Share and share alike

Peer-to-peer networking has taken centre stage thanks to Napster, but it also has significant possibilities in a corporate...

Peer-to-peer networking has taken centre stage thanks to Napster, but it also has significant possibilities in a corporate environment.

Five years ago, peer-to-peer (P2P) networking involved a parallel cable and two PCs. Since the advent of services such as Napster, however, it has come to mean something else entirely.

The idea of exchanging music files between computers over the Internet, and confounding the record companies in the process, has captured public attention. It resulted in a lawsuit against Napster from the Recording Industry Association of America. In February Napster was told that an injunction would be brought against it to stop its customers trading copyrighted music and that damages may be levied against it.

Direct file sharing
To the average IT director, Napster may seem irrelevant, but it is an example of a wider ranging technology concept that could have a huge potential in the corporate market. Peer-to-peer networking - the idea of sharing information directly between computers rather than storing it all on a central server - has been revolutionised by the introduction of Internet technology, both inside and outside the firewall.
Now that most networks operate using the Internet Protocol, files can be shared easily across a larger network and for many different machines to participate in storing files on a server. This is important because it introduces both reliability and flexibility to a system.

Back-ups of files can be made on different machines and users can access files on another user's machine if they have the right search software or know where
The idea of exchanging music files between computers over the Internet, and confounding the record companies in the process, has captured the public's attention
The P2P debate
the files are located.

The other, more recent application of P2P technology moves beyond file sharing and concentrates on process sharing. The idea is that, instead of working on a huge calculation which could take it hours to complete, a server can divide up a task between large numbers of desktop machines, all of which can work on separate bits of the task and then send back results to be collated by the server.

Strictly speaking, this concept stretches the notion of P2P because in
More recent application of P2P technology moves beyond file sharing and concentrates on process sharing
The P2P debate
most cases it still involves a large amount of co-ordination by a central server. Indeed, many companies now hopping onto the P2P bandwagon are actually distributed resource management companies. Nevertheless, the "many hands make light work" approach has been identified by the industry as a P2P solution. Already, venture capitalists have started piling money into P2P companies (Utah-based NextPage recently raised USD20m (GBP13m) in funds) and industry conferences have started popping up.

One company that was selling the file-sharing approach to P2P networking is Tadpole Technology subsidiary Endeavors Technology. The firm has produced a set of products called Magi, which enables multiple devices to act as file servers for each other. The benefits of the technology include being able to access files on a work computer from home without using e-mail and to find important documents by searching individual computers rather than accessing the Internet. It is also said to make collaborative working easier.

Many users may question the benefits of such technology. After all, it is already relatively easy to access files on corporate computers. Greg Bolcer, chief technical officer for Endeavors, explains that it can be useful if, for example, you are in the boardroom and have a personal digital assistant (PDA) containing files that need to be accessed by an employee with a notebook. Using a wireless Lan connection or Bluetooth link, one device could access the other, without going anywhere near a server.

The idea is that by using the Magi Enterprise products, which were released at the end of March, companies can create virtual communities of employees that could share files with each other via devices including Wap phones. The product will include a function, which searches and indexes files across such communities.

The system works by creating a registration authority, which will generally be the IT department. It generates a certificate for a particular person and other users can cache it so that when that person appears on the network, they can be identified.
Endeavors did not use conventional Internet domain names. Bolcer says these are not appropriate because of the inherent difficulty of maintaining dynamic domain name server (DNS) allocation. Anyone using Active Directory under Windows will testify that you have to define your DNS structure and stick to it.

Such a file-sharing mechanism is all very well, but it does not really offer anything more than a well-structured network operating system can. Anyone with a basic knowledge of user permissions can set up a system that enables certain people in a virtual team to access files on other's computers.

Process sharing
Distributed processing is a more stimulating application for P2P computing, which was first brought to the public's attention by the now famous Seti@home project. This was launched in May 1999 and employed screensaver client software downloadable over the Internet to "steal" spare clock cycles on client PCs. Volunteers would install the non-intrusive software on their computers to analyse radio data from outer space.

A handful of companies have appeared to promote such technology in the commercial field. One such firm is Entropia, which was formed in 1997. The company sells an enterprise software product called Entropia 2000 Enterprise Server. This is a central server that administers segments of tasks to PCs on a corporate network.
Jim Madsen, Entropia chief executive, explains that clients on a network of computers process application queries sent to the Entropia server by an end-user and divide it up into manageable parts. The client software, which takes up several megabytes on the hard drive, comes with a virtual version of the application and a regularly updated dataset to process.

The server software monitors the hardware resources available on each PC, so machines on the grid are not overloaded. The Entropia client monitors the spare clock cycles available on the machine and uses them whenever it can, even processing data between keystrokes. Madsen claims that there is a less than 2% degradation of overall system performance.

Nevertheless, this may not wash with wary IT managers who are worried about installing software designed to use up processing power on end-users' machines while those users are working. IT directors will have to decide how much intrusiveness is acceptable. If end-users' work is not very time critical and they can afford to see a slight drop in performance, then such a system may be suitable. But for financial traders, for example, or customer service staff that need to make fast database queries from their machines, a solution that tries to use the spare clock cycles in between keystrokes may not be appropriate. Such systems will need to be tested properly in a real-world scenario before a decision is made.

Suppliers set up New Productivity Initiative
The New Productivity Initiative is a consortium designed to produce a standard for distributed resource management (DRM) - the management of multiple clients in a distributed processing environment. Founded by companies including Compaq, Hewlett-Packard and Platform Computing, it was formed in November 2000 and held its first meeting in January.

The initiative will produce a commercially usable application programming interface (API) before autumn 2001 if it sticks to its original timetable. Unfortunately, Platform Computing is already a big player in the DRM sphere and this has turned off some of its competitors in this market.

Useful P2P Links
On the horizon
Adaptive processing
P2P in action

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