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P2P: Then, Now and the Future
February 23, 2004
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P2P technology has come a long way since a college dropout named Shawn Fanning created the first server based P2P program, dubbed Napster. After the inception of Napster, the internet underwent nothing short of a revolution. Following the revolution, came a flurry of lawsuits and technological advances. A pseudo guerilla war between Recording Industries such as the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) versus the authors of P2P programs has erupted, and there is no clear end in sight. We shall now take a look at the start of this war, the battles that have been fought and the future of P2P.

The first mainstream P2P Program was Napster. It was created in 1999 by a college dropout named Shawn Fanning, who was looking for a better way to trade music files. What he came up with started the wave of popular technology that we now commonly call P2P. What Fanning did was he combined a file search engine with a centralized server to route the searches, and allowed peers to download through his server.

This was a revolutionary idea in that instead of the more time-honored methods of file transfer, between a user and a server such as website or FTP; Napster allowed users to be routed through a server, making it much easier to find files. This simple system turned out to be its Achilles Heel in the end, as Judge Madelyn Patel ruled that Napster was providing an illegal service by providing servers which were routing copyright-infringing transfers. This ruling was in response to a lawsuit filed against Napster by various recording industries, attempting to curb the rampant downloading of their intellectual property.

Following First Generation P2Ps such as Napster are the Second Generation P2P networks. This generation is the file sharing community's response to Napster's Achilles Heel- a centralized server. Thus, the major 2nd Generation P2P network was born: Gnutella. Gnutella was unique in that it had no centralized server, and could therefore not be turned off by killing server; and it directly connected users together. This was beneficial because it was not possible to "kill" the Gnutella network in the same way that you could kill Napster. The flaw was that users were now being directly connected. Although this can be beneficial, it allows malicious users such as the RIAA and MPAA to connect to the network and log your IP Address, or worse, download copyrighted files from you as proof of infringement. This is a problem that is still plaguing P2P users to this day. The design of the Gnutella network had some inherent flaws besides security ones. The system of TTL (Time To Live) searches, dead nodes and an ocean of sub-networks all lead to slow searching and a somewhat laggy network.

The Third Generation of P2P technology was created to alleviate some of the problems with the Gnutella network. These Third Generation clients are known best as Kazaa, Kazaa Lite (K++), and Morpheus. All these clients are (were) essentially clients of the FastTrack network, which is owned my Sharman Networks. FastTrack solved a lot of problems that were inherent in the design of Gnutella. To avoid subnetting, FastTrack implemented "supernodes," which are clients with more bandwidth and CPU available than others that store file caches and connect users. Supernodes also solve the problems with slow searching that Gnutella had. When a new client connects to the network, the supernode receives a small file containing the list of the files that user sharing. This, searches are routed through supernodes, creating a much, much smaller search pool. Like Gnutella, users connect directly to each other to download a file. This potential security flaw has seen extreme consequences with well over 500 users being sued for piracy via IP logging. The fear and paranoia introduced by these lawsuits , and the innate desire for privacy have spawned our next list of clients, which I am calling Fourth Generation.

Within the last year, P2P technology has seen an explosion of clients, each with unique features. It is impossible to classify these clients generally as they are very different. Instead, we will examine each client briefly, and discuss how that client will contribute to the future of P2P. The "Rookie of the Year" should be obvious most: BitTorrent.

BitTorrent, created by Bram Cohen, has swept the Internet over the past months and is now one of the biggest P2P Data movers on the internet. BitTorrent's strength is in its system of "Swarming", where each user receives a piece of the file and shares it with others. The peers are tracked and connected via a Tracker Server, which is also an Achilles Heel. BitTorrent has almost no privacy protection, and lists containing the IP Addresses of all users and the file chunks they posses are readily available from the tracker or modified clients.

One of the most popular and probably the most enticing features appearing in the P2P world today is encryption. Be it RSA, Blowfish or Twofish, encryption is becoming more and more common. Clients such as Filetopia and MUTE feature strong encryption to make it impossible for 3rd parties to view what file is being transferred. One important thing that most encryption only clients miss is that they leave the IP Address vulnerable, which allows the user to be tracked. Several clients have emerged that are attempting to remedy this problem, most notably MUTE. Instead of IP addresses, MUTE generates a random routing ID for each user, and then routes traffic through many nodes to reach the target node. To minimize latency, MUTE uses probability routing to determine the fastest route between two nodes. MUTE is one of the better representations of the new breed of P2P technology as it implements both file encryption and IP protection.

What does the future hold for P2P? It's hard to say as there are so many different protocols and ideas emerging. Programs like MUTE that mask the origin of traffic in addition to encrypting traffic seem the likely future. A secure and anonymous version of BitTorrent would be ideal as well, although the implementation of that is antithetical to its very structure. Clients such as WASTE and LAN2P are evolving to share files over a small, trusted network, while there are other existing networks converting to anonymous routing and encryption, such as MP2P. Protocols, whether new or old, are taking up arms to protect the privacy and integrity of P2P networks. No matter what P2P innovations are in store, one thing is for sure: security and privacy are the keynote issues here, and it appears that modern P2Ps are addressing this with much greater concern.

This story is filed in these Slyck News categories
File-Sharing/P2P Related :: Statistics/Analysis

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