|August 28, 2000|
The Power Of Peer-To-Peer
Companies are using the technology to get more from their systems
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What's in it for business? In addition to being good for swapping soundtracks, peer-to-peer networking is a way to harness the dormant processing power in desktop PCs. The potential benefits are so great, in fact, that Hewlett-Packard, IBM, and Intel now want to standardize and commercialize the technology. They, along with several startups, last week launched the Peer-to-Peer Working Group, a consortium whose goal is to give businesses the benefits of peer-to-peer computing. "There are very fundamental issues that need to be addressed," says Intel chief technology officer Patrick Gelsinger, noting the group aims to tackle standards, security, reliability, and other issues.
That's a good thing, observers say. "You're going to need carefully implemented security and scheduling programs, or you're going to run into problems," says Cheryl Currid, president of consulting firm Currid & Co.
But the effort may be worth it. Researchers at the University of Wisconsin, who are developing a distributed computing technology dubbed Condor, estimate that most companies use less than 25% of their computing and storage capacity.
Early adopters such as defense and aerospace giant Boeing, oil company Amerada Hess, and Intel itself say they've been able to reduce the need to buy high-end computer systems, including mainframes, by using peer-to-peer networking to tap into the processing power that's already available on their desktop PCs. Peer-to-peer systems may also lessen bandwidth requirements, an important benefit for companies with networks jammed to capacity.
And some experts insist peer-to-peer computing will facilitate entirely new ways of working within and among businesses because it will allow spontaneous, secure communication between small groups that can be created on the fly. "If this was just about file sharing, it would be the flavor of the month," says Ray Ozzie, creator of Lotus Notes and chairman, president, and CEO of startup Groove Networks Inc. "This has big implications for supply-change management. Partners in different companies will be able to work together very closely and define what they want each other to see."
Ozzie's company plans to launch services later this year that he will describe only as "new types of communications applications." But he says peer-to-peer technology will play a part in enabling those capabilities. "We found early on that it needs to be a central component of what we're doing," he says.
Peer-to-peer networks come in two basic versions-Napster-style models that use servers to direct traffic, and server-free implementations that directly connect desktops over an IP network. Both have been under development for at least a decade, and a number of universities and research organizations have been using them for years.
Intel has been using the technology since 1990 to slash the cost of its chip-design process. The company uses a homegrown system called NetBatch to link 10,000 computers, giving its engineers access to globally distributed processing power. "Within two years of implementing this, we eliminated new mainframe purchases and mothballed several that we already had," Gelsinger says.
Proponents say that Internet-based standards and protocols will make peer-to-peer computing easier to implement, and they predict it will soon become practical for many businesses. "The critical mass had been building. Now it's ready to explode," says Andrew Grimshaw, founder of Applied MetaComputing Inc, a startup that offers peer-to-peer software and services and is a member of the working group.
Amerada Hess, in New York, has been experimenting with peer-to-peer networking and resource sharing for a year. Its Beowulf Project strings together 200 Dell desktop PCs with Ethernet and Linux to handle complex seismic data interpretation, and replaced a pair of IBM supercomputers. "We're running seven times the throughput at a fraction of the cost," says CIO Richard Ross.
The company has two other projects in the works. One, which Ross characterizes as "Mips stealing," lets computers borrow processing from other workstations on the network. The other takes what Ross calls a Napster approach to knowledge management, where each desktop's storage joins with others to become a huge data repository.
Some startups are looking to create peer-to-peer systems capable of supporting sophisticated business processes such as supply-chain management. Applied MetaComputing offers a turnkey system called Legion that includes software to handle security by authenticating peers on a network, a programming environment that lets IT managers create policies, fault-tolerance mechanisms, and a file-sharing protocol. Grimshaw envisions peer-to-peer networks that would, for instance, let an aircraft manufacturer run simulations that test not only its own designs but access the engine manufacturer's simulation software to provide a total picture of airplane performance. "That's where this starts to get really interesting," he says.
Such sophisticated business applications may not be far off. Boeing engineers, for example, are using distributed computing to harness the Mips required to run complex performance tests. Boeing, like Napster, is using a peer-to-peer model in which servers route traffic to the intended destination. "No single machine has been able to keep up with our requirements," says Ken Neves, director of Boeing's computer-science research organizations.
But some experts say the server-free approach is preferable because it eliminates a single point of failure. Ian Clarke, the creator of Freenet, an online file-sharing organization, says companies stand to benefit most from this type of setup because "it can get you to a new level of reliability." Clarke is now chief technology officer at Uprizer, a Santa Monica, Calif., startup set to launch a business-to-business file-sharing service next month based on serverless networks.
Peer-to-peer's potential has attracted the attention of venture capitalists, who say there are at least six startups developing distributed computing technology. VCs led by Softbank Venture Capital invested $13 million in United Devices Inc., which is developing peer-to-peer technology for three markets: computing for the biotech industry, quality of service and load testing for Web sites, and spider- or crawler-based content indexing currently used by several Internet search engines. CEO Ed Hubbard is among those who say that peer-to-peer computing is inherently more secure than client-server models. "If there's a security risk, it's most likely going to come from something else you're running," he says.
That may be one reason why Bill Burnham, a managing director at Softbank, says widespread use of the technology is "a question of when, not if. This is going to have a huge impact across the computing industry."
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