P2P By Any Other Nam
- By John K. Waters
You can't open a newspaper or download a tech-news Web site these days without
seeing "Napster" splashed all over the place. There's a reason Napster keeps
getting all the peer-to-peer (P2P) computing headlines: the music-file-sharing
service has signed up more than 58 million users in the two years since it was
launched by an 18-year-old college student, and it continues to register more
than 300,000 people every day. Throw in a couple of big lawsuits from music
industry moguls who want to shut the service down, and it becomes a veritable
But all the Napster noise is stealing the thunder away from what may be the
more important P2P model; to differentiate, call it "distributed computing."
Where Napster-like systems support file-sharing among individual PCs interacting
directly with each other with little or no server involvement, distributed computing
architectures organize linked machines for the purpose of sharing computing
cycles. The first approach is about people interacting; the second is about
marshalling computing power-and in the long run, it's the second one that has
the most potential to influence a company's bottom line.
Computers running software from companies like San Diego-based Entropia utilize
idle computer time drawn from a network of PCs to solve large computational
problems, run financial analyses, and find cures for diseases. Working in the
background, these programs take on small workloads that have been divided and
distributed to various devices across the Internet--essentially borrowing processing
power from other computers on the network. This process is also called "grid
"Through the use of these resources, your computing device can be both a consumer
and a producer on what becomes a universal platform," explains Scott Kurowski,
Entropia's founder. "In as little as five years, we fully expect end users to
be running applications that invisibly tap into huge amounts of computing capacity
on the backend.
Researchers at the University of Wisconsin estimate that most companies use
less than 25% of their computing and storage capacity. By some estimates, 90
percent of America's computer capacity is idle at some point during the day,
especially when people turn off the machine and go home for the evening. Entropia's
software "rescues" these wasted computing cycles between keystrokes while applications
are running on the PC.
Entropia's network encompasses nearly 100 countries around the world, from
which it aggregates 50 teraflops of potential computing capacity. In fact, Entropia
squeezes so many MIPS out of its network that it can afford to give away the
extra computing power to good causes, such as the [email protected] project. "This is
a good way not to have to buy a lot of servers to get massive amounts of computing
resources," Kurowski says.
Probably the best-known example of the distributed computing model is the
[email protected] project. Under the auspices of the SETI organization (the Search for
Extraterrestrial Intelligence), [email protected] marshals unused computing cycles of
a global network of volunteer PC owners to search for radio signals from an
extraterrestrial intelligence. To date, the project has attracted more than
two million participants.
The technology behind distributed computing is not new. Scientists have linked
supercomputers this way for years. Companies have distributed-computing software
on internal networks to get extra work done at night and on weekends. Some argue
that distributed computing shouldn't even be called peer-to-peer.
"I find this a bit of a stretch," says Dwight Davis. "I know that they're
sharing resources among desktop machines, but to me, that's not peer-to-peer.
That's really just taking the model of a massively parallel processor and extending
it out to the broader universe of PCs. But the PCs themselves are not communicating
with each other; it's all orchestrated by a central server, in other words a
controlling authority. For me at least, P2P has to have some element of direct
communication between individual computers."
Nevertheless, distributed computing companies make up a significant membership
in the Peer-to-Peer Working Group; Entropia was a founding member. And the model
does something else: while companies like Oracle and Sun are touting centralized
computing models ("the network is the computer"), distributed computing schemes
suddenly make the desktop PC relevant again. Expect to see Intel and Microsoft
emerge as big supporters of this kind of P2P computing--if the Napster racket
ever quiets down.
John K. Waters is a freelance writer based in Silicon Valley. He can be reached
at [email protected].