The Rise of Peer-to-peer Networks
We intuitively perceive the internet as a network of computers, but it is only partially true. The reality is that computers send and receive the data via servers that belong to different private companies and governments, which makes the internet more of a centralized network rather than just a connection of personal computers. Server in plain words is a computing device that can be used for various purposes, including data storage, data sharing, software services and so forth. It is significantly powerful compared to a personal computer. The modern internet is a product of client-server communication that works according to special protocols (e.g. Transmission Control Protocol and Internet Protocol). Protocols are like step-by-step guides, that regulate web communication between computers and servers. As each computer and server receives and transmits the data, we need to determine how this system shall function and in what circumstances. The protocols, as a rule, regulate the quantity and quality of the transmitted data as well as the security level for the data exchange. Internet protocols may provide various security levels to protect the data from unauthorized third parties with encryption or other security mechanisms. In sum, the protocols simply create the framework for the data transmission.
In such a centralized system, personal computers have a minor role and are not the major players. They mostly send requests and receive the data. The described server-client model allows the users to access the web resources, but the model is inconvenient when the ordinary user wants to share the resources with severs or other users. Ordinary users can’t operate servers, because they cost a lot, require maintenance and operational expenses, as well as the significant physical space. Servers are vulnerable to hacking and the massive server shutdown may paralyze not only the particular computer network but also the significant part of the web itself. So, the modern internet is a product of client-server networking and embodies the features of an inflexible, centralized network.
Opposed to the client-server model, peer-to-peer networks rely on separate devices, mostly computers and smartphones, which we may call the nodes. Nodes create peer-to-peer networks where each node becomes a peer and acts as a server and a client at the same time. In these distributed networks, the network participants share their own resources, including processing power, storage capacity and so forth. This model enables the peers to connect without an intermediary and become consumers as well as providers. It is also possible to make peer-to-peer networks somewhat centralized, introduce central entities and qualify as a hybrid system. The peer-to-peer network is a communication model that provides the same capabilities to each participant. It allows massive parallel computing and information exchange. Peers do not know each other but trust the network. Despite the same network opportunities, the peers may operate with different operational capacities, software and internet speed. They can join and leave the network when they desire. All shared resources, such as files, storage, software and peers themselves may change the location. Peers always remain autonomous and in control of their programs and devices, and as usual cooperate by using the same application software. Security is essential for establishing trust between the parties and they may adopt various security measures.
Peer-to-Peer networks can accomplish numerous tasks. Distributed computing, content sharing and collaboration are the major domains for peer-to-peer networks. Peers engage in distributed computing when solving computational issues. They may need to provide the operational power as well as other resources to ensure the proper functioning of the peer-to-peer network as well as its development. They may also provide their resources for ensuring data distribution and accuracy or facilitate the computation that collects statistics, manages the infrastructure, or serves to the database creation that is not a part of the peer-to-peer network. As for, content sharing, peers may exchange any type of files including music, video, software, or documents. But that does not end here. The peer-to-peer networks need to make shared files searchable and accessible, so the peers shall be able to search, locate and manage shared files easily. Peer-to-peer networks also create platforms for collaboration. Peers may collaborate online and work on a particular document, software, and other product or simply exchange information.
Peer-to-peer networks gained massive popularity at the end of the 20th century. Interestingly, the popularity did not come due to the building of the new network architecture or collaborative efforts directed toward the exchange of ideas. Peer-to-peer networks attracted the attention of the entertainment industry and the first popular peer-to-peer network was Napster the music sharing network. Napster was founded in 1999 and allowed users to exchange music files by becoming a client, as well as a server.
We may call Napster the hybrid Peer-to-peer network because Napster’s software connected the users to Napster’s central servers. The users of course did not upload their files on Napster’s servers. Napster just identified those music files, listed and added them to the centralized directory of the music files that it already had produced. In that way, Napster managed to catalog the music files of all users and create a formidable music library. The users then could use Napster’s software to search for the specific song or artist, view the available files to download, connect to the device that included those files, and get them. Unfortunately, Napster’s innovation was short-lived. The US courts found it liable for copyright infringement because of storing the catalog of files on its servers. As Napster was no longer able to use the file list and offer the users the convenient searching mechanism, it quickly lost mainstream popularity and was shut down in 2001.
Another peer-to-peer network Gnutella did not follow Napster’s pass and founded a completely decentralized network. It created a web of users that were directly connected and could share all types of files including music, movies, documents and software. The file search was done through users in a decentralized manner. The file-sharing achieved its prime with torrenting. BitTorrent became the peer-to-peer system that provided quick and reliable file sharing. It allowed the file fragmentation so that users could download different file fragments from different users and quickly assemble the completed file. But it did not end there, the file fragmentation and sharing also occurred among the downloaders of the same file, if downloading was simultaneous. The advent of peer-to networking pushed new inventions and paved the way for groundbreaking innovations, such as blockchain.
Find my YouTube lecture on the same topic: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jgiDhr8Vgpo
Originally published at https://www.linkedin.com.