DLT vs. HTTP: CloudFlare’s Quest to Decentralize the Internet
On Sept. 17, a vital United States-based content delivery network (CDN) CloudFlare introduced a new decentralized content gateway via InterPlanetary File System (IPFS), a peer-to-peer (p2p) network run by thousands of computers bypassing the conventional HTTP system. Here’s how it supposed to work and why CloudFlare decided to support such a project.
What is CloudFlare?
CloudFlare is a company that provides content delivery network (CDN) services and DDoS protection. Basically, CloudFlare plays the role of an intermediary between the website and the visitor. It defends the website by filtering out suspicious requests and speeds up its overall performance via its CDN, powered by 152 data centers located in different parts of the world. As CloudFlare’s CEO Matthew Prince explained to the Wire:
“At that data center, we’ll make a series of determinations: Are you a good guy or a bad guy? Are you trying to harm the site? Or are you actually a legitimate customer? If we determine that you’re a bad guy, we stop you there. We act essentially as this force shield that covers and protects our customers.”
The company was created in 2009, when Prince and Lee Holloway, who had been jointly working on a system that tracked how spammers harvested email addresses (dubbed ‘Project Honey Pot’), met Michelle Zatlyn at the Harvard Business School, where Prince went to get his MBA. Together, they expanded the concept, came up with a new name and won the Harvard Business School Business Plan competition.
The service itself quietly launched its beta in June 2010. On Sept. 27 of the same year, CloudFlare was officially launched at the TechCrunch Disrupt event in San Francisco. As per data stated on their website, the company serves around 8 million internet properties and “powers nearly 10 percent of all internet requests.” According to the Wire, Cloudflare customers vary “from individual bloggers who pay nothing for basic security services to Fortune 50 companies that pay up to a million dollars a year for guaranteed 24-hour support.”
CloudFlare’s politics: Path to decentralized internet
CloudFlare has been publicly championing net neutrality — the idea that networks should not discriminate against content that passes through them.
On June 2, 2011, the controversial hacker collective Lulzsec tweeted “we love Cloudflare” after the service assisted in handling a DDoS attack on their website. That event seemed to accurately describe the position that Cloudflare had found itself in — while it had received widespread acknowledgment for its efficiency, the service — albeit somewhat indirectly — has protected people who could be deemed radicals.
The situation escalated further in 2013, when Cloudflare was called “terrorists’ little helper” by a Kernel journalist for refusing to drop a Chechen news site Kavkaz Center. Prince then explained why the service chose to stand its ground in a blog post:
"One of the greatest strengths of the United States is a belief that speech, particularly political speech, is sacred. A website, of course, is nothing but speech [...] A website is speech. It is not a bomb. There is no imminent danger it creates and no provider has an affirmative obligation to monitor and make determinations about the theoretically harmful nature of speech a site may contain."
In March 2017, the Southern Poverty Law Center published an article claiming that Cloudflare had been optimizing content delivery for “at least 48 hate sites across Europe.” A similar article was published by ProRepublica in May 2017. In response to the latter piece, Cloudflare reportedly updated its abuse reporting system to allow people to more safely file complaints about the material on its sites.
In August 2017, Cloudflare decided to go against its net neutrality principles for the first time: After a neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer wrote a hate-filled column dedicated to a white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville and went as far as to suggest that Cloudlflare’s top management shared their ideology by covering them, Prince decided to deny them service, setting a precedent.
New product: What is IPFS?
The policies mentioned above explain why creating a new decentralized content gateway seems like a logical step for Cloudflare. Called Cloudflare’s InterPlanetary File System (IPFS) Gateway, it serves as a simplified way to access the IPFS, which is a blockchain-based, peer-to-peer file system composed of thousands of computers that store files, acting as nodes within a global network.
IPFS alters the conventional HTTP system the internet is largely based on. Instead of using the location-addressed system that HTTP entails — to access, say, Google, the client sends a request to the Google server’s IP, and the server returns a response message — it introduces a content-addressed system. Thus, the IPFS uses a cryptographic hash on a file as the address. CloudFlare explains this system with the following example:
“So rather than asking the network ‘get me the content stored at 220.127.116.11,’ you ask ‘get me the content that has a hash value of QmXnnyufdzAWL5CqZ2RnSNgPbvCc1ALT73s6epPrRnZ1Xy’ […] The content with [that] hash could be stored on dozens of nodes, so if one node that was caching that content goes down, the network will just look for the content on another node.”
The IPFS project was founded in 2014 by Juan Benet of Protocol Labs. It has since become an open-source project developed with help from the community.
As Cointelegraph previously reported, the IPFS launched its distributed file storage network in 2016 on Ethereum instead of Bitcoin, explaining the move because of “the Ethereum Network’s supportive development community and various innovative features.”
How Cloudflare’s new product could help to expand the IPFS?
The company is being considerably ambitious about their new product. The press release boastfully states:
“Just like when Cloudflare launched back in 2010 and changed the game for web properties by providing the security, performance and availability that was previously only available to the internet giants, we think the IPFS gateway will provide the same boost to content on the distributed web.”
Indeed, at least theoretically, the new gateway simplifies the process of interacting with the decentralized network, allowing to access it with a casual browser:
“At the most basic level, you can access any of the billions of files stored on IPFS from your browser. But that’s not the only cool thing you can do. Using Cloudflare’s gateway, you can also build a website that’s hosted entirely on IPFS, but still available to your users at a custom domain name.”
To lure in new clients, CloudFlare is promoting their gateway by granting a free SSL certificate to any website connected via their new service, offering to secure it from “snooping and manipulation.”
Further, perhaps in an attempt to prevent new net neutrality-related scandals, the company claims that “Cloudflare’s IPFS gateway is simply a cache in front of IPFS” and that they do not “have the ability to modify or remove content from the IPFS network,” reminding that there is the possibility of users sharing abusive content. For such cases, the company urges to use their “standard abuse reporting mechanism.”