The year-old Gnutella network connects personal computers on the Internet directly to each other; users can then search for files on other machines. Unlike the Napster music-downloading service, Gnutella is a peer to peer network with no central computer or company coordinating activities.
That lack of central coordination had been viewed as posing a limit on the Gnutella network's growth. But due to the work of a loosely affiliated group of software developers, the network's technical limitations slowly are being overcome. Today, Gnutella is able to reach tens of thousands of users at once, 20 times more than a few months ago.
While that is far fewer than the millions of daily users Napster had at its peak, more growth is predicted for Gnutella. That growth may happen, though, only after programmers modify one of the core technical and philosophical ideas of the peer-to-peer computing movement that Gnutella helped spark: Every computer on the network should be equal.
Gnutella was developed early during 2000 by Justin Frankel, an America Online Inc. employee, who was forbidden from continuing his work by AOL, since the online service was embarrassed by Gnutella's potential use in sharing unauthorized music files. Because the software was available free for anyone to copy, other developers were able to create Gnutella-compatible programs, and many of these second-generation programs have solved problems with Frankel's early, incomplete version.
Late last year, the Gnutella network was stuck at a few thousand users. Kelly Truelove, president of Clip2.com Inc., a Palo Alto, Calif., company that monitors the network, says more than 40,000 computers are connected through Gnutella at any one time. On any given day, users are offering more than two million files of music, movies and other material.
Much of the recent work to improve Gnutella was done by Vincent Falco, a 28-year-old computer programmer from West Palm Beach, Fla., who created a Gnutella-compatible program called BearShare, and who is widely admired in the Gnutella world as a prodigiously efficient one-man software operation.
The first version of Gnutella created bottlenecks by treating all users equally, even those with slow-speed connections. Falco's version of Gnutella grouped users by connection speeds, preventing lower-speed users from slowing down the system. He made many other changes.
Newer Gnutella programs are edging out older ones, and creating a large and increasingly vigorous network. Download.com, an Internet site, reports that nearly a million people a week are downloading BearShare and LimeWire, another of the new breed of Gnutella programs.
P2P means more than music
Some people believe peer-to-peer systems like Gnutella have other uses besides trading music files, such as searching for the sorts of information found on Web sites like Yahoo.com. With work on Gnutella continuing--the company behind LimeWire is offering cash prizes for the best research papers on Gnutella -- the network appears to be on its way to becoming a permanent, standardized software system like others on the Internet.
Mark Gorton, chairman of LimeWire publisher Lime Group LLC in New York, who also runs a hedge fund, said other Internet standards, like communications protocols, had similar grass-roots origins. "A lot of them weren't designed top-down as some elegant thing," he said. "Instead, people found something already out there, then started fixing problems with it and got it working."
Gnutella programmers talk of the system one day being able to accommodate hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of simultaneous users. But such numbers may be possible only if some computers on the Gnutella network become "servers" that keep track of what others users are offering. These wouldn't be permanent servers, but would appear on the network only when the owners of the machines were logged on.
Some peer-to-peer purists say such servers aren't in keeping with the egalitarian spirit of the software. Nonetheless, Truelove has been talking up this "client server" concept during recent months, and the idea is being incorporated in a new version of BearShare. Falco said he was including it "because of the simple fact that if you are concerned with efficiency and performance, then client server will beat peer to peer hands down."
A hybrid, private network like that being advocated by Messrs. Falco and Truelove is in place in an increasingly popular file-sharing system called Morpheus, which is offered by MusicCity Networks Inc., of Franklin, Tenn.
A thriving Gnutella network is bad news for the entertainment industry, which assumed it had little to fear from Gnutella because technical problems would keep the network from growing too large. During recent weeks, legal action has been taken against individual Gnutella users for copyright infringement. But Gnutella software developers aren't believed to be at legal risk, because their programs can be used for many things, and because, unlike Napster, they don't maintain any sort of database of copyrighted material.