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P2P is short for peer-to-peer computing, stemming ostensibly from peer-to-peer networking, however P2P is not peer-to-peer networking in the classic sense of the term. Typically P2P uses computers located across the country and uses the Internet to connect the network together.

Beyond this, the "standards" get fuzzy and the definition becomes nebulous at best. This is because there are at least three distinct manifestations of peer-to-peer computing, and all three have their own functionality: instant messaging/communication tools, file sharing tools, and distributed computing networks.

Instant Messaging and Beyond

In this category are collaborative tools that allow you to connect directly to another person to chat, send files, use a whiteboard, etc. What makes these tools "peer-to-peer" ones, and what differentiates them from others such as Microsoft Netmeeting, Webex, and even ICQ, is that they don't rely on a central server after the initial connection is made. There is nothing to monitor your traffic or keep track of accounts.

One example of such a tool is Groove, from Groove Networks. It's similar to Microsoft Netmeeting, but it allows you to do quite a bit more, such as have threaded discussions and voice conversations. In fact, one of my only problems with the software is that it is just too complex! But it is free and relatively easy to use. All you need to do is set up an account, connect to the Internet, and invite someone to your "shared space."

File Sharing

These are content sharing tools like the once popular Napster or Gnutella. There are tons of them out now, and there are even more companies developing products that make file sharing easier. The goal is to allow users to share files from local machines without being required to set up and monitor an FTP server.

Most operate using the Gnutella network. The Open Source Gnutella network has thrived in the MP3, video, and pirated software hey-day of the past few years. Gnutella servers are easy to set up and there are dozens of Gnutella clients on the market today.

Most of these programs are poor choices in a business environment, with problems such as increased virus activity, complete lack of security, and illegal file-sharing. You probably don't want to encourage the use of Gnutella or similar services.

Recent developments you should want to keep track of are things like PeerFTP, developed by Acute Websight (oh, how I hate puns). This program allows you to identify the files and folders you want to share, establish a password, and send e-mail invitations to coworkers. They can then access your files via a standard Web browser.

Another offering by SoftKnot is IFS2. This product is much more robust and is geared to businesses that need to collaborate on documents. However, it allows you to integrate your file-sharing and document collaboration with your intranet. This product is a bit steep for NPOs at $300 for a five-user license.

Distributed Computing

Most of our computers spend 70-90 percent of their processor time doing absolutely nothing. Under the distributed computing P2P model, spare processing time from participating computers is aggregated in order to execute a program. The beauty of this model is that it is not necessary to invest in massive servers or supercomputers to process large amounts of information, since the work is being done by various client computers instead.

It is important to understand that the organizations that are running distributed computing programs aren't stealing your computer; they are merely using your computer's spare resources. Most of them have ways to tell the program to only start if the computer has been idle for 10 minutes, or only run when the screen saver is on.

The best know example of distributed computing is SETI At Home. The SETI project analyzes signals from space for patterns that might be extraterrestrial life. Since there is a huge amount of data to sift through, the researchers set up a system that allows users to download an application that lets their computer analyze some of this data and then send the results back to SETI.

Another example that might be of interest to NPOs is Fight AIDS At Home. Researchers at this organization are using donated computing power to test the efficiency of various drugs designed to fight AIDS.

Several companies are adopting this model for running intense applications such as 3D rendering and genetic analysis. GreenTea has designed a system that allows you to hook your computer up to a distributed network and share resources on all the computers in the network. This system is free and looks to have a huge impact on distributed computing.

The main thing to remember about the P2P movement is that it is surrounded by a tremendous amount of hype. Everything is the "next killer app," and every company is touted as "groundbreaking" and "innovating." However, the major players are also getting involved. Sun has recently announced it P2P effort, JXTA. Microsoft is working on its own P2P product, and Intel is helping to define security in the field. These companies are willing to spend their money to make sure that the technology develops, so keep watching.

For more information or to keep abreast of new developments, check out the following sites:

Yahoo's peer-to-peer section
Wired's peer-to-peer pages (Mostly intermediate to advanced information)
O'Reilly's peer-to-peer page (Careful, you could get sucked in!)

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