent is an example of a P2P network positioning itself as a cost-effective delivery mechanism. “The only other way for client-server to deliver large files is to put out tons of servers to essentially deliver on request.” But he says, it’s too cost-prohibitive to deliver in this fashion, especially since consumers don’t want to pay a lot for digital assets. P2P will reduce this cost because it won’t require the large overhead cost of supporting a network to deliver the files.

Why Does P2P Scare Content Owners?
Until recently, McQuivey explains, content owners have seen P2P strictly as a security nightmare. People have used services like Napster and Gnutella, he says, to distribute copyrighted content illegally.

“Media companies hate that philosophy, so they concluded that P2P must be bad,” McQuivey says. “P2P is not bad; it’s the way it’s used. The technology is good.” He adds that engineers and others have convinced media owners that P2P is an efficient and cost-effective way to deliver content. As media owners separate the risks and benefits of P2P, they are coming around to the idea of delivering content in this fashion. “It’s just a question of whose [P2P] implementation will get you there faster without exposing any more security risks,” he says.

Will ISPs Eventually get Upset by P2P Networks Using Their Bandwidth for Free?
McQuivey wonders at what point the Internet service providers (ISPs) will begin complaining about the bandwidth usage by P2P vendors such as Joost. In his view, the ISPs will eventually try to strike a revenue deal with more successful P2P vendors.

“You have all these P2P-like applications asking you to provide access to your bandwidth and storage capacity on your computer, and if you don’t disable it after you install it, even if you don’t use it again, you’re essentially helping their business, and your ISP is basically subsidizing the P2P vendor because your ISP is giving you a broadband connection,” McQuivey says.

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