BitTorrent vs. Usenet (Slyck)

Slyck has a great discussion of where filesharing may be going. — iain — full post follows.

BitTorrent vs. Usenet: “It’s the ultimate showdown between the relic and innovative, and newer doesn’t necessarily mean better.”

(Via File-Sharing News And Information.)

January 9, 2007
Thomas Mennecke

Since the inception of BitTorrent, file-sharing took on an element never seen before in the annals of Internet history. Millions of individuals flocked to their closest BitTorrent client and tracker, finally handing P2P technology a decisive victory in the online copyright wars. But that victory was just one battle in a much larger conflict; and one that still is raging to this day.

Today, a core of online file-sharers is beginning to question their loyalty to BitTorrent as the entity that is currently king of the P2P world slowly transforms into an authorized distribution medium. Increasingly, an old relic of the Internet has been rapidly developing into a mainstream and streamlined solution for the needs of millions online file-sharers. This medium is known as Usenet, or the Newsgroups, and holds the potential to derail the status quo of the file-sharing community.

Download Speed – Decisive Usenet Advantage

Those who’ve been part of the P2P community since the beginning will agree that just about anything is faster than the networks of old. If the end user was lucky, a 56K modem would top out at almost 6 KB/sec – and that was blazingly fast. A favorable moment on Napster would yield a 5 megabyte song in perhaps as many minutes – and life was good.

Then the broadband revolution kicked into high gear – fueled largely by a combination of falling prices and an insatiable demand for online entertainment. Suddenly everyone was downloading at speeds of at least 80 KB/sec, while higher end Cable users were blazing at over 1 MB/sec. Suddenly, entire compilations were downloaded in a matter of minutes and movies were now a realistic possibility.

To compensate for the movie demand, P2P networks began to rapidly evolve. This demand helped fuel the creation of eDonkey2000, Overnet, Kad, and of course BitTorrent. Within a short period of time, P2P networks had successfully adapted to the ever-growing demand for bandwidth.

A relatively minor player at the time, Usenet (or the Newsgroups) was still used by a good portion of the Internet community. The reason for its usage was the advantage of unmitigated speed. While P2P networks were adapting to the surge in demand for large files, Usenet already had the capability to accommodate this need. Unlike P2P technology which depends on peers for download reliability, Usenet only relies on the speed of the news server and the end user’s bandwidth.

As bandwidth price has decreased and capacity increases, many are finding the old qualities of Usenet are more relevant today than ever before. When online movies first started appearing, they were typically the size of a CD – between 600 and 750 megabytes. Although advances in compression technology have yielded fantastic quality for such small files, the demand for considerably larger DVD sized files (anywhere up to 9.5 gigabytes) has reinvigorated the importance of Usenet for large file distribution. BitTorrent may be fast, but it’s dependent on the upload ratio of the end user and the quality of swarm. A defect in any attribute of this connection could lead to considerable delays, and a download that takes days to complete.

As stated earlier, Usenet’s speed is as fast as the end user’s Internet connection speed. If the individual has a high quality 10 Megabit Cable connection, there’s little in the way to stop this individual from maxing his or her connection and obtaining a massive file in less than an hour. As news breaks that HD DVD’s encryption has been circumvented, and the anticipation for even more massive 30 gigabyte files builds, as it stands now Usenet is the only likely source that will be able to accommodate this imminent demand.

File Availability – Usenet Advantage

While the rest of the world debates whether DRM (Digital Rights Management) is the grandest solution or the epitome of evil, many file-sharers simply don’t care one way or another. And why should they? The obvious availability of files online (formerly DRMed or not) clearly indicates for all practical purposes, DRM might as well not even exist. Thus, the question now becomes which network is the prime source for files.

This question is much easier to ask than it is to answer. Each network over time generates its own specialty; eDonkey2000 is well known for TV shows, Gnutella is favorable for a quick MP3, and BitTorrent is exceedingly well designed for large files. But where does most of this material come from?

The first movies and MP3s first appeared on Usenet before Napster ever existed. To this day, a vast majority of content from top site providers filters down to Usenet first, then trickles its way to the P2P community. This is the way online distribution works, and there’s no indication that it will change any time soon.

BitTorrent does have an advantage when it comes to creative commons or public domain content. BitTorrent, Inc. has been working extensively to create a market for this type of material, and has dedicated a significant portion of energy to carve this niche into Many individuals crave this type of content, and BitTorrent definitely has an advantage over Usenet for distributing this genre of material.

In terms of overall file availability, Usenet has a clear advantage over BitTorrent. It should be noted however that Usenet content has a definite lifespan once it’s uploaded. Content on Usenet is limited by the news server’s retention – or the amount of time a files is kept on a news server. Because of the vast size of Usenet material, most news servers generally have 30 day retention – so material is limited by time. However this appears to be only a small inconvenience, as material is reposted after a certain amount of time.

Additionally, a growing amount of news servers are increasing their retention time, with some keeping content on their servers for up to 90 days. As hardware capacities increase and prices fall, retention should become less of a concern as well.

Conversely, BitTorrent is only limited by the amount of peers that are seeding a particular file. Theoretically, a file can exist indefinitely on BitTorrent, providing the seeding parties continue to exist. In this respect, BitTorrent has an advantage over Usenet.

Another aspect of file availability is the ability to provide a file on demand. As BitTorrent relies on the availability of peers, many find that a file will take considerably longer to obtain than Usenet. The exception to this is generally revolves around more popular files, as the increased number of peers will lead to a much faster download. However as this aspect of Usenet is only limited by retention, most desired files can be obtained on demand and with little delay.

Population – Decisive BitTorrent Advantage

It’s rather clear that no one knows the specific population of the file-sharing community. Such a venture was much easier before the days of end-to-end encryption, decentralization, and other techniques used to disguise P2P traffic. Although the official position of BitTorrent, Inc. is against end-to-end encryption, most relevant BitTorrent clients use this technology with generally favorable results. Usenet providers such as Giganews also provide end-to-end encryption as well.

This leads to a quandary when trying to evaluate the file-sharing population. According to BigChampagne’s studies, it’s generally agreed that the P2P population excluding BitTorrent is approximately 9.5 million individuals at any given moment. By gauging the size of the DHT (Distributed Hash Table) network overlay that coexists with BitTorrent, it’s generally calculated that BitTorrent has approximately 3-5 million individuals online. It should be noted this is a conservative measurement, as a measure of the DHT network overlay doesn’t include every client and is not indicative of the entire community.

While gauging BitTorrent presents its own set of problems, Usenet is even more difficult to calculate. However it’s clear that Usenet is a growing aspect of the file-sharing landscape, as evidenced by the popularity of indexing sites such as Newzbin and the growing discussion of such distribution within file-sharing forums. To give some insight into Usenet’s population, calculates approximately 40,000 unique individuals are connected to their servers at any given moment. This number represents just one server among a sea of many.

Technology – BitTorrent Advantage

There are two categories Slyck is using for this article – “Decisive Advantage” and simply “Advantage.” If this article was written three years ago, the subtopic for this portion would probably read “Decisive BitTorrent Advantage.” However times have changed and Usenet is not longer the sleepy technological backwater it once was.

This is not to detract from the astounding technological breakthrough that BitTorrent represents. It is a highly efficient and well-engineered piece of technology that exceeds in the efficient transfer of large files. Let’s examine this concept a bit further.

In this example, we will assume an individual has created a piece of musical work and several music videos. The cost of hosting these files on a dedicated server is rather expensive as the total compilation exceeds 1 gigabyte. The expense is rather variable, however even text-based website administrators know that hosting a high traffic site can cost many hundreds of dollars per month for a quality connection. Couple a high traffic site with the large bandwidth consumption of music files and videos, and the price may be simply too much for the amateur musician to cope with.

There is a solution, and BitTorrent provides the answer. Instead of taking on the bandwidth responsibility by him or herself, the amateur musician can instead easily set up a tracker – or upload a torrent file to any one of the many tracking sites available. Initially, the musician will have some bandwidth responsibility in terms of seeding the file onto the network. However this responsibility should wane once the file is spread into the wild and others take on such responsibilities. The musician only has to provide a miniscule torrent file – which only contains the metadata necessary for the end user to obtain the desired file.

In this respect, BitTorrent provides a superior technology for the end user to distribute information online. Usenet could theoretically be used as well, however this may not be practical as BitTorrent is better known, and as written below, easier to use.

Simplicity – BitTorrent Advantage

In the last section we discussed how Usenet was no longer the technological backwater it once was. As the popularity of Usenet has increased, so has its rate of development.

Back in the day, Usenet was used for the sole purpose of discussion. Much like community forums, people would gather under different topics and discuss anything from computers, autos, home improvement, and so on. Usenet was not designed to distribute large files; however a loophole was soon discovered and exploited.

This loophole is encoding files as text – thereby defeating the text-only attribute of Usenet. Most news servers limit the size of file segments as well – generally anything over 10,000 lines of text cannot be uploaded. This problem was resolved by breaking a large, say 600 megabyte file, into smaller 20 megabyte files (known as archives.)

However there was the potential for major problems, as file segments would either sometimes not make it to the news server or were perhaps corrupted. Either way, the result rendered the entire archive useless. This was resolved by the creation of PAR files. Par files accompany the uploaded archive, and act to repair any files damaged or missing. They have been heralded as one of God’s gifts to the Newsgroups and have largely resolved the problem of corrupt or otherwise compromised files.

Another more recent stride in Usenet technology is the concept of indexing sites. An idea borrowed from P2P, indexing sites provide a streamlined avenue to the desired file. With the inception of indexing sites, the end user no longer had to sift through endless newsgroups trying to find the desired file – a process that could take hours. Like P2P, it’s a simple matter of searching or browsing for the desired file. This concept is facilitated by the use of NZB files, a Usenet technological achievement in its own right. Although radically different, the concept is analogous to torrent files or eDonkey2000 hash links. The NZB file contains all the pertinent information necessary for the client to find and download the required file – all without spending considerable time navigating the network.

While Usenet has made technological strides recently, BitTorrent is still an easier protocol to navigate. Much like P2P networks of old, all that is required for the BitTorrent user is to point, click, and watch the desired file trickle in.

Currently, it’s not that easy with Usenet. Although the searching and downloading portion may be very similar, there’s still one more step that needs to be completed. As news servers limit the size of the file segments, the downloaded archive can be contain many dozens of files – typically in the RAR format. Once the archive is downloaded, the end user must then reassemble the archive. What may seem like a minor inconvenience to Internet veterans is a surprisingly insurmountable task for a decent portion of netizens, and perhaps is the last stumbling block to widespread Usenet adoption.

Usenet clients have become almost as simple as P2P clients; however BitTorrent still has a clear lead in terms of simplicity. It appeals readily to mainstream users and is more easily embraced by the general public.

Privacy – Decisive Usenet Advantage

A major concern for many file-sharers is security. With the IFPI (International Federation of the Phonographic Industry) promising to conduct 1,000 copyright enforcement actions per month, and the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) having already sued almost 20,000 individuals, retaining one’s privacy is an understandable concern.

To understand how people become a copyright enforcement statistic is to understand why Usenet has the undisputed advantage over BitTorrent – or any other P2P network. Virtually every instance an individual has been sued has been the result of sharing material online – otherwise known as uploading. BitTorrent depends on uploading for its very survival, Usenet does not.

Unlike P2P networking, Usenet does not encourage or otherwise recommend that its userbase upload any material. There are established responsibilities within the Usenet hierarchy – those who provide and those who download. This is the way Usenet has functioned since for it’s nearly 30 year history, and shows no signs of deterioration. For now, as no one has been sued for merely downloading material, Usenet is far and away the most secure way to obtain information online.

It should also be noted that most Usenet clients and servers support end-to-end encryption, which adds an additional layer of security.

Price – Decisive BitTorrent Advantage

Usenet access can be a bit pricey for those on a shoe-string budget. News server access can run anywhere from $15.00 a month to more than $30.00 depending on the type of service. Additionally, an indexing service such as generally runs about $2.00 for about 6 weeks of service. After all is said, the average Usenet citizen is likely spending around $20.00 per month for service.

For now, BitTorrent is absolutely free. There is no price tag attached to the clients, the trackers, the indexers or any other legitimate resource. As a free service, BitTorrent has a clear advantage over Usenet for those unable or unwilling to spend money. This typically appeals to teenagers, college students and recent graduates who have yet to accumulate disposable income.

Conclusion – Decisive Usenet Victory

Throughout the modern history of P2P, many networks have come and gone. Some networks achieve stunning success, like Napster, FastTrack, WinMX, AudioGalaxy, eDonkey2000, and BitTorrent. There’s an old saying that no empire lasts forever, and neither does the holder of the P2P crown. As Usenet continues to evolve and its clear advantages delineate themselves to the mainstream public, it’s very possible that in the near future, file-sharing may end up where it all began…with Usenet.