Book review: Peer-to-Peer: Harnessing the Power of Disruptive Technologies

Peer-to-peer. These words are unleashing in France a fight between the legislators and the developers. And this old – I say old because it was written in 2001, and 7 years is old for a book on this topic – book presented me the issues debated in journals, blogs, … in a new way.

Content and opinions

The book is split in three parts. The first defines peer-to-peer, the second presents the then-usual applications of peer-to-peer and the third exposes the different issues that looms large with this technology (well, it’s more a group of technologies).

So the first part is about what peer-to-peer really is. It is really interesting to follow the history of Internet and see that it is so closely related to peer-to-peer. Then, the reason of the emergence of these technologies is presented, though ICQ and Napster. Perhaps not the best peer-to-peer applications (in the technological sense), but they were one of the first, so… The authors do not underestimate the legal/economic war that was and is still waged, but they ask the real questions about this war. Then, Tim O’Reilly proposes a new taxonomy of peer-to-peer, how to make it popular technologies for everyone, (music/cinematographic) industries included. The fourth chapter was not that interesting (very short), but showed some additional reasons to the success of everything that is peer-to-peer.

The second part is about projects. The first is SETI@Home, a distributed computer. It shows how it started and became the project we know, with the different problems it had to tackle. Then the next application is Jabber, a conversation tool. Based on XML, it can talk to other clients (MSN, ICQ, …), but is not only geared to people conversations, but also application conversations, which is somewhat different. Mixmaster is next. I didn’t know that some people used remailers to ensure anonymity (mails are sent through several mail servers). Besides, it seems that only few remailers are left. Then Gnutella and Free net are presented. Those two applications are perhaps the most known ones, as their goal is file-sharing. The underlying technology and approaches are very different, and thus it is interesting to read those two chapters. Red Rover, Publius and Free Haven are dedicated to avoid the censorship of some files. This can be very interesting for people located in countries where Internet is censored. I have to say that those applications were the least interesting for me, but they may interest others.

The third part is dedicated to some theoretical thoughts. Or at least that was what the title said. The first chapter, Metadata, says that files should have metadata. Yes. That is kind of logic. Then, there are some interesting thoughts about applications performance. The four next chapters are geared toward trust, anonymity, reputation or accounatbility. All in all, they talk about the same topics, and it gets boring in the end. Finally, the last chapter presents how all those applications may talk together.

Conclusion

I thought that the book would teach me a lot about peer-to-peer technology. In fact, I learned about the history of the Internet, some issues about performance, but a lot on file sharing. If the editor wanted to show that we can do much more than file-sharing with peer-to-peer, it didn’t show up in the actual book. Yes, accountability is important, as security, but speaking about how to remain anonymous when there is a illegal-peer-to-peer witch hunt (and it was already the case when the book was written) is not going to help the reputation of the technologies.

I would like to have an updated version of the book speaking about the current peer-to-peer applications : Napster is dead, Gnutella is not widely used, … Finally, I would have liked to have more applications of the peer-to-peer technologies for the industry (distributed computing, web services, …). Seti@Home is a start, but only a start, it cannot be used by firms for their own computations.

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