The Evolution of P2P and Behavior-Based Blocking

By Art Reisman

CTO – APconnections

I’ll get to behavior-based blocking soon, but before I do that, I encourage anybody dealing with P2P on their network to read about the evolution of P2P outlined below. Most of the methods historically used to thwart P2P, are short lived pesticides, and resistance is common. Behavior-based control is a natural wholesome predator of P2P which has proved to be cost effective over the past 10 years.

The evolution of P2P

P2P as it exists today is a classic example of Darwinian evolution.

In the beginning there was Napster. Napster was a centralized depository for files of all types. It also happened to be a convenient place to distribute unauthorized, copyrighted material. And so, the music industry, unable to work out a licensing distribution agreement with Napster basically closed it down. So now, you had all these consumers used to getting free music, and like a habituated wild animal, they were in no mood to pay 15.99 per CD from their local retailer.

P2P technology was already in existence when Napster was closed down; however until that time, it was intended to be a distribution system for legitimate content which came out of academia. By decentralizing the content to many multiple distribution points, the cost of distribution was much less than hosting content distribution on a private server. Decentralized content, good for legitimate distribution of academic content, quickly became a nightmare for the Music Industry.  Instead of having one cockroach of illegal content to deal with, they now had millions of little P2P cockroaches all over the world to contend with.

The Music industry had a multi-billion dollar leak in their revenue stream and went after enforcing copyright policy by harassing ISPs and threatening consumers with jail time. For the ISP, the legal liability of having copyrighted material on your network was a hassle, but the bigger problem was the congestion. When content was distributed by a single point supplier, there were natural cost barriers to prevent bandwidth utilization from rising unchecked. For example, when you buy a music file from Amazon or iTunes, both ends of the transaction require some form of payment. The supplier pays for a large bandwidth pipe, and the consumer pays money for the file. With P2P, the distributors and the clients are all consumers with essentially unlimited data usage on their home accounts, and the content is free. As P2P file sharing rose, ISPs had no easy way of changing their pricing model to deal with the orgy of file sharing. Although invisible to the public, it was a cyber party that rivaled 10 cent beer night fiasco of the 1970’s.

Resistant P2P pesticides

In order to thwart p2p usage, ISPs and businesses started spending hundreds of millions of dollars in technology that tracked specific P2P applications and blocked those streams. This technology is referred to as layer 7 blocking. Layer 7 blocking involves looking at the specific content traversing the Internet and identifying P2P applications by their specific footprint. Intuitively, this solution was a no-brainer* – spot P2P and block it. Most of these installations with layer 7 blocking showed some initial promise, however, as was the case with the previous cockroach infestation, P2P again evolved to meet the challenge and then some.

How does newer evolved P2P thwart layer 7 shaping?

1) There are now encrypted P2P clients where their footprint is hidden, and thus all the investment in the layer 7 shaper can go up in smoke once encrypted P2P infects your network. It can’t be spotted.

2) P2P clients open and close connections much faster than their first generation of the early 2000’s. To keep up with a the flurry of connections over a short time, the layer 7 engine must have many times the processing power of a traditional router, and must do the analysis quickly. The cost of layer 7 shaping is rising much faster than the cost of adding additional bandwidth to a circuit.

Also: Legally there also problems with eavesdropping on customer data without authorization.

How does behavior-based shaping P2P blocking keep up?

1) It uses a progressive rate limit on suspected P2P users.

P2P has the footprint of creating many simultaneous connections to move data across the internet. When behavior-based shaping is in effect, it detects these high connection count users, and slowly implements a progressive rate limit on all their data. This does not completely cut them off per se, but it punishes the speeds of the consumer using p2p and does so progressively as they use more p2p connections. This may seem a bit non specific in target, but when done correctly it rarely affects non P2P users, and even if it does, the behavior of using a large number of downloads is considered rude and abhorrent, and is most like a virus if not a P2P application.

2) It limits the user to a fixed number of simultaneous connections.

Also: It does not violate any privacy policies.

That covers the basics of P2P behavior-based shaping. In practice, we have developed our techniques with a bit of intelligence and do not wish to give away all of our fine tuning secrets, but suffice it to say, I have been implementing behavior-based shaping for 10 years and have empirically seen its effectiveness over time. The cost remains low with respect to licensing (very stable solution), and the results remain consistent.

* Although in some cases there was very little information about how effective the solution was working, companies and ISPs shelled out license fees year after year.

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