P2P Enables More Than Just Song Swiping

By Paul Rubens

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About two-years ago, an account manager at Hewlett Packard Services, received a very important document -- an request-for-proposals (RFP) from Proctor & Gamble for an outsourcing project. Over the next few days the account manager assembled a team of technical architects, product specialists and project managers from all over the world.

The group worked together intensively, bringing in new experts whenever required and responded to the proposal in minute detail, in record time. The result? A $3.2 billion outsourcing deal, signed in May 2003,which could yield HP significant profits over the 10-year life of the contract.

Not a Nano Swarm

The secret of HP's success? Swarming: a type of collaboration in which large numbers of geographically dispersed people quickly self-organize to deal with a problem or opportunity.

What's surprising is the technology that enables swarming is peer-to-peer (P2P) networking, the same technology used for sharing cracked software and pirated music on systems like Kazaa, Gnutella or, the now infamous, Napster. For many people P2P networking is synonymous with illegal activity, but the ability to connect large numbers of people together without any centralized management is beginning to prove a hugely valuable tool in the business world as well.

"CIOs expect to get responses to RFPs very quickly," said Craig Samuel, chief knowledge officer at HP Services. "Using peer to peer networking we can collapse the time needed to complete our proposals by as much as 60%," he said.

While HP uses a P2P collaboration platform called Groove, developed by Groove Networks, to create "swarms," there are number of budding vendors in this space including Lucane, an open-source groupware suite, and Kontiki, a P2P application which is backed by Jim Barksdale, Marc Andreeson and other Netscape luminaries.

Groove's platform includes P2P file sharing, instant messaging, voice-over-IP (VoIP) and group document editing. Each user has a shared "Groovespace" on his or her computer, which contains all the documents and resources available to other team members. When any team member works on a resource, these changes are immediately reflected in the Groovespaces of all other team members who are online. The Groovespaces of any off-line team members are synchronised and updated as soon as they go back online.

Peer-to-peer networking is the key to successful swarming because swarming is all about making connections between people quickly and easily. P2P-based collaboration can do this far more effectively than more conventional collaboration software, said Samuel.With client-server based groupware there is often a lengthy delay before a central administrator sets up a new user to join a group, making teams based on these products far less agile. And anyone outside the corporate firewall is unlikely to be able to join -- effectively ruling out external experts. And Web-based collaboration tools don't allow for group members to access documents and other group resources while offline, and are far too insecure for confidential data to used, he said.

P2P groupware elegantly sidesteps these issues -- Groove (which was architected by Lotus Notes author, Ray Ozzie), for example, works on a member-get-member basis. Anyone in a particular project group with the right privileges can invite new members to join instantly. And Groove traffic can pass through firewalls, so external members can participate from anywhere in the world without connectivity problems. Since documents are stored locally, in each user's Groovespace, team members can work offline whenever necessary.


A perceived lack of security may be part of the reason why swarming has only taken off slowly, but it turns out to be quite false, according to Paul Ostin, managing consultant for Messaging at EDS (which also carries out P2P-based swarming using Groove).

"If we didn't have a security model for P2P, we couldn't consider it as an option, but Groove is the most secure model we have ever seen," he said. In fact the platform uses 192-bit encryption (approved by the US government) to encode all data, making the environment very secure.

EDS uses P2P based swarming in at least twelve countries, enabling customers to participate in project management jobs. "The improvement in customer satisfaction is unquestionable," said Ostin. "We move our projects along much faster, our approval cycles are much shorter and we avoid the hassle of having to send new versions of documents by email. With a P2P system like Groove, everyone always has the latest version of each document to carry around with them, and we save on bandwidth because only changes to files are communicated."

P2P based swarming has already been adopted by the US Army in Afghanistan, resulting in a reduction in the time needed to plan military operations from ten days to two hours. It's adoption by corporate America has been slow, but the experiences of HP and EDS show the technology is far too useful to be left to teenagers looking for the latest, free Linkin Park song. Expect to hear more about peer to peer networking in the business environment in the months to come.