Something good may still come out of the chaos created when
file-sharing service Napster was unleashed on the Internet world

Something good may still come out of the chaos created when file-sharing service Napster was unleashed on the Internet world.

No, not free music for everybody. More like a productive application of the innovative peer-to-peer architecture in the growing market for streaming media and the advanced delivery of rich media content.

The brilliance of the Napster model was its distributed nature–making each user's PC a "node" on a distribution network by tapping into users' idle bandwidth to deliver a media file from a location as close to the request as possible. That's the essence and advantage of peer-to-peer–distributed delivery, shared unused bandwidth, and zero centralization and transport costs.

So far, rich media (like full-motion video) hasn't found a comfortable place on the 'Net. Webcasts, like the Victoria's Secret fashion show debacle of last year, revealed exactly why traditional client-server architectures don't work in a broadcast environment under certain circumstances. Crushes of user requests can cripple a Webcast in an instant, which happened as users bombarded centralized broadcast servers in an effort to gawk at Heidi Klum's assets. I know, you didn't put in a user request to connect to the gawkfest, but apparently, most of your neighbors did.

Content delivery networks–from relatively successful companies like Akamai, Digital Island and Speedera–have emerged as alternative delivery methods that cache content in servers close to the customer. But because these are privately-owned networks of caching servers, content providers and enterprise clients can pay through the nose to employ their CDN (content delivery network) services.

As a potentially low-cost alternative to the Akamais of the world, a slew of start-ups are building businesses around peer-to-peer technology as a delivery method for rich content such as streaming media. The past year has seen the arrival (and even failure) of a host of content delivery companies employing peer-to-peer architectures in their software models–companies with names like Kontiki, AllCast, Blue Falcon, Red Swoosh, ChainCast, CenterSpan and EverNet. And although their names at this point are relatively unfamiliar compared to Napster, the ones that successfully adapt peer-to-peer technologies to deliver content at much lower cost and bandwidth usage will have a secure place in the future of rich media content delivery.

"The 'Net was originally very much peer-to-peer. The pendulum swung to the centralization side, but now the pendulum seems to be swinging back," explains Robert Batchelder, an Internet infrastructure analyst with research firm Gartner. "CDNs (like Akamai) are trying to work around the centralization phenomenon. The other end of the spectrum is peer-to-peer."

Music file swappers–the genesis of all this peer-to-peer hubbub–are reflecting this decentralization trend as well. Though the primordial Napster is now just a shell of its former self, other file-sharing facilitators like KaZaA, Aimster (now Madster), Morpheus/MusicCity, and the Gnutella-based services like BearShare and Limewire have emerged to fill the vacuum left by Napster, and are avoiding Napster's legal pitfalls through decentralization.

These next-generation apps are more sophisticated; they don't run the directory servers that users access when looking for files to share. These nose-thumbers recruit users to sign up to be "supernodes," which effectively act as directory servers to which users connect. This is how they (potentially) shield themselves from copyright laws, too. At least, that's what famed lawyer David Boies will be arguing on behalf of the Aimster (Madster) service in federal court later this year.

As for content delivery, its future seems secure. The concept of distributed edge delivery appears to be here to stay. Market researcher HTRC Group estimates worldwide revenue from content delivery services will grow from its current $813 million to $2.5 billion by 2003.

This estimate is likely weighted toward traditional CDN networks like Akamai and Digital Island, but the peer-to-peer players are in the midst of developing an alternative to the method of edge caching via private servers. Essentially, the new boys on the block want to make a server or node out of every PC logged on to their proprietary systems.

Peer-to-peer delivery networks establish a virtual chain between users who have requested and downloaded certain content. When another user requests that same content, the system seeks out another user–or peer–who can deliver that content by utilizing unused bandwidth or storage on that user's hard drive.

This is where the potential advantages of a peer-to-peer delivery system come to the fore. The biggest reason more businesses and content providers aren't delivering rich media over Akamai networks is because it is so cost-prohibitive to do so. P2P companies today are promising cost savings at a time when Web site managers are being hamstrung by the premium prices being charged for content delivery services. Peering technology distributes bandwidth usage by breaking rich content into little parts, and then seeking out unused bandwidth among users on the system. Upstart companies like peer-to-peer streamer AllCast claim streaming savings of up to 90 percent.

AllCast has eyes for peer-to-peer streaming, especially for applications tailored to Webcasting. The company offers a software platform similar to the other P2P players, where users who want to participate download a proprietary plug-in player. That user plug-in communicates with a centralized media manager, likely residing near a content owner's encoder.

During a live broadcast, the stream needs to originate from one central site. During a peer-to-peer Webcast, the first few users to connect get the stream from the originating site. Then, they send the stream to the next set requesting it, and so on and so forth in "cascade" form. The sending and receiving is transparent to the user, utilizing unused bandwidth that the centralized media manager (or "traffic cop" as AllCast calls it) recognizes as available on the network.

According to Mark Steatham, product development chief at AllCast, there potentially is no limit to the number of people who can be added to a "pyramid," though the pyramid operators will need to prove that with some real-world applications in the next year. AllCast will be launching its first commercial product "literally in days," Steatham says.

Blue Falcon is a company with technology already being used in the real world, so to speak. It offers software products for both streaming and digital download applications, but the company has cut its teeth in streaming so far.

"We're transporting the bits more efficiently for the content provider. In the client-server world, everybody that comes to listen or watch a stream, or wants to download a file, has to be connected to that origin server in order to get it," says Blue Falcon CEO Jay Haynes. "And that's the problem . . . for the content provider, that's very expensive to do. From an architectural standpoint, the more clients or end users you have out there, the more server capacity and bandwidth [you'll] need on the back end.

"With (Blue Falcon's) distributed networking, we're trying to change that, so each PC that comes on and wants to access that content can now contribute resources to delivery," he adds.

Blue Falcon's technology employs a similar framework to AllCast's and others; namely, a centralized media manager plus client side plug-in, but it is currently hard at work in the real world. Internet radio service Radio Free Virgin uses Blue Falcon to deliver 44 channels and more than 50 terabytes of content every month, and users have downloaded more than 3 million versions of its player, Haynes says.

With client resources being centrally measured, marked and manipulated, security and encryption are being scrutinized in many of these P2P applications; most of the players tout interoperability with major DRM (digital rights management) solutions from Microsoft and others.

Some peer-to-peer software solutions go a step further, like the C-Star Content Delivery Network from early leader CenterSpan Communications. It adds a level of digital watermarking, whereby all files distributed on the network are locked with a digital signature and broken into unrecognizable file segments. Only when the central manager reassembles and authenticates the file can it be listened to or watched by the user.

Another potential force in this burgeoning niche industry is Kontiki, a start-up created by former Netscape visionaries Mike Homer, Wade Hennessey and Marc Andreessen. Their beta testers launched discreetly last year to employ a time-shifting element in their digital download technology to deliver large consumer entertainment files like videos and video games. They also have a product targeted at enterprise customers with a need to distribute large video files to employees across their companies. Through what Kontiki calls Adaptive Rate Multiserving, the software pings multiple severs simultaneously, constantly monitors response time and available bandwidth of users on the network, and securely authenticates each file or command exchanged between user and manager.

A host of related companies are looking for a piece of the peer-to-peer delivery pie as well. Start-up EverNet has been helping movie distributor Filmspeed save delivery costs in shipping rich movie files through intelligent mapping technology, and a three component system of intelligent clients, directory servers and master servers. Competitor ChainCast Networks employs intelligent network topology engines to create a "self-adapting network," and makes "splitters" out of users with enough available bandwidth to deliver streams to peers on the network. Other competitors like OpenCola, eMikolo, PeerGenius and vTrails also claim proprietary file distribution solutions based on peer-to-peer technology.

The coming year will likely prove crucial in filtering which of these innovative approaches prove sticky in the evolving content delivery market. In the cash-constricted world of today's start-up, getting real-world customers showing real-world cost savings is vital to their immediate survival, according to Michael Hoch, a senior Internet infrastructure analyst with researcher Aberdeen Group.

"I think (peer-to-peer content delivery companies) are in the proof-of-concept stage right now. The technology is mature enough that it can be deployed, but they need to prove the business value," Hoch says. "They need to prove that the potential returns can be actual returns. We need actual referencable customers using this stuff in order to show that it's practical."


Would a Symmetrical Connection Help?

Peer-to-peer technologies leverage connections with unused bandwidth and hard drives with available unused storage to get content delivered. Today's cable modems, for example, are primarily asymmetrical, leaving just a trickle of bandwidth for flow in the upstream direction. Would a higher rate in the upstream be beneficial for peer-to-peer delivery?

The answer, at this point, is probably no.

According to P2P'er ChainCast Networks, its system uses just two percent of a network's resources to stream content and just 20 kilobits per second of a user's upstream bandwidth. Also, with most new peer-to-peer content delivery software strategies, large files are broken up into small fragments before peer transport even begins. And further, as in the case with the software from Blue Falcon, systems can aggregate multiple small upstream channels from multiple users to deliver one file to one user. That means fewer requirements on the upstream side for a single connection.

Cable modems are on their way to becoming more symmetrical in their upstream and downstream connections; the DOCSIS 2.0 specification, for example, aims to widen cable's return path to 30 Mbps.

Peter Percosan, director of broadband strategies with Texas Instruments, is intimately involved with the move to DOCSIS 2.0. He sees the move to more symmetrical cable connections as being tied to advanced services like VoIP, video conferencing or telephony, as opposed to new peer-to-peer technologies.