The good side of peer-to-peer

Peer-to-peer networking has developed a very bad reputation in the last year or so, mostly because it’s a term that has been applied to ad-hoc music distribution networks.

The music industry has attacked this use of peer-to-peer technology as the reason for the recent drop in the sales of music CDs. I don’t suppose that continued high prices or a lack of music that people want to buy has anything to do with the drop.

There are many other uses of peer-to-peer networking that should not be overlooked in the fog created by the music industry’s zeal to maintain outdated business models. One of these is grid computing.

About a year ago I wrote a column about grid computing in which I argued that the hype that painted the grid as the “next phase of the Internet,” as The New York Times put it, was overblown. I also said that distributed computing technology did have some significant uses, even if I didn’t think it would be common for people to share their local computing resources with people they don’t know. I still hold that view, but a recent visit to the iGrid 2002 conference showed me how far this type of peer-to-peer computing has come.

The conference was held in an extraordinarily well-connected science and technology centre in Amsterdam. Connections included two 10Gbps links to the U.S. (New York and Chicago) and many 2.5Gbps connections to parts of The Netherlands and the rest of Europe. More than 400 attendees from 20 countries got to see more than two dozen live demonstrations and a full program of technology sessions. Most demonstrations were focused on the effective use of high-speed networks and distributed high-performance computing, with most of the rest focusing on the technology glue, such as a security infrastructure, needed to make this type of peer-to-peer computing workable.

The most emblematic demonstration was a real-time, interactive, 3-D work of art. “Art Flying In & Out of Space” by Jackie Matisee presents a collection of multicoloured, long-tailed Japanese-style kites swaying in the wind. The work is presented in the CAVE, a walk-in virtual-reality environment where images are projected on the walls and floor. The viewer wears special glasses to provide a 3-D experience. What makes this work of art a grid demonstration is that the movement of each of the kites is calculated by a different computer, and the computers are spread all over the network. It’s a beautiful personification of distributed computing.

The demonstrations showed that the grid technology is maturing. And with companies such as the two dozen sponsors of iGrid, including IBM Corp. and Hewlett-Packard Co., pushing it, the technology has a bright future. But it still will complement, not replace, the Internet as we know it.

Disclaimer: Historically, Harvard’s schools provided a good example of loosely coupled distributed computing. Things seem to be changing, but whether it will replace Harvard as we know it will not be known for a while. Meanwhile, I express my own opinions.

Bradner is a consultant with Harvard University’s University Information Systems. He can be reached at