March 6, 2001 1:55 PM PST

Sun aims at peer-to-peer search with acquisition

Sun Microsystems gave a first indication Tuesday of plans for its new peer-to-peer initiative by buying a small start-up that is building a new kind of search engine.

Sun gave the world an early glimpse of its new "Jxta" (pronounced Jux-ta) program last month, calling for help from the open-source community. Jxta, although still in the early stages, is designed to be a standard, open technology platform on which other peer-to-peer services can run.

As a possible foundation for a wide array of Net-based services from Sun as well as other companies, the Jxta initiative was seen as potential competition for Microsoft's proprietary .Net Web services plans. Sun chief scientist Bill Joy said last month that Sun plans its own set of peer-to-peer services and wants the open-source software in place to make them possible.

The first of these services to emerge is the basic ability to search, a commonplace function on the Web but a more complicated project in the decentralized world of peer-to-peer services. Sun bought start-up InfraSearch, one of the first projects to be based on the Gnutella technology.

"One of the things we've thought all along is that searching in a distributed fashion...is one of the fundamental things we wanted to bring to market," said Mike Clary, head of Sun's Jxta project. "After seeing (InfraSearch), it made sense to merge it with Jxta."

Peer-to-peer technology has been cast into the spotlight over the last year by the emergence of services such as Napster and Gnutella, which have threatened to undermine entertainment conglomerates by allowing individual computer users to swap music or video files by the millions without paying a cent.

But that file-swapping model has overshadowed other uses for the technology. A peer-to-peer model simply means that individual machines, whether they are PCs, set-top boxes, mobile phones or Web-connected databases, are swapping information on an equal basis. In the peer-to-peer world, any machine could upload or download information to or from another, as opposed to the more rigidly hierarchical model of individual computers downloading information from dedicated Web servers.

As first reported by CNET News.com, the InfraSearch technology melds the wholly decentralized model of the Gnutella file-swapping service with search features familiar on sites like Yahoo or AltaVista. Companies using the technology could be able to return search results that are updated in real time, a difficult or impossible prospect with the models used by companies like Yahoo or Excite, the creators contend.

The company is headed by Gene Kan, a programmer who has taken a lead role in evangelizing the Gnutella technology. Dubbed "Gone Silent" for months since its initial unveiling last May, the project has largely proceeded along its original lines, Kan said.

Other peer-to-peer search engines have emerged in the meantime, including the Seattle-based Project Pandango, operated by i5 Digital.

Financial details of Sun's acquisition were not available.

 

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