RealTime IT News

P2P Makes its Business Case

Peer-to-peer (P2P) technology is slowly finding its way back into corporate networks. But instead of being used to download the latest Britney Spears single or pirated DVD, it's zipping bulky data and rich-media files on the cheap.

In its purest sense, P2P is the transfer of data files from one Internet- or LAN-connected computer to another, bypassing the centralized server and treating each "peer" equally. This is atypical of the normal client-server setup of most business networks.

Software development firms are pitching businesses on the value of P2P. One is Onion Networks, a P2P content delivery software maker. Onion says its products provide 70 percent to 80 percent savings for video-on-demand (VOD) delivery over current multi-casting and caching server technology.

"There are obviously significant efficiency benefits," founder Justin Chapweske told internetnews.com. "If you look at Napster and the bandwidth costs when that first came out, some analysts said they were saving something like $7 million a month on the cost it would take to distribute that much content (traditionally)."

Unfortunately for Napster, it was doomed when the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and the courts restricted illegal file transfers. Not quite P2P, Napster's central database was the linchpin of the operation, where users conducted the actual search for music files at the firm's database.

Since then, scores of P2P applications have popped up -- Gnutella, KaZaa, BearShare and LimeWire, to name a few. This new generation doesn't rely on a central server, instead the software on a users PC acts as both client and server, broadcasting and collecting files.

Ironically, the business case is modeled on the Napster template, where there's some measure of centralized control. It's often confused with another shared resource technology -- grid, or utility, computing , which takes unused computing cycles and bandwidth and puts them in places that need the assets. Like Napster, however, a central server directs traffic.

Mike Gotta, a META Group analyst, said P2P goes beyond the mere collaboration that is found in many software products today, where co-workers send project updates via e-mail or through a corporate portal. The danger, however, is taking P2P too far within a company that has to adhere to Sarbanes-Oxley and other reporting requirements.

"The question is how much of that pure interaction needs to have some touch-point with centralized servers," Gotta said. "I just haven't seen any groundswell for pure P2P without some centralized touch-point."

It's hard to keep track of the money trail, from a network administrator's point of view, when people in the network aren't using a central server. But how can you have ad hoc computing if it still needs to go through a central server? It's a question that needs an answer before businesses will pick up the technology en masse.

Mike Ellsworth, an emerging technologies consultant with StratVantage, said there's middle ground to be found between decentralized and centralized networks.

"I think the real key is, it's a different way of approaching machine communications," he said. "Instead of having a gatekeeper that has to modulate all the classic stuff like a Web server, you can harness all this power and get a best-effort thing and have it be just as reliable."

Onion Networks' Chapweske thinks he's on the right track with P2P technology that gives customers the speed efficiencies of P2P combined with a comprehensive central command component.

While a pure P2P brings benefits, vendors must look at the needs of the customers. When pitching his product to potential customers, he doesn't mention the technology but his product, and invariably gets the response, "oh, that's P2P."

It's a response software vendors have to deal with, but Chapweske said focusing on the centralized server component of the technology reassures customers.

"In the sense of the administration and control aspects, our technology is very much centralized," he said. "We understand and leverage the benefits of P2P while avoiding the negative aspects of it. That's the most important thing for the business environment."

Please see next page to read how IT heavy-hitters including Intel, IBM, Microsoft and Sun are approaching P2P.