Harnessing the power of corporate P2P

Peer-to-peer applications are trickling through corporate networks and the Internet in a revolution that will make network computing more efficient and - some say - better.
Written by Todd Spangler, Contributor

Here stands the manager of corporate information systems: an autocrat, a dictator of data who rules with an iron fist.

It's nothing to be ashamed of. In fact, it's probably in the job description. Order and predictability have always been business imperatives in managing information technologies, which has led to aggregating data on massive, powerful and centralised computers -- the ubiquitous client-server model.

Now the walls of the information technology glass house are being cracked open by peer-to-peer (P2P), a distributed information architecture that seems, at first glance, to be chaotic, unstable, uncontrollable -- everything a responsible IT professional would avoid.

But in fact, P2P can offer powerful new ways of computing. Because it's an architecture that distributes application intelligence and processing tasks to a multitude of network-connected PCs, P2P-based applications can potentially be much faster, more scalable and reliable, and more cost-effective than client-server applications. A hive of bees will always be smarter than any single bee, to paraphrase John Sculley, a partner at investment firm Sculley Brothers and former chief executive of Apple.

Many of the world's biggest technology companies -- Microsoft and Intel among them -- have already internalised the idea that P2P computing will be central to the next generation of Internet applications.

These true believers see P2P applications starting to trickle through corporate networks and the Internet in a stealthy, grassroots revolution that will make network computing more efficient, more interactive, more fun -- in short, better. They want you to join the P2P movement, and they want you to believe that it's inevitable, because if this really is the dawn of a computing sea change, they want to profit as your P2P partner from early on.

"I don't think there's any space that will deal with the Internet that will not be affected by peer-to-peer or distributed computing architectures," said Barry Bellue, president chief executive of Thinkstream, a startup that has developed a distributed search technology. "This is the only way to manage the ever-exploding amount of data in the world."

A quick status report: Intel, Microsoft, Sun Microsystems and a swarm of startups became captivated last year by an idea popularised by Napster, the freely distributed and anarchic -- in fact, technically illegal -- music trading service invented by a college student from Boston.

What the anticapitalist exercise of Napster demonstrated to the world -- besides the timeless allure of getting something for nothing -- was that the conditions were right for a new class of Internet computing. Other experiments fuelled interest in P2P, notably the University of California at Berkeley's SETI@home distributed computing project, which is not technically P2P but showed it was possible to tap into the latent power of Net-connected PCs.

The big idea these applications share is that they connect previously isolated PCs dotted across the Net. PCs have become increasingly powerful in recent years, with faster processors, fatter hard drives and better Internet connectivity. This confluence of factors means ordinary computers can become active servers, not just passive clients, on the network. In a P2P model, PCs become "the dark matter of the Internet", in the words of Clay Shirky, a partner at investment firm Accelerator Group.

Actually, P2P isn't a new concept. It dates back decades; the earliest Internet programs communicated from computer to computer, with no server required in between to facilitate the connection. Indeed, one of the breakthroughs of ARPANet, the precursor to the Internet, was that it was based on the concept of connecting computers as equal peers.

But P2P has won fresh attention because it represents, in effect, the inverse of the client-server model that has dominated the way most Internet applications work today. The most widely used Internet applications are email and the World Wide Web, both of which depend on big, expensive servers sprinkled throughout the Internet cloud. Users connect to them using relatively lightweight, dumb-terminal-like apps.

With the Web, the client's main function has been to display information, rather than process it or distribute it to other machines. With P2P, generally speaking, clients are like worker bees that handle the bulk of an application's processing and data transfer, while centralized servers simply coordinate the hive's activity.

P2P is, more than anything else, a new way of thinking about how Internet applications function and communicate.

"The Web is dumb clients talking to smart servers," said Charles Fitzgerald, director of platform strategies in Microsoft's .Net group. "We want smart clients talking to smart servers, smart servers talking to smart servers and smart clients talking to smart clients."

Clearly, P2P is neither a discrete technology nor a single application. It will not replace the Web, nor will it mean the death of server-based computing. And it does not appear likely to spawn an entirely new industry, as some people once thought would happen with Napster. Companies that are succeeding in selling software-based P2P concepts generally don't call themselves "peer-to-peer companies".

"I don't think peer-to-peer, in and of itself, is an industry," said Michael Tanne, chief executive of XDegrees, a start-up developing P2P software and infrastructure services. "It enables new capabilities. There are real benefits to peer-to-peer, and its influence will be felt greatly in the next few years. But if you're using peer-to-peer in a music application, you're a music company."

What's so radical about P2P? It's simply a new way of doing things we've always used the Internet and other networks for -- to exchange and find data, or to collaborate remotely -- making use of distributed, interconnected computers to do those things faster, more flexibly and more dynamically.

"Peer-to-peer is a side effect of the increased availability of ubiquitous networking," said Tim O'Reilly, president of publishing and software company O'Reilly & Associates, who has been a central figure in the nascent development of P2P technologies. "These paradigm shifts happen gradually. Then people go, 'What were we thinking?' It took a long time after the PC came out before the minicomputer vendors realised the world had changed forever."

It's too soon to declare P2P the greatest Internet development since the Web, as some people -- including Intel chairman Andy Grove -- have. In any case, P2P will fast become an important part of Internet business, exploiting the power of the computer masses. Vive la revolution!

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