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New patent covers concept of network "family"

Punch Networks offers a way to automatically keep distributed data up-to-date through a combination of P2P networking and incremental updates.

Seattle-based Punch Networks announced Tuesday that it has received a broad patent for the way it updates far-flung information on the Internet.

In a patent filed in 1997, the information-management company proposed automatically keeping distributed data up-to-date through a combination of the ballyhooed "peer-to-peer" networking and incremental updates.

"Today updates are typically server driven," said R. David Campbell, founder and chairman of Punch Networks. "Our patent says, 'Imagine that you have a server and client and 38 million other boxes.' That doesn't scale very well."

Campbell says the company's way of breaking up the network into a concept of an "immediate family" of computers and an "extended family" of computers makes the updates more reliable and quicker.

In many respects, however, the approach resembles fundamental features of the Internet: Domain Name Service (DNS) servers distribute updates among themselves; mail servers pass mail around the Net in a similar way; and push technology--most popular four years ago--enabled a central server to force remote data to update itself.

Many large software companies--from Microsoft to Symantec to Red Hat--have developed services for updating their software over the Internet and could be affected by the new patent.

Punch stresses that it doesn't intend to litigate the issue, but merely wanted the protection that a patent affords.

"Obviously, we want to defend out intellectual property, but our intended goal is not to sue people, but to get people up-to-date," Campbell said. "We prefer the business-development route, not the legal route."

Some skeptics say that's a good thing. Gregory Aharonian, editor of the Internet Patent News Service, doesn't think Punch's line will hold up in court.

"To me it looks like some distributed file synchronization, an idea discussed at length in the '80s at distributed-computing conferences," Aharonian said.

The fact that the patent makes no mention of such scientific papers raises a red flag for Aharonian.

Granted May 29, the patent--"Method and apparatus for automatically disseminating information over a network"--is numbered 6,240,451.