Two weeks ago, when fellow ZDNet blogger George Ou and I started having our lively debate about net neutrality legislation, George pointed out that because Bit Torrents and allied technology (a.k.a. "The Torrents") are such a giant bandwidth-suck on the Internet, that the huge amount of bandwidth they consume slows other packets down especially if "Net Neutrality-extremism" became strict legal canon.
George has a point. To me, though, the specter of The Torrents used for illegal, or illegal purposes doesn't mean that we have to allow a bunch of file-swappers to gum our Internet up for the rest of us.
First, the basics of how Torrents work. Here's a handy thus-far-unchallenged summation from Wikipedia, a summation that accompanies the graphic I have placed at the top of this post:
BitTorrent greatly reduces network load because it encourages peers, or client computers, to download fragments of files from each other, instead of from a central repository. In this animation, the colored bars beneath each peer represent file fragments. File fragments are initially requested from the original publisher of the file, or the seeder. As peers receive fragments from the seeder, they begin to share them with each other over the peer-network, until every peer has a complete copy of the file.
It seems to me that until networks are further built out, and we get way better at compression, that today's Internet- even tomorow's Internet- is not yet ready for The Torrents as just described.
Following that reasoning, maybe we should look at The Torrents as a threat that jeoparidzes the common good. Maybe even a cancer on the body of the Internet. Or if you prefer, a choke-hold or a blockage. So maybe what needs to be done rather than letting The Torrents traffic ruin the Internet, is to have the Internet spawn antibodies that can strike back and ruin The Torrents. Until we can find The Torrents their own pathway.
But not let us get ahead of ourselves.
Thwarting The Torrents for now won't be easy. But I believe this is something that must be attempted.
While Robert X. Cringely of PBS doesn't favor this approach, but via an engineer friend of his, he explains the stakes.
"If you look at the amount of overhead TCP needs it's exponential to how slow each connection is; the slower (the connection) the more overhead because the window sizes are smaller and more control packets are being used for verification. And you know what? BitTorrent is FAR WORSE. Remember that for each file you download on BitTorrent you connect to dozens, possibly even hundreds of people, and the slower each of those connections is the more the overhead increases.
"About a month ago the amount of torrents I may (have been) automatically downloading at any given time was between 10 and 30. This means that I was getting no more than 1Kbps from every peer, which meant about half of my bandwidth usage was in BitTorrent protocol overhead and not in downloading file data. I brought this (overhead) down (by 40 percent) by just having five torrent downloads at a time and queuing the rest, and I even got the files faster. I then did some more scheduling and what not to get (my bandwidth use down by a total of 70 percent) and I still downloaded about the same amount of real file data.
"So what happens when everyone's VoIP or other preferred packets get preference over my torrent packets? Since I have no knowledge of the other people's usage in my aggregate network I can't adjust well for changes in the network. The BitTorrent traffic that is going will have exponentially increased overhead due to the slow downs, increasing overall Internet packet overhead (with BitTorrent already 30+ percent of all Internet traffic).
Me here again. 30 percent, 40 percent, 50 percent- that's too damn much. Something drastic needs to be done.
Cringely suggests that under the yoke of strict Net Neutrality, the ISPs might try blocking The Torrents. He believes that because Torrent traffic can be encrypted, a ban would be ineffectual and such a strategy is doomed to failure.
He then suggests that a law might be passed banning Torrents. But at least to me, that would drive more and more Torrent users underground. Plus, Torrent technology has some legitmate uses. Would banning Torrent use altogether be a textbook throw-the-baby-out0with-the- bathwater scenario?
Maybe the long-term solution is some sort of Abilene Network, apart from the public Internet backbone and infrastructure. What's the Abilene Network? Well, it looks like this:
Here's how the Abilene Network describes itself:
The Abilene Network is an Internet2 high-performance backbone network that enables the development of advanced Internet applications and the deployment of leading-edge network services to Internet2 universities and research labs across the country. The network has become the most advanced native IP backbone network available to universities participating in Internet2.
The Abilene Network supports the development of applications such as virtual laboratories, digital libraries, distance education and tele-immersion, as well as the advanced networking capabilities that are the focus of Internet2. Abilene complements and peers with other high-performance research networks in the U.S. and internationally.
Created by the Internet2 community, Abilene connects regional network aggregation points—called gigaPoPs—to provide advanced network services to over 220 Internet2 university, corporate, and affiliate member institutions in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico. The current network is a primarily OC-192c (10 Gbps) backbone employing optical transport technology and advanced, high-performance routers.
Notice the trigger-phrases: "digital laboratories," "tele-immersion," "advanced network capabilities," etc. Sounds pretty good to me.
This makes me think that the next thing to do would be for a way to be found to shunt The Torrents on to an Abilene-like network infrastructure. Either the existing infrastructure, or to a new Abilene that would be funded and built by leading digital content providers whose content so much Torrent traffic is carrying. Legal, or illegal.
If a new Abilene was decided as the solution for Torrent digital distribution, it would be in the best interest of digital content producers to subsidize its construction. Maybe there could be a fee added to DVDs. would it be possible to find - as with the Abilene now becoming reality- 220 or more local distribution points throughout the U.S. where Torrent traffic could be conducted? Maybe,say, Blockbuster stores or large cineplexes where that could act as network points, and be either expanded to be Torrent stations where the public could go in and take advantage of Torrent technology legally.
Such a system would take years to build, of course. In the interim, we'd have more and more of The Torrents, and a slower Internet for the rest of us. I understand that encrypted torrents could defeat outright ISP block schemes. But if it has to be an arms race between Torrent users and Internet engineers to thwart Torrent traffic until Torrent's own Abilene can be built, then I say let us put a bunch of code jocks on the problem and devise protections that can be introduced into the Internet we have today and ward off the Torrents until the day comes where they have their own network.
The stakes are high. An Abilene for The Torrents could, if built properly, enforce copyright for those creators whose works are now being infringed on at a race and pace that is likely to be far greater than is now being acknowledged publicly. Of even wider import, putting Torrent traffic in its own lane would be a big step toward preserving the broader, greater Internet as we know it today.
And will know it in the future.