P2P Collaboration Tools at Work

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For those who have experienced the efficiency of P2P technologies leveraged for legitimate business use, its place in the digital content lifecycle is welcomed. With its reputation on the mend, P2P faces new hurdles and new promise for developers and would-be users alike.

Peer-to-peer technology (P2P) was around long before Napster stepped up and gave it a black eye. But take the notoriety that came from P2P file-sharing tools used to plunder valuable content, add in security concerns, and it comes as no surprise that many enterprises have sought to keep it at bay. However, for those who have experienced the efficiency of P2P technologies leveraged for legitimate business use, its place in the digital content lifecycle is welcome. These days—with its reputation on the mend—P2P faces new hurdles. Developers are working hard to deliver intuitive, cost-effective, secure tools. And both P2P tool developers and would-be adopters face the challenge of helping make businesses understand how peer-to-peer technologies can improve the fine art of collaboration and be incorporated into the work environment.

While the Internet is based upon a client-server system whereby a user requests a file and a server delivers it to an individual's computer, P2P technology takes the server out of the equation by allowing computers and applications to communicate directly with each other. When done right, P2P tools allow workers to access files from one another's computers, collaborate on documents in various stages of development, and keep work projects humming along—whether these individuals are in the office, working in a remote location, or are en route to a destination.

"People tend to look at peer-to-peer as an application or a category, when it is actually an enabling technology. Today's applications are emerging from that underlying technology, with better user interfaces," says Outsell's content software technology analyst Marc Strohlein. Therefore, a P2P tool can improve upon existing applications that workers use and rely on daily such as email, instant messaging, and software programs to share, develop, manage, and store content.

The State of Collaboration
Many businesses depend on email as the preferred method of communication—despite its obvious limitations, particularly for those who work on projects together and need answers in real time (preferably without wading through a sea of spam to get to them). Another more immediate communication tool has evolved via instant messaging (IM). And as a testament to its popularity, IM has made inroads into the enterprise as a collaboration tool—with or without IT approval. "We estimate about 75 million people use instant messaging at work. It's driving some enterprises crazy because of security and governance issues that they can't control because they don't have a handle on it," according to Gartner analyst Lou Latham. "A lot of them call me and say, ‘How do I stop this?' My response is: ‘It's useful. Don't stop it, co-opt it.'"

He indicates that many start-ups are jumping on the enterprise IM bandwagon. "There are about 56 third-party IM providers building enterprise IM solutions from scratch," he says. "We're seeing interest and enthusiasm building up from the grassroots. At the same time, the big vendors like Microsoft, Sun, and Oracle are coming out with products, which is a recipe of two to three years of market consolidation resulting in perhaps half a dozen serious vendors and very few pure plays within the enterprise space."

IM helps pave the way for P2P collaboration because it enables groups of people to communicate in real time, rather than the lag that results from using phones or email. However, IM is still considered problematic to many corporations concerned about worker productivity as well as security and legal issues surrounding its disposable nature.

Latham argues that IM is an effective tool because it provides the value of presence. "There's no latency," he says, particularly useful for collaborative projects. "For instance, when you send an email, you don't know if the person is there or not and if they're going to read it in the next 10 seconds or two weeks from now." AOL, Yahoo!, and MSN all offer IM solutions for the business environment today, with an emphasis on security and manageability. "The way they do IM is to partner with companies that provide security and network management tools," says Latham. These tools essentially act as a proxy on the firewall and they can filter content in real time, just as you would filter emails, having very granular capabilities."

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