The Bandwith Kidnapper

By Kari Molvar / March / April 2000
October 29th, 2007
Just before Thanksgiving break, George Loftus, director of technology for Computing and Information Services (CIS), noticed an unusual amount of traffic on the Brown network. Delving into the problem, he found an extremely high number of off-campus network requests coming into Keeney Quad, a predominantly freshman dorm. The source of most of these requests, Loftus discovered, was, a Web site for downloading MP3 music files off the Internet.

But how was a Web site managing to make requests from the Brown network? And why were the requests coming into a dorm that didn’t house computers designed to serve up information on the Internet? The answer, Loftus discovered, was in a free program available on the Napster Web site. The program, without the knowledge of the user, downloads MP3s from one computer to another as long as both computers are connected to the Internet. "After downloading just one song, your computer becomes a server," Loftus explains, "allowing other users to download that same song from your computer."

During installation of the Napster program, users can disable the program’s server function. But the students in Keeney, Loftus says, apparently either chose to leave the function turned on or didn’t realize what their computers were up to. "If they had," he adds, "we wouldn’t have seen the problem. A typical dorm has 4,500 computers, which meant there were now 4,500 potential music servers on our network."

The Napster traffic in and out of Keeney tapered off over winter break, but as soon as students came back in January, Loftus says, "departments on campus started to complain that they couldn’t get on the Internet for research or work." Loftus knew that restricting access to a Web site could be dicey -- Brown students don’t want to be told how to use their computers. But as network congestion worsened, he realized he had no choice: CIS cut off access to and from Napster.

At least some students seem to agree with the decision. "If you have a lot of people on campus trying to download MP3s then there’s not as much space left for people using it for more legitimate reasons," said computer science concentrator Robert Altschuler '01. "Besides, you can still use other sites."

In Loftus’s mind, the Napster block helped draw attention to an issue of growing importance for academic institutions: increased bandwidth. "With Napster, we were able to point at the problem and say, clearly, this application is not for academic purposes," he says. "But what if the next application comes along, and it really does have academic value?" The solution to this problem is Loftus’s next project -- an upgrade to the Brown network. Loftus and a team of engineers are also looking into implementing local access to Internet II, a network reserved for research and education.

Until Brown acquires more bandwidth, the block on Napster will remain, Loftus says, but the need for a beefed up network isn’t going away. "The way you can tell how things are going to be successful on the Internet is from how cool they are," Loftus says, "and Napster is very cool."

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March / April 2000