P2P storage: Can it beat the odds and take on the cloud?

In a world where IT is centralising, some companies have been trying to involve users by producing clouds based on peer-to-peer technology architectures. The past has shown it's not an easy trick to pull off.

All around us the Googles, Facebooks, Microsofts and Amazons are building datacentres so they can store companies' information, allowing organisations to spend less on their on-premise IT equipment.

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According to the digital cognoscenti, this breed of cloud computing is the way of the future. But what if there was another way to create a global cloud, one that didn't involve cementing the dominance of global technology companies like Microsoft, Google and their ilk? Would you use it?

Symform thinks you would. The three-year-old company told ZDNet this week that, as of 30 November, it is storing petabytes of information across 175 million files in a global peer-to-peer cloud. This data is not being stored in datacentres - as it is in the Amazon, Google and Microsoft clouds - but on the drives of servers, desktops and NAS boxes in 160 countries across the world.

The company is far from being the first to try to put the spare compute and storage capacity of people's machines to work, and judging from those who have gone before it, there's no easy path ahead.

P2P's mixed bag

Peer-to-peer architectures for computing have had variable success over the last decade.

There have been successes, like the distributed computing programs of SETI or Folding@home which use the spare compute cycles on people's machines to search for aliens or sequence proteins, but there have also been failures.

One would be Wuala, a P2P file storage technology developed by researchers at the University of Zurich that was spun off into its own company and subsequently brought by consumer storage giant Lacie. However, shortly after being bought, the peer-to-peer technology was shut down and the system was re-designed to operate from Wuala's datacentres.

Another service based on similar technology was All My Data, but that ran into funding difficulties and shut in 2010.

The majority of Symform's users are IT professionals or IT service provider companies

"The problems in all of these cases is an average consumer is not sophisticated enough and doesn't have enough data," Praerit Garg, the president and co-founder of Symform, says. "The complexity of the problem they tried to solve was too high."

To that end, Symform makes users sign the equivalent of a service-level agreement that sees them agree to provide 80-percent uptime from their Symform hardware over a two-month period. The majority of Symform's users are IT professionals or IT service provider companies. This strategy works because IT professionals are more likely to want a cloud data storage alternative to Amazon Web Services or another major cloud than a consumer, Garg says. 

These companies and individuals are "afraid of cloud because it marginalises their role. Here is a system they can be part of", he says. 

But will P2P be the success that its proponents hope?

"The challenge with P2P storage products is that the cost of storage is falling precipitously, making P2P storage often no more cost effective than cloud storage solutions," the chief executive of a cloud storage company who wished to be anonymous told ZDNet. "I have nothing against the model, it just hasn't worked out well in the past."