Why Wintel Loves P2P

By eweek  |  Posted 2001-06-11 Print this article Print

Why Wintel Loves P2P

Frankly, Microsoft and Intel are no ones idea of techno-revolutionaries. Their corporate cultures are about as far as you get from the antiestablishment philosophies that underpin Napster and Gnutella, an open source protocol for P2P file sharing.

Microsoft and Intel are keenly interested in promoting P2P computing because it puts the emphasis back on the desktop PC, instead of the giant servers that pipe data to computers. And thats still where these two companies fry most of their bacon, notwithstanding their efforts to break into high-end, high-performance server farms. PC vendors have had trouble selling new computers, partly because there are fewer reasons anyone needs a new computer these days. P2P computing, on the other hand, tends to yield richly interactive applications that use a whole lot more processing and disk space — thus driving demand for newer, faster PCs.

Intel has been much more publicly enthusiastic than Microsoft about P2Ps potential. Last August, Intel formed the Peer-to-Peer Working Group to try to figure out what industry standards are needed to bootstrap P2P applications. It has embraced some upstart radicals, too: This year, Intel Capital invested in Uprizer, a P2P-based content distribution company founded by Ian Clarke. An outspoken critic of copyright laws, Clarke is the creator of Freenet, an early P2P system designed to bypass Internet censorship.

In addition, Intel recently launched a philanthropic project that parcels out computing-intensive tasks over the Internet to PCs, which crunch the numbers and send back the results. Intel is donating that computing power to researchers seeking cures for cancer, diabetes and other diseases. In less than two months, 600,000 people have contributed more than 100 million hours of processing time — a vivid demonstration, the company believes, of how P2P can be harnessed.

Intel even has a "peer-to-peer evangelist," Bob Knighten, who oversees all its P2P doings. Ironically, Knighten believes that once P2P really catches fire, it will fade into the woodwork. "My expectation is that within three years, well probably very seldom talk about peer-to-peer in these terms, like we dont talk about client-server anymore," he said. "Peer-to-peer computing will simply become one of the ways of doing things."

Meanwhile, though Microsoft hasnt publicly discussed its interest in P2P very much — "We havent been as vocal as some because we think that [P2P] is a means, not an end," Microsofts Fitzgerald said — it has its fingers in several P2P pies.

Clearly, Microsoft wants to be the industrys leading provider of underlying P2P application technologies. P2P plays a central role in .Net, a set of programming tools for writing dynamic Web-based applications. Microsofts .Net uses industry-standard specifications such as eXtensible Markup Language, an efficient technology for exchanging application-specific data, and Simple Object Access Protocol (SOAP), which uses XML to access software services over the Internet.

"The key is we want to help people build smart clients with Internet-native tools," Fitzgerald said. "Napster had to spend a lot of time building infrastructure instead of creating specific features. Our job is to build the plumbing."

Microsoft is also developing Farsite, its own research into the feasibility of a distributed file system that would pool the unused storage of networked PCs. And the company is developing distributed search engine technology that would send a search request across multiple data resources over a network, according to a person familiar with the project. Microsoft declined to comment.

Then theres HailStorm, due by the end of the year, which is Microsofts strategy to deliver Internet services based on .Net that are oriented "around people," instead of computers, the company said. One service, HailStorm Location, will provide a way for P2P applications to rendezvous, Fitzgerald said; its essentially a directory that will let P2P programs find each other by dynamically figuring out whether someone is connected to the Internet and what their Internet Protocol address is.

Microsoft critics worry that with HailStorm, the company is, in typical fashion, attempting to use its dominance on the PC desktop to lock everyone into the next generation of Internet computing as defined by Microsoft, using Net services operated by Microsoft. "Microsoft understands that owning APIs [Application Programming Interfaces] is a good business strategy, so with .Net, theyre setting out to control the next generation of Internet services," OReilly said. "Fortunately, theres a lot of competition. Its not a done deal yet." >>

Fitzgerald defended Microsofts strategy of delivering HailStorm as a set of hosted services: "In the short term, the amount of complexity in letting people run arbitrary [HailStorm] services is too great. We have to get the core functionality up and running. Long term, yeah, well let people run their own location services. But for a lot of people, it will be more attractive to buy that [service] off the shelf. Do you want to spend the time and resources to build that yourself? Or get that from Microsoft in a developer-friendly way?"

Sun believes more developers will prefer its approach to P2P computing technology, Jxta. Launched in April, Jxta consists of a set of protocols that let P2P applications find each other, exchange data, search for information and perform other simple tasks. Bill Joy, Suns chief scientist, likens the Jxta protocols — which Sun is providing for free under an open-source license based on the one that accompanies the Apache Web server — to the Webs HyperText Transfer Protocol.

Microsoft executives have belittled Jxta as a "science-fair experiment." Sun fires back that Microsofts HailStorm is a proprietary system designed to keep Microsoft in control of the Internets infrastructure.

This spitting match between Sun and Microsoft is part of the contest over so-called Web services, a catch-all term that applies to dynamic Internet applications, unlike the relatively static HTML-based Web. Forrester Research refers to this as "the X Internet," meaning executable and extensible. Its a battle that IBM has now joined in earnest, and developers will be choosing their alliances among these players in the coming months and years.


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