Peer-to-peer networking makes a comeback through the help of the Internet

A few years ago, my colleagues and I wrote a book on peer-to-peer networking with Windows for Workgroups. It appears now that we were ahead of our time, at least on the concept of peer-to-peer networking. After a few years of refinement, peer-to-peer is making a comeback in a big way.

Five or 10 years ago, the main reason to establish a peer-to-peer network – usually within a small office or workgroup – was to share files or scarce resources, such as printers and scanners. Today, the scope of peer-to-peer networking is broader, often on a global scale.

If you can’t imagine a global network that eschews a server as the central hub, letting thousands if not millions of PCs communicate directly, then pick up a newspaper and read about Napster Inc. Despite the legal issues Napster raised about content and copyright, the company’s 21 million users have proven the theory that peer-to-peer computing is valid. Indeed, the peer-to-peer platform is emerging as one of the most powerful platforms on the Internet.

Convinced that they’ve got the concept right (if not the content), early founders and investors of Napster have formed a new firm, AppleSoup (www.applesoup. com), that is again based on distributing digital information via a peer-to-peer network. The difference is that AppleSoup is protecting the content owners’ rights to their intellectual property by assigning rights management rules and procedures. These technical advances permit content owners to distribute and sell their property as information moves directly from one hard drive to another over the Internet.

Peer-to-peer technology like this has huge implications for the Internet, although it may still be too early to tell just what the ramifications might be. Even eBay Inc. CEO Meg Whitman recently revealed that she’s got a technical team with its eyes trained on peer-to-peer networking. EBay has built a solid business on letting customers trade things via its centralized marketplace. Imagine what would happen if people didn’t need eBay as the middleman anymore.

But selling and trading things isn’t the only use for Internet-enabled peer-to-peer networking. A few organizations have used the strategy to create what amounts to a massively scalable, distributed, virtual supercomputer. Take, for example, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) at Home Project at the University of California at Berkeley (


. The project’s mission is to process radio transmissions received from the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico for signs of extraterrestrial life. To achieve this goal, volunteers download an application file that uses their computers to process small chunks of data. Every few days, the program downloads data from the telescope, and while a computer is not in use by the user, it processes the data for patterns. Upon completion of a package of data, the computer returns the results of the analysis to the server.

With more than two million registered volunteers downloading and processing the data, the SETI project has been considered the fastest computer in the world. The project has already performed the largest cumulative computation to date.

If the Atlanta start-p AgentWare ( has its way, this new form of peer-to-peer computing won’t be strictly for consumers or home users. In July, AgentWare released a business-to-business development platform that will let e-businesses manage Web sites, portals and e-commerce without the traditional dependencies on costly infrastructure and labour.

AgentWare’s technology enables custom delivery of content, transactions, media and services from multiple sources on the Internet to any device connected to the Internet, including PCs, appliances, cell phones and pagers. AgentWare calls its model “point-to-point” computing, as users can bypass traditional central servers and connect directly with content providers’ sites.

Lest you think this “new” computing model is only for startups, think again. Intel recently entered the scene with a few announcements during its recent developers forum.

Pat Gelsinger, vice-president and chief technology officer of the Intel Architecture Group, likened the potential impact of this technology to the effect Web browsers had to the initial development of the Internet.

Gelsinger foresees a day when client computers in a corporate network are used as a collective resource for the company, not unlike the SETI project.

To further refine the implementation of the peer-to-peer design in the corporation, Intel is helping to establish a Peer to Peer Working Group, where member companies can address issues such as standards and security.

There’s no doubt we’re in the nascent stages of peer-to-peer networking via the Internet. First we’ll see “renegade” implementations take root, but soon we’ll see practical implementations for the corporate and business-to-business arenas.