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Peer-to-Peer Networking (P2P)

Peer-to-Peer Networking (P2P)


A vast amount of computing intelligence exists at the periphery of the Internet, that is in the millions of personal computers that are connected in offices and homes to the Internet via Company servers and Internet Service Providers. The exploitation of this resource is known as peer-to-peer (P2P) networking. The technology for this type of activity has largely emerged from the USA over the past four years. Names associated with this field are Napster, Gnutella, Flycode, Freenet, GoneSilent and so on. There are also vendors (e.g. Groove Networks) selling development tools for business applications of P2P networking.

Napster, the music download web site is an example of P2P technology. Napster provids a directory of music files located on many personal computers throughout the world, plus a piece of software that allows people to download files. This system works as follows. Anyone with music files on their computer can publish on the Napster server, a list of files they are willing to share. The server matches up requests for files with the list of providers, but the files themselves are transferred directly from personal computer to personal computer. These files do not pass via the Napster server as they would in the traditional Internet model that we know today. This is possible because Napster solved the technical problem of actually how to work around the structure of the Internet and allow computers that do not have domain names to locate each other and exchange specific files.

Although still in its infancy from an industry acceptance point of view, (in the case of Napster for obvious reasons), this type of technology is already dated. A system called Gnutella leads to the same end result: obtaining music free of charge, but without the central server directory. Gnutella users just download the software needed to operate the system. When someone makes a request for a file, the request is examined by other personal computers and relayed onwards to yet other personal computers down the chain, until the requested file has been located.

FreeNet differs from Gnutella in two important respects. First, the information is encrypted, so the person who originally put it on to FreeNet cannot be identified. Once the information has been posted, it moves randomly to another computer. The user of that computer will not know what information is on the machine. Because FreeNet has no central directory, a search engine looks through the entire network each time anyone seeks a file. The second difference is that FreeNet tries to be efficient. Unlike Gnutella, it looks out for popular files and ensures that a number of copies exist in various places. FreeNet will also move the information close to the place where it is in demand. This helps ensure that computers containing the information are not overloaded with requests. This also enables access to files even if the originating computer is off-line.

There is also growing commercial interest in these technologies (this is represented by the involvement of "Blue Chip" companies such as Siemens, Intel, IBM, and others) and tool and technology vendors supporting reputable applications are also beginning to emerge. Most of the focus in the area of P2P technologies at the moment is on sharing copyrighted digital content (both legally and illegally). There is also a growing interest in building faster search engines using these technologies and expanding the range of sources searched by adding computers on the fringes of the Internet. Industry interest also lies in more effective sharing of information and computing resources across the enterprise.

There are already two well-publicised examples of P2P networking technologies being used to enable scientific studies that would have been previously impossible owing to time and money constraints. Both of these involve the use of home personal computers, networked using P2P technologies, to carry out scientific analysis. The first of these was the Seti@Home initiative which involved using the power of more than two millions PC to analyse radio-telescope signals for evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence. The second, a project situated in the health area, begun in March 2001 and involves using PCs to screen 250 million chemicals for their anti-cancer activity.

Many developers in the P2P field have adopted the open source philosophy. Also the field does have reputable interests and potential applications, and is not just used for copyright infringement activities such as free music file sharing. The technology does in fact appear to be ripe for application, providing a powerful means of both expanding the information resources available on the web as well as searching for those resources.



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