Shift the Web and It Will Decentralize

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The current client-server architecture of the Web is brittle. Most of the Web’s data is under the control of just a handful of tech giants like Google and Amazon. This can prove to be fatal for the Web’s own existence. We see this architecture fail regularly when entire sites are taken down because of cyber attacks like DDoS (Distributed Denial of Service attacks). On top of it, we have threats like prevention net neutrality, which allows ISPs to treat websites differently, and potentially slow down access to certain websites through lobbying from their competitors. So the absence of net neutrality theoretically allows Amazon to lobby ISPs for slower access to marketplace startups. Thus, if the Web of tomorrow wants to be a trustworthy and fair information platform, it needs to seriously improve its architecture.

This doesn’t necessarily involve a radical, ground-up infrastructure change. We can still create the illusion of a client-server architecture (for the ease of use of the client, and to support legacy systems). However, the server can leverage the power of decentralized systems like blockchain instead of being just a centralized bunch of computers. Fortunately, there has been some serious research done in this field by companies like Protocol Labs. This company has developed a new protocol to address the problem of Web brittleness. This protocol, termed IPFS (short for InterPlanetary File System) is an alternative to the current de-facto Web protocol of HTTP (HyperText Transfer Protocol). As its GitHub documentation says, “IPFS is becoming a new major subsystem of the internet. If built right, it could complement or replace HTTP. It could complement or replace even more. It sounds crazy. It is crazy.” This protocol has tagged itself as “IPFS – The Permanent Web”. A fundamental part of the protocol is that it is content-addressed, so same contents map to the same address, avoiding redundancy. IPFS can be used to build, on top of it, services that provide reliable and secure hosting, among other interesting services like shared file storage. And there are companies like Shift that are working on the exact same problem. Shift mentions on its website that “While other companies are busy writing whitepapers and raising hundreds of millions of dollars, Shift has been busy working: we have created the backbone of a robust dApp ecosystem, with a strong and democratic dPOS platform of decentralization that can be used by anyone who knows JavaScript.” Yes, since the Shift ecosystem revolves around JavaScript, widespread developer adoption is much anticipated since JavaScript is the world’s most popular programming language. Apart from the developer convenience, Shift also says that it’s confident “that providing the first low cost, easy-to-use decentralized hosting infrastructure, which saves users money over traditional file storage methods and protects their content from external censorship, will act as a massive stimulus for the mainstream adoption of Shift.”

The Shift platform works on 5 layers of abstraction. On the top, there’s a dApp (decentralized application) hosting platform. This acts as a “server-interface” to clients that can connect to specific applications and use them. This is the layer where apps, or websites, interface with users and are provides robust security assurance. The hosting platform, when combined with other layers below it, provides these websites impenetrability and 100 % uptime. Indeed, zero downtime is an extremely appealing feature promised by blockchain long ago. Moreover, each dApp will have its own side chain which will be independent of Shift’s main blockchain. This will improve individual scalability and keep the main blockchain stable. However, side chains can still connect to and synchronize with the main chain. Shift also offers a utility coin which allows dApp developers to implement intrinsic monetization models for digital assets of their dApps.

Under the hosting platform is the dPOS blockchain layer. Shift uses a delegated Proof-of-Stake (dPOS) consensus algorithm, so its network consists of master nodes and delegate nodes. Thus, it uses the same idea used by NEO, a potential “Ethereum killer”. This system works at its best when token holders vote for the delegates with the highest productivity, as well as delegates that reinvest a part of their forged Shift tokens in the project’s development. Thus, Shift uses some centralization in this layer.

Below the Shift blockchain layer is its content management system (CMS) called Hydra. This is an IPFS-compliant system written in pure JavaScript. Hydra makes Shift the first ever project to bring the benefits of decentralization to media distribution. It allows Shift to support decentralized web hosting of dynamic content. The Shift team is also working on integrating web sockets with IPFS, which will allow it to host “real-time” websites (like soccer score update websites, e.g, ESPN).

Jenga is Shift’s DNS monitoring system that resides below the Hydra layer. It continuously monitors all of Shift’s storage nodes and maps them to DNS records. Nodes which point to weak DNS records are evicted from Shift’s node cluster. This provides an infrastructure that’s almost resistant to DDoS attacks. One domain can map anywhere, from a single node to thousand nodes that server application files. Shift mentions that “We thus found a smart way to bridge the old internet (DNS/http) to the new web. Jenga is the closest you can get to decentralized DNS, since true decentralized DNS does not exist yet. This is accomplished without requiring the end user to install any third-party extensions, plugins, or browser add-ons. In essence, Shift is already the world’s first taste of Web 3.0: uncensorable, and secure.”

Finally, at the very bottom of this abstraction stack, is Shift’s decentralized storage layer. This layer simply leverages the functionalities IPFS offers, like content-based addressing mentioned above. Shift claims that it is the first project to ever successfully build a working IPFS cluster for data storage. This data storage methodology takes advantage of all the latent and unused network of storage spaces around the world (unused hard drives in data centers and so on) for storing Shift’s data. This system is already functioning well on Shift’s test net.

Thus, the future seems bright for a well implemented IPFS-based web hosting system. It also proves to be a threat to current cloud hosting services like Heroku and IBM BlueMix. What’s more; Shift isn’t the only platform aiming for blockchain-based web hosting – it already has competitors like HostCoin. So, monopoly seems unlikely in the future of web hosting.

Saurabh Chaturvedi is a freelance developer and technical writer with a keen interest in blockchain, Bitcoin, and other cryptocurrencies.

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