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Opinion | Window for software distribution by ‘peer assist’ tech

‘Peer-assisted’ solutions allow a PC to distribute an update to its peers without going back to the server

Microsoft’s famed Windows was first announced as an operating system for personal computers (PCs) in 1983. Windows was first a shell for Microsoft’s Disk Operating System (MS-DOS), which was the operating system of choice for International Business Machines (IBM) Corp.’s PCs. IBM had a lion’s share of the PC commercial market and Microsoft followed in its wake. Windows now has the largest market share for PC-based operating systems at enterprises worldwide. According to global market research and business intelligence firm Statista, it is currently about 86% of the market.

Over the years, Windows morphed from being a shell for MS-DOS to becoming an operating system on its own. It has had many updates over the years. Microsoft helps enterprises accommodate the updates with its System Centre Configuration Manager. Those of us who are long enough in the tooth will remember enterprise-wide updates that were made to Windows at the firms where we worked. In my memory, it usually took at least two years for the companies that I worked for to complete implementing an update. Information technology (IT) departments would take their time, since large-scale change at major enterprises was a gargantuan task. I, for one, remember using Windows 97 well into the 2000s.

IT departments have conventionally used centralized distribution models for updates. They typically manage centralized servers, which have “points of presence" and act as distribution points in each location where the company does business. These distribution points push out updates to users’ machines, one at a time.

In the new world of cloud-enabled “software as a service", Microsoft is changing the way enterprises are receiving platform updates. Its current version, Windows 10, will receive cloud-based updates from now on. Addressing feature updates, system patches and security releases will become a monthly occurrence. IT departments within organizations will not be able to take their time managing the changes. On 14 January 2020, Microsoft’s extended support for Windows 7 will come to an end and Windows as a Service (WaaS) will become the de facto standard. Updating millions of devices on pre-Windows 10 versions using the conventional methods of distribution points doesn’t stand a chance of making the date.

Moreover, this change comes with a heightened focus on the timeliness of updates, particularly for defences against malware and other attacks. Accelerating the distribution of updates to stay ahead of network threats will be non-trivial as file sizes and the frequency of updates grow. Enterprises will need to distribute files ranging from 1GB security updates every month to 4GB WaaS updates semi-annually.

Enterprises that have points of presence to distribute software updates will need to move to a new approach called “peer-assisted" solutions where once the update is delivered to a single PC within an office, software that is resident on it will allow it to distribute the update to its peers without the need to go back each time to the distributing server.

Microsoft, in fact, recommends a peer-assisted solution. Michael Niehaus, director, Windows Commercial, says: “We recommend having a peer-to-peer mechanism in place in order to enable efficient distribution of these large migration packages that would be pushed around your network. With these in place, 90% of the traffic can be shifted away from that core distribution point and out to the edges of the network."

Startup tech firms are now working on coming up with new technologies that are “peer-to-peer" and that can assist enterprises in such a large-scale change. One such startup is Kollective Technology, Inc., based in Bend, Oregon. Its CEO, Dan Vetras, has this to say about the WaaS challenge: “Over the last five years, we have seen cyberattacks hit the world’s largest organizations. From data breaches at Verifone and DocuSign, to ransomware attacks on FedEx, Honda and the UK’s National Health Service, it’s becoming increasingly clear that businesses at the top of the chain are just as vulnerable to cyberattacks as those at the bottom. In the case of last year’s WannaCry attack, the devastating breaches were not the result of ineffective security patches, but rather the inability to deploy those patches in a timely and effective manner."

Kollective’s competitors, such as 1E Nomad and Adaptiva, use slightly different methods, which include caching of software at existing distribution points, but Kollective says its peer-assisted methods are the most intelligent. It claims to leverage a next-generation peer-assisted technology that can reach the largest enterprise installations and shorten deployment timelines.

Using Kollective’s offering, as each PC incrementally receives the Windows 10 update, it in turn distributes the update to additional machines on the local network, thereby reducing the reliance on legacy hardware-based server distribution points. This results in a large reduction in time for software distribution to reach the edges of a global enterprise.

Ransomware attacks were approximately $5 billion in 2017, and may grow to over $6 trillion by 2021, according to Cybersecurity Ventures, the publisher of Cybercrime Magazine. The faster updates and security patches are applied, the better.

Siddharth Pai is founder of Siana Capital, a venture fund management company focused on tech

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