Peer-to-Peer Computing and Content Control

By Arnold, Steve | Searcher, October 2001 | Go to article overview

Peer-to-Peer Computing and Content Control

Arnold, Steve, Searcher

In case you've forgotten already, Napster offered users a free, downloadable program that let people gather MP3 files from computers connected all over the World Wide Web. People would convert CD-Audio tracks to the more compact MP3 format and then post basic information on the file to Napster along with the location and speed of the computer connected to a network carrying the track. Napster users clicked in, found lists of computers carrying their favorite music, picked one, and started downloading. The process of converting a CD-Audio file to the MP3 format is called "ripping." (A moment of levity occurred at the Consumer Electronics show in late 2000 when the president of Intel was firmly corrected by a female engineer who said, "No, Mr. Barrett. It is called ripping a song.")

Well, the music industry and the judiciary combined to cure Napster of that little habit. But the idea of grassroots MP3-ripping and distributed indexing have traction.

Currently the post-Napster tool of choice is Aimster. The name Aimster was cobbled from America Online Instant Messenger and Napster. Developed by John Deep of Troy, New York, Aimster software allows AIM users to offer other AIM users a way to locate and copy files on one another's computers. Unlike Napster, AIM users are on one another's buddy lists. The index of files exists on each AIM user's personal computer. When one AIM user wants to copy a file from a "buddy's" computer, the transfer takes place between the two machines.

Aimster has a search function that prowls the directory of the buddies' computers. When it locates the desired file, the transfer takes place. The speed of the transfer depends on the bandwidth available to the machines. Otherwise, the request and transfer are almost instantaneous. Aimster uses ICQ, a popular messaging client, and AOL'S Instant Messenger to detect buddies. In order to prevent an Aimster-type of search-and-retrieve function from working, changes in the architecture of these programs would have to occur or Aimster users would have to be denied access to these popular services.

Aimster eliminates the centralized index model Napster used on its servers. The Aimster service is a true peer-to-peer technology. Napster, like Ray Ozzie's Groove, has a server coordinating certain functions among the peers.

The Threat

By the time you read this, Aimster may have been shut down, because peer-to-peer architectures pose three formidable challenges to users, copyright holders, and organizations.

First, P2P systems are often persistent. As a result, bandwidth and connectivity requirements differ from such common applications as checking e-mail or browsing a handful of Web sites. The data transfer associated with Napster, for example, eroded the performance of some university computing systems. Institutions such as Indiana University (Bloomington, Indiana) had to block university computing users from using Napster in order to restore system performance.

Second, security in P2P systems is a work in progress. Intel Corporation has developed and released to members of its developer community a P2P security toolkit. But the reality of P2P computing is that resources available to members of the community are subject to the security on each individual machine connected by the P2P system. As they say, a chain is no stronger than its weakest link.

Third, P2P systems are finding their way into the next-generation computing architectures from Microsoft Corporation and Sun Microsystems. Microsoft's Dot-Net initiative allows programmers access to a powerful suite of tools that supports the building of enterprise-class applications using C#, SOAP and XML. Similarly, Sun Microsystems's JXTA (Juxtaposition) supports building P2P applications using Java, technology from Infra-Search [], and Solaris's built-in functions. A good example of next-generation information management tools may be seen by visiting Mirror World, the recent innovation of David Gerlanter, at http: //www. …

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