P2P Gets Jury of Its Peers

Testers say it has a place in enterprise.

Do you have P2P jitters?

Is all the talk about peer-to-peer sending frigid, lack-of-control, lack-of-security, lack-of-standards shivers down your spine?

Stop fretting. P2P is about a lot more than the chaos of Napster and your teenagers ripped-off Metallica hits. Although the music-sharing, recording-industry-provoking service certainly helped to shine the spotlight on this powerful networking technology, growing numbers of enterprises believe the technology can be harnessed to solve real problems faced by real businesses. While P2P is still a long way from becoming a mainstream enterprise technology, some major financial services and business-to-business e-commerce companies are becoming believers.

Its not hard to see the attractions. Using P2P networking—which, in its simplest form, means that computers on the Internet talk to one another rather than filtering their conversations through the bottleneck of a server—means that the PC power on the edges of the Internet that has been skyrocketing over the last few years can finally be harnessed.

Not only do some enterprises believe P2P can allow them to access bucket loads of unused computing power, but they also believe they will be able to use that power to revolutionize a score of enterprise processes. One such process is real-time collaboration. Financial services provider American Century Investments Inc. is putting that idea to the test with a prototype of WorldStreet Corp.s P2P-enabled Net platform.

Other enterprises believe P2P may be a boon for aggregating information from all over the Internet. American Century is eyeing that idea, as are officials at B2B companies who say they believe that P2P may revitalize what experts have been calling the failed promise of online exchanges. By and large, e-marketplaces havent proved capable of handling complex business transactions or of replacing the human relationships that still form the basis of business relationships. P2P, experts say, could help, due to its ability to capture bandwidth-intensive forms of communication such as telephone conversations and aggregate them with other forms of content. And officials at e-marketplaces such as Renovotech.com hope to capitalize on the technologys real-time data aggregation for competitive advantage.

There are at least two more places where P2P makes sense in an enterprise setting, experts say. The first is automatic software distribution. One company, myCIO.com, of Santa Clara, Calif., is already using P2P in its Rumor anti-virus definition distribution software offers. Another logical P2P fit is real-time, close-to-the-end-user performance testing and monitoring of Web sites, as is being rolled out by Envive Corp.

The Appeal of the Peer

Renovotech.com, run by renovo Group Inc., in Alpharetta, Ga., embraced P2P when its site went live with AgentWare Inc.s Syndicator platform early this month. Officials at the e-marketplace for refurbished IT hardware say they believe that the technology will not only provide customers with real-time aggregated data but will also save the exchange a hefty investment in infrastructure, since P2P shifts the horsepower required for aggregation processing off to peers in the exchanges network.

CEO Scott Kruglewicz wasnt looking to be at the forefront of a P2P revolution. Kruglewicz was merely looking to alleviate a big data-storage headache without going broke—something P2P delivered.

"It shifts the need for horsepower for computing power to the client and off the servers," Kruglewicz said. "We have a few servers that run the technology, but we dont need [the servers that would be required for] that massive storage."

Forgoing those storage and processing servers—not to mention the labor to support them—racks up huge savings. Kruglewicz wouldnt pin down a figure, but he did go so far as to say that adopting a P2P architecture would shave infrastructure costs somewhere in the "high six figures, if not seven."

Renovotech.coms customers are midrange to high-end IT resellers that refurbish, recondition and sell used, high-end technology hardware. Typically, those resellers spend their days searching for raw-material listings. For them, visibility into whats available and at what price across the Internet and across the globe is manna. Of course, fresh manna is better than stale.

Unfortunately, current aggregation processes dont serve up the freshest data possible. The way that aggregation—pulling information off the Web and redistributing it—happens in most B2B processes is that a server searches for and collects data on a predetermined schedule and in a set format. Information is then drawn back into an auction aggregation tool. For example, an auction aggregator may select 15 sites to scan. The aggregator may set up its system to ping the sites hourly. The aggregator then republishes the information to requesting end users.

The problem with this process is that with many B2B online transactions, such as auctions, timing is crucial. As such, jumping that 1-hour lag time becomes a competitive victory. Thats where P2P comes in.

Using AgentWares Syndicator process, peers—which can be site-hosting servers or merely client systems—are given a set of instructions to gather information from servers continuously.

The information requested isnt stored on Renovotech.com servers. Rather, a syndication packet is sent to the reseller that includes a blueprint of where on the network the information is stored, a reformatted version of the information, along with instructions on what to do with the information when its received—and the packet is smart enough to know on what type of device it will be rendered on, to boot.

The P2P Cone of Silence

At American Century, in Kansas City, Mo., P2Ps aggregation capabilities have a distinct relevance. WorldStreets aggregation server does the work of amassing financial data—reports, analysts projections, white papers and so on—off the peer site servers of securities professionals who want to sell to American Century. That means the buy-side analysts and portfolio managers at American Century neednt log in to those sites themselves to search for data. Therefore, sell-side sites cant monitor American Centurys comings and goings.

That gains the company transparency: No intelligence regarding American Centurys interests and fields of inquiry leaks out. Thats not just smart business for a company whose assets run in the range of $100 billion; it is also mandated by regulatory requirements that prohibit financial companies from exposing their positions regarding a particular security.

Not only that, but using P2P to aggregate data eliminates bandwidth choke points. Because there is no server bottleneck, peers have the muscle to move bandwidth-heavy loads—hence the wide variety of media that can be handled, including graphics and voice files.

American Century hasnt had to adjust network resources to deal with the increased flow of media for a few reasons, according to Rich Wilkie, vice president of investment management. First, Net allows users to look at either short, abstract versions of files or entire files, which means that its not always necessary to pull down a large graphics or audio file during prime hours. In addition, streaming audio keeps pipes unclogged with its lean transmission size.

For securities professionals in the trenches, though, the appeal of the Net platform boils down to its ability to filter the mass of communications that face them every morning. The Net application allows them to filter sources of data according to criteria they can specify in the Net application installed on their PCs.

"The basic problem of being an analyst is you have literally hundreds of sources of information," said David Rose, an investment analyst for American Century whos testing the hosted version of Net. "If [Net] saves me an hour of time every day, it will be one more company I can look at every week. Thats a competitive advantage."

But what happens to security when all these peers are free to directly connect? Herein lies one of the most often cited P2P concerns—namely, that a network of peers is open to the whole wide world of viruses and hackers.

Not to worry, Wilkie said. WorldStreet has tackled the security question to his satisfaction with a three-tier security system—one that requires three levels of log-on that can be blocked or opened up to sell-side peers at American Centurys discretion. Passwords are stored on a WorldStreet aggregation server. In the next major release, American Century is looking to put that server on-site, but for now, it still has sufficient control over passwords. "We have the option that anybody who sends us information, we can restrict either the master log-on or the individual log-on," Wilkie said.

Walking the Last Mile

Envive, in Mountain View, Calif., first started thinking about P2P six months ago. The management services provider offers self-service monitoring and load testing of Web sites at www.envive.com. Envives problem is that, while it can easily monitor performance of the data centers and huge data pipes of a service provider such as Concentric Network Corp., its much more difficult to measure the performance that end users on the Internet actually see. Thats because the servers Envive is watching arent in the so-called last mile—that last jog from a Web site to a users machine, which may be using anything from a fat digital subscriber line to a slowly churning 28.8K-bps connection.

Thats where Distributed Science Inc.s "for-pay" distributed network of 145,000 global peers comes in. Distributed Science, of Pasadena, Calif., solicits individuals to offer up their PCs resources for various processing projects such as Envives. A commercial version of well-known P2P projects such as [email protected], the Distributed Science network will eventually pay participants an average of $12.50 per month. This extensive network of peers means that wherever Envive needs testing done, Distributed very likely has a peer located.

Again, the low cost of deployment comes into the picture in this P2P setup. "We get greater accuracy, more locations, at a fraction of the cost," said Jeff Tonkel, CEO of Envive, who declined to say how much this rollout, announced last month, cost. Tonkel did say, however, that the infrastructure cost would have amounted to "at least five times" what Envive paid to tap into the P2P network.

Havent P2Pd Yet?

The concept of linking together many devices in peer networks is not new. In fact, its been around in one form or another for ages. The current Napster-flavored hype, however, means that enterprises cant wait for P2P standards and security to be ironed out, experts say. Thats because, realistically, enterprises simply cant keep freeware downloads from spreading through desktops like the flu at a Christmas party.

"This stuff sneaks in the backdoor before you know it," said Tony Scott, chief technology officer at General Motors Systems and Services, in Detroit. "It has to rise to some level before you officially take notice of it. That pattern is established in IT. Id be dishonest if I said you didnt see some of it at GM."

This can be a concern if the uninvited P2P applications lack robust security, scalability and means to control dissemination of sensitive corporate intelligence outside of ITs watchful eye.

"If theres no central network where you can monitor this stuff, then P2P becomes very difficult from a management perspective," said Don Gilbert, senior vice president of IT at the National Retail Federation, in Washington.

That caution is still common in enterprises that havent tinkered with the new batch of P2P-client/server hybrid applications. Those who have tinkered are far more confident about not losing control, however. "In our environment, its not something we worry about," said Lee Rocklage, network manager at DPR Construction Inc., in Redwood City, Calif., which is using myCIOs Rumor anti-virus definition distribution software. "[The files being distributed] arent anything a text editor can bring up and look at, so theres minimal risk."

Indeed, pilot tests being done by enterprises such as American Century and Renovotech.com are showing that the P2P applications now getting rolled out by the truckload are a much better-behaved lot than applications such as the pure-P2P Gnutella, which has been bogged down by peers that have slow Internet connections. And given its benefits, even naysayers have to admit, P2P is coming, and they probably cant stop it.

"It is going to be revolutionary," GMs Scott said.