TECH TALK: Business to e-Business: 10 Transformations: Client-Server to Peer-to-Peer

The network is the computer, so said Sun many years ago. This vision is finally being fulfilled as a mix of affordable, always-on network connectivity (at least in some parts of the world!), cheap storage and plentiful processing power distributes intelligence across the network. A perspective on Peer-to-Peer (P2P) computing by Kevin Werbach in Release 1.0:

P2P applications rely on independent and intelligent peers at the edge of the network instead to take the place of central servers. P2P links together three distinct classes of applications that already existed by the end of 1999: distributed file sharing (Napster, Gnutella and Freenet), instant messaging (ICQ, AOL Instant Messenger) and distributed computing (Seti@Home, that lives on the Net must work like the Net, in all its ragged glory. It must thrive on chaos and uncertainty, take advantage of network effects and give each user the power of an administrator.

The combination of bandwidth, storage and processing power makes possible a shift from the client-server models of the past to the new P2P architecture. The Internet has been the quintessential P2P network, working in a distributed network. No single entity has been in charge, and yet the Internet has been resilient and has scaled up excellently as millions of host computers have gotten connected to it. Into this world came Napster, the free digital music which helped convert hard disks into music servers and by reaching over 30 million users brought the P2P phenomenon to the fore. Write Lee Gomes and Lisa Bransten in the Wall Street Journal (WSJ):

Peer-to-peer computing makes it theoretically possible to unlock the files and data residing on every personal computer connected to the InternetA peer-to-peer search, in theory, could be more current and reach non-Web sources, such as databases maintained by companies or individuals.

Participants in a peer-to-peer network would decide what, exactly, they wanted to share on the network. An individual user, for example, might allow one of the folders on a hard drive to be scanned by network users, as happens with Napster. Or, a computer running a database could allow requests coming over the network to make direct queries of the database, and then report back the answer.

Thomas Weber (WSJ) describes one practical example of how P2P technology is being used by Rumor, a new anti-virus and security system from myCIO, a unit of Network Associates, to update corporate computers with the latest anti-virus software.

A company installs the Rumor software on all of its PCs. Then each day the first PC to sign onto the company network checks with myCIO’s Web site and downloads an anti-virus update if available. When each subsequent PC signs on, it asks the other computers on the network if any of them has an anti-virus update. If the answer is yes, it grabs the update directly from that machine. The tactic avoids the bottleneck that could result from many machines tying up a company’s connection to the Internet. It also circumvents the need to maintain an internal server to parcel out the updates.

Many challenges still remain for P2P to become mainstream. But no technology has in recent times caught the imagination of so many in so short a time as this. It is built on the paradigm of the Internet itself – of openness rather than restrictions, of distribution rather than centralization, of equality rather than hierarchy.

For e-business, this trio of Conversation, Publish-Subscribe and Peer-to-Peer offers a fundamentally new way to think not just about communications, but also business processes.

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Rajesh Jain

An Entrepreneur based in Mumbai, India.