The rest of peer-to-peer

With companies such as the two dozen sponsors of iGrid, including IBM and Hewlett-Packard, pushing it, grid computing has a bright future. But it still will complement, not replace, the Internet as we know it.

Peer-to-peer networking has developed a very bad reputation in the last year or so, mostly because it's a term that has been applied to ad-hoc music distribution networks.

The music industry has attacked this use of peer-to-peer technology as the reason for the recent drop in the sales of music CDs. I don't suppose that continued high prices or a lack of music that people want to buy has anything to do with the drop.

There are many other uses of peer-to-peer networking that should not be overlooked in the fog created by the music industry's zeal to maintain outdated business models. One of these is grid computing.

About a year ago I wrote a column about grid computing in which I argued that the hype that painted the grid as the "next phase of the Internet," as The New York Times put it, was overblown. I also said that distributed computing technology did have some significant uses, even if I didn't think it would be common for people to share their local computing resources with people they don't know. I still hold that view, but a recent visit to the iGrid 2002 conference showed me how far this type of peer-to-peer computing has come.

The conference was held in an extraordinarily well-connected science and technology center in Amsterdam. Connections included two 10G bit/sec links to the U.S. (New York and Chicago) and many 2.5G bit/sec connections to parts of The Netherlands and the rest of Europe. More than 400 attendees from 20 countries got to see more than two dozen live demonstrations and a full program of technology sessions. Most demonstrations were focused on the effective use of high-speed networks and distributed high-performance computing, with most of the rest focusing on the technology glue, such as a security infrastructure, needed to make this type of peer-to-peer computing workable.

The most emblematic demonstration was a real-time, interactive, 3-D work of art. "Art Flying In & Out of Space" by Jackie Matisee presents a collection of multicolored, long-tailed Japanese-style kites swaying in the wind. The work is presented in the CAVE, a walk-in virtual-reality environment where images are projected on the walls and floor. The viewer wears special glasses to provide a 3-D experience. What makes this work of art a grid demonstration is that the movement of each of the kites is calculated by a different computer, and the computers are spread all over the network. It's a beautiful personification of distributed computing.

The demonstrations showed that the grid technology is maturing. And with companies such as the two dozen sponsors of iGrid, including IBM and Hewlett-Packard, pushing it, the technology has a bright future. But it still will complement, not replace, the Internet as we know it.

Disclaimer: Historically, Harvard's schools provided a good example of loosely coupled distributed computing. Things seem to be changing, but whether it will replace Harvard as we know it will not be known for a while. Meanwhile, I express my own opinions.

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