Peer to Peer Goes Public

The technology behind Napster is penetrating the corporate world. Is there a place for peer-to-peer computing in the public sector?

by / May 6, 2001
Peer-to-peer (P2P) computing is beginning to make waves -- and not just because of the Napster courtroom drama pitting free-music aficionados against record company executives.

Though cynics may view P2P as just another flash in the IT pan, there are signs that it might be different. Some even see unique applications for P2P emerging in state and local government.

P2P Piquing Interest

In February, OReilly & Associates, the publishing company behind hundreds of computer books, hosted one of the first P2P networking conferences. The company is planning a second conference for September in Washington, D.C.

"I became interested in peer-to-peer because I felt that the focus on copyright infringement with Napster was blinding people to a real technical groundswell of interest in the implications of P2P networks," said Tim OReilly, owner and CEO of OReilly & Associates. "I wanted to raise the visibility of some of the P2P technologies that I saw catching on, and take some of the attention away from the copyright implications of Napster and focus it on the technical implications."

Though it took Napster to make peer to peer a household word, some companies have been on the P2P bandwagon since 1990.

Intel developed an in-house P2P network called NetBatch to turn idling PCs into computing powerhouses. As a result, the company was able to divert computing jobs away from expensive mainframe computers. Company officials estimate that over the last 10 years, Intel saved a half billion dollars as a result of not having to continually purchase mainframes.

Another popular use of P2P in the corporate world involves transforming PCs from little islands of knowledge into an enterprise-wide data repository by linking them together -- a Napster-like situation in which the PCs extract information (rather than music files) directly from one another.

"I see P2P as being such a broad area that it will have impact across the entire computer industry," OReilly said. "Its important to think of P2P in that way, rather than as a market segment. What is really important about P2P is that it is a recognition of the thinking that makes the Internet central as the development platform, instead of something that you add on to a PC-centric model."

This is where Napster comes in, he said, because its an application that assumes everybody is connected to the Net and that those PCs are available as a resource instead of simply being connected to a server.

"I think of P2P as being about network computing more than about file sharing," he said, adding that while P2P will make file sharing easier, the technology also holds promise for groupware, distributed computation and Web services.

"This is the idea that we break the boundaries of the browser paradigm, and we start to simply use resources on other computers as part of our programs," he explained. "The P in P2P becomes program to program."

P2P also shows promise for linking businesses more closely to their customers or other businesses.

"What we hear from every business customer that we talk to is: We use our extranet or our portal to tailor some customized information feeds to our best partners and customers, and we also give them some access to our system so they can check inventory. What we want to do now is to expose our people to those important folks on the outside," said Andrew Mahon, director of strategic marketing of Groove Networks, a P2P startup.

Although some of those companies experiment with filtered e-mail, instant messaging or voice over IP, he said, once they see how Groove works, they want to integrate the P2P technology with their Web sites to allow interaction between people on the outside of the corporate network and people on the inside.

P2P in Public

This, obviously, is not a function related only to the corporate world. Groove thinks its product could help state and local government agencies as those agencies work with other agencies or with constituents, businesses or individuals, Mahon said.

Groove could also help with project management and collaboration between multiple government agencies.

"The thing about why peer-to-peer might grease the skids is really the fact the end users dont need to ask permission; thats really the key here," he explained, noting that government agencies business processes set up to shepherd a project or a product through various stages of approval cant cover everything.

"There are a lot of good systems to manage processes; theyre usually a back-end system sitting on a server," he said. "But what if the interaction isnt exactly addressed by the process? Maybe were in that process, but some new thing has come up."

The old way of handling that is to make telephone calls; maybe send out a flurry of e-mails, faxes or overnight letters to communicate about the new wrinkle.

The new way to handle such a situation, he predicted, is a product such as Groove, which allows groups of people to create a shared space on their PCs to instantaneously share and co-edit documents, images and other files on a realtime basis. Once any member of a group makes a change to a file, that change instantly occurs in everybody elses copy of that document.

Bob Knighten, Intels peer-to-peer evangelist, sees the potential of P2P in the public sector because most of the things that people think of as benefits for businesses apply equally well to government entities, he said. The ability to collaborate better and the ability to reduce costs by improving the efficiency of existing computing infrastructure are perfect examples.

"The question of whether there are particular things where it would be interesting for government in other ways is more curious," he said. "What about schools? What about legislatures? There are ideas there. I dont know of anybody whos doing anything specifically in those arenas yet, but its something Ive thought about."

Knighten said that a demonstration at an Intel Developers Forum involved P2P file sharing between handheld devices. The company is now developing this application for physicians so that doctors can consult about patients without having to meet face to face.

He said the technology could be adapted to a state legislature, which would free legislators from having to be on the floor to cast votes. This, of course, would require changes to legislative rules, but the possibility is there.

Knighten said large agencies could easily use P2P to handle serious computational tasks.

"It depends very specifically on the type of agency," he said. "All states have an agency analogous to the EPA. One of the things that those agencies do is develop models of how pollution moves across the state or how pollution is affected by geographical features. Those are very computationally intensive models. Very few states have the resources to have big supercomputers to perform these things, but they have a multitude of small computers which have spare cycles."

Combining the power of smaller computers using P2P technology could, therefore, be a viable alternative.

However, Knighten warned that it might not be easy to get P2P technology in place in government. "There are a lot of issues with regard to different agencies having different priorities, which makes life more complicated in a state government than it does in a big corporation. This is one of the things thats going to be a challenge for moving this kind of stuff into states."