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Usenet – an introduction

An alternative method of filesharing to BitTorrent is Usenet, an internet communications system that pre-dates the World Wide Web, and which for a comparable monthly fee to VPN allows fast and secure downloading of a similar range of content.

What is Usenet?

Standing for ‘user’s network’, Usenet started off in the 1980s as a network of discussion boards where enthusiasts would read and post messages, arguing, debating and discussing just about every subject under the sun. Organized into a hierarchy of categories known as newsgroups, these acted (and still act) much like a modern day web forum, except that because they are distributed across a huge and ever changing range of different servers which store and forward the massages to each other in what are known as news feeds, there is no central server and no central newsgroup administrator.

This free-for-all lack of oversight meant that the anarchic Usenet prospered, even as the technology that supported it was overtaken and the public fell in love with the World Wide Web.

As hardware and internet capacity grew, it became increasingly possible to post computer files (known as binaries) to newsgroups, so that Usenet became, and remains, a popular alternative to BitTorrent for sharing files (discussion based newsgroups still exist, but have lost some of their popularity in recent years).

Downloading Binaries

To download files (binaries) using Usenet, you need a piece of software known as a newsreader. Technically, Usenet is a text-only system, so to get around this, files are converted into text files. Most servers limit text file size to 1000 words, so larger files are split into smaller 20 Mb pieces known as archives (or RAR archives), which modern newsreaders will download and automatically stich back together into a single file.

In the past, a single corrupted archive could screw up an entire download, but the invention of PAR files, which verify the entire download and re-download any corrupted archives, has largely fixed this problem. Again, this is usually done automatically and transparently by modern newsreaders.

Another past problem which has been overcome is finding the binaries you want. This used to involve hunting through promising news subdirectories (such as alt.binaries.music) until you found the file you were after, or else asking a group nicely, in the hope that someone would post them for you.

The development of NZB files however has largely solved this, as an NZB file contains all the information needed to download a binary. On a Usenet indexing website you can search for a file just as you would on BitTorrent tracker site, and simply import the NZB file into a newsreader and let the newsreader do the rest.

Usenet providers

Once you have a newsreader, you need a Usenet provider to give you access to newsgroups. Once upon a time nearly every ISP offered free newsgroup access to their customers, but this has almost completely disappeared. Free Usenet providers do exist, but they typically provide access to a very limited selection of newsgroups (and almost never provide access to binaries), and usually have very low retention times (often only days).

Retention time is how long a Usenet provider’s database keeps posts (including binaries) before deleting them to make room for more, and is one of the main limitations of Usenet. If your provider has deleted the files you want, then you will have to wait until someone reposts them again.

This however becomes much less of problem with modern commercial Usenet providers, as they now typically boast retention times  of between 3 months to 3 years or more! Commercial providers also typically have a huge database of available newsgroups (including all manner of binaries), provide encrypted end-to-end connections, usually also act as NZB indexers, and often provide their own custom newsreader software.

Conclusion

Usenet is a highly mature technology that’s great for filesharing. It also costs roughly the same each month as a VPN service, which many people use mainly to protect themselves when P2P filesharing using BitTorrent.

The obvious question then is, which is better? The answer is less than clear-cut, and involves many swings and roundabouts, so we have decided to write a companion – VPN vs. Usenet – the face-off!. Check it out.


Douglas Crawford I am a freelance writer, technology enthusiast, and lover of life who enjoys spinning words and sharing knowledge for a living. Find me on Google+

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