P2P: the Bandwidth Killer

PALO ALTO, CA—Peer-to-peer computing evangelists say we're in for an IT revolution as earthshaking as the advent of the Internet itself. And it's clear that P2P has earned Next-Big-Thing status, with a range of companies swarming into the market with new offerings. One can't help but wonder, what's the downside to a future in which clients at the edges of the Internet connect to each other directly?

Here's one: increased bandwidth consumption.

Users running P2P applications—whether they are file-sharing Napster-like apps, or MIPS-mining distributed computing programs a la SETI@home—could end up devouring great hunks of bandwidth, forcing Internet service providers (ISPs) to rethink their usage and pricing models.

ISPs are able to charge flat rates because most subscribers log onto the network to collect their e-mail and do a little Web surfing, and then they log off. P2P applications can turn these intermittent users into always-on bandwidth hogs. Furthermore, many ISPs "overbook" their networks by as much as 40 to 1; most simply don't have the capacity to cope with widespread P2P interactions.

How likely is this scenario? Remember back in 1999, when a number of universities banned Napster because users overwhelmed their campus networks? Plenty of corporations have banned Napster and Napster clones from the company net. Today, Napster boasts some 62 million users, and whatever the resolution of its current legal troubles, there are plenty of P2P enterprises surfacing with equal potential to jam an unprepared network.

IT managers should keep in mind that P2P apps have some serious network-clogging potential, and that they could carry additional expenses from service providers. Analysts at the Yankee Group expect ISPs to attempt to solve the problem first with new pricing schemes. According to Yankee analyst Bob Lancaster, rather than raising rates across the board, we're more likely to see top service providers offering an additional tier of service for high-bandwidth users.

David Kopans, chief financial officer at distributed computing company Applied MetaComputing, advises IT managers and software developers alike to roll with the P2P punches.

Dwight Davis, industry analyst for Boston-based Summit Strategies, offers an even more succinct admonition: "The genie is out of the bottle. IT may find that, in order to be a player, it has to buy into the P2P model. They might have to say, Okay, fine, you guys like this technology so much, we will support it, but we will support it by having our own subset of an accepted list of components that you can download and add to your computers. Can they enforce that? I don't know, but it seems more intelligent over time for the IT orgs to be players rather than holding their fingers in the dike while the water flows over them."

About the Author

John K. Waters is a freelance writer based in Silicon Valley. He can be reached at [email protected].