Prudens Information Resources for the Internet


Peer-to-Peer Computing

Computing, Software & Infrastructure

A Prudens E-Report

The Challenges of Peer-to-Peer Computing | Instant Messaging: An Early Form of P2P
Social Networking and Viral Communications



The Challenges of Peer-to-Peer Computing

Peer-to-Peer (P2P) computing, may be considered another form of distributed computing and a specialized form of grid computing which occurs between two nodes on a network. P2P on the Internet involves sending information between two nodes, probably on different networks, where one node must be able to function as a server. A pure form of P2P where both of the communicating nodes are servers, is the original design of the Internet where there was no centralized control and each computer connected to it was set up to receive and send data.1

Before P2P service can be established, users must learn about other users that have information of interest. This can be obtained by:

Finding a site with a Web search is becoming increasingly feasible provided that the site wants to be found. Sites can display meta tags to search robots and can identify themselves to the major search engines. But without an effective search mechanism or directory service, P2P computing can't be spontaneous, but must rely on "word-of-mouth", chat room exchanges or even conventional advertising, which even makes it sound less like P2P computing than a large portal like AOL, Google, MSN, and Yahoo.

If an entity maintains a site directory that shows where content is located on the Internet, then it may be liable for aiding the illegal action of copying intellectual property. Moreover, he takes on the burden of constantly updating the directory to reflect the current location of content. Napster, which popularized the concept of P2P, maintained a site, which showed where music was available for download, and was sued by music publishing companies and forced out of business, although a legitimate business is currently using its name. Although P2P is most often associated with illegal activity (bills have been introduced in Congress to ban its use), the technology isn't inherently illegal and can be useful and legal if the information being transferred is free, or has been licensed or purchased.

One of the major challenges of legitimate P2P is its management. Who, for example, will insure that security is maintained at the site and notifies users of break-ins and other security-related problems? Who will manage traffic through the network and become the guarantor of a secure, virus-free and stable link between the two peers, a particularly acute problem for streaming or the delivery of large content files. Another potential difficulty is congestion since traffic between peers creates much more traffic than users who download content from a central server.

Another interesting aspect of P2P computing is that while millions of dollars are being spent on data centers and ASP services to centralize computing, millions of dollars are also being spent on P2P to decentralize network computing and make every connected machine a web server.

One of the first persons to point out that networks, and the Internet in particular, could host P2P computing was Bill Joy, a co-founder and former chief scientist of Sun Microsystems. He recognized that P2P computing was the first requirement of grid services, and led Sun's effort to introduce Jini,2 an application that allows a range of networked devices to identify themselves and their capabilities, to share instructions or data, and to perform distributed computing. Subsequent to the P2P explosion Sun introduced JXTA,3 or "Jini-light", to try to bring some order to the fairly complex process of node-to-node processing across networks.

Instant Messaging: An Early Form of P2P

Instant Messaging (IM), a form of P2P computing that passes communications through a central server, has been widely adopted by the younger generation of Internet users. User access is maintained within the "buddy list", an important tool for group processing. Also new peers can be brought in through the community aspect of instant messaging, which means that the community can take over the function of searching for new peers, or for providing a directory for potential peers of interest.

IM is evolving as a messaging and computing platform for business. Images, biometric data and other multimedia files can be transferred quickly. Also, small or portable systems can be utilized at remote locations to access computing resources as needed.

Social Networking and Viral Communications

Another new approach to P2P communications is social networking, or viral communications, where contacts are introduced through intermediate contacts. Its use has grown rapidly both in business circles and in dating networks where people desire to form relationships. In these networks, individuals can find out basic information about others in the network, along with how to contact them through the network of contacts. Intermediary contacts set up the contact if it is agreeable to both parties. The idea is that the intermediaries provide some sort guarantee that the person is who he or she claims to be, and has the qualifications stated in the network biography. Some dating services take on this role of guarantor, and provide screening to assist in the compatibility of matches between its contacts.



Endnotes

1. See The Internet: Past, Present and Future - Internet & WWW History, by Jesper Vissing Laursen, last updated in 1997 (http://www.vissing.dk/inthist.html). Also, see B. M. Leiner et al., A Brief History of the Internet, Internet Society, Reston, Va. (2000). http://www.isoc.org/internet-history/brief.html.

2. Jini (http://www.jini.org/), (http://www.sun.com/software/jini/)

3. Jxta (http://www.jxta.org/), (http://www.sun.com/software/jxta/)




Dr. James E. Burke is a Principal in Burke Technology Services (BTS). BTS provides business assistance to startup technology companies, or organizations planning or integrating new technologies; develops and manages technology projects; performs technology evaluation and commercialization, and assists in technology-based economic development.

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