Sun jump-starts peer-to-peer

Sun Microsystems is spearheading an open-source initiative to develop peer-to-peer protocols, giving a welcome boost to a new technology that promises to harness idle computing power, better utilise bandwidth and ease file sharing. The company last week unveiled JXTA open source code, which was designed to provide a framework for building peer-to-peer applications.

But even as development based on peer-to-peer moves forward, users and analysts voiced concerns about the security and manageability of peer-to-peer applications.

The popularity of Napster, which relies on a peer-to-peer distributed network of thousands of PCs to share music files, has sparked corporate interest in P2P-style applications, said Frank Bernhard, an analyst at Omni Consulting Group LLP.

To reduce IT spending, a lot of companies are also "looking to the network as the salvation for sharing resources," Bernhard said. "But there is a real high risk to security when peer-to-peer goes outside the corporate firewall."

One company facing those challenges is Celltech Group PLC. The drug maker needs to run complex human-gene-sequencing algorithms, computations that take about two weeks to process on the company's mainframe, said Neil Ward, bioinformation specialist at Celltech. Because Celltech can't afford a supercomputer, it uses peer-to-peer software that parses out the sequencing work over the Web to idle computers at Parabon Computation, a peer-to-peer start-up.

That has cut the processing time for each sequence to four hours. Although Parabon encrypts the computational data that gets sent back and forth over the Internet, Ward acknowledged that sharing data on remote machines across the Web was a concern.

"Security is not an issue for the human genome research we're doing because we're not doing any proprietary sequencing," said Ward. "If we were, we would keep the processing in-house."

GlaxoSmithKline PLC earlier this month purchased 10,000 seats of Groove Networks' peer-to-peer software. It hopes to use the technology for collaborating with scientists at other biotech firms and universities. But the US$28 billion pharmaceutical company is still piloting the software while it performs extensive security checks and determines usage guidelines, said Philip Connolly, a spokesman for GlaxoSmithKline.

"We have all the concerns that everyone has about security and working around firewalls," said Connolly. "Pharmaceutical companies are notoriously protective of intellectual property, so it's a natural caution."

Another issue that corporate IT shops will have to tackle in deploying peer-to-peer applications is the availability of shared resources. Napster's music-sharing service works because thousands of computers are tied into its peer-to-peer network, causing a great amount of redundancy. Corporate PC networks tend to be smaller, however, and ensuring quality of services is a top priority.

"There is so much unpredictability with our client population that [we] could not guarantee delivery of services on a large scale," said Kenneth Libutti, educational technology coordinator at Broward Community College in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. "P2P services are much harder to back up, in terms of disaster recovery, because you don't know whose computer is on."

Celltech, for example, can't take its peer-to-peer computing in-house because it has only 500 PCs of its own and would need approximately 10,000 for its purposes, said Ward.

JXTA Explained

Sun Microsystems last week took the wraps off JXTA, an open-source project that will provide a framework for building peer-to-peer applications.

Sun's venture into peer-to-peer networks began last summer as the Juxtapose research project, or JXTA, under the guidance of Sun co-founder and chief scientist Bill Joy. The project was intended to explore distributed computing architectures. It also got a boost from InfraSearch, a start-up acquired by Sun last month that develops peer-to-peer search technology.

Sun now plans to push for standards to accelerate peer-to-peer development within the enterprise and, possibly, to commercialize its own peer-to-peer tools and services this year. But the decision on how to package and price the tools hasn't been made, officials said.

JXTA is available as open source code under the Apache licensing model at www.jxta.org.

The source code helps locate peers and manage low-level interactions among them on JXTA networks, said Gene Kan, a strategist at Sun and co-founder of InfraSearch.

Sun wants to lead the development of protocols for developing peer-to-peer applications, such as file sharing, instant messaging and distributed processing, Kan said.

Using the JXTA core source code, Kan said, a company could parcel out an application's computing tasks to PCs within its peer network or on remote PCs via the Web.

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More about ApacheGlaxoSmithKlineGroove NetworksInfraSearchNapsterOmni Consulting GroupParabon ComputationSun Microsystems

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