P2P Ascends to New Prominence

There's nothing new about peer-to-peer networking. Indeed, the Internet fundamentally is P2P.

Theres nothing new about peer-to-peer networking. Indeed, the Internet fundamentally is P2P. Packet switching—a P2P technology that breaks a message into smaller packets, which are then transmitted over the network via dynamic routing as circuits become available—is the technology that made the Net the Net.

But if P2P is so fundamental to the Internet, why do so many IT managers break out in a cold sweat at the idea of P2P sneaking into the enterprise?

Because, in its newest forms, it can imply too much freedom in all the wrong places. "P2P in its pure form can imply lack of control on the part of centralized IT," said Tony Scott, chief technology officer at General Motors Corp.s Information System and Services division, in Detroit. "Some organizations have seen Gnutella coming in through the backdoor and taking down networks."

Thats a legitimate grudge to hold. After all, the current gang of P2P freeware applications has grown up far away from a centralized IT eye. Indeed, what really sets applications like Gnutella, Groove and Napster apart from older P2P architecture—including the Internet, which relies on peer routers to do its stuff—is that the peers are no longer dumb clients dependent on a DNS (Domain Name System) for an IP address. Rather, peers are increasingly powerful, independent PCs, working with variable, dynamically doled out IP addresses, their umbilical cord to central servers cut. The new P2P applications have learned to account for that variability, thus gaining access to this resource of peers crowded along the edge of the Internet. P2P architectures have figured out ways around DNS that include tactics such as assigning to nodes specific times to contact fixed IP addresses and creating directories that can update IP addresses in real time.

Developers have been working hard to find ways to exploit those same resources while keeping IT squarely in the drivers seat—hence the new crop of client/server hybrids. That combination is the key to winning the enterprise, said those on the buying end. "The powerful proposition is where you have a server behind the firewall," said Harold Bradley, president of American Century Ventures Inc., in Kansas City, Mo., which is testing WorldStreet Net, a P2P platform for the financial services industry. Such a setup may yet deliver the best of both worlds: the freedom to turn in-house peers into processing dynamos, along with the ability to keep a tight rein on peers outside the enterprise, turning the former free-for-all Internet into a controllable entity.

"We can work outside the organization with vendors who come through WorldStreet as our information highway," Bradley said. "[That will make it] a toll highway."