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No Joy from P2P vets for Sun's Jxta

Let's kill P2P - NYT

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Sun wheeled out its Mount Rushmore of cerebral greats - Gage, Joy, Gosling - to herald the unveiling of its Jxta peer-to-peer project today.

Announced by Bill Joy at the O'Reilly P2P conference in February, Jxta (pronounced "Juxta") is now live and we're awash with positioning papers, technical documentation and real downloadable code. But the instant reaction from the peer-to-peer community - who've been at this for a little while longer - was cool.

"It's no good for FreeNet, next to no use for MojoNation or Gnutella, and no good for SETI at home," FreeNet developer Adam Langely told us. "It is buzzword compliant, though."

And Jxta's reliance on XML brought an "Oh my god," from the developer - a contributor to the excellent O'Reilly P2P book, Disruptive Technologies - who's juggling a rewrite of the FreeNet core in C++ whilst studying for his GCSEs.

It's not as if the guest of honour has marched in to the P2P party, wolfed down the free booze and fondled the hostess. Almost, but not quite.

This party doesn't really need a guest of honour it seems, even if it is Sun itself in best-behaviour mode. Bill Joy modestly described Jxta as a project that attempts to define protocols, that's all. Within a year he told us today, we might have enough usable protocols to embed in some real devices.

But watching these billionaire new frontiersmen earnestly describe the problems that P2P networks need to overcome, after we've watched 18 months of very public sweat and anguish from the Gnutella, FreeNet et al networks as they tackle these problems, strikes as the definition of redundancy.

"These networks develop in vertical silos, and they don't interoperate," said Gage in his introduction today. Which is true: "The P2P projects have nothing in common except TCP/IP", agrees Langely. But far from being their weakness, it's really their strength. Gnutella began life as a brute force, quick-and-dirty mechanism for file sharing, and FreeNet as a long term project to build a secure space free from surveillance. To adopt Sun's Jxta plumbing would not only entail throwing away these hard-won lessons, but it would compromise what each network was created to do. For example, FreeNet is inundated with offers of help to turn it into a platform for instant messaging, a global anonymous email gateway, or the new Napster. Take your pick. But as FreeNet luminary Brandon Wiley unfailingly points out - FreeNet is uniquely useful for dissidents in China (it was inspired by Ross Anderson's Eternity service meme) - so please don't mess it up.

The road to hell is paved with good intentions, and indeed, well-though-out but pointlessly blue-sky RFCs, and Sun's error is really in mistaking social spaces for technical problems. This conundrum was best illustrated at the O'Reilly conference when a panel moderator (forgive us, we can't remember which one, and we paraphrase liberally here) asked: "Is there a P2P? Is there a P2P business model? Or will it be like client/server? Will we be sitting around at a client/server conference in a year's time?"

So Sun's Jxta is a technology project looking for social uses, and the P2P networks are social projects looking for technology solutions, and the two seem to be passing each other like the proverbial ships in the night.

But let's get some perspective: it's a benign adventure, and doesn't deserve the rancour that say, a Microsoft P2P 'solution' - let your imaginations run riot here, folks - would attract. We've seen so many such pogroms in the past (Pen Windows, anyone?) that trample over not only optimistic start-ups, but entire business models, and with Jxta being the hesitant Apache-licensed venture that is, comparisons don't stand up to scrutiny.

As if P2P had never happened

We'll go into the technical details when we've had time to digest them (comments welcome), but Jxta's a layered set of protocols tackling not just interoperability but monitoring and performance too.

If you were starting from scratch, then Jxta would be an obvious place to go. The monitoring stuff is nice, as plenty of fringe edge networking gets proscribed by vigilant BOFHs, fearful of congestion at network and disk choke-points. And not just BOFHs, either - any local ISP worth its salt should by now have recognised that P2P is a loyalty/community trump card, too.

Interestingly, Joy is thinking small with Jxta. It could be, he suggested, a way of steering users between the mess of access networks that we'll be faced with pretty soon - between 2.5G GPRS/EDGE packet data, 802.11 networks, and our local LAN or dial-up connections. "Devices are too small to carry ten protocol stacks," said Joy optimistically, without quite convincing us that a Jxta-enabled device would solve the problem. But give the man credit, he's looking for an answer to a problem most folk haven't even recognised yet. Unfortunately, the conversation took a turn into the utterly surreal, as Joy began to explain how embedded IP devices in schoolkids' sneakers could cause havoc for teachers, and how Jxta-enabled sneakers would solve the problem, because of their device recovery and monitoring characteristics. Sensibly, and abruptly, Gage drove the conversation back on to dry land before anyone had time to notice.

Let's kill the geeks

But if the distress in the people's P2P community wasn't enough, the opprobrium unleashed on the P2P meme by a lordly tech press is nothing short of astonishing.

"Bill Joy is catching the tail end of a euphoria that never came into existence," declares the New York Times, grandly.

The CNet/ZDNet conglomerate has outsourced its opinion to Gartner Group analysts, who opine:

"Sun was careful to avoid the term P2P, not wanting to be associated with a technology that appears to be going out of fashion." A fashion created by ... analysts such as Daryl Plummer and David Smith as recently as last August, we seem to remember.

Ouch! Since when were the NYT and CNet such pernickety style mongers, we wonder?

Ever since they had the P2P concept foisted upon them, we suspect, and there's more than a hint of snobbishness at attempting to bury an idea that the geek press had the temerity to name before they did. O'Reilly might not have named P2P - we're not absolutely sure who did, and we really couldn't care less - but the idea left the industry elite gasping for air, and without an industry elite to follow, the industry-led tech press was left experiencing a kind of zero-gravity for the first time. The Fourth Estate marches to a well regulated beat. OK, we'll give you 'Open Source' as a rebranding excercise, you can hear them think, but P2P, that's just too much weird shit...

P2P networks, or whatever they'll be called now, are about to be touted as the saviour of Europe's 3G crisis, for the very simple reason that they're communication rather than content based. And while we don't claim to predict the future, that it's a model that's as sane as anything else on the table. ®

Related Links

Project JXTA
O'Reilly on JXTA

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