The peer-to-peer (P2P) networking model, so successfully exploited by music "sharing" pioneer Napster, is being hailed by some in the industry as a paradigm which is set to change IT in the same way as the Internet has done.
The recent release of Rumor - a distribution system for anti-virus patches - was dubbed "Napster in pinstripes" by its distributor myCIO, a subsidiary of Network Associates.
P2P networking is starting to make ripples because it promises reductions in bandwidth usage as well as network and storage cost savings.
Computers networked together do not behave in a client-server relationship - each is, to some extent, the server for the others and no centralised server is involved. The user in a P2P network installs the appropriate software and is then able to see the contents of another's hard drive, or at least those files and folders specified by the other user.
Two basic models have emerged, with Napster using a central server to speed initial contact between peers, and Gnutella, a similar Web-based file sharing service, relying on a completely distributed network without any intermediary servers.
Potential worries include security and bandwidth constraints as a large number of users try to communicate simultaneously.
Graham Fisher, an analyst with Bloor Research, said, "The model is inspired by Napster and is suitable for certain applications. Security needs a lot of consideration because P2P means opening yourself up to the whole Internet, potentially, and bottlenecks in network traffic are also a threat."
MyCIO's Rumor uses the P2P model to distribute security updates automatically, unlike existing methods of patch distribution which are carried out manually. When the first user logs on to the network, Rumor checks the networked peers for a copy of the update. If no copy is found, the system automatically contacts myCIO's Web site, checks for a new update, authenticates the user, and the update provided is installed on the user's local drive.
When the next user logs in, Rumor again sends a message to other peers on the Lan asking whether there are any new myCIO updates. Finding one on the first user's disc, the update patch copies it and passes it to the requesting system - and so the process continues as other users log on.
The company claims to have overcome the security problem through the use of a proprietary digital signature which only allows the transfer of a limited number of file types - software updates, configuration updates or user notifications, for example.
Another recent development in the P2P realm is Groove Networks, from the developer of Lotus Notes Ray Ozzie. He claims that the P2P platform will be as ubiquitous as the browser and e-mail.
Groove allows user-limited group members to collaborate on shared tasks, with accounts able to be accessed from more than one device.
For the time being, the possibilities for P2P working are most successfully being carried out in the processor power sharing arena. Here, the power of thousands of devices is being harnessed to undertake complex batch processing work (see box).
A long-running example of this is the Seti@home screensaver. This is a massive network that anyone can join to play a small part in the search for evidence of extra terrestrial life.
When the PC signals that it is at rest, through powering up the screensaver, causes data, originally drawn from radio signals from space, to be automatically downloaded and processed in 300Kbyte chunks. The processed data is then returned to the agency and the process continues until the PC starts to be used locally again.
Intel hails P2P future
In August, Intel's chief technology officer Patrick Gelsinger described P2P networking as a technology that would change computing as we know it, claiming that it would have an impact equivalent to the first Web browser. He said that, for some applications, P2P would lessen storage requirements and enhance network performance. He backed this up with figures that showed that Intel's company workstations were idle 75% of the time, and its servers 50% of the time. This spare capacity is now being used through Intel's power distribution package Netbatch, which is solving 2.7 million problems a month and has realised savings of $0.5bn (£352m) in equipment costs.