posted 20 Jul 2004 in Volume 7 Issue 10
Solving peer-to-peer-pressured IT
When developing an integrated, internal programme to tackle KM issues, Intel had to consider a variety of global communication and performance pressures. Here Martin Curley shares his personal experiences of implementing a peer-to-peer solution at the computing giant.
Today’s workforce faces unprecedented challenges and competitive pressures. Employees need to learn faster and colleagues often need to collaborate cross-functionally and globally to create new products and achieve operational excellence. At Intel, we recognised that capabilities such as knowledge management, e-learning and corporate communications were converging and that better integration of these capabilities would help us ensure the right knowledge and information was available to employees at the right time. We were also aware that rich media could be effectively diffused through the organisation using a disruptive technology, peer-to-peer computing. With this in mind, we developed an internal solution to improve communications and performance, at the same time as enhancing overall IT efficiency.
Rich media uses technology to blend text, graphics, motion and sound to deliver information and knowledge in a form that enhances understanding and retention. An example of rich media is a file produced by a tool that enables the integration of video, audio and Powerpoint – such a file may contain e-learning or communication information, for example. While rich media can significantly improve communication, it suffers from a downside in that rich media files are typically very large and sizeable networks are required to move these files around. Enter peer-to-peer (P2P) computing.
Content distribution using peer-to peer computing
Intel, like many global companies, has sites distributed across the world and relies on global computing and collaboration tools to conduct business. However, because of the cost of international bandwidth, the types of applications that can be deployed are sometimes limited. Content-distribution solutions, built using peer-to-peer software, can enable the efficient and fast transfer of large files from one PC to another, enabling new kinds of applications.
P2P helps to reduce wide-area-network (WAN) traffic as large file transfer can occur over the local-area network (LAN). Instead of streaming a rich-media file across the network, it is compressed and packaged as a file, and can then be moved from PC to PC and viewed, without direct network impact, on an individual user’s PC. The result is much improved file-transfer times and lower WAN utilisation. Peer-to-peer software allows the scaling back of WAN capacity or, alternatively, allows other applications to run faster across the WAN. This is an example of a new kind of IT solution, one which not only deliver new value to the business, but also improves IT efficiency.
A converged solution
Following a market scan we found that few, if any, products could provide an integrated solution to many of the information and knowledge demands on employees. By combining an integrated knowledge-solutions stack, supported by P2P middleware and mobilised software constructs, a truly mobile, converged knowledge solution was developed. This knowledge-sharing solution could provide integrated KM, e-learning and corporate-communications capabilities while leveraging existing IT infrastructure.
The program runs on Intel’s corporate intranet and delivers e-learning and knowledge-management capabilities while allowing a reduction in IT costs by moving network traffic off wide-area networks to much cheaper local-area networks and by leveraging inexpensive PC storage. Each PC in the enterprise network can also act as a caching device, significantly increasing performance for certain file-transfer operations.
The foundational elements of the solution are a content index and content-publishing, management and distribution applications. A database server and web server provide a set of services to client users who use the web for retrieving and viewing content while they are connected to a corporate network. Alternatively, clients can use an offline player when they are not connected to the network. If a user requests a particular file, the system identifies the closest client with this file and initiates a transfer. A file drop/resume facility means that if a client is removed from the network (for instance, on a mobile laptop), the transfer will continue seamlessly from the next closest client with the file.
The system can manage and distribute various types of files. We find it particularly useful for the circulation of rich-content files, as it allows near seamless propagation of large files throughout a network using a peer-to-peer distribution capability.
Sharing documents and knowledge objects is one of the key mechanisms for practising knowledge management in a company. Through the new solution we have been able to introduce a capability for any file to be shared with others in the company through a personal-publishing function. The personal-publishing function allows the filename and relevant metadata to be easily registered in an index that other users can search, based on criteria such as subject, keywords and so on. If a user wishes to retrieve the file, the system will search for the closest located copy of that file and initiate a peer transfer from the closest client. The file returned is always the latest version.
In effect, an enterprise-knowledge-management system has been created, leveraging previously unavailable information and knowledge. This creates new opportunities through knowledge sharing and re-use, while saving money through using inexpensive client storage. And, uniquely to peer-to-peer solutions, the more the system is used the more the performance improves.
One application of this was the Notebook of Knowledge program. This program captured codified knowledge from the IT organisation in the form of white papers, videos and presentations. The solution, using its peer-to-peer services, acts as an integrated object repository, delivering requested objects from the closest client. Using the publisher function, any employee using the software can add content from their hard drive to the central index. All files are catalogued using the Dublin Core tagging standard.
At Intel, we have also found that recording subject-matter experts on video is an excellent way of capturing tacit knowledge. Previously it was difficult to distribute these videos to the right people. Now, videos can made available internally and seamlessly distributed to users world-wide.
The use of rich content, presented in a compelling and immersive fashion, can significantly enhance learning effectiveness. At Intel we are adopting rich content, which uses technology to blend text, graphics, sound and motion to deliver information. Combine rich content with e-learning, where content is recorded once and used many times, and an efficient system is created. The knowledge-sharing system enables the delivery of rich content and large, compressed video files almost seamlessly over an enterprise network. For example, Intel’s European sales and marketing organisation has used the system to efficiently distribute large, audio-enabled training classes to its distributed workforce.
The Intel IT organisation also converted its new-hire-integration programme to a fully virtual e-learning system, delivered to new employees using the solution. The integration system consists of 16 modules including technical, business, customer-service and interpersonal-skills training, which new employees take over a six-week period. The result has been that integration-satisfaction-survey scores improved from 77 to 88 per cent, while significant travel and training cost savings were achieved. The content is re-usable and other IT employees can take these classes at no extra cost. Through the P2P capability, more than 80 per cent of the training files are now delivered over the local-area network, saving cost and significantly increasing the delivery speed.
Video to desktop
There is a increasing need for a richer form of communication than e-mail. Recording a short video clip is often a more effective and efficient method of communicating than writing down content and distributing it via e-mail. This kind of communication can also help employees distinguish important messages from email overload. Hence large corporations are increasingly using short video clips for delivery of key messages to employees world-wide.
The Intel knowledge-sharing solution introduced the capability to distribute these video clips throughout the enterprise, requiring no additional bandwidth or infrastructure. Files of 20-40MB download in less than a minute, rather than the typical 20 minutes needed across a wide-area network. This performance is achieved through the local caching provided, thus avoiding multiple wide-area-network downloads.
Intel’s senior vice presidents use the system as another channel to deliver monthly video updates to their teams world-wide. The video is close to broadcast quality and conveys key monthly messages and challenges in short clips. Chief executive officer Craig Barrett uses this medium to deliver mid and end-of-quarter updates to thousands of employees around the world. The ROI on this usage is significant, not least because the company avoids having to corral employees into conference rooms and auditoriums to hear the broadcast. Employees are able to see video updates at their desks at a convenient time.
Using mobile-software design constructs, Intel users can enjoy the benefits of this knowledge-sharing system while on the road. A mobile player allows employees to view cached content easily when travelling. I personally take e-learning classes and catch up on corporate updates using this capability, particularly when travelling by air. Users can also search or view the entire index of content available while offline and use a ‘shopping basket’ approach to select content to be automatically downloaded to their PC the next time they are connected to the company network. This approach means that employees can continue to be productive even when they are not online.
File sharing and network-optimisation results
As Intel began deploying P2P file sharing, the company ran an internal trial to help it understand the impact of the software on the user experience and on the corporate IT infrastructure. On average, users in Europe saw a ten-fold improvement in file-delivery times, while file delivery speeds in Asia improved by an even greater margin
Initially, as the solution was introduced, peer-to-peer transfers were running at approximately 30 per cent. After a year, the peer transfers were approaching 90 per cent. This translates into a significantly reduced demand for wide-area network bandwidth, providing the opportunity to either reduce international bandwidth or allow other applications to take advantage of the freed-up bandwidth for improved user performance.
Unlike client-server systems, the busier the Intel system gets, the better it performs, as more copies of a file are cached throughout the network. The software contains both client and network-protection software to avoid impact on client and network performance when the system is most active.
Integration for the masses
As the solution evolves and new capabilities are delivered, adoption will increase further. Today the knowledge-sharing solution has more than 16,000 registered users at the company and a new version, which will take advantage of newly developed peer-to-peer capabilities, is currently in the planning stages.
Integrated solutions lower total cost of ownership and improve employee productivity, as the same interface is used for different solutions. Near real-time video delivered efficiently to the desktop ensures employees are kept up to date on latest business and corporate changes. Immersive rich-media training is delivered direct to employee desktops, with long download time delays eliminated. The solution primarily runs on the existing computing infrastructure, and the benefits are impressive, as employees have access to better, richer, more up-to-date information when and where they need it and with minimal cost to the organisation.
Martin Curley, director, IT innovation, Intel Corporation
Communication is key to ongoing KM success
Intel Ireland is one of the largest semiconductor-manufacturing sites, with a current cumulative capital investment of over $5bn. In this fast-paced industry, frequent product innovation and quick reaction to market changes are vital. Therefore, the ability to communicate with thousands of employees spread over several shifts is essential. To address this challenge, Jim O’Hara, vice president of Intel and general manager of Intel Ireland, sponsored the creation of monthly rich-media updates, called FabTV. Each FabTV update covers key business messages, interviews with Intel executives and management team members, and general items of interest.
As O’Hara says, “FabTV is an indispensable innovation in employee communication, providing important information in a timely, understandable and effective fashion. Rich media is allowing this to happen.”
During the construction of FabTV, many Intel Ireland employees took work assignments at a similar development at Intel’s Portland, Oregon branch. These employees used the knowledge-sharing system to view FabTV remotely at their desktops or on their notebooks in Oregon, keeping them up to date on home developments. This avoided the need to send video copies of FabTV to dispersed employees internationally and allowed anytime, anywhere access to content. Meanwhile, employees could also participate in important safety training at their desktop using the same tool.
“Proactive knowledge management in a knowledge-intensive industry is crucial to our ongoing success,” says O’Hara. “The combination of rich media and converged knowledge-management solutions will be an increasingly important component of our factory tool suite.”