Stellar Startups: P2P, under the radar

WiPeer is the first general release application that allows computers to communicate with each other directly.

By DAVID SHAMAH
May 4, 2008 09:15
computer 88

computer 88. (photo credit: )

Humans have a need to communicate; no man is an island, and all that sort of thing. Stick a person in a situation where he or she is isolated or cut off from speaking to others, and you'll find that seeking a way to find and talk to others becomes a priority for them. And that need could pop up anywhere and at any time. Remember: There are lonely people even in large crowds. For Prof. Roy Friedman of the Technion, one of those "lonely moments" took place as he was visiting a friend in France. As a computer expert, an associate professor of computing at the Technion, author of many scientific papers and initiator of several important projects, it never occurred to Friedman that he would end up having to exchange family photos between his and a friend's laptop using, of all things, "sneakernet" (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sneakernet). Instead of the laptops acting like mensches and connecting using a LAN (wired or wireless), the two computers just couldn't get past the membership requirements of the local network's router. "Instead, we used a USB stick to move the photos," he says. "And it was very annoying, too, because there were too many to fit on the stick for one 'shipment,' so we had to swap the files and the stick several times." But, where there is a communication will, there is a way - and the incident helped inspire Friedman to build WiPeer (http://www.wipeer.com/), the first general release application that allows computers to communicate with each other directly, without using an access point like a router. That type of network, called an ad-hoc or peer-to-peer network, lets users form a small local network directly between the computers involved, initiated by one or more of the computers participating. It's sort of like an IM system without a central server moving the messages between users over the Internet. Think Bittorrent, where peers communicate directly to swap files, as opposed to Napster, which swapped files through a central server (although the analogy isn't perfect, because even P2P systems rely on the Internet to move files, while an ad hoc network doesn't). While any computer with a network card, wired or wireless, is technically capable of participating in ad hoc networks (http://tinyurl.com/2zkon), few users even know the possibility exists. So, Friedman and a team of graduate students he works with wrote WiPeer, which automatically configures, sets up and discovers others on a network who have set up WiPeer ad hoc networks on their computers. Ideally, you would use WiPeer using your Wifi connection, in an area where there is no Wifi network (router) handling the IP traffic, or where you cannot join an existing network. WiPeer makes the network between the participating computers (currently it works only with Windows XP, but Vista and Linux versions are in development), bypassing the router - or allowing communications where there is no router-based network. While the most common use of WiPeer would be to allow, say, students at a boring lecture to communicate with each other even where there is no Wifi network (Friedman says that WiPeer has been a big hit with the college crowd), the application has many other uses as well, for two reasons: One, because it operates "under the radar," out of reach of pesky logging programs that record router traffic, and because it allows much faster communications between computers, even over Wifi. "If you're using a router-based network connected to the Internet, especially in Wifi situations, your overall local network speed is generally limited to the speed that the router is connecting to the Internet," Friedman says - and that speed is dependent on many factors external to your local network. If you avoid the Internet, using WiPeer to build a home network, though, you're in control of the speed - and you're all but guaranteed of getting the full 54 mbit throughput promised by 801.11g wireless networks (the application also utilizes WEP encryption to ensure security on the ad hoc network). WiPeer, in other words, gives you options: blazing fast connections on a LAN, and the ability to switch over to your "regular" Wifi connection when you need the Internet (i.e. you don't have to change your network configuration settings in order to switch back and forth). You can connect to computers on the WiPeer network just like you can on a LAN, transferring files or even playing network games (WiPeer supplies several games, in fact). The application is free (for now), and Friedman and his team welcome user contributions - which was the case with the "Peersonalizer" Facebook application for WiPeer, written by college students using WiPeer. Peersonalizer checks a user's Facebook connections and seeks them out when WiPeer is running, to see if any are in range; if they are, the program prompts the user, letting them know when WiPeer-using buddies are in the neighborhood. Eventually, says Friedman, the project will be ported over to handheld devices - like iPhones and other cellphones or PDAs, which would greatly enhance the ability of these devices to connect with computers for file sharing or communication. Right now, of course, you can use a cellphone to seek out contacts in your phone book - using the very limited Bluetooth protocol. But Wifi gives you a lot more for your money, with ranges of up to 100 meters (as opposed to 10 for Bluetooth), besides being much faster. So, if you're seeking someone in a crowd, cellphone WiPeer (which is not quite done yet, Friedman says) can be a fast, easy solution. As far as commercial applications are concerned, Friedman sees a future - but only in the future. Right now, it's a Technion project, but it's clear that Friedman has struck upon something truly innovative. "This is not the first application to use ad hoc wifi connections, but it is definitely the most stable and polished. The others have been academic projects with difficult to use interfaces that were not really fit for widespread distribution," he says. As users download WiPeer, Friedman is sure they will find more uses for it. For example, it's perfect for offices or even whole communities that wish to allow file sharing or intranet communications without the Internet (there are lots of people who would be interested in that). You could have office workers access a server providing applications, like a collaborative whiteboard program or an "on-line" word processor, allowing even laptop users to participate using Wifi at top speed. Not to mention the blazing fast network games WiPeer could let you play! startup@newzgeek.com


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