A recent U.S. District Court ruling in favor of file-swapping services could accelerate an already growing wave of peer-to-peer traffic that threatens to bog down even broadband cable's wide pipes.
But the problem also is creating a ready market for a crop of service-control-systems outfits offering systems that can track peer-to-peer usage and offer tools to regulate how much bandwidth it can claim.
Last month, a U.S. district court judge gave Internet file-sharing services Grokster, Kazaa and Morpheus a legal shield, ruling that they could not control illegal file swaps between their users and therefore could not be held responsible and shut down.
Unlike peer-to-peer predecessor Napster – shut down in 2001 for copyright violations – the newer services don't manage a central index of shared files.
With that legal support, file sharing could see a boom among Internet users, and that could add a new set of broadband data headaches.
Even before the ruling, cable operators including Cox Communications Inc. were seeing a rise in the amount of peer-to-peer applications usage among its high-speed data customers.
"It's safe to say peer-to-peer traffic continues to increase," said Steve Gorman, executive director of Cox's high-speed Internet service. "I think the popularity of peer-to-peer applications is not going away. It's a very powerful medium which allows one-to-one users to communicate."
Powerful, but also problematic for providers. Because peer-to-peer traffic requires as much upstream as downstream bandwidth, and given a trend toward sharing heftier video files, it is soaking up bandwidth on provider networks.
In the Napster days, 1% of the users sopped up 40% of the bandwidth on provider networks. Now that metric has risen to 15% of the users that are consuming 70% of the bandwidth, according to Ron Sege, CEO of Ellacoya Networks, a provider of broadband-network service-control systems.
"From a cable-operator perspective, if anybody thought that peer-to-peer was an ephemeral problem that they didn't need to worry about, I think the court case proves that they do have to plan for it and think about it — not just in how they engineer their networks but in how they plan future marketing programs," Sege said.
Enter Ellacoya, which has come up with a hardware switch and software platform that focuses on the applications flowing across networks, including peer-to-peer traffic. While it doesn't examine the actual content, it does track the data based on the type of application, offering cablers controls on quality of service and delivery based on their own market strategies.
Harder to track
"We're talking to operators about moving to more of an application-oriented approach as opposed to a byte-cap approach," Sege said. "If you are a heavy user of peer-to-peer applications, you can buy a peer-to-peer optimized service that is more expensive. It's not byte-capped – it just allows you to use peer-to-peer. If you don't want to use peer-to-peer then you don't pay for it, but if you try to use it, you can't."
Tracking file-sharing technology also has become harder because a lot of the peer-to-peer protocols no longer use a well-defined port number in the data's packet header, instead jumping from port to port. So operators can't just look at the packet and know it is coming from a Kazaa or Grockster file server, according to Yuval Shahar, cofounder and CEO of P-Cube Inc.
P-Cube is also in the network monitoring-and-management hunt, offering tools that can gauge the peer-to-peer traffic and controls to regulate it.
P-Cube's hardware systems allow it to classify the IP traffic and reconstruct the session "so we can still tell what the session is," Shahar said.
"Suddenly for the MSOs, the standard ways of trying to deal with it with the routers they have don't work anymore and they are getting flooded — and it is getting worse," Shahar said. "So yes, we are seeing a lot of interest."
Ban won't work
Common peer-to-peer usage may provide some of the answers to easing the bandwidth burden. Unlike ordinary Web-browsing activity, peer-to-peer downloads are often set up to run in the background, and the user doesn't necessarily want to view it right away. Part of P-Cube's server technology can throttle down the peer-to-peer traffic during peak hours.
"What we are helping carriers do is shift some of this to off-peak hours, basically," Shahar said. "So they can shape the traffic so that a lot of those offline peer-to-peer exchanges which run in the background will not consume bandwidth when there is not enough bandwidth to go around."
But it would be a mistake to ban peer-to-peer applications on their networks, Shahar is quick to add.
"I don't think any carrier would want to block peer-to-peer altogether — that's not going to be very good for public affairs," he said.
In fact, the district-court agreement may do as much to ratify peer-to-peer file sharing as a legitimate Internet use as anything else, Sege added.
"The court case I viewed as inevitable, that basically says, 'Hey, you can't think about the peer-to-peer application technology in the same way that you think about what it is being used for,'" he said. "So I believe that's just going to stimulate more demand for the use of peer-to-peer as a transport of digital content because it is a very efficient way to move stuff around."