With the image of peer-to-peer technology tarnished from legal actions taken against high-profile companies such as Napster and Freenet during the past year, many IT executives' feelings about it range from mild skepticism to pure paranoia.
Much executive reluctance to deploy p-to-p centers around the lack of what for many has long been their technology touchstone: the centralised server. That age-old and comforting fortress has been a way to control and secure their companies' mission-critical data, carry out important functions such as backup, and host their e-commerce applications.
"Most IT executives love their servers because they can touch them, control them, [and] back them up. Servers give them the feeling that they can help users get a lot of value out of the content but also protect the corporate assets. In the peer-to-peer world, that is sometimes hard to do," says Jeff Bair, CEO of E-Rooms Technology, which offers a server-based collaboration alternative to p-to-p.
Many p-to-p startups and established companies are rapidly realising that they won't get through the front doors of Fortune 1000 companies without appeasing the Geek Gods of IT -- or at least making them feel more comfortable.
Achieving that comfort level has to do with developing hybrid solutions that take the best of p-to-p technologies and marry them with a number of client/server variations. It may be an oxymoron but many observers peering into the future think centralised p-to-p is the next wave.
"It looks now like the model that is going to be prevalent will be some sort of hybrid where you have centralised services but you [also] have interactions managed through peer-to-peer protocols," says John Rymer, president of Upstream Consulting.
A recently released study from Gartner concluded that the best way for large enterprises to create competitive advantages for themselves using p-to-p is developing p-to-p content networking solutions based on what it calls the Data Centered p-to-p model.
Gartner expects that by 2003 30 percent of corporations will have at least experimented with Data Centered p-to-p applications.
"I have worked through a lot of anxieties I had about peer-to-peer, and in fact, I can see now where some of the technology being shown lately fits in nicely with what we have. But here it won't swing if it ain't got that server thing," says Joe Patterson, a CTO at a large regional insurance company.
One of the higher-profile p-to-p companies that has moved its product's strength and position to be more servercentric is Groove Networks, founded by Lotus Notes developer Ray Ozzie.
From last October when the company was launched to when it delivered Version 1.0 on April 9, Groove has added several key capabilities that should make its offering appealing to IT shops. These features include support for many more firewalls, Enterprise Network Services that allow users to more centrally control product deployment, and security policies across a corporate enterprise.
"Everybody has to be hybrid in some sense. But the question is, How do you strike that balance? The balance we're trying to strike is to err on the side of giving capability to the individual user for things like interaction," Ozzie says. "But we err on the side of centralised when it comes to integrating the processes that we're conducting with data."
Another company adding a server-oriented approach to its p-to-p strategy is Salt Lake City-based NextPage. This past fall the company shipped its NXT-3 Content Networking platform, which allows users to manage, access, and exchange content across distributed servers on intranets and via the Internet.
"What we are finding out is, in order to get real revenue traction on this, we need to focus our energy around taking advantage of existing IT infrastructure, but still come in the door with this peer-to-peer platform. We find that [IT departments] are comfortable adopting a distributed architecture with a server-to-server approach," says Bill Wesemann, CEO of NextPage.
Yet another company pursuing a more server-oriented approach is Boston-based WorldStreet. The company on March 12 shipped a version of its WorldStreet Net product that contains "packaged routers" consisting of its software along with Microsoft Windows 2000 Advanced Server.
The routers enable users to integrate WorldStreet Net into their existing applications and systems, which permits them to stay in their current workflow while using a p-to-p network, company officials explained.
"We think this approach is right for those users with solutions on servers residing out on the frontier edge of their businesses where they apply the business rules and practices to information flowing in and out of their firm," says Bob Lamoureux, CTO of WorldStreet.
Even Ian Clarke, creator of the dreaded Freenet p-to-p environment, is relenting to certain commercial realities. His startup company, Uprizer, took a $4 million investment from Intel and others on April 11 to develop commercial applications based on Freenet. The resulting applications, however, will be missing the ingredient that previously gave Freenet users anonymity in accessing information on a wide range of systems.
"Freenet's ability to provide anonymity is not really applicable in commercial applications. Besides, anarchies don't work very well in the business world," Clarke says.
Anarchy and security
Much of the anarchy that happens because of p-to-p, so say its critics, is its lack of security, because it hasn't evolved to a point that allows groups to transparently communicate on both sides of the firewall. E-Rooms' Bair contends that many of these technologies demand special ports to be opened in a firewall, thereby leaving enterprises vulnerable to hackers.
"Most pure peer-to-peer plays require you to open new ports, and IT shops we talk to are not going to go for that anytime soon. They have to downgrade to a port they feel comfortable with, which is usually HTTP, and that requires you to have a server," Bair says.
Defending his product, Ozzie says the added firewall support for Groove 1.0, along with other server-oriented features such as secure roles and permissions and the Enterprise Network Services, will allow users to centrally control security policies and deployment across a global network.
Along with helping users collaborate on projects, another strength of Groove and some other competing products is the capability to access and pull in data living on the edges of corporate networks in a range of handheld devices. But some observers wonder how important such a capability is. Many believe that some of its collaborative capabilities can be carried out by a number of existing technologies.
"Groove and some others demonstrate something interesting, but they could run into the same issue Lotus did with Notes: It can do collaborations, but how valuable will these collaborations be? If you have a bunch of individuals creating an ad or a design, a lot of that could be done over e-mail," Upstream's Rymer says.
Rymer and other observers believe p-to-p technologies can serve more important functions, including streamlining, and otherwise make more efficient the automated processes that are part and parcel of business-to-business transactions, such as those involved in supply-chain applications.
One company that has placed its bet that using p-to-p technology is the best choice for creating designs is Ford Motor. Last month the automaker signed a deal with Oculus Technologies, based in Boston, to use that company's environment to design and produce more fuel-efficient cars.
Using the Oculus CO, Ford hopes to connect far-flung design team members as a way to help them evaluate more design iterations over a shorter period of time.
"We think the result for Ford should be optimal product development, saving us from $5 [million] to $15 million per vehicle design program. This could have even greater impact on our final product by integrating the entire automobile design process," says John Goodman, fuel economy implementation manager at Ford in Detroit.
Client or server? Peers at last
With Microsoft's and Intel's growing interest in peer-to-peer technologies, some observers believe that the two companies could again spearhead a resurgence in the client half of client/server computing.
With the rise of the Internet during the past few years, companies such as Sun Microsystems, IBM, and Hewlett-Packard have stolen the spotlight that has shone on the Wintel duopoly, enjoying great success by selling largely server-and infrastructure-based solutions.
But with Microsoft and Intel both apparently intent on making p-to-p technologies an important piece of their respective overall strategies, some believe the two can yank the balance of power back toward a middle ground between clients and servers.
"You have Sun deep in the server environment, and you have Microsoft over on the desktop, both facing away from each other. But now they are turning toward each other and realizing the world needs to go to the middle," says Bob Lamoureux, CTO of Boston-based WorldStreet.
Microsoft will center a lot of its p-to-p efforts around the development of Web services by using HailStorm and .NET as the technology core. "Whether the client is either thick or thin, you know that Microsoft does not want to lose control over the user experience. They want users to enter their machines through Microsoft's control points. This is why they are pushing so hard on the back-end guys to decide on what standards to support, like SOAP [Simple Object Access Protocol] and XML," says Josh Campbell, an IT executive at a large Georgia-based bank.
But it is unclear exactly how central to Microsoft's long-term strategy the technology is. With key HailStorm protocols such as SOAP, which supports the development and integration of applications for client/server architectures, Microsoft is clearly not putting all its eggs in the p-to-p basket.
"HailStorm is not focused strictly on peer-to-peer. Microsoft is creating infrastructure that could support a variety of models and peer-to-peer is only one. There might be application groups inside the company working on p-to-p ideas, but that was not in evidence at the HailStorm announcement," says John Rymer, president of Upstream Consulting in Emeryville, Calif.
Some software developers think that this ability to shape and integrate new and existing applications across a variety of different architecture platforms is the real strength of .NET and HailStorm.
"With [.NET and HailStorm] Web services you can build an application running on a Windows NT box running locally and have it call on a service or piece of content on a Unix-based box running Oracle a half a world away and integrate that into your [NT application]. And the best part is users never know the difference," says Jeff Bair, CEO of E-Rooms Technology in Cambridge, Mass.
Another indication that Microsoft is laying the groundwork to support p-to-p in a meaningful way is Chairman Bill Gates' enthusiastic endorsement of Groove Networks' platform and environment since its introduction last fall. Gates, long an admirer of Groove founder Ray Ozzie, believes Groove offers a rich COM [Component Object Model]-based programming environment that sits very nicely on top of Microsoft's .NET-based plumbing.
Ozzie, not surprisingly, repays the compliment toward HailStorm.
"The services that are inherent to HailStorm give the user a much richer experience," Ozzie says.
Ozzie believes that Web services and p-to-p architectures complement each other almost perfectly, because Web services are in the process of changing from servers presenting data to users through a browser to exposing services "programmatically" through other Web-based programs.
Peering into the future, Ozzie believes major Web sites such as Amazon.com will present their products and services through not only users' browsers but also "programmatic services." These services will allow software developers to create new types of software that integrate services provided by many Web sites and/or more domain-specific user interfaces on top of them.
"Peer-to-peer wins big with [the Web services] model because it gives you a way of [not only] accessing some centralised servers but also innovating out there on the edge of networks at the client using Web services APIs," Ozzie says.
Five peer-to-peer models
Atomistic: Considered the truest p-to-p architecture because it involves direct client-to-client connectivity with no server present. But with no server present, it has no method of creating communications links based on data availability or user identity.
User-centered: User-centered applications utilize a directory to provide a way for users to make connections with other users on a network.
Data-centered: This approach allows users to search and access data held on other users' systems.
Web Mk 2: This is a convergence of the above three models with Web architectures and infrastructure. In this model, browsers evolve into user-configurable workspace managers that integrate these three types of p-to-p models. Multiple directory services can link users together on an ad hoc basis. Multiple indexes allow access to different forms of data whether it is on servers or clients.
Compute-centered: In this approach, instead of using a single large processor, an application's processing is divided among multiple clients and a server is used to coordinate the split processing. The distinction with this approach and parallel processing is that nodes are spread over the Internet and can be accessed on an as-needed basis.