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Network tool reins in music downloads

New software from Packeteer taps the techniques used to manage file swapping to give network managers a way to control iTunes and other legal song downloads at work and in colleges.

As the success of digital music services like Apple Computer's iTunes and Napster puts new pressure on corporate and other private computer networks, a generation of tools is springing up to control the software.

On Tuesday, network traffic management company Packeteer released an upgrade to its software that would allow network administrators to identify and control the use of these legal digital music services as well as their free peer-to-peer rivals.

Corporate customers in particular had asked for the release, after a surge in employees' use at work of iTunes and file-swapping services such as Kazaa, according to Yancy Lind, vice president of marketing at Packeteer.

"They're seeing an increase in traffic from legal music services," Lind said. "We're getting this demand--not to shut down the legal services, but to give (the services) a low enough priority on the network so that employees can use them when bandwidth is available."

The new tools are based on those used to block or slow traffic from Kazaa and other file-swapping software.

The Packeteer update highlights the very different motivations that copyright holders and corporate network administrators have had in controlling the boom in file-swapping services. For record labels, iTunes and other song stores are helping to fix the problem of piracy. For many network administrators, they're just one more unauthorized piece of software competing with corporate applications for bandwidth.

In this sense, the paid music services fall into the category of recreational applications, such as video streaming and ordinary Web surfing. These applications have long been under the scrutiny of corporate technology administrators worried about maintaining efficient networks.

In a recent survey of 177 Packeteer customers and newsletter subscribers, corporate technology managers said that recreational media such as large multimedia attachments and streaming media ranked only behind viruses and spam as a cause of network headaches.

However, the impact that the new Napster and others have had remains tiny compared with that of Kazaa and other peer-to-peer services, according to network managers. Packeteer said that its software allows administrators to steer employees or students toward those legal services--as is already happening on some campuses.

Mike Ruiz, a network and enterprise systems engineer at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, said he gives downloads from iTunes, Napster and similar companies a higher priority on the campus network than traffic from Kazaa or other file-swapping services, or even than ordinary streaming video. That means that if there are any network traffic jams, Kazaa downloads have to wait, while iTunes downloads get through.

"Any academic apps get highest priority," Ruiz said. "But rather than saying students aren't allowed to use Kazaa or Gnutella, we can encourage them to use legitimate services."