Internet communication happens so fast today that you might think that you are directly communicating with the other side. However, this is usually not the case and instead, data that you send from your computer first goes to a centralized server before it reaches the recipient.
This is called a “centralized” or “client-server” network
However, in some cases, such as when we want to directly share a file from one computer to the other, we don’t need a central server and instead a so-called peer-to-peer network is established.
So what is a peer-to-peer network, how does it work, what is the difference between P2P and centralized networks and is email communication done peer-to-peer?
Let’s begin by explaining what is a peer-to-peer network.
A peer-to-peer or P2P network is one in which two or more computers are connected and share their resources without a central server in between them.
For example, when you connect your smartphone to another phone via Bluetooth to share files, you are creating a peer-to-peer network between the two devices.
Or, if you connect two computers via a USB to transfer files, you are also creating a P2P network.
The idea of a peer-to-peer network is that each computer in the network is considered equal and communication between computers is done in both ways. However, the appearance of the web browser changed all that and as content distribution became more important, we saw a shift from peer-to-peer to client-server networks.
But this wasn’t the end of the peer-to-peer network.
People still needed a way to share files quickly and in the late 1990s and early 2000s, we witnessed the arrival of peer-to-peer file-sharing networks such as Napster, Kazaa and BitTorrent.
Very soon, users started seeing these P2P networks as superior and faster when it comes to sharing files than a client-server network and many of them are still widely used today by users all over the Internet.
We already explained that, in a peer-to-peer (P2P) network, two or more computers interact with each other directly and without a middleman between them.
With a server-based or client-server network, all computers in the network are connected to a central computer called a “server”. This means that all data that is sent by one computer goes through that server before it can be received by another computer in that network.
For example, when you want to visit a webpage, like Telios.io, you don’t directly interact with that website but instead, the client (your browser) sends a request to the server on which the website is hosted and the server in return sends a response by downloading a copy of the webpage to your machine which is then shown in your web browser.
Another type of network-based centralized and decentralized or peer-to-peer is a distributed network.
As this type of network is often confused with a peer-to-peer network it’s useful to understand the differences between the two as well.
In a distributed network, all parts of the network are considered nodes and can interact with one another like in a peer-to-peer network. The difference here is that some of those nodes can temporarily become server nodes themselves to coordinate other nodes in the sub-network.
Here are some examples and uses of peer-to-peer networks:
BitTorrent BitTorrent is perhaps the best example of how different clients can interact and share files in a peer-to-peer network. In fact, it is estimated that BitTorrent itself is responsible for more than 70% of all peer-to-peer traffic on the Internet.
Zoom When it comes to video-sharing and communication, having a central server through which the communication would happen would be detrimental and would seriously slow down the communication. Instead, users can share video and audio seamlessly with each other using a P2P network through the Zoom app.
Of course, this goes for other video conferencing apps like Skype, Loom and more.
- Windows Windows gives several examples of a peer-to-peer network, especially with Windows 7 and Windows 8 versions.
First, in Windows 7, Windows 8 and Windows 10 (prior to version 1803) you could connect all computers in your home to a Homegroup and create a peer-to-peer network in which they can share storage and other resources.
Another example of a P2P network in Windows is also creating an ad-hoc network through WiFi on Windows 7 and Windows 8.
- Online Gaming Platforms Although plenty of online gaming platforms like GoG and Steam use dedicated servers instead of P2P, some major publishers prefer a peer-to-peer architecture. One such is Blizzard, which distributes its games through a P2P network.
Peer-to-peer network architecture has its advantages over both centralized and distributed architecture, but even it is not perfect and has some disadvantages as well.
Let’s see what does advantages and disadvantages are:
- There are no expenses to maintain a central server
- If one part of the network fails, the rest is unaffected, making it more reliable
- It’s easier to set up and implement than a client-server network
- Less technical staff is needed and each user gets to set their own permissions as they see fit
- Downloading files may not be affected by the Internet speed
- It’s scalable. If extra clients are added, the networks’ performance doesn’t change
- The performance of a network degrades as more devices are added to it
- No central backup. Instead, the only way to backup files is to store them on individual computers in the network
- P2P networks lack security as each user is responsible for their end to assign access permissions and avoid viruses and malware that can spread throughout the network
- It is possible to get remote access to a terminal in a P2P network without permission thanks to unsecured and unsigned codes
So what about email? Is it peer-to-peer?
Traditional email services, like Gmail, YahooMail and even secure email services like Proton and Tutanota all require a central server to store data.
This means that, when you send an email to another person, that message first goes through the server before it reaches them.
Telios, however, uses a peer-to-peer network, which means that your emails can go to the intended recipient faster and vice versa and as a result, all your email content and metadata remain private.