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Computer Networking: P2P Explained

  New Ways to Network

By Russ King


P2P is short for peer-to-peer computing, stemming ostensibly from peer-to-peer networking. Peers are usually defined as computers connected through some sort of network, such as the Internet or the Napster network. Beyond this, the standards get fuzzy and the definition becomes nebulous at best. This is because there are at least three distinct manifestations of peer-to-peer computing, and all three have their own functionality- instant messaging/communication tools, file sharing tools, and distributed computing networks.

Instant Messaging and Beyond

Into this category fall collaborative tools that allow you to connect directly to another person to chat, send files, use a whiteboard, etc. What differentiates these tools from others such as Microsoft Netmeeting, Webex, and even ICQ, is that they don't rely on a central server after the initial connection is made. There is nothing to monitor your traffic or keep track of accounts.

One example of such a tool is a robust application called Groove, from Groove Networks. It's similar to Microsoft Netmeeting, but it actually allows you to do quite a bit more, such as have threaded discussions and voice conversations. In fact, one of my only problems with the software is that it is just too complex! But it is free and relatively easy to use. All you need to do is set up an account, connect to the Internet, and invite someone to your "shared space".

File Sharing

These are content sharing tools like Napster or Gnutella. There are tons of them out now, and there are even more companies developing products that make file sharing easier. The goal is to allow users to securely share files from local machines without being required to setup and monitor an FTP server.

Distributed Computing

A little know fact is that most of our computers spend 70-90% of their processor time doing absolutely nothing. Under the distributed computing P2P model, spare processing time from participating computers is aggregated in order to execute a program. The beauty of this model is that it is not necessary to invest in massive servers or supercomputers to process large amounts of information, since the work is being done by various client computers instead. It is important to understand that the organizations that are running distributed computing programs aren't stealing your computer, they are merely using your computer's spare resources. Most of them have ways to tell the program to only start if the computer has been idle for 10 minutes, or only run when the screen saver is on.

The best know example of this is SETI At Home.The SETI project analyzes signals from space for patterns that might be extraterrestrial life. The trouble is that there is a lot of data to sift through, so the researchers set up a system that allows users to download an application that analyzes some of this data and then sends the results back to them.

Another example that might be of interest to NPO's is Fight AIDS At Home. These researchers are using donated computing power to test the efficiency of various drugs designed to fight AIDS.

The main thing to remember about the P2P movement is that it is surrounded by a tremendous amount of hype. Everything is the "next killer app," and every company is groundbreaking and innovating. However, the major players are also getting involved. Sun has recently announced their P2P effort, JXTA. Microsoft is working on its own P2P product, and Intel is helping to define security in the field. These companies are willing to spend their money to make sure that the technology develops, so watch the space...

For more information or to keep abreast of new developments, check out the following sites:

Yahoo's peer-to-peer section
Wired's peer-to-peer pages (Mostly intermediate to advanced information)
O'Reilly's peer-to-peer page (Careful, you could get sucked in!)

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