There once was a time when one could simply throw a disc – floppy or otherwise – into a machine and enjoy software functionality right off the bat. Those days have long gone.
Massive complexity, online connectivity and associated cloud features have given way to a culture of almost continual updates with some component or other requiring a ‘fix’ or performance-based software upgrade on an annoyingly regular basis.
While huge technology companies have plenty of bandwidth at their disposal, shifting data around doesn’t come free. It is relatively cheap, granted, but those bits and bytes soon cause the dollars to mount up. Much ‘better’ then, is to try and offload some of that load onto consumers.
It could be that with its upcoming Windows 10, Microsoft is mulling doing just that. Deep in the settings of a leaked build spotted by Neowin, the company has introduced settings which give users the option of where to obtain updates and apps for their new operating system.
Download apps and OS updates from multiple sources to get them more quickly
Of course, this is where distributed BitTorrent-like systems come into their own, with each user helping to share the load of shifting around data and providing excellent speeds, without any single entity (in this case Microsoft) footing the lion’s share of the bills.
If Microsoft did choose BitTorrent, they would be in excellent company. Half a decade ago it was revealed that Twitter had implemented the protocol and in the same year Facebook confirmed deploying its own servers with technology.
“It’s ‘superduper’ fast and it allows us to alleviate a lot of scaling concerns we’ve had in the past, where it took forever to get code to the webservers before you could even boot it up and run it,” the company said at the time.
But even though Facebook is still having fun with torrent technology to this day, it seems likely that Microsoft has its own, more proprietary tricks up its sleeve.
More than a decade ago with BitTorrent in its infancy, Microsoft also began looking at developing P2P distribution. Researcher Christos Gkantsidis published his paper Network Coding for Large Scale Content Distribution which begins with a now very familiar concept.
“We propose a new scheme for content distribution of large files that is based on network coding. With network coding, each node of the distribution network is able to generate and transmit encoded blocks of information. The randomization introduced by the coding process eases the scheduling of block propagation, and, thus, makes the distribution more efficient,” the paper’s abstract reads.
In 2006, Microsoft published Anatomy of a P2P Content Distribution System with Network Coding but by then the existence of a Microsoft equivalent to BitTorrent was public knowledge – Project Avalanche had been born.
Named after traditional avalanches that start small but gain massive momentum as more snow (or peers) get involved, Avalanche claimed it would improve on BitTorrent in a number of ways. At the time, however, BitTorrent’s Bram Cohen criticized the project technically and concluded that it amounted to vaporware.
But today in 2015, almost ten years on, things have definitely changed. Although there is no confirmation that Avalanche (or the Microsoft Secure Content Downloader as it was once described) is behind the Windows 10 update process option, there’s little doubt that Microsoft will have sharpened its tools.
In addition, Microsoft owns patents (1,2) which describe DRM-protected P2P distribution systems which could potentially help to keep any P2P Windows 10 update system secure, a requirement predicted by Avalanche years before.
“The Avalanche model includes strong security to ensure content providers are uniquely identifiable, and to prevent unauthorized parties from offering content for download. The project also ensures content downloaded to each client machine is exactly the same as the content shared by the content provider,” Microsoft said.
Only time will tell if Microsoft takes the distributed update route for its eventual release of Windows 10, and whether avalanches or torrents cascade into (and out of) homes worldwide as a result.