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What is a Peer to Peer Network?

By Jessica Reed
Updated May 16, 2024
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A peer to peer network, or P2P, allows communication between multiple networks without accessing one central network. The term is typically applied to computers sharing files among one another. For example, a person downloading a song on a peer to peer network would be downloading parts of the song from different computers at the same time, while others downloading the song would be downloading pieces from the person's computer at the same time.

There are several advantages to using a peer to peer network. If all those downloading are downloading from a single source, the source can crash and all the downloads will go down. With a peer to peer network, however, if one goes down, the download will continue from another computer that has the file. It also allows multiple people to both download and upload the same file at the same time. In a traditional setup with only one central server, the server would upload and the computers would download; the process could not run the other direction as it can in a peer to peer network.

Another advantage of the P2P network is that all participants are supplying necessary resources, such as bandwidth. Since everyone participates, the more people who show up, the more resources there are. Instead of the transfer or process slowing down as more people connect, the speed will stay the same and can even increase in speed. A central server cannot do this. If one person is downloading a song from another person, when more people with the song join, the download will go faster because it has more resources to pull from.

Disadvantages do exist in a P2P network, however. While it does allow for faster downloading and sharing, it also requires a large amount of bandwidth to support the file sharing between networks. As the technology continues to advance, P2P sharing will be possible without needing to use such a large amount of bandwidth. The second disadvantage is the potential to download or receive malicious files through the network. Since the person downloading is connecting to multiple sources, one of the sources may have a small piece of code transferred to several of the downloading computers that is intended to harm the computer or the file being downloaded.

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Discussion Comments
By Markerrag — On Dec 23, 2014

@Terrificli -- At the risk of starting a whole new discussion, I will mention that there are ways you can remotely monitor what your kids are up to and actually restrict what they do. Some people argue that such activities are spying and violate a kid's privacy.

That may be true, but you pointed out a good reason for parents to do that. If they have kids that are logging onto peer to peer networks and are downloading files like crazy, those parents could wind up in legal trouble.

The best thing they can do is actively monitor what their kids are up to online and restrict them from bad sites. They still might get on peer to peer networks, but at least a parent who tries to stop them can tell the authorities they tried to control what their kids do online. That might be enough to avoid criminal charges if junior gets caught with a bootleg copy of "Smokey and the Bandit" (or whatever).

By Terrificli — On Dec 22, 2014

@Soulfox -- You make some good points, and one of my biggest concerns about these peer to peer networks is that some kids just love the heck out of them. What if one of my kids is logged onto our home network, downloads a bunch of stolen music and is caught doing it?

I would be liable for that and that is a frightening thing.

Perhaps parents should be aware of how widespread illegal downloading is and that they could wind up in trouble if their kids are doing it. For that reason, it is a great idea to keep an eye on your kids' Internet activities.

By Logicfest — On Dec 22, 2014

@Soulfox -- But there are a lot of things shared legitimately through peer to peer networks. Take musicians who do not have record contracts, for example. They can still share their music through peer to peer networks and try to get some attention that way. The same goes for independent movie makers, authors and other folks.

Heck, when you head over to the Linux world, a log of legitimate software and entire operating systems are available for free (and legally) over peer to peer networks.

We have all heard the legal concerns over those networks and we should not play those down. However, there are some legitimate uses for those networks. It does not hurt to concentrate on those, does it?

By Soulfox — On Dec 21, 2014

Another huge disadvantage of a peer to peer network is that a lot of illegal files float through them. When you hear people complain about P2P sharing, that is the concern. A lot of movies, books, music, software and all sorts of things are available through those and the people sharing that stuff could get into serious legal trouble.

The last part of that is the one that often shocks people. Some folks grew up with these things and do not question why they are able to get things for free. They find out they are doing something wrong when the cops show up, though.

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