Potential Uses Help Brighten Future of P2P

Peer-to-peer computing is more than sharing music files. Indeed, beleaguered Napster is an example of just one area of P2P technology.

A P2P network allows PCs to communicate directly with one another, rather than via a server. These PCs, or "peers," offer their resources to other PCs on the network.

P2P has been around in one form or another for at least 20 years. Remember original computer modems? Their connections were P2P.

With the integration of the Internet, there is a wider array of P2P uses for large and small enterprises.

Brian Morrow, president and chief operating officer of P2P software developer Endeavors Technology and chairman of the Peer-to-Peer Working Group (www.peer-to-peerwg.org) identifies cycle sharing, collaboration, knowledge management and secondary e-commerce as distinct P2P uses.

Using a P2P setup, you could put an agent on a computer to monitor hardware or software changes that would post alerts to a central source.

Cycle sharing has been popularized by the SETI@home Project at the University of California at Berkeley [Business, July 3]. SETI@home, which processes transmissions from a radio telescope in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, has more than 2 million volunteers downloading and processing data.

The basic premise: There are PCs around the world doing nothing or very little. University of Wisconsin researchers estimate that companies use less than 25% of the computing and storage capacities that are already paid for. But don't think of P2P as being limited to PCs.

Any device - a PDA or Internet-enabled phone, for example - can behave as a peer. For instance, a call could be put out for plumbers via a P2P network. Once connected to a Web site, a user could monitor the dispatched service.

"P2P computing is all about the Internet," says Morrow.

P2P is also getting attention in health care. With such information as patient records, work schedules and product inventories on different devices, P2P offers access to files, as well as messaging, sharing and updating information.

Vertical portals serving communities of common interest are good targets for P2P. So why not let customers connect directly with one another? Excess inventory at one hospital could be sold to another.

Yet challenges remain. New protocols are necessary, and there are significant concerns about reliability and security. In addition, management software is needed to distribute requests for resources in the network while preventing bottlenecks. Also required is a billing mechanism so users can be paid for offering their PCs. A free mouse pad won't do.

But with start-ups and notable figures such as Lotus Notes creator Ray Ozzie working on P2P technology, its future looks very promising.

Pimm Fox is Computerworld's West Coast bureau chief. Contact him at pimm_fox@computerworld.com.

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