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Protocol Agnostic, or Protocol Indifferent?

6/20/2008 8:00 PM Eastern

Here's one that seems to be popping up with increasing frequency: “protocol agnostic.” It hails from the broadband side of the house. It travels closely with the term “peer to peer (P2P).”

“Protocol agnostic” is a Comcast term, invented to describe its efforts to manage extreme congestion in the network — and especially congestion caused by peer-to-peer (P2P) traffic. Like Time Warner Cable, with its Texas test, and Rogers Cable, to the north — and now AT&T on the telco side — the idea is to handle heavy users one by one, during peak congestion, regardless of which protocols go with the applications they're using.

It's sort of like when you go to the gas station to fill up, but the pump doesn't let you buy more than $75 — except in this case, P2P partakers want SUV gas quantities, with Prius economics. If that drains the supply for the guy in line behind you? Tough.

Ditto for bandwidth and peer-to-peer applications. Refresher: P2P works by linking constituent PCs to work like servers and clients, unattended, all day, all night, to share files and content. Each computer is a peer to the next. Plunk a broadband pipe in the middle, and the usage levels get pretty high (understatement).

How high? Throughput trackers say that 5% of customers are using 50% of capacity.

Worst case I've heard of so far: A cable modem that moved 4.3 Terabytes in a month. That's equivalent to about 33 DVDs a day, for a month.

Enter “protocol agnostic.” To break it down, a protocol is a digital word. It's a set of rules defining how two or more pieces of equipment (or applications) “talk” to each other about how to exchange data. Protocols govern things like packet size, how errors are handled, and what to do when a transmission path gunks up.

Agnostic, on the other hand, is a philosophy word. It describes the states of doubt and disbelief. As a word person, “agnostic” doesn't quite work for me, because there's no doubting that P2P can gum up the system. Maybe “protocol indifferent”?

Regardless — protocol agnostic says forget the protocols. Peer, shmeer. If you're using too much, you're using too much.

The trick is how to set the ceiling on “too much,” in a broadband world that's already moving HD content and a consumer-electronics world already selling consumer-grade HDTV cameras for less than $1,000.

Stumped by gibberish? Visit Leslie Ellis at www.translation-please.com.

September