Gnutella was the first decentralized file sharing network. It celebrated a decade of existence on March 14, 2010. Once Audiogalaxy went down in 2002, it became my favorite service for clandestine file sharing. In late 2007, it was the most popular file sharing network on the Internet with an estimated market share of more than 40%. But nowadays, BitTorrent steals the limelight. How did that happen ?

Gnutella has structural scalability limitations that even its creator acknowledged from the very start. Over the years, major improvements were introduced, but search horizon and network size remain intrinsic limitations due to search traffic. On the other hand, BitTorrent outsourced much of the search and indexing of files to torrent web sites, only handling the actual distribution of data within the client.

Providing search across the indexes requires other parties to provide them, but that architectural constraint has paradoxically become a key driver of BitTorrent’s popularity by providing a simple business model. Ernesto at TorrentFreak explains that easy monetization explains the ubiquity of indexes : “BitTorrent sites can generate some serious revenue, enough to sustain the site and make a decent living. In general, ad rates per impression are very low, but thanks to the huge amounts of traffic it quickly adds up. This money aspect has made it possible for sites to thrive, and has also lured many gold diggers into starting a torrent site over the years“.

With commercial interests comes spam and legal vulnerabilities – so I feel much more comfortable knowing that decentralized protocols exist to provide resilience towards the censorship that lurks over us in the dark, waiting for us to become complacently reliant on centralized resources. Happy birthday Gnutella !