P2P in B2B: Getting Past the "N" Word

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Don't even think about it. And for goodness sake, don't even mention the "N" word to the new generation of business-oriented peer-to-peer distribution and storage technology. Companies like NextPage, Kontiki, InView, and Bandwiz have moved way past the file-swapping infamy of the early MP3 craze. These days, the preferred nomenclature is "content networks," or "grid distribution," even though the core principles and some of the very technologies are similar. But by any name, P2P is about decentralizing content delivery. It allows PCs or local servers to swap and update content more efficiently by circumventing a centralized repository and instead creating a virtual space that looks like a single source of information, but is in fact made up of these multiple, sometimes thousands, of peer machines.

When EContent looked at P2P last year, much of P2P's promise for B2B was still only theoretical, but this year we were surprised to see how quickly a number of companies—not to mention the U.S. government—are adopting or exploring various types of peer-to-peer content delivery for internal and business-to-business purposes. Many early adopters and their vendors argue that this approach not only saves money, but it expands the range and size of content that the enterprise can push across its network.

Distributed: The Way People Work
These days, even the bean-counters are going P2P. The buttoned-down auditors of Deloitte & Touche UK assemble reports that aggregate massive amounts of diverse regulatory information, corporate policies, and best practices, some of which is generated internally and some of which comes from outside vendors like B2B provider ABG Professional Information. It would be virtually impossible to maintain up-to-date versions of all of this material on centralized servers. Instead, D&T and ABG deployed NextPage's "content network," a variety of P2P technology that knits together servers within the company along with those of external providers to create a virtual repository of information. The data is maintained and resides on servers at different offices and even companies, but to the auditor at D&T, the information is all available from a single Web page interface and looks as if it all sits in one place.

Better still, says Cydni Tetro, VP of marketing for NextPage, whose NXT 3 platform drives the D&T/ ABG systems, "as soon as ABG publishes the latest information, it is made available in real time at Deloitte." Distributing data across many servers or even PCs doesn't just save money, although that is one of P2P's big selling points for cash-strapped companies. It also creates better integration of all available content in its most current form. In a P2P content network, the data stays close to the person or company best able to keep the content current, even though it is available to everyone on the network as if it were on their own servers or workstations. "In a peer-to-peer world, your marketing department or compliance department all own the information and make it immediately available to the organization," says Tetro. "It reduces the risk of making bad decisions based on inaccurate information."

For Steve Savory, head of electronic publishing of ABG owner CCH Information, the P2P approach allows his content subscribers like D&T and Ernst & Young (which also uses the NextPage platform) to use his content as if it is their own. D&T and E&Y employees see ABG content seamlessly integrated with their own internal content and without switching to a different Web site or data format. "These people are just as interested in looking at their own material as they are looking at third-party content. This gets our stuff integrated with their intranet. If your content is being piped directly into their intranet, they will use it more." Companies are embracing the peer-to-peer approach, says Tetro, because it pulls together content in a more natural and familiar way for employees. "This is technology that works the way people work," she says.

In fact, working on a radically smaller scale from NextPage, start-up InView wants P2P technologies to super-charge how people create documents and presentations together. "You don't need central servers or a name space for you and I to find each other," says Tom Brubaker, CEO of InView. In his newly released "shared information manager," Momentum, one user creates a workspace on her machine and invites others in a group via the Web to join the space and create, edit, and track content collaboratively. Everyone uses a P2P client to share screens and data in real time, yet the data works with any software, so each user can open and edit a collaborative document with whatever software is on her system.

"You have access to my machine," says Brubaker. "It has integrated chat and all the work gets saved often to create a new version so people can go back and traverse the version tree to read the integrated chat and see what was going on [in the workspace] at the time." Users can modify content offline, and Momentum will update the collaborative space later. According to Brubaker, the centralized server paradigm creates terrible inefficiencies and sheer havoc in the workplace that P2P can overcome. "I think the shift is going to have to happen for next-generation desktop apps," he says.

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