P2P Infrastructure - Discussions

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Curated selections from the discussions on P2P Infrastructure at the Google Group: Building a Distributed Decentralized Internet

This documentation project is related to the ContactCon conference to be held on October 20, 2010 in NYC.


Venessa Miemis

Venessa Miemis:

- As we identify and bring in various projects, it is crucial to list them according to what layer they address. (you can see the layers of OSI here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/OSI_model )

- Most of the projects I've seen are simply software that has some p2p- ish aspect. Slapping that onto a network with ISP's and a backbone, and an oligopoly of router equipment isn't going to solve either provisioning/bandwidth or governance issues. We need to support interest in both hardware and software solutions in order to really build a new p2p net.

- I think when people feel that the pieces of the distributed internet puzzle are resolved, they are mostly referring to a software layer, and we have a lot of variations on the software layer. Generally they depend on a functioning 'hardware' stack, usually up to the transport layer (e.g. ~TCP role in the OSI model). I agree that the hardware/ software division is a good one. The point about the distinction being fuzzy is valid, although we can probably expect anything up to TCP to be a hardware implementation (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ TCP_Offload_Engine), or 'firmware'.

- distributed hardware a big issue, and until solved no amount of cleverness in P2P software protects against the Egypt attack at the ISP (or cutting the big wire, or shooting down the satellite etc.)

- A truly general purpose P2P implementation - as opposed to the specific use cases currently addressed by a lot of existing P2P software (file sharing, social interaction, processor pooling & memory sharing) is a very hard problem. This is where the redundancy and coherence algorithms really get tricky, especially if the network has high latency & low reliability, which would seem to be a necessary design constraint. We're really talking about a distributed filesystem and probably OS. The current extent of our technology seems to suggest we can really only do that usefully in a data centre, and somewhat less effectively between data centres.

- Problem: A user enters in a URL, and brings up a web page that behaves in an application-like fashion, communicating frequently with an OLTP datastore to send and receive significant amounts of data. Potential first step to solution: assume that the OLTP datastore and associated web host is *not* distributed - i.e. it exists in a big data centre (like it does now). What *is* distributed is the hardware route to that data centre. Trying to implement the whole hog here is just not yet within our grasp from bandwidth, connectivity, latency and other perspectives. Implementing the simpler solution protects against the Egypt attack (i.e. an Egyptian can tweet). That said, the simpler solution is still staggeringly difficult, because our problem is really the hardware one, not the software one

What is really possible, given a society dominated by hostile forces?

Problem: Network topologies robust to random failures are NOT robust to targeted attacks. Network topologies robust to targeted attacks are NOT robust to random failures.

Potential Solution: Move beyond a singular topology to a plural one.

In other words, Imagine a dual-network with TWO routing methods and TWO topologies, and requests are sent in parallel along both networks, so that if nodes are down in one network, data is routed via the other.

TWO is a minimum, though.

The pluralization of networks goes back to the pluralization of politics taken up by Connolly in his work The Ethos of Pluralization ( http://www.upress.umn.edu/Books/C/connolly_ethos.html )

It is another example of why code people should know theory, and theory people should learn code. Cross-domain knowledges.

scale-free networks are robust to random failures, but vulnerable to targeted attacks because you can simply take out the hubs first and isolate most of the network parts from the other parts

Potential Solution: A mesh network using a single routing method/topology. This architecture does not preclude multiple routes (in fact in a network with a lot of nodes, there should be multiple routes). This would seem to be an architecture robust to random failures, but I'm not sure why that architecture would make it any less robust to targeted attack than our current internet - in fact it is probably more robust (from a failure/attack perspective).


I think there is a tendency for stagnation on the 'next steps' angle because we aren't clear enough on the problem yet, and nailing a solution in this situation is more or less impossible.

- I'm not sure the goals/requirements are clearly defined. For example - 'an internet that can't be shut down' and 'distributed internet' aren't synonymous.

- 'An internet that can't be shut down' isn't actually possible in the strictest sense, we're talking about varying scales of catastrophe/ attack - we need to define what we expect to survive and what we don't - i.e. what is the worst case scenario we should be trying to design for. e.g. Do we expect both 'Egypt shutdown' and/or 'Libya shutdown' to not be possible?

- What does 'shut down' mean. Do we mean everyone can always access the internet if they want to? e.g. in the Egypt scenario, the internet was still operational, but Egypt was unable to get access to it.

- I think we do want a distributed internet (hardware and software), as it will be more resilient, but that can take many forms - indeed what we have now is distributed to a large degree. What do we mean by distributed? An increase in resilience may deliver a reduction in performance and micro-level reliability.

- We don't really identify the characteristics of the new internet - it seems implicit that we expect it will operate much the same as the current internet in terms of what we can do with it, but if this is actually a design constraint we have, then our options are significantly reduced. e.g. performance and reliability in our new network will be exceedingly difficult to match to our current network.

My feeling is that when we define those things above clearly, we will discover we don't have the technology to achieve them. As we scale back our expectations, to something we can achieve, we may discover that the wins we get aren't worth it yet - the internet we have is our best option for the moment, or that the direction of our technological advancement is naturally destined for the architecture we describe - we are already on the best path.

Regardless of the result of the analysis (achievable or not) defining the problem and goals clearly will make it much easier to work out the next steps - even if that next step is to 'eagerly await the future, keep oiling its cogs, and make sure nefarious interests don't hinder it'

Colin Hawkett: P2P as Utopian for the Cloud

Colin Hawkett <[email protected]> Apr 22 12:59AM :

"Firstly, my take on this is that cloud is not an optional architecture - we didn't make a mistake and build yet another single-point-of-failure architecture. Yes it is a single point of failure (sort of), but there is no current alternative. Before AWS-style cloud there were insurmountable hardware costs for a software startup that wished to operate at the massive scale required for 'global brain' style software. VC ruled, because that was (more or less) the only way to get the money to get the hardware to scale. The current energy and diversity and enthusiasm and belief in possibilities in the tech space is a direct result of the commoditisation of the large scale server infrastructure. This is the bleeding edge of commodity tech, not a brain-fart architecture. We exist right now in a chaotic space where problems and ideas and possibilities and capabilities are colliding in crazy new ways. Fresh meat. That crucible doesn't come for free, and the single point of failure in cloud architecture is by no means the only issue we will encounter. Interestingly, I think the empowerment of tech startups over VC means that we can start seeing efforts that target sociological and ethical goals rather than the same old business imperatives. This is a good thing, and will finally allow us to leap out of that local minima that has business and ethics at loggerheads, and start proving that good society and good ethics is also good business.

When I say there is no alternative, I mean right now we do not have the technology to do what is done in a data center any other way. I'm sure many would say: 'but that is why we want a mesh system, this is exactly the point, we don't want this single point of failure/control hassle'. You can't do what a data center does with a geographically distributed P2P mesh system. Not yet. The problem is latency and bandwidth - especially at range. Yes we have various distributed and P2P systems that do all sorts of things - but the problems they solve are all edge cases in the overall world of distributed computing. No P2P system can handle high volatility data outside a data center - data that changes frequently and unpredictably and must remain consistent and accessible by all clients within reasonable time bounds. This is, more or less, what a data center (cloud computing) can do.

I'm totally on-board with the utopian architecture being a P2P one. In fact, a decent model for our ideal P2P distributed open mesh system already exists - internally within a data center. What goes on in there is a shedload of nodes distributing work across the system in a highly fault tolerant way. But it cannot do this effectively between data centres. It is the reason why Amazon AWS has availability zones - you deploy your cloud app to Europe, US or Asia Pacific etc. Not to 'AWS' as a global entity. Essentially, Amazon asks you - which data centre do you want to run at? You have to choose because the technology does not exist on this earth for them to synchronise effectively between data centers for the high volatility data most web apps deal in. If you look at the outage, it is actually at the US-EAST-1 datacenter<http://eu.techcrunch.com/2011/04/21/amazon-ec2-goes-down-taking-with-it-reddit-foursquare-and-quora/>. Not AWS as a whole. So in some ways, the limitations imposed by geography have forced an AWS architecture whereby total system failure does not bring everything down. This is a good thing, and perhaps an architecture we should retain even after the tech constraints disappear.

Miles Fidelman: Arrogance and Naivite of some discussions on NextNet


"Somehow, it seems to me that starting from scratch, and/or reinventing the wheel (both technically, and organizationally) is antithetical to what seems to be the underlying theme here (seems to me that the bigger open source projects - Debian Linux, Apache, Drupal, the Internet and Web as a whole - embody the spirit of cooperative infrastructure development; while going off and starting from scratch embodies just the opposite).

As the Declaration of Independence puts it: "When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation."

Or in a narrower context: People fork open source projects all the time - sometimes for good reasons, sometimes not. Some forks survive, some prosper, some go nowhere. Generally, at least in the world of Linux distributions, the folks who create a fork give credit, and make a statement about what they're doing different, and why (be it a technical avenue, a different packaging model, a different model for releasing new versions, etc.).

What's being proposed here sounds a lot like both starting from scratch and reinventing the wheel - rather than building on stuff that's already around, and contributing to / working with existing groups. Which brings us back to the questions of what and why? What requirements are not being met? What's being done currently that gets in the way of larger goals?

Before setting off on a major effort (and believe me, developing and then supporting a new platform is a huge effort), what's the rational? Why not simply pick an existing platform, or platforms, (Drupal, Plone, Wordpress, Joomla, Media Wiki all jump to mind) and start writing plug-ins - seems like a far more effective way to try new ideas."


"I can't quite put my finger on it, but there's this strange combination of arrogance ("wow, we discovered this big problem of building a censorship- and disruption-resistant distributed, decentralized Internet") and naivete ("we can solve this problem quickly and easily by building global infrastructure, with just a few dollars, and a few volunteer engineers.")

The reality is that people have been both working on these problems, and building operational networks of various sorts for over 40 years - all the way back to the wireless ALOHAnet linking University of Hawaii sites across the Hawaiian islands. For that matter, the original Internet was highly distributed and decentralized - still is actually. What's changed is a shift toward an environment where packet routing has become more centralized - as a result of both technical limitations to the scaling of routing algorithms, economics (backbone networks make sense, both technically and economically), and the resulting concentration of control over routing policies in backbone routers controlled by a small number of organizations. (Of course, in the home/consumer space, there's also the matter of a small number of firms controlling the cables serving the "last mile.")

There's been huge amounts of work on secure, disruption-resistant wireless networks for military use dating back to the 1940s (the original spread spectrum patent was issued to Hedy Lamarr, yes that Hedy Lamarr, in 1942). Secure military networks - both wired and wireless - have been around for decades, and a lot of the technology is readily available.

There's a huge amount of wired and wireless infrastructure in place - ranging from carriers, to private corporate networks, to university owned, to municipal and cooperative utilities, to ad hoc networks assembled by individuals.

A huge variety of technology is being used every day - again, ranging from commercial networks, to military networks carried behind enemy lines, to ad hoc networks assembled in response to natural disasters, to amateur radio and citizens band gear, to experiments in "pocket switched networks" (mesh networks of smart phones and other pocket-sized devices), to various assemblages of technology assembled for use during demonstrations and revolutions dating back to Tienanmen Square.

At the software level, we have all kinds of (relatively) secure, private, disruption-resistant software - ranging from the original Napster, to Freenet, to Gnutella and Gnunet, to various eCash networks, to various "darknets," to steganography - used for everything from sharing music (and porn) to communications among drug cartels and terrorist cells.

One might argue that there is no problem - just a number of people trying to reinvent the wheel; but that's not quite right. There remain quite a few serious technical problems to be solved for applying any of these technologies on a large scale. What's rather naive is not recognizing that these are hard problems, and that despite large numbers of people working on them, progress is slow.

One might argue that there's a lot of technology in search of a problem. But that's not quite right either. The technology is being applied - in both ongoing and reactive modes (in China, Iran, etc., every time the government closes down one communications channel, someone opens up another).

(IMHO) if there are problems to be solved, they are not at all technical, they are more in the realms of:

- Marketing (or motivation): Any one of us can turn our laptop into a mesh router in about an hour - just by changing a configuration setting; and there are a half dozen or more software packages that allow for building large mesh networks. But why should we? More important, what will motivate our neighbors to do so as well (it doesn't help very much if only isolated individuals enable nodes)? Why should people invest time and money in building/operating a piece of a network? Those who care about serious private/secure networks have them (the military, drug cartels, ...). The mass of people seem perfectly willing to spend a few dollars a month with their local telco or cable company or ISP. Even large corporations and government agencies, who have resources, and should know better, seem quite happy to push their computing and networking "into the cloud" (i.e., hand it over to other people over whom they have little or no control). You'd think that the numerous failures of Gmail would get people to rethink such things, but apparently not.

- Politics and Regulation: In places where there are large concentrations in network and spectrum ownership, there are ways to circumvent central controls, but what's really called for are serious anti-trust measures that prevent concentration of control in small numbers of hands. And then there are issues of access to radio spectrum (if one wants to operate outside the law, there are lots of ways to do so, but they tend to fall down if one is building large-scale infrastructure - revolutions operate at the cell level for a reason).

- Threats of Violence: In places where people care a lot about evading government censorship and disruption (e.g., China, Iran), the real threat isn't that networks will be shut down (there seem to be lot of ways of circumenting this); the real threat is what happens if you're caught (both the personal threat of jail or worse, and the threat of exposing those whom you've been communicating with).

- Organizational models that take advantage of networking: Since some of this discussion seems to focus on "digital cities," economic impacts, and such - it's worth pointing out that pretty much everyone has Internet access these days, but as a society we continue to do things largely in pre-network ways. Schools spend a lot of money buying computers and smartboards and network connections, but not a lot on rethinking how to teach/learn in ways that leverage new technologies. Most business is conducted the way it was a century ago. The changes seem to come from folks like Amazon, and eBay, and Orbitz - none of which represent particularly fancy technology - but which represent major changes to market structures. Perhaps the most radical changes are seen in the open source software arena - but again, there are lots of development and version control tools available - the real innovations are things like the Debian social contract, and formation of the Apache Software Foundation.


I keep coming back to the fundamental questions: What problem is being addressed? What solutions are being proposed? Where's the beef? Is there any "there" there?

From where I sit, I see a surfeit of technology, and large numbers of people working to advance the state-of-the-art and state-of-the-practice even further. I also see technology being adopted in various ways to change the ways that we do things as a society - the paradigm shifts are happening, but slowly (perhaps too slowly, in the face of things like climate change).

I was drawn to this list looking for either new technology (after all, I am an engineer by background, and work on projects that involve scalability and decentralization). So far, all I've seen are statements about needing to build "something" different, without any clear statement of why, for what purpose, what current technology/networks aren't doing; and little understanding of what technology is already available but not being used. I read conversations about "is this technology interesting," or "let's integrate this collection of software," - but I've yet to read a clear statement of why, what problem is being solved, why anybody should care?

I was also drawn to this list looking for new paradigms - how to apply the technology in new ways, how to solve organizational issues. But all I've seen are somewhat nebulous and theoretical statements.

There are plenty of examples, in the real world, of technologies being applied in new and creative ways to support a society that struggling to become global and sustainable - but the discussion here seems to lack knowledge of them.

Maybe I'm dense, and missing something - but I know what the folks at Wikipedia are doing, and why; I know what the folks at Wikileaks are doing, and why; I know what the folks at Ushahidi are doing and why; for that matter, I know what the folks at 100s of university research groups are doing around the world, and why. When they ask for donations, or participation, or some other form of involvement - it's very clear what they're talking about, what they're asking for, why they're asking, and why I should care. I haven't seen that here. Again, it could be me." (NextNet, May 2011)

Miles Fidelman: Three Problems and Four Strategies for Solutions

Miles Fidelman:

"So far, I've heard people discuss at least three problems, and a whole slew of solutions that may or may not address any of those problems.

1. There's the problem of scaling. There's no doubt that the current global Internet is under stress, and certainly there's a credible school of thought that there are some fundamental limits to the current architecture, beyond which incremental evolution won't work (the "we're heading for a cliff" point of view).

Personally, I'm not of that school. I see lots of room for evolution rather than wholesale replacement of current infrastructure. The Internet has grown to a scale that it resembles an organism or an ecosystem - and I'm not a big fan of slash, burn, and replace. Rather, I think the future of the Internet infrastructure lies with stewardship and husbandry. IMHO, the Internet is going to be like the global phone grid - ongoing evolution, technology insertion (wireless, VoIP), eventual evolution into something new (the decline of landlines and analog technology for example), without any point where there's a wholesale replacement. (First there was the ARPANET, then the ARPANET was the backbone for the early Internet, then the NSFnet backbone and regionals came on, then more and more networks attached, at some point the ARPANET was turned off, and nobody noticed.)

If there are limits, they're ones of scale, and it's going to take a LOT of work to discover solutions, and then to figure out how to transition from what we've got, to something new, better, and BIGGER. That's not an ad hoc effort. Right now, there are multiple efforts looking at next generation architectures and technologies - both in the academic world (e.g., GENI, Next Generation Internet, Internet2) and behind close doors in the corporate world. My expectation is that most of what comes out of these efforts will be incorporated, incrementally, into the Internet that we already have. Plan B would be to start from scratch using technologies that emerge from these efforts - and would both incredibly painful, and expensive, on a global scale.

In the 80s, I worked on pieces of the problem at BBN (mostly network management and network security). I know and respect a lot of the people working these efforts today. and there seems to be a whole new generation of researchers and engineers who are publishing very solid work. Even more encouraging is that this work seems to have multiple clusters of researchers on almost every continent.

Anybody who wants to work this problem is well advised to either work the legal/regulatory issues, or join an academic or corporate R&D group. This is not a set of problems for basement hackers.

2. Access at the edges is a different set of problems - be those edges rural, developing countries, areas devastated by crisis, war zones, or bypassing monopoly carriers in urban/suburban areass.

By and large, these are NOT problems of technology - you can do a lot with basic, ad hoc wifi networks, as built into everyday laptops and cell phones - though lots of people continue to work on newer and better technologies (e.g., software defined radios, cognitive radios, better and better mesh networking algorithms, intercept and disruption resistant technologies).

As far as I can tell, the issues here are those of deployment, and need to be addressed on a case-by-case basis -- be that by Marines deploying off carrier decks to build ad hoc wifi networks for first responders, in Tsunami-ravaged areas; or rural residents (e.g. FOS Farm) trying to access the backbone from the boonies; or groups trying to bring access to slums or the outback.

The issues come down to things like: Finding lines-of-site for radio signals, getting access to poles or rights-of-way for fiber and antennas, putting up towers. And the obstacles are also situation specific - basic population density (mesh networks need a basic level of density to work), uncooperative neighbors and property owners, legal and regulatory obstacles, lawsuits, protecting equipment from hazards (weather, terrorists, thieves), power and maintenance for unattended equipment, and so forth. For disaster response, the issues are more those of ruggedized equipment, power sources, and managing the relationships between organizations (NGOs, military, civilian government, volunteers).

Clearly some on this list are directly working these issues locally. Sounds like a few people on the list have experience building local networks. I spent 6 years working with local governments municipal electric utilities around building municipally owned fiber networks (which was leading edge then, now its a job for politicians, lawyers, and construction crews).

Personally, I find the most interesting and challenging work to be in the crisis response arena - mostly involving organizational challenges, rather than technical ones. The folks doing the most interesting and useful work range from the military, to folks like Crisis Commons, Crisis Mappers, Ushahidi, and the Amateur Radio community. As far as I can tell there's only one person here actively working in that space, and he's sort of quiet (hi Dave). Some of the stuff on my current project is targeted for application in this space.

Note: Ultimately, these networks all end up connecting to backbone networks. The vision of lots of local wireless networks converging into one big global mesh is certainly an appealing one - but way beyond any current routing technology, and practical experience pretty much leads everybody toward constructing and using backbone networks. (Put another way, backbone networks appear to be an emergent phenomenon as mesh networks grow.)

3. Of particular concern to me (and as far as I can tell, at least several others on this list) are the problems associated with security, privacy, and particularly corporate and/or government disruption of (classes of) network users/traffic - such as we've seen in China, Iran, Iraq, etc., (as well as problems associated with attacks - by hackers, criminals, terrorists, adversaries, etc.).

It's certainly not clear to me that building a whole new infrastructure is the solution (as some seem to be advocating). Besides being a massive effort, any large-scale infrastructure becomes a highly visible target for those who might wish to censor or otherwise disrupt its use (if you can see it, you can shoot it, or send people in to pull the plug). By the time anybody builds something on a massive scale, one's opponents will have had plenty of time to position to destroy it. Further, large scale efforts, in places like China, Iran, Iraq, Egypt, ...., simply expose their participants to arrest, torture, and death (as well as exposing anyone who can be found by examining people's phones and computers).

I'm of the opinion that these issues are better addressed through a combination of:

- making the existing infrastructure essential to day-to-day business (the Chinese couldn't shut off corporate fax machines during Tienanmen Square, similarly it's pretty hard for repressive governments to shut down cell phones when the establishment depends on them) - and nobody is going to shut down the satphone services

- legal and political measures (do you realize that Hosni Mubarak has just been fined $90million for shutting off Internet access during the recent demonstrations?)

- making the network infrastructure more resilient: The original Internet was essentially a mesh network - if portions went down, the routing algorithms routed around them. Today's Internet is more centralized - partially because routing protocols don't scale well; partially because we've evolved to depend on a small number of backbone networks, and a number of very big carriers (e.g. Comcast) dominate local access. Here the answers lie in both better technology (research continues), and more diversity of ownership - through competition (entrepreneurial, municipal, cooperatively owned, ad hoc), and serious anti-trust enforcement. (I spent 6 years of my life supporting local governments in various aspects of planning and building municipal networks, as well as quite a bit of time doing policy work in that space, and writing a book on the subject.)

- "overlay networks" - software such as Napster, Gnutella, Freenet, Gnunet, as well as Tor and other "onion routers" - that leverage Internet infrastructure but provide a serious measure of privacy and resiliency (the area where I'm currently working, though my current project is too new to talk about - I'd rather have working prototypes)

- under-the-radar efforts -- be they ad hoc and opportunistic use of whatever is available (e.g., fax machines, twitter, sat phones, ...), or technology efforts so that when someone blocks twitter, there's something else ready to pull out of the toolbox (note that a lot of these technologies come right out of the military arena - developed for use behind enemy lines by folks who don't want to be found - and an amazing amount is readily available as open source technology) (also note that both terrorists and drug cartels make extensive use of this kind of stuff, not to mention the darknets haunted by botnet operators -- so it's not as if this stuff isn't available, or lying unused by people who really have to worry about getting hunted down)

4. New economic and social models is another area that some of the discussion seems to cluster around - and the one that I particularly find most interesting (and intractable). In addition to the question of who pays to build and operated new network infrastructure, there are the more fundamental questions of how do "we," both locally and an increasingly global civilization, adapt to the changes that the Internet is wreaking on our social and economic systems?

As someone who contributed to building the Internet, I now look aghast at the outsourcing in the tech industry (among others), and the decimation of jobs for print journalists (my wife is one), and wonder what have we wrought. In the early days, we were predicting an empowerment of small businesses ("electronic cottages" was the term then in vogue), and loose networks of small businesses replacing large corporations. While we've certainly seen some of that, we see outsourcing, whole industries going away, concentration of wealth and power (particularly in the media and telecom arenas), and so forth. (Sort of like the old communists who predicted the withering of the state. Didn't quite work out that way.)

To me, the big questions are those of what a sustainable, 21st century economy and society look like; and how we get there.

On this list, more than a few people seem to have opined that throwing technology at the problem is the answer - to which I will emphatically argue "been there, done that, we have plenty of technology" and that technology seems to be causing as many problems as its solving.

It seems to me that what we need are are new mindsets, new business models, new social models. And, more than hand waving and ideas on paper, we need working demonstration that can be copies, adapted, and scaled up. We need more local currencies, more Mondragen Corporations." (NextNet, June 2011)