Napster may be in trouble, but the same technology that has recording industry executives quaking in their Gucci loafers may yet find a home in corporate networks. "Peer to peer is here," says John Wollman, senior vice president of solutions at Alliance Consulting. Alliance, a New York City-based IT consultancy, is using peer-to-peer (P2P) technology to tie its employees and customers together more tightly than traditional technologies ever allowed.
Thanks to a highly efficient network architecture-plus a ton of hype-P2P is capturing the attention of a growing number of CIOs. P2P technology allows every server and workstation on a network to act as servers to all other users. This means that individuals on a P2P network can freely share information and resources, such as applications, files and storage devices, providing an unprecedented degree of collaboration - or intimacy, as Wollman describes it.
But is P2P all that it's cracked up to be? Maybe, says James C. Smith, a senior analyst at the Hurwitz Group, a technology market research company in Framingham, Mass. "P2P builds on the Internet viewpoint of decentralised information access, so it's hard to argue against an approach that's been so phenomenally successful," he says. Using millions of servers worldwide, the Internet has made information access easy and ubiquitous from almost anywhere. On the other hand, P2P comes with some heavy baggage, including performance, management, security and legal concerns. "What remains to be seen is whether the advantages will overwhelm the drawbacks or vice versa," says Smith.
Affinity to Infinity
Perhaps the biggest benefit P2P provides is easy, direct access to information. By using P2P to create an "affinity community," an organisation can allow employees and other interested parties to share a wide array of files on marketing, technical documents and other key matters. In such an environment, individuals cannot only view content but also move the information from a peer system to their own workstations (in the same way a Perhaps the biggest benefit P2P provides is easy, direct access to information.
Napster user can download a song from a fellow user's PC). "If you trade a lot of information from desk to desk this could be good for you," says Malcolm Maclachlan, media e-commerce analyst at IDC, a technology research company (and sister company to CIO's publisher, CXO Media) in Framingham, Mass. "P2P can be a particularly useful tool for organisations that have widely dispersed employees and clients."
After testing a P2P network for about seven months, Wollman is convinced that the technology is a good investment. Alliance is using P2P technology developed by Groove Networks, a Beverly, Mass.-based P2P software developer founded by Lotus Notes creator Ray Ozzie, to interconnect onsite workers and external employees and clients. (Other major P2P technology vendors include Gonesilent, Pointera, Roku and uRoam.) "Previously, we relied heavily on e-mail, fax and phone calls," says Wollman. Now, he notes, network users have open access to files, proposal development, job tracking and product management, all of which add up to "general meeting avoidance." "With peer to peer we can collaborate more closely on projects, which leads to a very high degree of customer intimacy," says Wollman.
And outside of a few glitches related to moving P2P data across a corporate firewall - fixed by making a few configuration changes - Wollman says the technology has worked flawlessly. "Nothing scary has happened to us," he says. "Stability, performance and scalability haven't been problems."
Distributing the Wealth
Distributed computing is another powerful P2P capability. P2P's resource sharing capability allows organisations to take computers that are sitting idle or wasting processing cycles on screen savers and consolidates them into a virtual supercomputer. Seti@Home uses this technique to search for extraterrestrial life by tapping more than 2 million computer users to analyse radio signals gathered by the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico. (See "Waste Not Want Not," CIO, Aug. 1, 2000.) Businesses can use the same approach to tackle an array of processor-intensive tasks, ranging from analysing flu viruses to developing complex financial models.
Intel has been using a P2P network for distributed computing since the early 1990s. The architecture allows the company's California chip designers, for example, to take advantage of the abundant computing power that's available on their Israeli colleagues' systems when it's night-time in the Middle East. According to Intel, the technology has helped the company boost the overall use of its computing resources from 35 percent to 80 percent during the past decade, saving the chip maker nearly a half-billion dollars. "P2P helps organisations acquire more computing power without buying expensive new hardware," says Patrick P. Gelsinger, vice president and chief technology officer of Intel's architecture group in Beaverton, Ore. "It lets you better use what you already have."
Few companies have the internal computing resources of an Intel, so companies such as Entropia, Popular Power and United Devices have arrived to provide the software and services that allow organisations to harness the underlying computer power of everyday Web surfers. "Users can donate their spare computer time to an altruistic endeavour or sell or barter time for a commercial project," says IDC's Maclachlan.
Peer to There
Critics warn, however, that the technology shouldn't be viewed as a magic bullet. "P2P is a raw technology that has a way to go before it can enter the mainstream," says Hurwitz's Smith. "As CIOs know, early adopters often pay a high price for their boldness."
Network performance is one area where P2P can fail to P2P's lack of security and privacy looms as the technology's biggest pitfall. live up to its promise. As more people access a P2P network, the increasing traffic can bump up against individual machines that are hobbled by slow Net connections or processors. Maclachlan says the ripple effects from these roadblocks can degrade network performance. "You want to be careful who you invite on to your P2P network for this as well as security reasons," he says.
P2P's inherent lack of security and privacy looms as the technology's biggest pitfall, says Neil Ward-Dutton, a principal consultant at Ovum, a London-based technology research company. "The idea of running others' work through your PC, and vice versa, may not be welcome in a business environment," he says. Ward-Dutton is also concerned that the wide-open P2P architecture could prove to be a ripe breeding ground for viruses. "You can restrict the system so that you can only read files and not write to anything, but then you restrict much of P2P's advantage," he says.
System administration can also be a nightmare, says Maclachlan. "As an administrator, how can you keep track of versions and authorisation levels if everybody is accessing different versions from other network users?" There's also the problem of users distributing unlicensed or illegal content (child pornography, for example). "Monitoring this activity is virtually impossible, and its existence could leave organisations open to lawsuits and legal charges," says Maclachlan.
P2P vendors are aware of the issues, and many are working to create solutions. Groove Networks, for instance, let organisations create virtual workgroups that are safeguarded by a combination of password-based access control and encryption technology.
But some P2P advocates tend to brush aside these concerns. "There's nothing wrong with P2P that can't be fixed or worked around," says Kelly Truelove, CEO of Clip2, a Palo Alto, Calif., consulting and software company that works with P2P developers. Truelove is confident that the built-in trust of P2P users (everyone pursing a common goal) and basic security precautions (such as requiring each user to run an antivirus program) will take care of most P2P headaches. He also believes that some of P2P's perceived problems simply aren't based on fact. "Despite the virus concerns, I have yet to read about any widespread virus outbreaks among the millions of Napster users," he says. But Kelly qualifies his comments by noting that most P2P file sharing apps, including Napster and Gnutella, have been used mostly for media files, such as video and audio - and such formats are poor carriers of viruses. He cautions that widespread sharing of programs and scripts could present a different story - and a different set of problems.
As P2P picks up steam, its proponents feel that it's only a matter of time before the technology does become widespread. In addition to the creation of affinity communities and distributed computing environments, P2P is also being touted for the online marketing of music, software and other products and services - a "peer-tailing" approach under which customers distribute products and services - as well as for the rapid distribution of virus antidotes and software upgrades across corporate networks. MyCIO.com, the Internet security subsidiary of Network Associates, already offers a P2P antivirus distribution technology with its VirusScan ASaP service. "We're seeing the dawn of a new networking era," says Truelove. "There's certainly plenty of hype surrounding P2P, but the hype is not entirely unjustified."
John Edwards' work has appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post and many other publications. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Research assistance provided by Eve Keiser.
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