Distributed technology is on the rise – as the world grows more densely interconnected and more authoritarian, technologies that remove centralized choke points grow more important, both for practical and political reasons. Centralized services are vulnerable to both scale failure, as our demands on them explode – and, more fundamentally, they’re vulnerable to despots and oligarchs who would like to control our ability to live, spend, and communicate.
On this site, we talk primarily about the blockchain-based decentralized technologies, notably Bitcoin. Today, though, we’re going to make a brief departure to talk about an exciting development in the decentralized web, a service that recently went into alpha called “Project Maelstrom” from BitTorrent.
The idea is simple: in a traditional client-server web architecture, the sort that essentially all webpages are hosted on today, work in a fairly straightforward fashion. If you want to view a site, you send a message over the internet backbone to a server hosting the site. The server is a specific computer or collection of computers, in some cases rented from a cloud hosting services. The server sends you a series of packets, which your browser renders as the web page. The way Maelstrom works is a little different: instead of a specific server hosting Maelstrom sites, the sites are hosted by everyone who’s recently visited them, via the BitTorrent protocol. Instead of having IP addresses, you have torrent trackers that identify the file you’re looking for. No centralized servers means that websites get faster under load, not slower. It also means that websites simply can’t be taken down, period, ever, except maybe through lack of interest.
This is new technology, and technical questions remain: can the overhead be reduced enough to make loading crowd-hosted pages load quickly? Beyond that, there’s a question of interactivity. The traditional BitTorrent protocol will work fine for simple HTML pages, but technologies that can power more sophisticated, interactive web pages (like Reddit) still need to be developed. There’s also the issue of DNS resolution, needed to turn incomprehensible torrent tracker information into human-readable URLs. Something like Namecoin may be appropriate, but the issue of price-setting remains challenging.
For now, the service remains in a very limited alpha. Eventually, BitTorrent-powered web pages might provide the infrastructure for the next generation of Bitcoin sites, marketplaces, and communities. The future of the web is decentralized, and I can’t wait to see it.