Video-sharing software chokes network

The beleaguered Williams computer network, after more than a week of painfully slow internet access, is now running about ten times faster. The vast improvement comes from the Office of Information Technology’s (OIT) implementation of a bandwidth shaper, which limits entertainment file-sharing and transfers to a maximum of a third of the College’s bandwidth capacity.

According to Mark Berman, director of Networks and Systems at the OIT, arriving students’ heavy usage of file-transfer programs such as Kazaa, and especially the transfer of movie files (mpegs) on these programs, caused the internet connection problem, whose worst phase lasted from Sept. 4 through Sept. 11.

“There has been a huge swing from a year ago, from mostly music being transferred [using the College network] to mostly movies being transferred,” said Berman.

Last year, the network proved itself capable of handling a large amount of traffic caused by music files (mp3’s). Mp3’s typically occupy two to four megabytes worth of disk space, and the College’s 12 megabit connection could complete most mp3 transfers within several minutes of a request. Advances in file-transfer technology, however, have facilitated the transfer of mpeg files, resulting in a small crisis for the OIT in the first week of the new semester. New and returning file-sharing students, perhaps already satisfied with massive mp3 collections, devoted their time and the network’s bandwidth to downloading mpeg files, which typically occupy as much as thousand times more memory than mp3 files.

“This year [our previous system] didn’t work, so when students came back, the response just went ’boom,’” said Berman.

The deluge of requests to download mpeg files and a simultaneous surge in requests from file-sharers outside the network for mpeg uploads quickly overwhelmed the College’s network. At one point, 98 percent of the College’s available bandwidth was constantly in use. As a result, regular internet traffic slowed to a crawl, and in some instances, a standstill.

“Mpeg files can take a day to download,” said Berman. “They were grabbing their bandwidth and staying there – they weren’t giving it up.”

The OIT’s solution was to implement a bandwidth shaper starting last Wednesday morning, and the College’s internet connection speeds have improved since then. The bandwidth shaper functions by differentiating between file-share requests and regular web traffic on the network. At any given time, only four megabits maximum of the College’s 12 megabit connection can be used for file-sharing purposes. At least eight megabits will be allotted to regular internet traffic. The results so far have been longer waits for those engaged in file-sharing, but a much more rapid internet connection for non-file-sharing users.

A Record test of the College’s connection speed using a bandwidth checker revealed that the connection is now normally running at 20-30 kilobits/second (kb/s), a jump from the 3 kb/s speed recorded during the first week of the semester. A 20-30 kb/s is close to ten times faster than a typical modem connection from home.

Other colleges and universities have reported similar internet connection problems to Williams. At Amherst College, where no bandwidth shaper is yet in place, the connection speed has been recorded at 2 kb/s. Hampshire College, where file-sharing is banned, has recorded its connection in the 30-40 kb/s range. Mt. Holyoke College’s network is running at about 40 kb/s, while the larger Columbia University’s connection is slightly faster, at an average of 50 kb/s. These readings all represent a significant drop from highs of the previous two semesters.

Information technology offices at colleges around the country are taking steps to warn students about the dangers of file sharing software such as Kazaa. Duke University’s OIT, which sees file-share uploads by users outside its network as the greatest threat to its connection speed, uses this analogy to caution students to disable uploads when they use file-share programs: “You live in a house and everyone wants to see how the inside is decorated. Allowing uploads from your computer is like leaving the front door open and inviting the world to walk through it. The whole world cannot fit through the door at the same time and there is a lot of pushing and shoving to get through. Tempers flare. Rioting ensues. Your interior decorating is trashed.”

At Cornell University, the administration is cooperating with an injunction from record companies to discipline and halt the illegal activities of file-sharers on the Cornell network. About 25 students have been notified by Cornell’s Judicial Administrator (JA) so far this year that they must halt file-sharing activities or face fines and possible expulsion from the Cornell network.

Another problem with file-sharing, according to the Berman, is that advances in technology are likely to lead to users transferring larger and larger files. “It’s going to be a continuous and increasing problem for us to figure out how to manage our bandwidth so that all (network users) get what they need,” he said.

The College’s current internet connection, which is bought from Berkshire Connect and costs $65,000 per year, may soon become obsolete.

“We can expect that sometime in the future we’ll throw money at the problem and buy more bandwidth,” said Berman.