P2P takes on B2B

Although peer-to-peer technology has the potential to reshape corporate computing architectures, its early influence will be in augmenting existing infrastructures, and even in that obstacles remain.

IT executives seem to be faced with a choice between pure, built-from-the-ground-up P2P implementations and classic client/server networks. But the P2P truth for corporate use resides somewhere in the middle.

“In order to make [P2P] successful you have to understand the business need and then embed it into the existing workflow,” said Rob Hegarty, an analyst at TowerGroup in Needham, Mass.

And although P2P today is largely perceived as an improved file-sharing arrangement, some new companies are adapting the architecture to business-to-business applications.

New York-based Liquid.Net is developing an institutional trading application that helps identify buyers and sellers of large blocks of securities and then facilitates their deals. The technology is being integrated with the company’s client/server order management system, with most of that software residing on the server. Traders send information from desktop to desktop, but the server manages the transfer.

Boston-based WorldStreet Corp. has developed an information-sharing platform designed to allow financiers to publicize and filter buying opportunities according to specified criteria.

Rather than broadcasting offers, WorldStreet Net allows the salesperson to pitch the stock to interested buyers only, based on their profiles. The application is written in C# using Microsoft Corp.’s .NET platform with Tibco messaging middleware. XML tags allow messages to be combined with relevant content, such as research reports or news stories, according to company officials.

“P2P in the business world does not mean Napster (Inc.). File sharing is not the killer app,” said Alexis Kopikis, co-founder and senior vice-president of product strategy and management at WorldStreet. “Intellectual property means that you want to address lasting relationships, not ad hoc relationships, and bring information to people in their existing workflow.”

Other companies emerging that use a P2P architecture to address B2B problems include Consilient and Interbind. Both companies have products that can tie together supply-chain processes into a collaborative environment allowing people as well as processes to interact.

“The goal of these companies is to introduce the human back into an automated business process,” said Simon Yates, an analyst at Forrester Research Inc. in Cambridge, Mass.

WorldStreet officials contend that the model of structured pre-sales communication will translate to other industries, and could be a value-added service offered by trading exchanges or e-marketplaces.

But whereas analysts and start-ups can envision ways P2P makes sense in certain business applications, many large corporate shops are sceptical about even entering pilot projects using P2P technologies, citing a laundry list of reasons. Chief among those concerns is security – or the lack thereof.

“These vendors have shown little in the way of security so far. We are interested in taking a look at what they come up with, but they need to show us they can identify individuals on the remote end of things,” said Rich Wilkie, vice-president of investment management services at American Century Investments in Kansas City, Mo., which is testing the hosted version of WorldStreet Net software.

The issues of standardized applications and bandwidth also need to be addressed before companies will bring P2P software in-house.

“The problem is not just one company deciding to standardize on a set of apps for P2P, but it is that company convincing a bunch of other companies it works with as part of a supply chain, for instance, or its largest users to also standardize on those apps,” said John Henderson, an IT buyer at a large medical distribution company in Chicago.

Applications will have to be efficient with bandwidth to overcome IT managers’ fears that P2P applications might bring down corporate networks as Napster did. Many managers have had to impose unpopular policies such as shutting down access to file-sharing applications.

Notwithstanding Groove Networks Inc.’s recent splashy debut, the delivery of core P2P technology from key vendors such as IBM Corp., Microsoft and Intel Corp. would give P2P the corporate seal of approval. Only Intel, which has an interest in promoting fat-client P2P applications, is putting significant R&D into the technology.

“[P2P] needs a champion behind it to push it through. So the more people that adopt it, the greater their need for fast chips that can support it,” Forrester’s Yates said.