On the horizon: underlying P2P technologies

There are some exciting connectivity and software interface technologies that could give peer-to-peer connectivity a boost. So...

There are some exciting connectivity and software interface technologies that could give peer-to-peer connectivity a boost. So why aren't there any products asks Danny Bradbury.

Some companies have been exploring supporting mechanisms for P2P computing for a relatively long time. One such firm is Sun Microsystems, which has been running its Jini initiative for at least two years.

Jini is a P2P operating mechanism for compatible software and hardware to operate in unison over a network. Jini, which is a software layer sitting directly on top of Java, operates on a discovery/look-up basis; a device joining the network will declare itself to a look-up service, making itself available to other devices on the network. Other devices can then find the device on the network and use its services. Once the two devices have made contact, the look-up service ceases its involvement and lets them communicate directly, much like P2P file-sharing systems.

A real-world example of such a system could involve a person with a personal digital assistant (PDA) who attaches it to the network and finds a printer that is also attached. Using Jini, the PDA could send a file to the printer and have it printed before disconnecting.

Another technology focusing on device connectivity is the Universal Plug and Play standard (UPNP). More on this can be found at www.upnp. org. Introduced as a concept by Microsoft at the start of 1999, it is attempting to create a universally accepted standard that will enable devices to connect without using any software device drivers. It will also be transport-independent, meaning that you could connect over any communications medium, and that it could be implemented on any operating system using any language.

The first version of the standard was finalised in June 2000 and offers protocols for P2P device networking. Using the standard, devices can be plugged into networks and will simply start working after automatically obtaining an IP address, announcing itself on the network and declaring the services that it has to offer.

To make technologies such as this intuitive, wireless networking would be very useful. Several standards are emerging that make it possible to hook together devices without wires. One such standard is the 802.11 wireless network protocol, which enables a data throughput of 11mbps. Apple uses this in its Airport system.
Another wireless protocol is Bluetooth. This system has a lower throughput (1mbps) and a shorter range (about 10m), making it suitable for personal area networks, but this could be suitable for small office-based environments.

However, there is still a lack of visibility of most of these technologies in the public sphere. While many people have heard of Bluetooth, there are few, if any, devices available. One developer at the ACM1 Future of Computing Conference in San Jose in March told Computer Weekly that the main problem with Bluetooth was that there were too many companies attempting to contribute to the standard, which slowed it down.

This does not explain the lack of impetus behind Jini and UPNP, both of which have enjoyed public demonstrations, but for which there are few supporting products or services available. It seems that ubiquitous computing has yet to capture the public's attention.

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This was last published in July 2001

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