- Internet visionaries think the distributed computing model of peer-to-peer networking, popularised by Napster and the focus of a slew of new companies, could pay big dividends for IT executives interested in e-commerce and corporate communication. Not surprisingly, peer-to-peer's potential significance has not been lost on Microsoft.
The company is moving quickly to add peer-to-peer under the banner of .Net, a distributed computing strategy Microsoft thinks will take three years to unfold. Microsoft's .Net platform is designed to make software available over the Internet and accessible from many devices.
While Microsoft has always defined .Net in terms of XML, the company now appears to be adding the trendy peer-to-peer tag to help explain its .Net vision.
".Net is about distributed computing" and can be thought of as plumbing for peer-to-peer applications, says Charles Fitzgerald, Microsoft's director or business development. "It's how you get smart nodes to talk to each other."
Observers question whether Microsoft started out with peer-to-peer in mind but say the company is positioned to create a worthy infrastructure for peer-to-peer and other applications.
"The real opportunity for Microsoft is to integrate instant messaging, filing sharing, distributed computation and Web services into one framework," says Tim O'Reilly, founder of O'Reilly and Associates and the organiser of a peer-to-peer powwow last month among leaders in the industry. "The people who get [peer-to-peer] plumbing right will have a huge opportunity."
Microsoft's .Net is a hybrid peer-to-peer model in that it incorporates centralised servers to facilitate the use of distributed services. Napster used the same model for its music-sharing network before the company ran afoul of copyright laws. In a pure peer-to-peer model, client PCs interact without the aid of servers.
"There is the notion of pure peer-to-peer, but over time it has to become a hybrid for the enterprise [to accept it]," says Matt Cain, an analyst with Meta Group. "If anything, .Net appears to be managed peer-to-peer and that implies a server."
Cain points to Microsoft Exchange Server's instant messaging, a type of peer-to-peer application, as a service that relies on a centralised server. Cain says the server is important because it can provide IT-mandated services such as security and management.
Another peer-to-peer effort by Microsoft, which involves Ariba and IBM, is a project called Universal Description, Discovery and Integration (UDDI) that creates a centralised repository and uses peer-to-peer to let companies share data on their e-commerce interfaces.
UDDI and instant messaging are only a few of the Web services or applications that Microsoft will need to develop on top of .Net to make peer-to-peer interesting for businesses.
"Peer-to-peer really introduces a human element into the equation, and that means end-user applications," says Tony Bailey, an analyst with Enterprise Management Associates.
Microsoft's Fitzgerald says Microsoft is not ready to talk about peer-to-peer applications it may develop. But have no doubt, Microsoft recognises their importance.
Last month, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates gave a ringing endorsement to Groove Networks, which launched a client for peer-to-peer collaboration, calling it "a great example of what the .Net vision encompasses."
Microsoft is hoping the explosion of peer-to-peer applications happens some time next year when it releases VisualStudio.Net, a development environment for distributed programs.
In the meantime, a handful of other vendors - including Mangosoft, AppleSoup, FreeNet and Jabber - are working on applications that let companies explore the power of peer-to-peer computing.