Networking

An introduction to peer-to-peer computing

How is peer-to-peer computing evolving and how do organizations harness its capabilities to their benefit? In this article, we'll look at the various flavors of P2P and see how two businesses are pushing the technology.


By George Daffin

You're working the trading desk at a large brokerage firm when your best institutional customer calls, wanting a bid on a potentially lucrative option contract. You mentally try to factor the risk of your portfolio, then factor in the performance of the stock he’s considering, interest rate movements, and a few anomalies in the overseas markets.

While your brokerage house has software that can figure the bid for you, getting an answer would take two hours. So, not wanting to lose the trade, you take a stab: "My price is 23 and 3/4." Then you try not to have a heart attack.

Although millions of dollars hang in the balance, you have been forced to respond with your best guess.

Every day, the financial services sector witnesses thousands of such conversations. Banks, securities firms, hedge funds, and other institutions trade the same financial instruments at breakneck speed in a highly competitive environment. Speed is the constant, and a fractional difference in judgment often decides the winners and losers.

One method organizations have begun using to compute complex calculations and speed up access to information is peer-to-peer computing—a set of technologies that allow networked computers to communicate and collaborate directly with each other without the need for a central server. Although the underlying technology is far from new, some believe peer-to-peer computing (P2P) will change the face of information technology. Others see it as a passing fad that will raise a quick cloud of dust and then disappear.

This article will:
  • Define peer-to-peer computing.
  • Profile two companies that take differing approaches to P2P.
  • Take a brief look at what the future may hold for this emerging concept.

What Is P2P?
In peer-to-peer computing, each computer can serve the function of both client and server. Any computer in the network can initiate questions (like a client), receive questions, and transmit data (like a server).

In some cases, P2P networking is implemented by actually giving each computer on the network both server and client capabilities. Other applications enable users to use the Internet to exchange files with each other.

What are the business applications for P2P?
P2P encompasses two distinct types of technology:
  1. The sharing of different computers' processing and storage capabilities
  2. The sharing of digital files and data between two computers

Based on this distinction, the business P2P market divides into distributed computing, which uses spare processing or storage capability on networked computers, and file sharing, which includes collaborative computing.

Typically, P2P distributed computing aims to beef up computer muscle, speeding up complex computer-intensive tasks. The file-sharing approach seeks to make existing networking functions more efficient and adaptable, with the hope that improved workflow strategies will emerge.

Distributed computing
One of the companies trying to bring distributed computing to the marketplace is New York-based DataSynapse, which is creating a network of home computers that will serve as a virtual super computer for DataSynapse's clients.

Here’s how DataSynapse works: The individual computer owner downloads proprietary software. When the computer is idle, the software retrieves a portion of the task from the DataSynapse server, performs the calculation, and returns the results to the company. The individual computer owner is paid a small fee for processing time.

DataSynapse has targeted the financial services industry as its first market. Since speed is crucial in this sector, DataSynapse believes large financial services firms will pay a premium for access to its networked computing power.

"We give our clients the ability to perform in seconds or minutes calculations that may require five to 10 hours using their installed software applications,” said DataSynapse CEO, Peter Lee. “For the first time, critical decisions about pricing, risk assessment, and other matters involving complex calculation can be made in a fully informed manner in real time."

As DataSynapse sets out to revolutionize information technology in the financial services sector, IT professionals in all industries are evaluating the promise of peer-to-peer computing in a business environment.



P2P network file sharing
Companies using P2P for file-sharing tasks are creating technology platforms that allow corporations to improve the efficiency with which they store, manage, and exchange data. For example, workgroups can use peer-to-peer networks to exchange marketing data, product design and specifications, or other relevant information.

The network can include company insiders only, or it can reach outside the company to include users, customers, or vendors.

But if P2P file sharing technology reduces the load of some IT administrative functions, it also potentially reduces security and administrative control over the system. This will be a concern as IT managers consider adoption of the P2P model.

Groove Networks
Groove Networks, Inc., founded by Lotus Notes creator Ray Ozzie, is one company developing the file-sharing concept. Groove’s software enables small group interaction that includes:
  • Communication by text and voice.
  • Sharing of data and multimedia files.
  • Collaboration on the editing of documents.

With Groove's software, all the information in a file is stored on each computer. When a change is made on one computer, all other users are updated automatically.

Groove's system also retains some central administrative functions and the ability to set user policies from a central console. IT managers thus retain some of the security and control functions that are erased by the decentralization of a pure P2P network.

The company also provides a Web dimension to its networking software for the support of secure online working relationships with key customers and partners. Many elements of the Groove Networks system duplicate functions already in place with existing Web-based messaging systems. Groove claims its P2P system is more cost effective, citing the following points:
  • There’s no need for IT administrators to manage access, security, and storage. Team members use their own local computing resources.
  • When multiple files are sent to multiple recipients, P2P can minimize network traffic and eliminate redundant storage.
  • The system offers lower administrative costs in B2B and B2C settings.



P2P’s future
The early signals on how P2P networking will change computing are mixed. One bright spot was the formation of Intel's Peer-to-Peer Working Group, a consortium that includes Hewlett-Packard and IBM. The group is charged with working toward implementing standards and protocols and bringing together a critical mass of enterprises aimed at realizing the full potential of P2P computing.

Giants like Sun and even AT&T are devoting some activity to P2P. But many potential major players remain on the sidelines.

The distributed computing concept also harbors some unanswered questions. It’s unclear how willing organizations will be to allow third parties to access proprietary information for the purpose of crunching data. There are also questions over the types of applications beyond computation that are suitable for this kind of collective CPU power.
Have you begun to use peer-to-peer computing in your organization? Tell us about it. We’ll use your examples as part of a case study on its use in the enterprise. Send us an e-mail or start a discussion below.

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