New Ways to Network
By Russ King
P2P is short for peer-to-peer computing, stemming ostensibly
from peer-to-peer networking. Peers are usually defined as
computers connected through some sort of network, such as
the Internet or the Napster network. Beyond this, the standards
get fuzzy and the definition becomes nebulous at best. This
is because there are at least three distinct manifestations
of peer-to-peer computing, and all three have their own functionality-
instant messaging/communication tools, file sharing tools,
and distributed computing networks.
Instant Messaging and Beyond
Into this category fall collaborative tools that allow you
to connect directly to another person to chat, send files,
use a whiteboard, etc. What differentiates these tools from
others such as Microsoft Netmeeting, Webex, and even ICQ,
is that they don't rely on a central server after the initial
connection is made. There is nothing to monitor your traffic
or keep track of accounts.
One example of such a tool is a robust application called
Groove, from Groove Networks.
It's similar to Microsoft Netmeeting, but it actually allows
you to do quite a bit more, such as have threaded discussions
and voice conversations. In fact, one of my only problems
with the software is that it is just too complex! But it is
free and relatively easy to use. All you need to do is set
up an account, connect to the Internet, and invite someone
to your "shared space".
These are content sharing tools like Napster
or Gnutella. There are tons of them out now, and there are
even more companies developing products that make file sharing
easier. The goal is to allow users to securely share files
from local machines without being required to setup and monitor
an FTP server.
A little know fact is that most of our computers spend 70-90%
of their processor time doing absolutely nothing. Under the
distributed computing P2P model, spare processing time from
participating computers is aggregated in order to execute
a program. The beauty of this model is that it is not necessary
to invest in massive servers or supercomputers to process
large amounts of information, since the work is being done
by various client computers instead. It is important to understand
that the organizations that are running distributed computing
programs aren't stealing your computer, they are merely using
your computer's spare resources. Most of them have ways to
tell the program to only start if the computer has been idle
for 10 minutes, or only run when the screen saver is on.
The best know example of this is SETI
At Home.The SETI project analyzes signals from space for
patterns that might be extraterrestrial life. The trouble
is that there is a lot of data to sift through, so the researchers
set up a system that allows users to download an application
that analyzes some of this data and then sends the results
back to them.
Another example that might be of interest to NPO's is Fight
AIDS At Home. These researchers are using donated computing
power to test the efficiency of various drugs designed to
The main thing to remember about the P2P movement is that
it is surrounded by a tremendous amount of hype. Everything
is the "next killer app," and every company is groundbreaking
and innovating. However, the major players are also getting
involved. Sun has recently announced their P2P effort, JXTA.
Microsoft is working on its own P2P product, and Intel is
helping to define security in the field. These companies are
willing to spend their money to make sure that the technology
develops, so watch the space...
For more information or to keep abreast of new developments,
check out the following sites:
peer-to-peer pages (Mostly intermediate to advanced information)
O'Reilly's peer-to-peer page
(Careful, you could get sucked in!)