What's So New About Peer-to-Peer?

Peer-to-peer technology, the ability to work with and share files directly from computer to computer, is the latest buzz in the computer industry. The technology isn't new, however, and the applications built upon it may still need to go through at least a router to get at information on another machine.

So, what's the big deal?

"The potential for peer-to-peer - it's really the potential of the Internet," said Esther Dyson, chairwoman of EDventure Holdings Inc. in New York.

Microsoft Corp. Chairman Bill Gates and Intel Corp. Chairman Andrew Grove have both said they believe peer-to-peer is going to be very important.

No Centralized Control

In theory, peer-to-peer computing means working without a central, controlling authority: the server. And that raises a lot of interesting social implications. "It means individual initiative, not something centrally controlled," said Dyson last month.

The technology isn't yet a reality, however, because there are no standards for peer-to-peer protocols. Proponents met in September to begin talking about standards and the public's perception of peer-to-peer computing.

San Mateo, Calif.-based Napster Inc.'s application of peer-to-peer technology - the most famous, or infamous - caught the popular imagination by subverting the music industry and allowing users to scan the hard drives of other online users for music files they could download for free.

Other applications, like the SETI@home project and Groove Networks from Groove Networks Inc. in Beverly, Mass., also use peer-to-peer technology.

The Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) uses normally unused disk space on PCs to help the Mountain View, Calif.-based SETI Institute search for intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. Groove promises to link all kinds of content with a real-time collaborative tool. The difference between his system and Napster's, according to Groove creator Ray Ozzie, is that users will be able to access any type of application, not just music files.

These applications may be new, but the underlying technology isn't, said analysts. "It's sort of back to the future," said Dana Gardner, an analyst at Aberdeen Group Inc. in Boston, referring to much of the original use of networked computers and even the Internet.

"I'm amazed that people are talking about peer-to-peer being this whole new thing," said Gordon Eubanks, president and CEO of Cupertino, Calif.-based software vendor Oblix Inc. "Peer-to-peer is not, in my mind, fundamentally different than what we've been doing with the Internet all along."

No Faster Than Web Servers

Robert Mahowald, an analyst at International Data Corp. in Framingham, Mass., said he doubts that applications like Groove are all that different from the client/server-based model.

"Basically, [Groove] is peer-to-server-to-peer," Mahowald said. "There is a server built in there somewhere."

A Groove spokesman had acknowledged that information must go through a router, and may even stay there while the intended recipient is off-line.

What's the difference between Groove's peer-to-peer application and a Web server that points a user to another address, Mahowald asked. "There's no great reason not to do it [a client/server/] way," he said. "In a demonstration we saw, [Groove] wasn't any faster than anything we've ever seen."

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