Comparing the importance of peer-to-peer computing to the introduction of the first Web browser, a top Intel executive last week declared Intel's support for this emerging technology (not to be confused with PC peer to peer networking) and announced the formation of a working group to promote it.
Popularised in recent months by Napster, the music file-sharing service for consumers, peer-to-peer (P2P) computing could also become an important tool for businesses, said Pat Gelsinger, vice president and general manager of Intel's desktop products group, in a speech on the closing day of the Intel Developer Forum (IDF).
Broadly speaking, P2P involves the exchange of information or computing resources among multiple computers connected over a network. In such an environment, desktop PCs, servers and notebooks become "peers" that share their resources - such as processing power or storage space - with other PCs on the network.
Businesses could save millions of dollars each year by taking advantage of unused processing power and storage resources residing in other computers on their networks or on the Internet, Gelsinger said. At the same time, the model could lead to new types of services and applications that are only now becoming possible, thanks to the proliferation of PCs and the Net.
"Peer-to-peer computing could usher in the next generation of the Internet, much as we saw Mosaic usher in the last era," Gelsinger declared, referring to the pioneering Mosaic Internet browser.
For P2P to be effective, the IT industry must pull together to define new protocols and overcome significant concerns about reliability and security, Gelsinger acknowledged. Management software will also be needed to distribute requests for resources, as well as some sort of billing mechanism whereby users can be compensated for offering up use of their PC or information, he said.
To help achieve that, Intel announced the formation of an industry working group that will hold its first meeting on September 26 in Santa Clara, California.
Members of the group include Intel, IBM, Hewlett-Packard and several start-up companies involved in peer-to-peer computing. Intel is in discussions with Microsoft about joining the group, Gelsinger said. Microsoft's .Net strategy is "clearly a complementary technology", he said.
Through its investment arm, Intel will also invest some of its vast cash reserves in start-up companies developing P2P products and services, Gelsinger said. Intel has already identified 70 start-ups that are working on products and services related to P2P, he added. The chip maker had no news at the time about any P2P products or technologies that it might be developing internally.
Keen to align itself with the emerging technology, Gelsinger boasted that Intel has been using peer-to-peer computing within the company for the past eight years, allowing its engineers around the world to share processing power to run compute-intensive chip design applications.
Called Netbatch, Intel's P2P environment uses a central "broker" - a glorified server - to distribute computing work across 10,000 PCs in 25 countries, according to Gelsinger. Intel estimates that it has saved $US500 million in the last 10 years by using Netbatch, he said.
Intel's motives for promoting the P2P model aren't hard to fathom, observers said. The model depends on pooling the resources of thousands or even millions of PCs across a network and, according to Gelsinger, could make the need for powerful mainframe computers redundant.