• Technology
  • The Economist

Profit from Peer-to-Peer

Despite Napster's travails, some fledgling firms are out to sell the idea of peer-to-peer computing to large enterprises. They promise to use the computing architecture to empower workers, unleash their creativity and solve communication problems.

Four Applications in One

Altogether, peer-to-peer encompasses four separate activities: collaboration among users, interaction between software applications, efficient use of network resources, and supercomputing. The most prominent among these are the collaboration systems being developed by newcomers such as Groove Networks of Boston, Massachusetts, Endeavors Technology of Irvine, California, and Ikimbo of Herndon, Virginia. These systems combine Napster’s file-sharing abilities with the instant-messaging capability of ICQ, all in a secure environment. Their main attraction is in encouraging ad hoc file sharing and communications among work-groups.

With Groove, for instance, workers can connect to colleagues in “virtual environments” to pursue all manner of collaborative work, ranging from brainstorming and event-planning to sharing documents and surfing the Internet together. Groove’s system, like others, informs each user when colleagues (“buddies”) are online, identifies them, and allows a user to connect to them from anywhere. Most important for the business world, once the software is launched, the service creates a secure space for users to communicate — be they on the Internet or on a private Intranet behind a corporate firewall. There is no need to involve the company’s service engineers; no need to establish some form of central organisation; and little concern about strangers gaining access to the corporate network.

Most of the other start-up firms developing collaborative P2P software offer variations on the same theme. What differentiates the likes of Groove and OpenCola of San Mateo, California, is their emphasis on building a peer-to-peer platform, upon which other software developers can add further functions. One way of doing this is to use the powerful XML (extensible mark-up language) protocol that allows developers to specify not only the layout of web-pages but also the nature of their content.

Despite all the attention given to collaboration, systems that allow software applications to interact with one another in a P2P fashion may be among the most promising. Systems from Oculus Technologies, NextPage and OpenDesign tie distributed data together for e-business, product design or knowledge management. Such programs use peer-to-peer as a means for sending data inputs and outputs from one application to another, or for linking countless machines into one giant database, maintaining the original producer’s ownership of, say, research data or price lists while allowing contractors to use them.

Software-interaction technology permits companies to break down complex problems into smaller, more manageable ones, says Chris Williams, the chief executive of Oculus in Boston. The best part about such systems is that the process of collating data and ensuring that they are current is handled by those who produce them, which ensures that they are accurate and up-to-date. That makes it ideal for such applications as online exchanges and stock trading. Liquidnet of New York and WorldStreet of Boston, are both building buy-side systems aimed at Wall Street. The former aims to deliver a peer-to-peer trading system for a large (anonymous) pool of buyers, while the latter is developing tools for portfolio managers, analysts and traders.

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