• United States
by Mitch Wagner

From peer to maturity

Jan 06, 20036 mins
Enterprise Applications

New peer-to-peer collaboration tools offer ease of use, bandwidth savings, but the jury’s still out on scalability, management and data integrity.

Network professionals are beginning to turn to peer-to-peer  collaboration tools as flexible and efficient alternatives to bandwidth-intensive, server-based technologies.

Peer-to-peer software lets end users set up workgroups on the fly, across the firewall, for sharing documents and conducting discussions, without having to run to the IT department.

But IT still needs to keep some level of control to guarantee data integrity and security, so rather than pure peer projects, companies are going with hybrid networks that incorporate servers for management purposes only.

Peer-to-peer collaboration tools are still in the early stages of adoption; the largest corporate deployment we found was 1,000 users; the next largest a few hundred, and after that, deployments were measured in the dozens of users. So it remains to be seen if peer-to-peer will find its niche at the workgroup level or will scale to enterprise dimensions.

Peer-to-peer applications sometimes come in through the back door, but frequently IT executives bring in the applications to empower users and save bandwidth.

Peer-to-peer vs. client/server

Cap Gemini Ernst & Young, a global management and IT consulting company in New York, is trying out Groove from Groove Networks  with several hundred users. With Groove, users can share files by dropping them into the Groove workspace window. When a user changes a shared file, only the changes are transmitted across the workgroup, rather than the whole file, which conserves bandwidth. The shared files can be encrypted for security, and Groove also can be used for instant messaging and to host discussion threads, which can be imported from Microsoft Outlook or Lotus Notes e-mail.

J. ParkinsonCGE&Y is a Lotus Notes user. “The problem is that replication through servers is a natural bottleneck. The more people use the messaging infrastructure to support collaboration and networking, the harder it got to manage our network resources, because the patterns of usage were all over the place,” says John Parkinson, chief technologist for the Americas region at CGE&Y.

The company has about 50 teams that hold virtual meetings on Mondays and another 50 that meet on Fridays. Just before those team meetings start, the entire company network drags as people download materials for the meetings. Using Groove, workgroup members can share documents directly with each other with minimal effect on the network.

The ability to communicate using familiar applications was the primary reason Amerex Energy, an energy brokerage in Houston, chose Presence-AR from Advanced Reality  to automate keeping track of prices on its commodity broker-trading floor. The half-dozen brokers now using Presence-AR don’t have to bother with a new, peer-to-peer application; they share documents using the Excel program with which they’re already familiar, says Tito Toro, Amerex technology director.

“Excel has always been the platform of choice for them. What Presence-AR allows them to do is gather pricing information over the phone on different commodities and share the information efficiently,” Toro says. Previously, the prices were tracked, written on a whiteboard and yelled across the trading floor by broker assistants.

Amerex says if the trial is successful, it will deploy Presence-AR to its 200 brokers and to clients.

Factoid: Peer strikes out Peer-to-peer is not an option for everyone. Photon Research Associates, a government consultancy, looked into using Groove for collaboration but settled instead on eRoom, a client-server collaboration application. “We’re using eRoom rather than Groove because we have issues with pushing government restricted information around. We wanted to keep it on a central server,” said Matt Wilbur, Photon Research director of information technology.

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Likewise, uses BadBlue from Working Resources , a Web server that runs on client or server, to maintain a searchable index of computer part numbers from about 300 value-added resellers (VAR). The member companies run BadBlue on PCs with access to Excel spreadsheets of part numbers. When a customer requires a part that the VAR doesn’t have in stock, the VAR can search the spreadsheets and locate another company that has the part.

BadBlue lets provide a low-cost alternative ($200 per month) to centralized data stores, which typically cost about $1,750 per month.

U.K. Pharmaceuticals giant GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) is trying out Groove with workgroups of 20 to 30 users each, totaling about 1,000 users, says Philip Con-nolly, until recently GSK’s vice president of IT communications.

GSK uses Groove for collaboration between its employees, outside attorneys and hospitals. In one case, Groove scientists collaborated with researchers at a hospital not owned by GSK on genetics research. The work involved sending large visualization documents back and forth. Previously, because of security considerations, researchers burned documents onto CD and sent them back and forth via FedEx.

GSK didn’t want to send the files over the Internet using a standard application such as e-mail because standard e-mail is sent without encryption, and e-mail encryption is too difficult. But with Groove, the documents can be shared by dragging and dropping into the Groove workspace, and encryption is automatic, Connolly says.

Groove also allows for collaboration between people inside and outside the firewall, without having to reconfigure the firewall to allow outsiders access, which is time-consuming and presents security risks, he says.

“Notes is a tool for big projects with lots of data that last a long time. Groove projects are quite short. Three or four or 10 or 15 people work on Groove for a month or two, then they take it down and move on,” Connolly says.

Servers are still needed

Hybrids of peer-to-peer and client/server are the future, says Meta Group analyst Matt Cain. “You need a server in there for adult supervision,” he says. Groove users found that they needed the server for archiving Ñ a single user accidentally deleting a document would delete the document from every machine in the workgroup.

Groove will run in pure peer-to-peer mode, but adding a server component adds capabilities. IT managers then can deploy the client applications from a central location, synchronize user names with identities stored in a Lightweight Directory Access Protocol  directory, lock users out and store archive copies of Groove data.

The server gives management control over who has access to information, says Robert Batchelder, an analyst with Gartner. Administrators need to be able to lock out access to employees who change jobs or leave the company. “There needs to be shared control,” he says.