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Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) is the technology that underpins data communication across the entire Internet What Is HTTPS & How To Enable Secure Connections Per Default What Is HTTPS & How To Enable Secure Connections Per Default Security concerns are spreading far and wide and have reached the forefront of most everybody's mind. Terms like antivirus or firewall are no longer strange vocabulary and are not only understood, but also used by... Read More . It establishes how messages are transmitted, what actions browsers should take in response to certain commands, and how servers deal with requests.

In short, HTTP is how we browse the web.

The earliest documented release of HTTP dates back to 1991, though it wasn’t adopted by web browsers until 1996. That means 2016 marks its twentieth birthday – and in the world of technology, that’s ancient. Surely there has to be a newer, faster, and more secure protocol that we can use?

Actually, there is! It’s called the InterPlanetary File System (IPFS). In this post, we look at what it is, how it works, and whether it could truly replace HTTP as the web’s standard mode of communication.

How the IPFS Works

IPFS is an open source hypermedia distribution protocol which is addressed by content and identities. That sounds like a mouthful, but don’t worry. We’re going to break it down into something more digestible.

According to their own website, the developers want to use it to “make the web faster, safer, and more open”. Keep that in mind as we explore the details.

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IPFS is a peer-to-peer distributed file system The MakeUseOf Guide to File Sharing Networks The MakeUseOf Guide to File Sharing Networks Have you ever wondered what are the biggest file sharing networks out there? What are the differences between BitTorrent, Gnutella, eDonkey, Usenet etc.? Read More , so you can think of it as being similar to a BitTorrent swarm — i.e. the total number of peers currently sharing a single torrent — except IPFS is used to exchange git objects. It uses a distributed hash table, an incentivized block exchange, and a self-certifying namespace, and thus has no single point of failure.

It works by connecting all computing devices with the same system of files via a system of nodes. This removes the need for websites to have a central origin server that serves pages to the reader, and because of that, it provides a way to banish HTTP and potentially improve the very fabric of the Internet.

Why IPFS Is Useful for You

The technical jargon is all well-and-good, but don’t despair if you don’t understand it. You don’t need to know the nitty-gritty details to make use of it.

But that brings up another question: What are the practical benefits of IPFS to end-users like you and me? How does it improve on HTTP? Or in other words, why should we even consider switching to it?

No Reliance on Servers

We’ve all seen the dreaded “404 Page Not Found How to Set Up a Proper 404 Error Page on Your Wordpress Blog How to Set Up a Proper 404 Error Page on Your Wordpress Blog The humble 404 has been with us since the tubes that make up the internet were first plumbed in. Unfortunately in Wordpress, the default message is pretty much as unhelpful as you can get, so... Read More ” page while browsing the web. In layman’s terms, it means that the page you’re looking for doesn’t exist. More technically, the 404 code is used to indicate that the web server could not find what you requested.

You might see a 404 if the content you’re looking was old and has been taken offline, but it could also mean the server is malfunctioning — and therein lies one of the bigger problems of HTTP.

404

If a server dies or is permanently relocated to a new place, any links that are pointing at it will cease to work. Forever. Whatever content was on that server will be lost and there is no way to recover any of it unless you were prescient enough to save it ahead of time.

The bottom line is this: centrally managed servers will inevitably stop working. Domain owners could change, the website owners could go bankrupt, or the server hardware itself could reach the end of its lifespan without having been backed up. And when that happens, digital history is lost.

The key difference with IPFS is that instead of searching for locations (servers), you search for the content itself. Instead of asking and trusting one server to provide you file you need, there are millions of computers capable of delivering that specific file. Just like BitTorrent.

No More Centralization

The knock-on effect of the above-described problem is a headlong scramble towards larger and better-managed central servers that end up being operated by some of the biggest names in tech: Amazon, Google, etc.

This raises its own problems. For example, stories of government and corporate spying are becoming more widespread, hackers are using more and more DDoS attacks How Can You Protect Yourself Against a DDoS Attack? How Can You Protect Yourself Against a DDoS Attack? DDoS attacks – a method used to overburden Internet bandwidth – seem to be on the rise. We show you how you can protect yourself from a distributed denial of service attack. Read More , ISPs are blocking services they don’t want you to access, countries are blocking content they don’t want you to access, and our own data is used against us.

It’s the complete opposite of the decentralized web that the Internet was originally envisaged as being. A real disaster.

A truly distributed web would make it possible to access sites despite hiccups in Internet service. Ideally, you’d even be able to access the web even while offline! That would be a massive plus not only for the developing world, but for our individual rights to privacy.

IPFS founder Juan Benet summed the issue of centralization thusly:

“The web today is highly centralized. I find it very concerning that so much of human expression and human communication these days is routed entirely via centralized social networks which may disappear at any moment, bringing down all the data with them—or at least breaking all the links.”

“Building an information network that will stay up forever is as modern as it gets. We’re pushing for a fully distributed web, where applications don’t live at centralized servers, but operate all over the network from users’ computers… a web where content can move through any untrusted middlemen without giving up control of the data, or putting it at risk.”

Reductions in Cost

The third and final benefit is a reduction in cost — both for content providers and end users.

Serving data via HTTP from the other side of the world is expensive. Data providers get charged for peering agreements What Is ISP Peering? Why Your High-Speed Internet Is Slow What Is ISP Peering? Why Your High-Speed Internet Is Slow Do you have trouble with video streams and buffering even though you have high speed Internet? The problem may rest with your ISP. Read More and each network hop costs more money — and that’s before you add on the extortionate cost of “final leg” ISPs. (We won’t name any names here.)

The largest Internet companies are already creaking under the strain of the world’s content consumption demands. As more developing countries continue to come online InternetWorldStats: Find Out Internet Usage Stats For Any Country InternetWorldStats: Find Out Internet Usage Stats For Any Country Read More , those demands will only get worse, and the costs will only continue to rise.

gangnam

In a blog post on their website, IPFS predicts that it had cost Google around $2,742,860 to provide the music video for “Gangnam Style” to YouTube users. Could you imagine a small-time Internet provider trying to keep up with that kind of demand? That’s a lot of bandwidth.

IFPS would allow that same video to be completely downloaded from within your own ISP’s network no matter where you are, thus eliminating the need for numerous hops over multiple interconnected networks and drastically reducing overall costs.

IPFS Isn’t the Only Alternative

The biggest rival to IPFS is MaidSafe, though it has not yet been released. Like IPFS, it wants to realize the dream of a decentralized Internet. It will work by joining together the spare computing capacity of all its users, with everyone’s data and applications residing on the newly created network.

It will also arguably have better encryption than IPFS. That’s because IPFS uses encryption for all communication, but it’s not yet been proven to be secure. MaidSafe breaks all files into three pieces and encrypts them individually.

Another option is MegaNet. Founded by the legendary Kim Dotcom, the service would be a decentralized non-IP based network The MegaNet: How an Internet Without IP Addresses Would Work The MegaNet: How an Internet Without IP Addresses Would Work The proposed MegaNet is everything the Internet was meant to be, but is it even feasible or is it all baseless hype? Read More which makes use of the same blockchain as Bitcoin How Bitcoin's Blockchain Is Making the World More Secure How Bitcoin's Blockchain Is Making the World More Secure Bitcoin's greatest legacy will always be its blockchain, and this magnificent piece of technology is set to revolutionize the world in ways we always thought improbable... until now. Read More . Dotcom claims the necessary bandwidth and storage capacity would be provided by the mobile phones of its users.

Lastly, some people have compared IPFS to Tor, but this is a false comparison. Tor directs traffic through a worldwide network of more than seven thousand relays in a bid to conceal a user’s identity and location 3 Undeniable Reasons Why You Need Online Anonymity 3 Undeniable Reasons Why You Need Online Anonymity Many people don't believe in online anonymity, mainly because it has the potential to enable and encourage undesirable behavior. But without anonymity, people's lives can easily be ruined forever... Read More , but it still ultimately relies on HTTP so it’s technically not an alternative.

IPFS May Be Our Best Hope

At this stage, it is hard to make a definitive conclusion. It is clear that HTTP needs replacing, but IPFS is still a young and unproven technology. Aside from facing stiff competition from its competitors, it’s also threatened by the release of HTTP/2, which promises to improve overall web speeds.

The next couple years will be crucial. The free web hosting service Neocities is already on board with IPFS, and with the news that Netflix has started researching large-scale peer-to-peer technologies, this may be the IPFS’s time to shine — assuming it can convince the world’s biggest tech firms to adopt it.

If you’re interested in finding out more about the development of IPFS, you should subscribe to the associated Reddit page as well as keeping abreast of the company’s official blog.

What do you think the future holds for IPFS and other similar services? Can they be successful in their bold bid to replace HTTP, or is the old technology simply too entrenched to be replaced by open source technology? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.

Image Credit: empty trash can by garyfox45114 via Shutterstock

  1. me
    May 6, 2016 at 4:50 pm

    This **only** seems like a good idea for companies like between Facebook and Google and or ISP. For the home user this seems like a bad idea.

    1. I will be forced to host files I don't want and visa-versa
    2. Deleting is technically censorship, so not permitted.
    3. Potential data de- duplication will mean deleting a file will be nearly impossible as they are all interlinked and probably encrypted on my hard drive.
    4. Having to buy, over time, and infinite amount of storage.
    5. I may be effectively ddos off the net as 10,000+ local users peer me on dozens of files on my tiny ISP bandwidth. Upload speeds are a tiny fraction of download.

    Either I,someone else, or computer will have to be allowed to control what we peer as we have finite hard drive space. Therefore a kind of censoring could occur. If someone else or a computer makes the decision they can censor or tricked into censoring data. If I seed a 10tb video archive user who hosted it would be swamped and forced to delete something.

  2. me
    May 6, 2016 at 4:02 pm

    Great now I have to have a google server farm in my basement to surf the internet.

  3. oxus
    April 27, 2016 at 8:44 am

    This is the only future. Now, control is everything. If we wan a free web this is the future.

  4. fcd76218
    April 26, 2016 at 3:01 pm

    I'm sure various governments will enthusiastically embrace a peer-to-peer internet they cannot control.

  5. Really
    April 25, 2016 at 10:04 pm

    Nice effort but not going to work. The internet itself is a wild West environment. We don't need another wild West concept. I can see big Corp capitalized in on this.

  6. Tom Willoughby
    April 25, 2016 at 7:32 pm

    I honestly can't imagine a de-centralised Internet working. Small websites won't have enough seeders to keep online 24/7, so they'll have to hire someone to seed for them (aka a central server). Big companies will have large amounts of data, copyrighted content, or ip protected resources. These are all difficult to decentralise, or would risk leaking a company's proprietary algorithms etc.

    Also, the majority of websites are dynamic, meaning that either the seeder or the end user would need to be running a web server. This is ignoring the fact that there are several different web preprocessors to choose from.

    I'm not saying that it's impossible, and I can definitely see the need for a new technology that is more secure for the end user, but there are some major hurdles to overcome before any new tech can even think about making a move.

    • crankylinuxuser
      April 28, 2016 at 12:59 pm

      If you think IPFS makes storage and bandwidth from nothing, you're fooling yourself. What it *does* do, is serves as a multiplier when content gets popular.

      Gangnam Style was one of those popular virals. This could have reduced bandwidth costs a great deal by swarm-downloading and getting the file from your nearest peers. Or when Reddit /r/all links to your blog, your blog doesn't die in the reddit hug of death. There'd also be no "slashdotting" or any swarm-download-kill phenomenon.

      But you still need to buy a server to start seeding your files. It's just that when your files are shared, others will share your files as well. And that's cool.

      Ideally, with filecoin (when it comes out), you can pay others to host your content. When that comes up, you can have a hostless webcontent.

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