The Large-File Problem
5/18/2006

There are two ways to send big files to friends and colleagues: using a central server or via a point-to-point connection. We explain which method is right for today.

'Can you send me those photos?' I'm confident that's one of the most common things people hear at parties or events these days. You bring a camera, take a few good pictures, and the next thing you know you're committing to emailing 30 megabytes of images. Eventually this will start happening with video clips, too. But you know what a hassle it is to email big files: somewhere along the line, it's likely that a server will choke on your large transfer.

Several companies offer ways around using email to send files. They fall into two main camps: centralised and point-to-point (or peer-to-peer, depending on how you look at them). The new P2P applications are more technically advanced, and there is a lot of investment going into P2P start-ups. But I recommend that users who just want to send, or get, a bunch of large image files stick to the older -- and somewhat more pedestrian - centralised solutions for now.

Central storage
In the centralised camp, there are companies such as DropLoad, DropSend, YouSendIt, SendThisFile and Streamload. With these utilities, you upload your big files to the Web (generally it's quite easy to do so); then on the Web site, you say who you want to receive the files. Your recipient gets email from you with a link to the files. Only Web addresses go via email, so no servers or services are likely to block the messages.

This method has several advantages: there's no downloadable application to worry about on either the sender's or the receiver's side (except with DropSend, which has an application for uploading files). These services are easy to use. Senders don't have to be online when the receiver picks up the files. Centralised servers should also offer reliable and consistent transfer rates. But there are also disadvantages: Files are stored centrally, so you will not want to use this method to transfer sensitive data. And since somebody has to pay for storage and bandwidth, you get limited capabilities for free -- premium plans get you more storage, bandwidth or access to your files (Web 2.0 jargon alert: this free-to-premium escalation plan is being called the 'freemium' model).

P2P - the next big thing
P2P alternatives to centralised file transfer tools include Pando and WiredReach's BoxCloud, which are available today; AllPeers and Perenety, which are in closed testing; and Microsoft's new Windows Live Messenger. These tools send files from PC to PC -- nothing is stored on a central server (Pando, interestingly, uses BitTorrent technology, but it hides the technical details from the user).

Like the centralised systems, the P2P transfer tools use email messages to alert recipients when they are sent a file, but from that point, everything is different. Some of these systems, such as Pando, require that the recipient run an application to download the file. This application is easy to install, but it does set off security alerts, so I would be hesitant to send a Pando link to a non-technical user. On others, such as BoxCloud, the download is handled through a browser.

Advantages: since the sharing system doesn't store and transmit files itself, there's no reason to have limits on file sizes or bandwidth; the load is distributed around the Net. Disadvantages: users need to install an application to either upload or download files (or do both); and in some systems, both the sender and the receiver need to be online at the same time.

Eventually, when everyone is online all the time with reliable and fast two-way Internet connections, P2P will be the way to go for nearly all file transfers. But for sharing files today with people who aren't technically adept or who aren't online all the time, the centralised systems are a better bet.




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