Catching your company

That and similar music file-sharing sites chew up bandwidth when users download files is no surprise, but the fact these sites might become an on-going network problem is another story altogether.

The concern is once end users download Napster client software, those PCs become Napster servers from which they offer-up MP3 files to other users – a potential bandwidth issue for educational institutions and large companies alike.

In theory, the Napster server-type solution is supposed to reduce congestion “by distributing information throughout the network,” said George Karidis, director of research for the Yankee Group in Canada, based in Brockville, Ont. “The reality is it will add tremendous load to the network unless the protocols are very specific. In the short term it might solve some immediate problems, but in the long term it will lead to added congestion. You’re taking congestion from the access point to the WAN,” he said.

As music becomes an increasingly popular Internet application – with numbers reaching as high as 40 per cent of users visiting a music site in the past year, according to Jupiter Communications – much of the visiting goes on at work, where corporate PCs may come bundled with sound cards, speakers, multimedia software and network cards.

With MP3 file sizes ranging from 5MB to 8MB, network managers are concerned about the impact these sites can have on the performance of Internet connections, LANs and individual PCs. Corporations have to concern themselves with “somebody’s PC on their desktop becoming a server, because all of the sudden that 10Base-T or 100Base-T you have is not going to be enough,” Karidis said.

Canadian universities are finding bandwidth congestion a real concern as students use Napster’s server technology. The University of Western Ontario (UWO) has gone as far as to block Napster access to its student body.

According to Ed Gibson, network analyst with the UWO in London, Ont., “It really has been a congestion issue. Universities, like everybody else, have had to tighten their financial belts and bandwidth isn’t free.

“We’re obviously keeping an eye on what traffic is going on and who are our top talkers, and stuck it’s head up in early October. In all honesty, we weren’t going to ban it permanently, we were just going to cut it off and see what the effect was.”

Unfortunately for students, “after we cut it off, the gains were significant enough that we felt we better leave it turned off for the time being,” Gibson said.

“We saw a gain of about 50 per cent on the bandwidth,” he said.

With security systems in place and firewalls erected, the concern regarding Napster is mostly bandwidth congestion and not much else. Despite the uncertainty of potential security breaches, the University of Toronto’s manager of computing security administration, Wilfred Camilleri, said: “Our critical systems are very well protected, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t department systems that are not. We’re being quite proactive in that area, but you always have to be on the lookout for new things that come down the pipe.”

Napster has introduced a new distributed model of its server, Gibson said, which is limiting the controls UWO is able to enact. With the traditional central facilitator model, some options available to corporations and universities include cutting off access at the router or firewall, asking their ISPs to block certain sites or using an Internet content-filtering product.