March 4, 2002 2:20 PM PST

New Morpheus struggles under load

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Morpheus is back from the dead. Or is it?

That's the informal debate being waged online by a vocal contingent of file swappers, who for the past three days have been trying out a hastily produced upgrade to the most popular file-swapping service to arise since Napster's demise.

For now, the upgrade has resuscitated the struggling file-swapping service: Since it was released on Friday, the software has been downloaded more than 8 million times, according to CNET Download.com.

But the consensus emerging from these early reports does not bode well for struggling StreamCast Networks, which is fighting mightily to keep Morpheus operational after it was mysteriously shut down early last week.

"I realize that the release of this version was moved up because of outside influences, but that only excuses so much," one user going by the name of "Ghostwheel" wrote in a typical negative review posted on Download.com, a software aggregation site run by News.com publisher CNET Networks.

The first few weeks that Morpheus' new software is in use will likely prove a crucial test, both for the company and for the broader file-swapping world. Users of this kind of software have shown themselves willing to find alternatives fairly quickly when one program proves sluggish. With Sharman Networks' Kazaa now aggressively courting Morpheus users, each company stands to win--or lose--millions of users.

But the transition, which involved stripping out the old Morpheus software and replacing it with open-source Gnutella file-trading technology--is proving rough.

"It's like if the rest of the United States moved to California," said Kelly Truelove, an independent peer-to-peer analyst. "There's going to be some stress on the infrastructure."

Still, early user reviews e-mailed to News.com and posted on Download.com indicate that StreamCast has an uphill fight.

"I feel cheated, if that's possible, with something that's free," said a user going by the name of "Chazspain." "This a total downgrade...just another faceless Gnutella file-sharing program now. Hopefully it's just temporary until they get their act together."

StreamCast has made it clear that this is a rushed edition, released before it was fully ready. The company said it plans to fix problems and appealed to visitors for patience and support.

"Keep in mind that this is only our preview edition," the company told its users on its Web site this weekend. "Anytime change occurs, many object and think the old version was better...Since our company and your P2P network are being attacked, we would appreciate your constructive comments for improvement, not simply criticisms."

After initial confusion over the cause of last week's shutdown, StreamCast CEO Steve Griffin is leveling accusations of interference at Dutch company Kazaa BV, which created the software originally licensed to create Morpheus.

On Friday, Griffin said there had been some dispute over StreamCast's payments of licensing fees to Kazaa BV. But he said that disabling Morpheus software would have violated Kazaa BV's contract.

Executives from Kazaa BV could not be reached for comment.

New test for Gnutella
The migration of hundreds of thousands or even millions of visitors at once to the Gnutella network is a severe test for a technology that has rarely seen usage rise above tens of thousands of users at a time.

Gnutella's technology, unlike Napster's more well-known system, is based on a wholly decentralized model. If one computer logs in, for example, it connects directly to another computer on the network rather than to a central server maintained by a company. Individual searches are handed off from computer to computer as well, instead of being indexed by a central database.

In the past that has led to network traffic jams, as slow modems or out-of-date computers have acted as bottlenecks in the network, slowing it or making it difficult to use. The most prominent modern versions of Gnutella-based software, such as LimeWire and BearShare, have added traffic-cop features intended to ameliorate these problems.

Morpheus' new software is based on a Gnutella version dubbed "Gnucleus," which is largely the product of a college student named John Marshall.

The Gnucleus software was originally written more than a year ago, and it lacks some of the modern traffic-directing features of other commercial Gnutella programs, such as LimeWire and BearShare. That's been responsible for some of the slowdowns and the dropped connections that people are experiencing, other developers said.

"Morpheus users are basically experiencing the old, traditional style of Gnutella," said LimeWire Chief Technical Officer Greg Bildson. "It's fairly well-designed, but maybe they're getting less response and using more bandwidth than they would with other programs."

Bildson estimated that the overall Gnutella network might have reached close to 500,000 users online simultaneously, where it once averaged about 50,000 people at a time.

Marshall said Monday that he and other developers were learning from the influx of thousands or even millions of users to the Gnutella network, and would likely add new features to their software similar to the traffic-directing capabilities of LimeWire. But on the whole they were happy with the network's performance.

"The network is holding up," Marshall said. "It's not in danger of failing. But there are improvements we'll be making over the next week."

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keep morpheus
refuse to move
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