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Reality Check
December 2000

Robert Vahid Hashemian  

Is P2P Poised For Primetime?


Ah, the good old days of the Internet: UNIX was king, text-based e-mail and Usenet ruled the scene, and sending a GIF image involved a One-Two punch of gzip and uuencode. This was a whole seven years ago. Mainframes and other centralized computers were pass, and Client/Server was in full swing.

Then suddenly the Internet became the center of the universe.

Regardless of the thrashing the dot-com's have taken on Wall Street in the past few months, there is no question that the Internet has entwined itself into the fabric of our business and private lives, and there should be no doubt that as it evolves, it will have an even higher impact on our societal ways. And, in case you haven't heard, the latest technology to leverage the power of the Internet is Peer-to-Peer, or P2P for short.

For me, P2P is a reminder of the old peer-to-peer protocol that allowed one computer to converse with another over two different networks. In fact, one of my early projects at my first job out of college involved just such a task. The product engineers who normally logged into our VAX machine needed to access a bill of material database that resided on an AS400 machine on a different network. One option was to provide each of them with a 3270 terminal wired into the AS400 computer with separate accounts. The other was to allow the VAX machine to converse with the AS400 and download the requested bill of materials from the AS400 to the VAX terminal of the engineer. Obviously the second approach was more practical, and the solution was a network bridge between our DECNET and SNA networks and reciprocal programs running on our VAX and AS400 systems that handled the transmission and reception of data. While in this scenario the AS400 was acting as the server and the VAX machine was acting as the client, the roles could have been easily reversed, hence a peer to peer networking.

For better or worse, the Internet has always followed a client/server model. The servers include those such as Web servers, e-mail servers, Usenet (NNTP) servers, and chat servers. And the clients are, well, us, or more precisely, our programs that run on our PCs, Macs, or handheld devices, such as Web browsers, e-mail programs, and news readers. There is always a clear distinction between the servers and the clients. Servers are the mightier machines with fault tolerant features, colorful UPS systems, unlimited resources, and advanced operating systems that live in glass houses of luxury, while the clients are the lonely, and sometimes abused machines, living on the fringes. Welcome to the age of class uprising, where the clients want equality with the servers under the call of P2P, and where the lines between the clients and servers are blurred.

Many of us, at one time or another, have elevated our PCs to the status of a server. Sharing a folder is one such example. But perhaps the one application that brought P2P to the forefront is Napster. Legality issues aside, Napster allows music fans to download music files from each other's PCs. Each PC with a Napster installation is a client as well as a server. Another example is a program that I use extensively when I develop applications for our Web site: Microsoft's PWS (Personal Web Server). PWS is a basic, low-end Web server with features near those of IIS (Internet Information Server). PWS allows me to test and debug the newly developed modules locally before uploading them to the server. In this way, my computer becomes a client as well as a server.

Now imagine if everybody in the office installed a copy of PWS on their PCs. All of a sudden we would have a P2P Web network where all PCs can be servers as well as clients. Now translate that to all the computers connected to the Internet, and suddenly you have a huge P2P network, what some may even call a distributed network. Well, in a sense, such a network is here already: It's called instant messaging. Now I know instant messaging has been around for a while, but it took me a while to jump on the bandwagon. Convergent services such as e-mail, voice chat, and domestic toll-free calling are all offered to individuals to communicate. Instant messaging products still need to register themselves with a central server when they join the network, but after that initial contact they can interact with each other without the server's interference. The point is that through instant messaging products, computers are gaining the advantage of P2P networking by becoming servers as well as clients. Save for that initial contact, people can share files, chat, and exchange anything digital without a server in the middle.

So what is going to take P2P to the next step? Three things:

  • Instant messaging products must be able to interoperate.
  • Increased bandwidth.
  • A fully decentralized network where even the initial server contact is rendered unnecessary.

As things look, all three items could be reality before long, leading to the era of fully decentralized and distributed Internet. So what does this mean to us? As crazy as it sounds, this means that we might all have our own Web/e-mail/chat servers, our own telcos, and our own radio and TV stations right in our PCs. What do you think of the P2P revolution? Let me know by browsing to my very computer that I use everyday at: 

Robert Vahid Hashemian provides us with a healthy dose of reality each month in his Reality Check column. Robert currently holds the position of director for TMCnet.com -- your online resource for CTI, Internet telephony, and call center solutions. He can be reached at rhashemian@tmcnet.com.

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