InterPlanetary File System (IPFS) is a protocol operating on a distributed network. IPFS allows you to store and share files in a way that dramatically improves on the more widely known and used Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP).
In this article, we will examine the difference between the traditional method of linking websites and resources using HTTP to that which is offered by IPFS. The benefits in functionality and utility are immense. Using this comparison, we shed light on the difference between operating in a distributed network such as Bitcoin via decentralized exchanges (DEXs) or non-custodial wallets to that of centralized systems like our traditional banking systems.
The HTTP protocol which paved the way for the global internet was developed by Tim Berners-Leep between 1989 and 1991 whilst he working at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Switzerland. HTTP allowed people to access a website or file using a static address – such as https://mywebsite.com/myfile.pdf – rather than the IP address of the server. If we were to compare this to existing cryptocurrencies, it would be similar to using an alias for Bitcoin rather than its long 64 character wallet address. See image for reference.
While HTTP has been a catalyst in pushing the internet to the global scale, it does have its downside.
Issues with the existing web: centralization
To elaborate, let us use a common scenario. You are on a website which has a link to a PDF document. The file in most cases would be on a single web server. When you or any other user clicks on the link, you are directed to a file.
The end user doesn’t know whether the file has been tampered with or modified. The file could also be inaccessible if it has been moved or removed – which everyone has experienced at one stage or another in the form of “404” errors. Furthermore, the host can decide to shut down the server or limit its access. In short, you have a centralized origin – a single point of failure.
In June 2014, several students published a paper which gives this a different perspective. The report “explores the pervasiveness of linkrot in academic and legal citations” and in doing so they found that:
“…more than 70% of the URLs within the Harvard Law Review and other journals, and 50% of the URLs within United States Supreme Court opinions, do not link to the originally cited information.”
While this example is in relation to the U.S., you can imagine the problems that can arise on a global scale where websites or domain names are updated, modified or taken down. To emphasize, an article on Washington Post reports that “the average lifespan of a Web page today is 100 days”.
Centralized networks or systems – like banks and data centers – introduce risks by having to trust, depend and give authority to an intermediary. They are susceptible to surveillance, hacks, and regulations. This is why large corporations such as Facebook and Google – which can afford it – attempt to mitigate some of the risks by building their own data centers around the world. As mentioned by TechCrunch whilst discussing the internet in its current form:
“… a slow, expensive Internet, made even more costly by predatory last-mile carriers (in the U.S. at least)… It’s not just slow and expensive, it’s unreliable. If one link in an HTTP transfer cuts out for whatever reason, the whole transfer breaks… ”
Introducing IPFS: how distributed networks make the internet decentralized again
IPFS changes the way we interact with websites and online resources – such as file and media – by removing the need for data centers and centralized servers. You can search and access content using their unique fingerprint (such as QmdWhyocdN9kNVnH37qjuyLDjBcRX5W45guqsJxDFg6TLv) rather than the traditional centralized origin URL format (mywebsite.com/myfile.pdf).
The IPFS protocol allows you to access the content from the node which is physically closest. Ind doing so, you are saving bandwidth, increasing download speeds whilst removing the possibility of duplications. This is a totally distributed network, similar to Bitcoin and many other decentralized cryptocurrencies. TechCrunch comments:
“We use content-addressing so content can be decoupled from origin servers, and instead, can be stored permanently. This means content can be stored and served very close to the user, perhaps even from a computer in the same room. Content-addressing allows us to verify the data too, because other hosts may be untrusted.”
This can be directly compared to the difference between fiat money, such as USD, versus cryptocurrencies, such as Bitcoin. With Bitcoin, as long as you have your private key you can access your coins from any non-custodial wallet, anywhere on the planet provided you have an internet connection. The network uses your private key to give you access to your account. With fiat money, you are reliant on the bank to give you access. If you lose your card, you must wait for the bank to give you access by sending you another card. Furthermore, a bank is centralized, it can be directly hacked or controlled via regulation. In the Bitcoin network, you would essentially need to shut down the internet to stop the network.
Centralized, closed systems hinder progress and innovation. They can introduce risks that do not exist in open decentralized networks. Distributed networks – such as IPFS and Bitcoin – enable us to progress past such risks while removing our need for an intermediary. To embrace such innovation is only natural, as it aligns with our collective method of organizing and exchanging. The damage which centralization has caused to our societies, our way of connecting with one another outweighs the benefits provided. Why should we trust a system that has failed over and over again when we no longer have to? When we have the choice to opt out.
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