Peer to Peer Communications: the respectable face of file sharing

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If you’re like most people, you probably first heard about peer-to-peer (P2P) networking in connection with programs like KaZaA and Bittorrent: applications that let the general public share large files with each other – including copyrighted music and movies – across the internet.

There’s no doubt that this sort of file sharing has disrupted the entertainment industry, probably forever. But what you might not know is that P2P has caught the attention of the business world and is tiptoeing into offices, thanks primarily to an irresistible potential to cut down demand on enterprise internet bandwidth.High_Tech_Business

So what does P2P actually mean? If you asked most people how the Internet works, they’d probably talk about information being sent from a big server somewhere likeGoogle, Amazon, the BBC or Microsoft – to your computer. This setup is called the client/server model, and it’s how much of the data we access every day is still distributed.

With the P2P model, however, there is no central server. Every computer connected to the network can act as a server and a client – both sending and receiving data – and the applications running on each PC works to find the most efficient way to share between each other, spreading the load and increasing the strength of the whole network.

Spreading the load. Cutting the cost

Let’s dig a bit deeper and see how P2P does this. Imagine you have four internet users – let’s call them Alfred, Barbara, Charlie and Deepak. They all want a file that is only on Zara’s PC, and they’re all downloading it. Now let’s assume that Charlie and Deepak started the download a few minutes before the other two. Instead of downloading the whole file from Zara (and eating up her bandwidth), latecomers Alfred and Barbara’s computers have three PCs to download pieces of the file from, easing the pressure on Zara’s connection and making the transfer smoother and faster.

This results in faster, more reliable sharing of data between users, which can offer a powerful business advantage. But it’s only part of the P2P story.

Another application for P2P technology is communications – including conferencing and telephony services. By sending voice and video data through the network as multimedia packets, it has allowed anyone with a decent internet connection to talk to anyone for free on any internet-connected device, and has dramatically cut the cost of international phone calls – allowing backpacking kids to talk to their parents, emigrant families to keep in touch with friends back home, and long-distance relationships to flourish.

A new era of business communication?

But while P2P has long been considered “good enough” for personal calls, it is now reliable enough to be mainstream for business communications too. And alongside cheap voice calls, P2P could hold the key to cutting the cost of bandwidth-hungry video conferencing.

As demand for ever-more sophisticated video conferencing solution grows, bandwidth is becoming an issue. Right now a 10-person high definition video conference call can use an entire site’s worth of data, but P2P offers the possibility of spreading the load.

With P2P, a single video stream can be established with one participant, who then relays streams to the other participants. This uses a fraction of the bandwidth needed for 10 separate streams – and that means it has a fraction of the cost. More affordable video conferencing is set to become a powerful tool for all kinds of businesses in the next few years.

Of course, some challenges remain, like the constraint of  real-time, live communication. Using a machine to relay a video stream can cause some latency issues since there are more steps between the emitter and the final receiver, not to mention the fact that the receiver needs to reorder the different “packets” received from potentially different machines.

And this is why P2P has started to grow in the webcasting and online TV industry first. A delay of a few seconds is less critical with webcasts or “live streams” since interactivity is low and it tends to be a one-to-many distribution scenario of information- a single  sender but several receiving clients, exactly like in the file sharing example we talked about earlier!

This is where companies like Kontiki started. They’ve been closely followed by large Content Distribution Networks (CDN) like Akamai and Limelight and new technologies like Cirrus for Adobe Flash Platform but also the promising P2P within WebRTC supported by Google Chrome browser.

I’m confident that this is just the beginning of a new era of business communication.

Security comes first

As with every other method of communicating over the internet, P2P sharing has caught the attention of the bad guys. Security firm Damballa reports that the number of malware samples using P2P communications to spread increased fivefold between 2012 and 2013, thanks in part to the success firms had had in protecting their traditional client/server networks. Malware included in P2P data streams is hard to detect, meaning it is essential that IT departments keep a tight rein on the use of the technology on their company infrastructure.

While still in the process of maturing within the B2B space, P2P offers a cost-effective, highly resilient and extremely flexible solution to businesses looking to communicate and share more effectively. As it is further refined, P2P will become an ever-more viable solution for enterprise communications.


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