Peer-to-Peer Forces Marshal

Intel Corp., Hewlett-Packard Co., IBM Corp. and a slew of start-ups will meet this week to set up the structure for a working group that would give corporate customers a new way to harness the collective power of networked PCs, workstations and servers for compute- and storage-intensive jobs.

Instead of purchasing more hardware and software and hiring the IT staff needed to set up and support it, an emerging technology called peer-to-peer (P2P) computing will let users access valuable resources when they aren't being used. The result: Users could save millions of dollars by tapping unused processing and storage resources.

P2P basically sets up a virtual supercomputer by allowing the exchange of data among multiple computers connected via a network. The software that powers Napster Inc. and Gnutella is often held up as the best example of the power P2P can harness.

In addition to next week's meeting, at least two firms, Porivo Technologies Inc. and Mangosoft Corp., will soon announce P2P products aimed at corporate network customers. Intel Corp. is testing a new peer-to-peer application that the company says will save WAN bandwidth and deliver applications and data more quickly than existing technologies.

Porivo will roll out Peer, a secure, Java-based application designed to let users harness spare PC computing capacity, says Will Holmes, CEO at Porivo. Porivo's Peer client, which resides on a user's desktop, works with the company's PeerPlane management software, which can reside on a dedicated server. PeerPlane essentially aggregates the computing resources of PCs connected to corporate networks, letting users distribute work among them.

Mangosoft next week plans to announce Mangomind, which it is billing as the first multiuser, Internet-based, file-sharing service that provides real-time file sharing for secure business communications. The new service is a secure way for multiple users to access, share and store files. Mangomind will let users work on their files offline. When users go back online, Mangomind automatically updates and synchronizes their files.

In the Groove

Another member of the working group - Groove Networks Inc. - plans a highly anticipated Oct. 24 rollout of its P2P technology, which will be aimed at collaborative computing. Groove's founder Ray Ozzie created Lotus Notes.

P2P could take many avenues in meeting the computing needs of end users, much as the Web has become more than a tool to deliver simple page requests, says Andrew Mahon, evangelist at Groove. Mahon declined to provide specifics about Groove's product.

One company interested in Porivo and other P2P technologies is United Technologies Research Center - the research arm of United Technologies. Paul Kirschner, a senior project analyst at United Technologies, is looking at how his company can harness the power of computers across the company to do production work.

What Kirschner likes is the idea of being able to do massive compute jobs that might otherwise mean buying more expensive hardware and software.

"Obviously, if you look at the number of desktops across the company, there are tens of thousands," that could potentially be tapped, he says. "To use what is just sitting there doing nothing quite a bit of the time is what makes this attractive because if you looked at replacing that power with another box, another cluster, that would represent a significant investment."

As a result, Kirschner expects to have P2P technology up in some capacity by year-end.

Kirschner likes Porivo's offering because the desktop client works with Windows 95. Others, such as TurboLinux Inc.'s EnFuzion software, only support Windows NT and various flavors of Unix.

But that doesn't mean he's ready to bet the farm on P2P.

"The technology is new, and how it is going to play in the corporate environment isn't certain yet," he says. "People will not tolerate it if their machines crash, slow down or get locked up, or if unusual things happen."

While EnFuzion may not fit into United Technologies' infrastructure, it has found a home elsewhere.

TurboLinux announced earlier this year that J.P. Morgan & Co. Inc. is using the software to help power the firm's worldwide risk management system for fixed-income derivatives.

Cheryl Currid, president of the Currid & Co. consultancy, says P2P's big draw for corporate customers is processing power that companies don't know they have. "What they can get from peer-to-peer is low-cost, high-capability processing and storage."

Currid says users can benefit from P2P to varying degrees - depending on how much effort they put into incorporating it into their infrastructure. While engineering and scientific jobs are a logical place for P2P, more commonplace financial applications are what could put it in the spotlight. "Imagine if your trades could come back to you three times faster because your company was using P2P to process them in real time, instead of having to do big periodic batch jobs," Currid says.

Intel is in

Intel is also using P2P. The company made a lot of noise recently when it talked about how it saved $500 million over the past 10 years using a P2P application called Netbatch. The application lets Intel engineers harness more than 10,000 workstations across Intel's network to do compute-intensive jobs for chip design, says Manny Vara, an Intel spokesman.

"Every time we were designing a new chip, we were buying a bunch of new mainframes to get the job done - and that was just one area," he says.

Vara says Intel is testing a new application that goes even further. He says Intel will try out a system that will detect when employees access the WAN to retrieve video files. If another employee at the same location has already downloaded it, the P2P application will retrieve it from that system where it has been stored instead of going over the WAN to get it.

What network managers will likely debate as P2P gains momentum is how to use it without slowing systems. Currid says estimates are that 75% of the average PC and 60% of the average server go unused.

Busy signal

But what about when they are busy?

P2P software from companies such as Entropia Inc., another member of the P2P Working Group, let customers set policies that govern when computer resources can be harnessed. Using Entropia's screen saver makes it fairly easy. The computer's resources are only used when the screen saver comes on. The moment it turns off, indicating the machine is going to be used, the P2P processes are halted.

Many P2P questions will hopefully be answered by the working group set to meet in San Jose.

The meeting will be more organizational than anything else, according to Intel's Vara. The members will organize into task-related groups that will determine how to solve issues related to interoperability, standards and security.

Other members of the working group include Applied MetaComputing LLC, CenterSpan Communication Corp., Distributed Science, Dotcast Inc., Enfish Inc., Engenia Software Inc., Flycode, Kalepa Networks Inc., Statis, United Devices, Uprizer and Vtel Corp. More information on the working group can be found at www.peer-to-peerwg.org.

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