By Jonathan Blum
Just when it looks as though some of the steam might be running out of the computing industry, powerhouse players are turning to a new computing and networking model as a source of inspiration � and revenues.
Sparked by the publicity around Napster, generally favorable technology and � believe it or not � positive expectations for growth, dozens of companies are trying to carve out territory in the emerging peer-to-peer computing market. The list of entrants includes industry titans like Microsoft, Sun, Intel, IBM, Hewlett-Packard and Compaq Computer, and a host of smaller players and well-funded startups, such as Groove Networks and Applied Meta.
P2P got its first major exposure through Napster, the service set up to enable users to swap music files across the Internet. But industry insiders say that the millions of files exchanged is just the tip of the iceberg.
“There is no question in my mind that we’re looking at an overall explosion of usage,” says Greg Bolcer, CTO at P2P startup Endeavors Technology.
P2P is fundamentally different from the host/client computing model that now dominates most data networking in that, with P2P, all devices act as both a server and a client. The market seems to be blossoming despite the chilly economic climate.
The most important P2P plays right now are being made by the computer industry establishment, mainly because P2P is still in the formative stage. Intel set the tone for the P2P market early by forming a trade group last fall called the Peer-to-Peer Working Group, with nearly 30 members. The company then assembled an internal team of about 50 architects, engineers and application designers. It also placed “significant” but undisclosed bets, through Intel Capital, on some P2P startups, says Bob Knighten, who holds the title of peer-to-peer evangelist at Intel.
Claude Leglise, VP of Intel’s new products group, insists that “only 15% of all the chips that Intel will sell have been sold.” That’s his way of saying Intel’s life as a chip maker has only just begun. Leglise says “a decentralized network of peered devices” will be the major driver of future chip sales.
Not without peers
Intel now has plenty of company trying to get into the P2P driver’s seat. There are dozens of P2P-focused startups, including Groove Networks (run by former Lotus Development guru Ray Ozzie), OpenCola and Starfish Software, a company founded by Philippe Kahn and now owned by Motorola.
But the buzz in P2P is being created by all the bigger players now jockeying for position. IBM not only has what it calls a large-scale “pervasive computing” effort, but it also announced last month a five-year, $400 million deal with Sony and Toshiba to in Austin, TX. The goal is to develop a “supercomputer-on-a-chip” aimed at decentralized peered devices.
Sun Microsystems also is stepping up to the P2P plate. Last month, Sun acquired InfraSearch, a media exchange service, in a move that could bolster Sun’s P2P initiative, called JXTA (pronounced “juxta”). This month, Sun is expected to release the JXTA code and hopes to place it beside its Java and Jini products.
The strategy behind this move, according to competitors, is to build a library of command lines core to P2P networking. But some feel Sun has more ominous intentions. Pat Gelsinger, CTO of Intel’s architecture group, says Sun is trying to “control the P2P community.” That’s the same charge that was being leveled at Intel when it convened the first meeting of the Peer-to-Peer Working Group last October.
The potential in the space has not been lost on others, either. Hewlett-Packard belongs to the Peer-to-Peer Working Group, but it also helped form the New Productivity Initiative, anotbuild a joint development centerher industry group. Although HP belongs to both groups, other NPI backers, including Cadence Design Systems, Compaq, Platform Computing and Silicon Graphics, belong to NPI only. The two groups aren’t necessarily competing with each other, but they aren’t cooperating, either.
Another 800-pound gorilla in the P2P space is AOL Time Warner, which would not comment on its strategy. According to Aimster, which makes file-sharing software, AOL Time Warner is working on an idea to turn its Instant Messenger into a full-service distributed application offering far more than online chat.
The biggest � and most feared � monkey in the P2P picture right now is Microsoft, which last month unveiled its Hailstorm product line. With Hailstorm, Microsoft plans to offer about a dozen applications that can be used to swap data across many platforms. Already, the move has stirred significant controversy, with competitors fretting that Microsoft will ruin the space as it tries to corner the market.
“Our biggest worry is that Microsoft will build a central registry for peered transactions that does not work well and alienate the market,” says Sylvan Beaudry, CTO at Proksim Software, a P2P developer and member of the Peer-to-Peer Working Group.
Even network equipment makers Ciena, Cisco Systems and Nortel Networks are rumored to be feeling their way in the P2P space, although their respective roles are not clear at this point. Intel’s Knighten says Nortel has indicated “some interest” in P2P.
What’s in it for you?
While all this activity is clearly exciting, it poses some significant new challenges for network operators.
“The successful service providers of the future must now contemplate a world where traffic will flow in a profound new way,” says Michael Miron, CEO at ContentGuard, a startup P2P rights management company. “The problem is now, no one knows what that way is.”
Among the early issues that have to be addressed are standards, ethics, privacy, legality � and profits. With so many groups crowding the space, there may be no emerging standard, which would be a crippling limitation. There are also questions about rights management. A litigious player who felt its material wasn’t properly protected could exercise legal action across the P2P space, chilling usage. Questions also remain about how much data people are willing to share, and what price they would be willing to pay for it.
Still, the P2P community remains optimistic. “Peering, once you get your mind around it, is actually very straightforward,” says Knighten. “It’s a logical extension of existing PC, networking and software solutions. I do not have a moment’s doubt that the sector will continue to grow very rapidly. We are just not sure where it will grow.”