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Inventor of the Internet takes aim at BitTorrent

Lawrence Roberts invented packet networking. Now he's is trying to fix one of its biggest problems: network overload caused by peer-to-peer file transfers.

Rafe Needleman Former Editor at Large
Rafe Needleman reviews mobile apps and products for fun, and picks startups apart when he gets bored. He has evaluated thousands of new companies, most of which have since gone out of business.
Rafe Needleman
2 min read

In the 1960s, Lawrence Roberts invented computer networking via data packets, which led directly to the development of ARPANet and the Internet . And now Roberts is trying to fix one of the Internet's biggest problems: network overload caused by peer-to-peer file transfers.

Not Al Gore. Rafe Needleman / CNET

At Structure 08, he laid out the problem: 5 percent of the Net's users are running P2P transfers taking up 80 percent of its capacity, which is dramatically limiting the available bandwidth available to everyone else. Roberts' company, Anagran, is able to detect which "flows" are P2P traffic, and reduce the bandwidth available to these communications when other users' systems want it. Roberts says that Anagran's technology even functions when P2P transfers are encrypted. I'm not going to pretend I understand exactly how this works, but it has something to do with keeping information about the flow of data between all computers connected through an ISP in memory in the Anagram appliance, and then leveling off traffic of P2P communications as needed--and throughput only, not latency. Judging by the reaction of the audience of infrastructure geeks sitting around me, Roberts is on to something. "He's the real deal right there," the guy next to me said at one point, pretty much gazing up at the stage in awe.

Roberts claims that the Anagran devices also ensure that high-priority traffic, like VOIP and video streams, can be guaranteed better performance.

Roberts was clear that he has no desire to punish P2P users, but rather he wants to make sure that they--and everyone else--get their fair share of bandwidth. That share, he believes, cannot be 80 percent of the Net's capacity, especially if the other 20 percent has to be allocated to the 95 percent of the Net's users who aren't using P2P.

You'll find Anagran bandwidth fairness boxes (also called FR-1000s) in university settings now, where the P2P file transfer problem is most acute. Anagran doesn't currently have any commercial ISP customers, but I'll bet that they're all looking at them.

Roberts has no position on the legality of content being transferred over P2P links. "Illegal or legal is not the issue at all." It's about fairness, he says: equal capacity for equal pay. What do you think?

See also: Baggage and bits: Overage fees have unintended consequences.

Anagran FR-1000: The shape of bandwidth to come. Anagran