For the past year or so, the term peer-to-peer (P2P) has become synonymous with Napster, the controversial file-sharing program created by a 20-year-old software whiz called Shawn Fanning and now the subject of numerous lawsuits. Napster, much like its close cousin, Gnutella, allows users to transfer music files among themselves, circumventing many legal controls over copyright and creating a massive network of music libraries scattered about the Internet. Napster is a clever twist on a time-worn architecture dating back to the early days of the Internet. Now, a number of start-up firms are hoping to harness the same technology in the corporate world, promising to use the computing architecture to empower workers, unleash their creativity and solve communication problems.
As the embattled Napster struggles to switch to a subscription-based business model, companies such as Groove Networks, NextPage and XDegrees are trying to introduce the peer-to-peer style of computing into applications that allow workers to collaborate on joint projects (groupware), swap information, and share network resources such as storage space and other costly bits of equipment. Other firms, including Entropia and United Devices, are developing supercomputing applications that use the unbridled power of computers hooked to networks (see “Computing Power on Tap“). All of them believe fervently that the corporate world is fertile ground for P2P computing. The shift will, they say, do for computing in the 2000s what the PC did in the 1980s.
Sceptics have dismissed peer-to-peer as pure hype, pointing to unanswered questions about security and reliability that continue to dog the architecture, as well as the number of P2P start-ups that have failed in recent months. At a time when the corporate world is tightening its belt and sticking to tried-and-true ways of doing business, peer-to-peer computing is going to be a tough sell.
Despite attempts to distance themselves from Napster, the P2P start-ups have much to thank the embattled music service for. Napster gave credibility to the technology, proving that large-scale P2P networking using lowly personal computers is not only possible but can also be extremely powerful.
Actually, the concept is far from new. When the Internet’s original architects built the “network of networks”, computers were connected in peer fashion. Many of the services that made the Internet what it is today — eg, the Domain Name Service (DNS) directory, Usenet newsgroups and countless other features — were based on peer-to-peer architectures. But in those days, computers were hulking mainframes and there were far fewer of them tethered together.