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Thinkstream is a company that has both peer-to-peer and more hierarchical aspects to its services. The peer-to-peer functionality is focused on letting users run multiple searches on multiple sites independently. The hierarchical aspects allow sites offering content to break that content down in a structured way among many computer systems; in another kind of hierarchy, Thinkstream analyzes user queries so they can be directed efficiently at the systems storing the content.
Thinkstream has packaged its architecture as a spin-off company and service called Tadaaa! that companies can connect to in order to offer goods and services. This venture has recently started the Tadaaa! Information Network for exchanging information among users (including big corporate participants) and the more conventional Tadaaa! Shopping Network for researching and making purchases. Thinkstream provides underlying technologies while Tadaaa! is responsible for building consumer and business applications with them, according to Lindsey Smith, business development manager. Thinkstream customers can also buy or license Thinkstream software and run their own services.
For all these deployments, the user starts by connecting to the root server, which can actually be a number of computer systems linked together. The user then submits a request for information, which is redirected to the servers at the appropriate companies using an SQL query. Parametric searches are supported: for instance, you can ask for DVD players that have DTS decoders built in, or Excel spreadsheets authored by your chief financial officer. The companies are all queried in parallel, and can respond to the user with appropriate data from their own servers. The user can also refine the request and resubmit it.
Multiple formats are supported by the retrieval system, so that the user doesn't have to worry about whether the information he or she wants is in a Web page, a spreadsheet, a video, or a text file. Thinkstream has coded up filtering programs called "accessors" to find common types of information, like the "Author" property in a Word document or the "Artist" tag in an MP3 file.
Outside of the root server, each company arranges its servers in a hierarchical fashion. Thus, O'Reilly might receive a number of requests for books or conferences (no plug intended here) and route them to different O'Reilly servers, depending on whether the request was for a P2P conference, a Perl conference, a Java conference, etc. The Thinkstream software is an alternative to HTML spiders that try to combine all the corporate information in one server. In addition, Thinkstream is much more flexible because each site can update and control its own data while still presenting it as part of a seamless service. Finally, Thinkstream is efficient because queries are handled mostly by corporate servers near the edge of the network, which can communicate directly to the original user.
Thinkstream has been working on its product for five years. It came to its hybrid hierarchical/peer-to-peer solution early and serendipitously. Their first products were search systems running on a single PC (Scan-o-matic and then Scout); they then realized that Internet searches were becoming increasingly important, and that tradional, centralized databases like AltaVista could not scale to handle the load. Their search for something more flexible and scalable led to the Thinkstream hybrid architecture.
According to Smith, "We're in the process of making alliances with major software vendors in a variety of enterprise sectors. Each alliance serves to extend an existing offering with our distributed information access platform."
Like many peer-to-peer companies, therefore, Thinkstream hopes to make inroads not by trumpeting its novelty, but by weaving its way quite non-disruptively into mainstream applications.
Andy Oram is an editor for O'Reilly Media, specializing in Linux and free software books, and a member of Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility. His web site is www.praxagora.com/andyo.
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