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All About Peer-To-Peer (P2P) Networks

Peer-to-peer Architecture

Often referred to simply as peer-to-peer, or abbreviated P2P, peer-to-peer architecture is a type of network in which each workstation has equivalent capabilities and responsibilities. This differs from client/server architectures where some computers are dedicated to serving the others. Peer-to-peer networks are generally simpler but they usually do not offer the same performance under heavy loads. The P2P network itself relies on computing power at the ends of a connection rather than from within the network itself.

P2P is often mistakenly used as as a term to describe one user linking with another user to transfer information and files through the use of a common P2P client to download MP3s, videos, images, games and other software. This, however, is only one type of P2P networking. Generally, P2P networks are used for sharing files, but a  P2P network can also mean Grid Computing or Instant messaging.

Types of P2P Networks

Peer-to-peer networks come in three flavors. The category classification is based on the network and application.

Collaborative Computing

Also referred to as distributed computing, it combines the idle or unused CPU processing power and/or free disk space of many computers in the network. Collaborative computing is most popular with science and biotech organizations where intense computer processing is required. Examples of distributed computing can be found at GRID.ORG where United Devices is hosting virtual screening for cancer research on the Grid MP platform. This project has evolved into the largest computational chemistry project in history. United Devices has harnessed the power of more than 2,000,000 PCs around the world to generate more than 100 teraflops of power. Most distributed computing networks are created by users volunteering their unused computing resources to contribute to public interest research projects.

Instant Messaging

One very common form of P2P networking is Instant Messaging (IM) where software applications, such as MSN Messenger or AOL Instant Messenger, for example, allow users to chat via text messages in real-time. While most vendors offer a free version of their IM software others have begun to focus on enterprise versions of IM software as business and corporations have moved towards implementing IM as a standard communications tool for business.

Affinity Communities

Affinity communities is the group of P2P networks that is based around file-sharing and became widely known and talked about due to the public legal issues surrounding the direct file sharing group, Napster. Affinity Communities are based on users collaborating and searching other user's computers for information and files.

How Peer-to-peer File-sharing Clients Work

Once you have downloaded and installed a P2P client, if you are connected to the Internet you can launch the utility and you are then logged into a central indexing server. This central server indexes all users who are currently online connected to the server. This server does not host any files for downloading. The P2P client will contain an area where you can search for a specific file. The utility queries the index server to find other connected users with the file you are looking for. When a match is found the central server will tell you where to find the requested file. You can then choose a result from the search query and your utility when then attempt to establish a connection with the computer hosting the file you have requested. If a successful connection is made, you will begin downloading the file. Once the file download is complete the connection will be broken.

A second model of P2P clients works in the same way but without a central indexing server.  In this scenario the P2P software simply seeks out other Internet users using the same program and informs them of your presence online, building a large network of computers as more users install and use the software.

P2P Security Concerns

One major concern of using P2P architecture in the workplace is, of course, network security. Security concerns stem from the architecture itself. Today we find most blocking and routing handles by a specific server within network, but the P2P architecture has no single fixed server responsible for routing and requests. The first step in securing your P2P network is to adopt a strict usage policy within the workplace. In securing your network against attacks and viruses there are two main strategies where focus is on controlling the network access or the focus is put on controlling the files. A protocol-based approach is where system administrators use a software or hardware solution to watch for and block intrusive network traffic being received through the P2P clients. A second method of protection is a software solution which would provide file surveillance to actively search for files based on their type, their name, their signature or even their content.

P2P at Work

P2P is not only popular with home users but many small business have come to rely on this cost-effective solution for sharing files with co-workers and clients. P2P promotes the ease of working together when you're not physically located in the same office. In just seconds updated files and data can be shared with peers and confidential files can be blocked for security. Additionally, companies can also block access to Internet music and video files to assist in maintaining a work-oriented P2P network. Not only does this keep the company free and clear from legal issues regarding music downloading and sharing but it also keeps the corporate bandwidth usage down.

Did You Know...
Studies have shown that P2P traffic accounts for 50-70 percent of traffic on consumer ISPs networks, and that hundreds of millions of P2P clients have been downloaded and are in use. [Source: CacheLogic]

Key Terms To Understanding P2P

peer-to-peer architecture
Often referred to simply as peer-to-peer, or abbreviated P2P, a type of network in which each workstation has equivalent capabilities and responsibilities.

client/server architecture
A network architecture in which each computer or process on the network is either a client or a server.




Based in Nova Scotia, Vangie Beal is has been writing about technology for more than a decade. She is a frequent contributor to EcommerceGuide and managing editor at Webopedia. You can tweet her online @AuroraGG.





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