Its the Next Big Thing—Is It a Good Thing?

With Napster barely alive (but going down with a lot more respect than Metallica), the peer-to-peer frenzy has kicked off

With Napster barely alive (but going down with a lot more respect than Metallica), the peer-to-peer frenzy has kicked off, with new companies looking to supplant the unfortunate music-stealing service and do what it did, albeit more righteously. Most, although not all, of the new P2P companies are staying away from music thievery.

Theyll all fail, so Im not going to say anything more about them. Its not P2P thats interesting but the hundreds of thousands of peer computers working together that can solve real problems, like finding cures for cancers or stress-testing corporate loads.

One company doing just that launched earlier this month at the Demo show in Phoenix. United Devices, of Austin, Texas, unveiled the MetaProcessor platform.

You probably know United Devices ( because some of its founders launched the SETI@home project. Thats the project that taps the idle resources of computers around the world to find intelligent extraterrestrial life. Now UD has more important things on its mind. It wants to tap these same computer users (and users of other devices, if my hunch is correct) and find cancer cures. It is working with the National Foundation for Cancer Research now, but theres no question it will move into areas like genome mapping in the biotech industry and stress-testing of server farms. Exodus, the massive co-location and hosting company, for example, is probably highly interested in the latter service.

There are problems with distributed computing, however. The first is the weak reward system for sharing your CPU cycles. Working on SETI may seem cool, as does working on a cure for cancer. But why the heck should anyone feel altruistic about helping Exodus out?

Although peer power is incredibly strong, that strength can be turned against it. For example, UD has a relationship with Distributed.Net—a SETI@home-type environment that is used predominantly for cracking encryption schemes (legally, of course). Distributed.Net users are frequently barraged with worms, viruses, nasty attachments and so on. UD will need better isolation techniques to convince more users that its computers are safe.

What UD is doing is terrific. The company is clearly setting the stage for the future. Instead of having a bunch of computers sitting around wasting Californias energy, some day we will have all of our computers working together to solve some big problem. The big questions are what exactly will they be working on—and will we ever find out?