BitTorrent and the case against cloud computing

With everyone talking breathlessly about cloud computing, it seems I rarely hear this mega-trend being called into question. The advantages of moving your computing onto the Internet seem clear: Lower costs, more efficient management of resources. What’s not to like?

According to BitTorrent CEO Eric Klinker, the answer is: Plenty.

I had a fascinating conversation with Klinker about the state of his company, BitTorrent of San Francisco, which became the basis for my Sunday column about how TV remains the dominant way we consume video.

But one subject that didn’t fit into the column was Klinker’s views on cloud computing. In short, he sees the move to cloud computing to be a trend that runs counter to the very nature of the Internet.

“Cloud computing is a harkening back to centralizing everything,” Klinker said. “That’s just not the model that made the Internet so powerful.”

Some background: BitTorrent is a private company based in San Francisco that evolved out of the creation of the BitTorrent protocol early last decade. That protocol is open to use across the Web, and remains the primary way video is distributed. The protocol uses file sharing technology to transfer large files directly between users’ computers, rather than storing the content on a central server. A user finds a “torrent” and the protocol finds other computers that are sharing that piece of content (which could be a video, audio, photo or other file) and then downloads it piece by piece.

BitTorrent was a source of a lot of piracy accusations in the early days. The private company Klinker runs emerged out of that to create legitimate services for people to use on top of the protocol. The company now has about 40 employees.

In Klinker’s view, the problem with cloud computing is that it creates a centralized system where companies and people are placing their content or IT infrastructure in a handful of companies and services. Klinker argues that the Internet was built on a distributed model, rather than this centralized one.

The first problem the centralized cloud model creates is that you invest a large amount of power and control in the hands of just a few large players. They store your data, and your users’ data, and that creates a “temptation to look at all of that.”

The other big problem is that the cloud model is driving the creation of massive numbers of data centers which require enormous power to run and cool. “More data centers mean more power plants,” Klinker said.

Instead, Klinker remains convinced that the way to drive the next era of the Internet’s growth is to re-focus on the distributed model of file sharing.

“File sharing is the crowd sourcing of infrastructure,” Klinker said. “It’s a more powerful, distributed model.”

What do you think? Are we following the industry blindly into the cloud? Or is Klinker overstating the threat?

 

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  • Super6

    He makes an interesting point, but, speaking from a small to medium sized business perspective, the economics are not on his side.

    The distributed model requires expensive resources to keep up with the network, hardware and software demands of high use applications. For startups and the SME crowd, these resources take away from the company’s ability to focus on their core competency, and ultimately put at risk the company’s ability to perform at optimal levels.

    The cloud allows smaller companies to focus on their core stuff and forget the rest. While security and power usage is always going to be a concern, it doesn’t outweigh the simple fact that applications built in the cloud are cheaper, faster and more reliable than trying to do it on your own. We pick vendors we trust, and we go from there. In fact, I trust my business cloud vendors a lot more than I trust Facebook…

    I am building my second IT infrastructure in the cloud and there’s no way I’m going back – I am getting the company I work for to leverage technology at an adoption rate that would have been unheard of even 5 years ago.

  • Imran

    Cloud computing makes sense for certain applications like collaboration platforms, payroll, CRM etc. But certainly not for transacting large files or confidential data. I agree with Eric, regarding the centralized model and its problems. I also strongly believe in distributed model and have thus created a fantastic piece of file sharing and transfer application called Binfer [http://www.binfer.com]. Two key factors why distributed computing will work for file sharing applications: 1. Increase in bandwidth speed and its accessibility & 2. Powerful computers, that are as powerful as the servers of yesteryear. If people can transfer data directly, privately & at super fast speeds, there is no reason to waste the time and take the risk of uploading your files on some untrusted cloud computer.

  • I think there are some good points made in the article, but I confess I’m not entirely convinced. Overall, I agree with Super6 – cloud computing is a great way to lower costs for small companies and let them focus on their core competencies (rather than worry about their servers). Pick trustworthy, competent vendors, and make sure not to put all your eggs in one basket (ie: don’t use one vendor for several functions). I personally use sites like http://www.mint.com and http://www.filesdirect.com, and find them to be useful, safe, powerful tools.

  • Alex

    Yawn, complete bull. More data centers = more power plants misses the mark completely; why is the demand for computing resources a function of its’ location? It is not. First let’s establish that if there is a demand for more computers there is a demand for more electricity. Large central data centers are actually more efficient than many small decentralized ones because the overhead associated per square foot is reduced as the center gets larger (note! I did not say the BTU requirements got less, but the centers get more efficient and are designed more effectively).

    Did Klinker miss the outsourcing trend that gripped the nation years ago and still causes waves every time a bean counter gets a promotion? Cloud computing is no different, if you are ignorant enough to put your company data in the hands of and outsourcer, ASP provider, hosting company then you’ll do the same with a cloud company.

  • Greater centralization equates to increased erosion of privacy. Even with stringent privacy laws, whenever the temptation exists it will be exploited lawfully or otherwise. There’s a lot to be said for the existing decentralized system of data storage, regardless of it’s inefficiencies.

  • Alex,

    I support your point here. and also one more thing, cloud computing is enabled by virtualization technology as a core building block. in which consolidation of servers is a key, and accordingly the less needs of power and electricity for the same workload demands hosted by fewer number of consolidated virtual servers in these data centers.

    Best Regards,
    Mohamed El-Refaey

  • Mr. Joe

    Finally, someone who also sees the light. Cloud computing is exactly as he says – centralized servers somewhere serving up apps and data. Control and security issues are quite obvious. OTOH, torrents (private or public) can really harness the entire internet. Further, security is completely a non-issue since only small fragments of the complete data are visible. I wonder about the latency in reassembling data on the client side, especially with apps – this may be a signficant block – but I’m pretty sure the torrent dev teams will come up with yet another really cool way to eliminate this challenge.

    I’m betting the whole cloud hype (it’s nothing more than a remote terminal session from the old days using Exceed) will get replaced by a torrents system in 2-3 years. Can’t wait…riding the real power of the Internet.

    Cheers,

    Joe

 
 
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