Have you been wondering what to do with all the processing power, surplus hard disk space, and high-speed Internet connections you've built up over the past few years? Take a clue from Napster. The renegade MP3-swapping site may be on the ropes, but the technology it uses - peer-to-peer networking - is all the rage.
In a peer-to-peer network, powerful client PCs take on the role of servers, enabling direct communication among systems that stands to lower IT costs and raise productivity.
Consider the problem that Shawn Fanning faced when, as a music-starved university student, he sat down to create Napster. Fanning knew that millions of people scattered around the world had MP3 files sitting on their hard disks. He wanted to help them share that music, but he knew it would be impractical to collect all the MP3s on a central server. Never mind the cost and the copyright obstacles; the sheer size of all those files - and the constant demand for uploads and downloads - made physical centralising impossible.
Instead, Fanning turned to peer-to-peer networking. The files stay where they are - on individual hard drives. Napster simply maintains a central list of who has what and, when a user requests a song, puts the user in touch with the source to exchange the MP3 directly.
Scratch out "MP3" and substitute "business data", and you begin to see why peer-to-peer networking has suddenly become one of the hottest topics in computing.
"There is a lot of hype surrounding peer-to-peer computing that may overstate its importance," says Tim O'Reilly, president of O'Reilly & Associates, a research and publishing firm that has been examining leading-edge technology since 1978. "But that doesn't change the fact that every business will be using a form of peer-to-peer computing at some point. The only questions are, how soon and how extensively?"
Getting here from there
Despite all the recent attention, peer-to-peer technology is nothing new. Network architectures of this type have been around for at least 30 years. Microsoft Windows operating systems have included primitive peer-to-peer file- and printer-sharing capabilities since the advent of Windows for Workgroups.
Nevertheless, three recent advances have permitted serious peer-to-peer development: higher bandwidth, cheap storage, and powerful desktop processors. Moreover, the benefits of such networking can apply to companies of all sizes.
"Because peer-to-peer is so flexible and potentially inexpensive, it's enticing for small companies that can't afford something like Lotus Notes," says Kevin Werbach, editor of Release 1.0 technology newsletter.
For our purposes, peer-to-peer applications fall into three groups important to business computing: online collaboration, file sharing and management, and distributed computing.
Peer-to-peer solutions that enable workers to interact in real-time are an obvious way to use a network to facilitate direct communication between workstations. Various flavours of collaboration programs have existed for a long time - from client/server groupware like Lotus Notes, to Web-based services.
In the past, collaboration was unwieldy to manage and widely under-utilised. Workers often preferred phone conferences and e-mail to online threaded discussions and shared folders. The growth of products like Microsoft NetMeeting and instant messaging (IM) - both of which are peer-to-peer applications at heart - mean businesses are starting to take a second look at online collaboration.
"People are seeing instant messaging as an enterprise application platform, with telephony and other collaboration tools as part of the solution," says O'Reilly.
One notable new peer-to-peer product comes from Groove Networks (www.groovenetworks.com), founded by Ray Ozzie, the creator of Lotus Notes. Groove offers downloadable client software that lets users create "shared spaces" with others on the network.
A user running Groove invites participants into a shared space using e-mail or IM. When they accept, the space appears on each participant's screen.
The group can then use IM, threaded discussions, and shared whiteboards to communicate. If a participant drops a Word file into the shared desktop space, for example, Groove launches the same file on other users' systems. The software encrypts all communication - including the initial request for a meeting - to make the space secure.
A peer-to-peer solution like Groove doesn't require central administration or server resources. Groove's shared spaces are dynamic and vanish when users decide they don't need them. Unlike both client/server- and Web-based solutions, Groove isn't built around fixed interfaces, and it uses XML to display information and to transmit just the changes from the group's collaboration.
File sharing and management
Though file sharing may be part of a collaboration platform such as Groove, it's more recognisable as a stand-alone solution that doesn't entail interaction among people at their desktops. Perhaps the most obvious example is Napster.
Most public peer-to-peer schemes are relatively unstructured, untamed territory, however. In a business, file sharing is more likely to take the form of knowledge or document management.
"People create knowledge and they store it on their desktop," says Andrew Mahon, director of strategic marketing for Groove Networks. "It would be nice if they would publish it to a central location, the way client/server knowledge management tools are supposed to work, but people are lazy. Peer-to-peer solutions allow people to look around and find the knowledge."
One company working on controlled methods of sharing files is Roku. Its Roku Share program allows users to drag documents into local, shared folders where workgroups can access them. All Roku connections are encrypted using secure socket layer; packets going over wires are encrypted, too.
Other companies are adapting peer-to-peer techniques to solve nagging problems such as virus protection. McAfee's AsaP uses peer-to-peer technology to check whether systems have the latest virus protection.
With VirusScan AsaP, the first five workstations that log on to the Internet each day get the latest virus patches from the McAfee AsaP Web site. Those workstations then pass along the updates to the company's other systems, including computers at remote sites.
It's still a niche technology, but distributed computing is the most innovative use of peer-to-peer technology - and may offer companies the greatest benefit.
Under distributed computing, a network of end-user systems pools its spare processing power to perform enormous computations. One example is the SETI@home project, managed by a group of researchers at the Space Sciences Laboratory of the University of California, Berkeley, in the US. SETI stands for Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence.
SETI's analysis requires processing power that large systems can't supply economically. With SETI@home, volunteers who use the Internet download a screen saver that grabs instructions from SETI and performs calculations when a connected computer isn't otherwise in use.
Other businesses are attempting to resell subscribers' idle computer resources to companies that need the extra power. Peter Lee, CEO of DataSynapse, which sells distributed computing solutions to US companies in the financial and energy industries, claims that nearly every company has untapped power at its disposal.
"Even on the capital markets floors, where things always seem very busy, they have systems with idle capacity in excess of 60 per cent," says Lee. "We have one customer that had a one-hour bottleneck in processing portfolio options. Now it takes that bottleneck and distributes it over 100 machines, and the same process gets done in a minute."
Peer-to-peer tools may bog down a network infrastructure that's too weak to handle them - especially when called upon to move and manipulate large files. Groove, for example, uses an algorithm that takes into account the size of a piece of data and the number of people it needs to reach.
In addition, peer-to-peer networks risk major security breaches when data travels around a company's servers and outside firewalls. And if files never cross a centrally managed server, how can networked systems protect themselves from viruses? Proponents of peer-to-peer tools argue that these drawbacks are not fatal. "It's not much harder to address security in a peer-to-peer environment than it is in a client/server environment," says Werbach. "But any company looking at a peer-to-peer network must make sure it comes with a security solution."
"In the end," adds O'Reilly, "companies may not necessarily go out looking for peer-to-peer solutions. Peer-to-peer will be built into the products they already use. For instance, a new Oracle database may be able to spread itself over 200 systems".
If that happens, peer-to-peer networking will have sneaked into businesses the way many other significant advances did - through the back door.