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Peer-To-Peer Computing and Your Business

Imagine a computing utopia. Imagine a world in which bandwidth is not a constraint. Imagine that peer-to-peer (P2P) software has been perfected and is plug and play. Imagine that every computer in your organization is able to contribute its idle resources to whatever purpose you choose, and if you need more resources, they’re easily, cheaply, and instantly available. What would you do? What kinds of business problems could you solve with virtually limitless computing resources?

Wall Street’s answer is an application that crunches fantastic amounts of data to support the trading of securities. DataSynapse, which develops P2P software that links computers together to solve financial problems, completed a test calculation for J.P. Morgan that normally took eight hours overnight in a matter of minutes. According to the company, 12 high-performance financial applications are being optimized over two farms of 400 workstations and 250 PCs.

Computing power isn’t the only target for Wall Streeters. Like many of us, they also need help managing the enormous volume of information available, and distilling it into actionable insights. P2P startup WorldStreet has released WorldStreet Net, a P2P information management and publishing application targeted at the financial industry. Developed with WorldStreet’s eXtensible Integration Architecture (XIA), an XML-based integration methodology, WorldStreet Net enables users to capture, manage, and modify their business relationships on-line. The application also offers structured message types that use standard financial industry terminology. Examples include: trade ideas, investment packages, internal notes, analytics, events, research, news and notes, recommendations and earnings, reports, and dialogs.  Every user can be a publisher and can create new workflows using the system.

These examples are just the beginning. Hundreds of P2P companies have sprung up to take advantage of the estimated 10 billion MHz of processing power and 10,000 terabytes of storage available in the world's Internet-connected PCs. P2P is a major trend, and it’s accelerating at Internet time. Although it was an obscure concept even a year ago, P2P has made the front pages since the release of Napster, a music file sharing service, in early 1999. Now, Forrester Research’s CEO George Colony says: "This technology will come along and kill off the Web. . . . And that judgment day will arrive very soon -- in the next two to three years, not 25 years from now."

P2P As ASP Descendant

P2P networks can be seen as the ultimate flowering of the Application Service Provider (ASP) concept. The core idea behind ASP is that applications can be made available as a service rather than an installation. Businesses can contract for application capabilities from companies whose core competencies are to produce and maintain the service. This yields efficiency since such specialization can make the ASP the low cost provider, and this not only can save a business money, but relieves it of the burden and cost of maintaining technological currency.

B2B P2P networks will take these concepts further by removing the need for the application to live in a particular location, on specific hardware. A P2P application can obtain resources from anywhere on the network. An application can get disk space from here, computing cycles from there, specialized application services from over there, and network bandwidth from yet another place. It will be possible to configure an entirely new capability in real-time through the assembly of parts available on the network.

P2P resources currently are treated as a low cost commodity, representing, as they do, idle capacity. But in the future, these resources’ value will be recognized, with an accompanying re-evaluation of their cost. ProcessTree, a P2P CPU-cycles vendor, may soon offer a standard CPU-year, currently defined as a 400-megahertz Pentium II operating full-time for 365 days, for about $1,500, less than a fifth the cost of equivalent time on a supercomputer. In fact, you can beat the performance of a $50-million, massively parallel research machine by convincing 1 percent of the people on the Internet to donate their unused computing cycles. Unbelievably, the resources currently available are dwarfed by their possible applications. According to United Devices CEO Ed Hubbard, genome applications alone could soak up all the Net's spare computing power for the next 50 years.

P2P Today

Currently there are four categories of P2P providers:

Disk sharing – Companies like Napster, Gnutella, and Aimster organize networks of distributed disk storage. They provide search or indexing capabilities and file upload and download capabilities. Business use of disk sharing networks will likely be limited to behind-the-firewall or other types of dedicated uses due to concerns about security. Because of redundant storage, even the consumer networks are highly reliable, however.

Processor sharing – Companies like Popular Power, ProcessTree, and Applied MetaComputing and non-profits like SETI@home distribute pieces of data and applications to net-connected PCs, who work on the application when they are idle. A more sophisticated version of this technique involves using excess processor power while the machine is in use.

Bandwidth sharing – Companies like 2AM, Kalepa Networks, and Nextpage use P2P to help distribute high-bandwidth multimedia content via caching. Rather than streaming the video for a movie trailer from a single high-bandwidth site, , for example, these companies can distribute the trailer to participating peers and direct users to those sites closest to them.

Content sharing and publishing – Companies like WorldStreet, Consilient and Flycode offer peers the ability to find relevant content and publish their own. A related niche is distributed search engines such as Pointera  which combine the power of peers to search the Web.

The P2P Future

Business P2P networks will need go beyond the current artificial division of labor between file sharing and idle resource maximization to provide a rich, collaborative, integrated marketplace of business capabilities both within the enterprise and externally. As they evolve, these networks will develop the following characteristics:

Dynamic – Communications are interactive, extensible, flexible, and easily reconfigured in real-time. Systems link people, applications, computer systems and devices such as cell phones, cameras, and printers.

Real-time – In many cases, sub-second response time is required to deliver rich, timely, personalized, on-demand information. Store and forward methodologies may have a place in the P2P network, but most communication is immediate.

Collaborative – Both people and applications need to work together to deliver value. These collaborations must be secure, must support any number of participants, and must enable the discovery of new networked resources.

Structured – Network services support the vocabulary used by the business. This may extend to support for local languages as well. Applications support the business activities in a manner appropriate to the industry. In addition, searching for information, services, or people is supported in a structured manner through standard metadata.

Relevant – Information and services are timely and focused on the participants' current business needs. Users can personalize filters to customize information delivery.

Service-based – Network capabilities can be obtained and configured at a moment’s notice. New business applications can be assembled on the fly by integrating new capabilities into existing workflows, systems, devices and applications.

Cost effective – The network reduces the costs solving business problems as well as of establishing and maintaining on-line business relationships. Services are provided by low cost specialists and are easily integrated into the core business of a company.

Client focused – Services and capabilities all can be easily personalized or otherwise adapted to the business purpose.

It’s Not All Roses, Yet

There are still a few significant challenges on the road to the ultimate P2P network. Chief among them is security. Many, if not most, of the P2P applications currently available do not implement any security. It’s hard to believe that businesses will trust even tiny pieces of their information and processes to anonymous PCs and their users. Encryption and other security measures may not be enough to change this feeling, at least in the short term.

Another facet of the security problem involves administration. Traditional access control methods usually depend on a central authority to administer policy. How would this be implemented in a P2P network? Would all peers need to communicate with a central authority for authorizations?

Of course, unlike in our imagined utopia, today bandwidth is a consideration. To bring about the ultimate P2P network, businesses’ networking capacity will need to be improved exponentially. While 100Mb switches are now becoming more common within businesses, Internet connections average T1 speed or below. The advent of new networking schemes over the next few years, including fixed wireless and the next generation Internet, will go a long way toward removing this obstacle.

For public P2P networks, there will be a problem of what to do with those who act to decrease the value of the network, such as so-called leachers and spammers. Leachers pull more value from the network then they provide. For example, a user who downloads many songs but does not share any files for other individuals to download is a leacher. Currently, a large percentage of Gnutella network users are leachers.

Spammers propagate unnecessary and unwanted messages, consuming attention and resources while providing no value. We’re all probably familiar with email spammers. In current P2P music networks, some record companies are uploading apparently legitimate music files that actually contain only white noise. Music companies are doing this in order to lower the value that users can reliably extract from the network and thus lowering the appeal of the network.

Since a P2P network has no central authority, it could be difficult to minimize the impact of abusers.

Another huge problem for P2P networks involves metadata, or data about data. In order for huge, somewhat chaotic, P2P networks to flourish, there needs to be some standardization in the way content and resources are described and identified. Current brute force Web search engines give an example of what could happen at a larger scale to P2P. How many times have you typed in a word, Cobra for example, and got back irrelevant results (information on snakes, a car, a malt liquor)? Probably most of the time. If the proper metadata was available to allow search engines to properly categorize content, you could specify the context of your search and receive relevant results. The value of P2P content networks will be greatly diminished unless a metadata classification standard if developed.

What You Should Do

If your business has a need for supercomputer-class capabilities, consider investigating one of the distributed computing P2P vendors. See our directory of P2P vendors for some places to get started.

If your business has a need to organize information and enable knowledge publishing, consider looking into one of the content and collaboration P2P vendors.

If you have massive multimedia content publishing challenges, consider using one of the P2P content distribution networks to alleviate the load on your servers.

If you have disk space challenges, consider enlisting one of the P2P disk sharing vendors. And if you are a Storage Area Network provider, consider worrying a lot about P2P.

If your business deals with consumers in the music or other entertainment field, you absolutely need to understand the impact of the Napster revolution on your business. Below are some resources to help you get up to speed on P2P computing.

And if your network person comes to you with a requisition for new networking capabilities, sign it. Those with antiquated connectivity will be left behind in the P2P revolution.

If you decide to take the P2P plunge, you’ll need an accomplished development partner like Geneer to help you navigate this rapidly changing technology market. Geneer’s vast experience in the ASP market can help you leverage the P2P revolution.


For a list of P2P vendors, see our directory. The following resources can help you develop a good grasp of P2P.

P2P Terminology Glossary

Scientific American


Peer-to-Peer Working Group

New Productivity Initiative


O'Reilly Publishing P2P Devcenter

Global Grid Forum


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