Rewards May Outweigh Risks of Peer Networking

Computer World –

The concept behind peer-to-peer computing is relatively simple and not all that new. Instead of using big, expensive servers to crunch numbers and pricey storage networks to hold data, companies can do the job more efficiently in some instances using the processors and storage capacity on the desktop computers of their employees.

And if peers share data and computing duties among themselves, that reduces the need for fat network connections to back-end servers or mainframes, because data is passed from desktop to desktop around the edge of the network rather than to the network core and back again.

But come on, say some users: Peer-to-peer might be fine for teen-agers swapping music files, but for computing in big, old-line corporations? Get real.

Peer-to-peer could be a security and reliability nightmare, especially if hackers or, worse, competitors get into a peer network that by definition has many more machines set up to share information than a standard one. Analysts acknowledge that peer-to-peer is unusual and potentially threatening for large corporations.

"With peer-to-peer, if one moron working in your company loads a goofy screen saver that puts his PC into lock, then everyone will ask, Why is the network so slow?" said Josh Turiel, a network services manager at Holyoke Mutual Insurance Co. in Salem, Mass. "All it takes is one moron to ruin a peer-to-peer network, and it's a lot tougher to ruin a server-based network."

Napster Blazes Trail

Loss of control over systems might be the hardest part of peer-to-peer for IT workers to stomach, but there's no question that the concept has new vigor, thanks to the consumer success of San Mateo, Calif.-based Napster Inc.'s MP3-sharing program and variants that depend more or less on a server in concert with peers.

In August, Intel Corp. kicked off Hillsboro, Ore.-based Peer-to-Peer Working Group (www.peer-to-peerwg.org), which comprises IBM, Hewlett-Packard Co. and 20 smaller member and supporting companies that hope to standardize peer-to-peer technologies.

But some companies are already using peer-to-peer computing to do certain jobs without feeling a loss of control over systems.

Lee Rocklage, a network manager at commercial builder DPR Construction Inc. in Redwood City, Calif., said he has connected about 1,500 desktops and laptops in peer-to-peer fashion for virus scans since May.

DPR uses a file-sharing capability called Rumor from myCIO.com, a subsidiary of Network Associates Inc. in Santa Clara, Calif. Any PC in the network can contact myCIO.com to download the latest virus definition, and then subsequent PCs receive the update from the first PC or the machines it has updated, Rocklage said.

What if the update sent to DPR somehow contained an error that would quickly spread to the rest of the system? "We've considered that issue, but the online help from myCIO usually takes just a couple of hours, and they've been very responsive to our needs so far," Rocklage said.

"We do have to have some trust with myCIO, but I don't think we're giving up any control and haven't had any real problems from peer-to-peer," he added.

Aside from offering specific services that customers expect, analysts said, many companies are customizing some established network management products from companies such as HP, SAP AG and Tivoli Systems Inc. in Austin, Texas, too do computing jobs with peers or to store on remote machines.

In a study to be released next month, Omni Consulting Group LLP in Davis, Calif., plans to detail the results of a study of 1,500 companies in a variety of industries using some version of peer-to-peer technology. Overall, there's 18% to 19% greater efficiency in the use of system resources with peer-to-peer than with conventional methods, said Omni analyst Frank Bernhard.

In some of the cases, the study found that companies are just using the IP address of a remote desktop and accessing its hard drive to store data.

Determining Risks

"CIOs should not feel threatened and should not relinquish the strategy of the organization when considering peer-to-peer," Bernhard said. "There's infancy in it right now, but peer-to-peer has real value for large corporations."

"Even for the Fortune 500 company, a P2P architecture that leverages internal resources behind the firewall doesn't take control away from the IT manager," added Mark Eggleston, an analyst at research firm Currid & Co. in Houston. "Instead, it provides the resource-strained IT department with a vast, distributed and manageable array of cycles, storage and redundancy.''

And John Coons, an analyst at Gartner Group Inc. in Stamford, Conn., said he believes that once a business figures out who can be trusted to join in a peer-to-peer network, such a system can help. "Ultimately, this could save people money, since there are a lot [of] resources in those PCs that sit idle for two-thirds of the day," he said.

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