Replacing the Internet?

safe 'n green by Robert S. Donovan (cc) (from flickr)

safe ‘n green by Robert S. Donovan (cc) (from flickr)

Was reading an article the other day from TechCrunch that said Servers need to die to save the Internet. This article talked about a startup called MaidSafe which is attempting to re-architect/re-implement/replace the Internet into a Peer-2-Peer, mesh network and storage service which they call the SAFE (Secure Access for Everyone) network. By doing so, they hope to eliminate the need for network servers and storage.

Sometime in the past I wrote a blog post about Peer-2-Peer cloud storage (see Free P2P Cloud Storage and Computing if  interested). But it seems MaidSafe has taken this to a more extreme level. By the way the acronym MAID used in their name stands for Massive Array of Internet Disks, sound familiar?

Crypto currency eco-system

The article talks about MaidSafe’s SAFE network ultimately replacing the Internet but at the start it seems more to be a way to deploy secure, P2P cloud storage.  One interesting aspect of the MaidSafe system is that you can dedicate a portion of your Internet connected computers’ storage, computing and bandwidth to the network and get paid for it. Assuming you dedicate more resources than you actually use to the network you will be paid safecoins for this service.

For example, users that wish to participate in the SAFE network’s data storage service run a Vault application and indicate how much internal storage to devote to the service. They will be compensated with safecoins when someone retrieves data from their vault.

Safecoins are a new BitCoin like internet currency. Currently one safecoin is worth about $0.02 but there was a time when BitCoins were worth a similar amount. MaidSafe organization states that there will be a limit to the number of safecoins that can ever be produced (4.3Billion) so there’s obviously a point when they will become more valuable if MaidSafe and their SAFE network becomes successful over time. Also, earned safecoins can be used to pay for other MaidSafe network services as they become available.

Application developers can code their safecoin wallet-ids directly into their apps and have the SAFE network automatically pay them for application/service use.  This should make it much easier for App developers to make money off their creations, as they will no longer have to use advertising support, or provide differenct levels of product such as free-simple user/paid-expert use types of support to make money from Apps.  I suppose in a similar fashion this could apply to information providers on the SAFE network. An information warehouse could charge safecoins for document downloads or online access.

All data objects are encrypted, split and randomly distributed across the SAFE network

The SAFE network encrypts and splits any data up and then randomly distributes these data splits uniformly across their network of nodes. The data is also encrypted in transit across the Internet using rUDPs (reliable UDPs) and SAFE doesn’t use standard DNS services. Makes me wonder how SAFE or Internet network nodes know where rUDP packets need to go next without DNS but I’m no networking expert. Apparently by encrypting rUDPs and not using DNS, SAFE network traffic should not be prone to deep packet inspection nor be easy to filter out (except of course if you block all rUDP traffic).  The fact that all SAFE network traffic is encrypted also makes it much harder for intelligence agencies to eavesdrop on any conversations that occur.

The SAFE network depends on a decentralized PKI to authenticate and supply encryption keys. All SAFE network data is either encrypted by clients or cryptographically signed by the clients and as such, can be cryptographically validated at network endpoints.

The each data chunk is replicated on, at a minimum, 4 different SAFE network nodes which provides resilience in case a network node goes down/offline. Each data object could potentially be split up into 100s to 1000s of data chunks. Also each data object has it’s own encryption key, dependent on the data itself which is never stored with the data chunks. Again this provides even better security but the question becomes where does all this metadata (data object encryption key, chunk locations, PKI keys, node IP locations, etc.) get stored, how is it secured, and how is it protected from loss. If they are playing the game right, all this is just another data object which is encrypted, split and randomly distributed but some entity needs to know how to get to the meta-data root element to find it all in case of a network outage.

Supposedly, MaidSafe can detect within 20msec. if a node is no longer available and reconfigure the whole network. This probably means that each SAFE network node and endpoint is responsible for some network transaction/activity every 10-20msec, such as a SAFE network heartbeat to say it is still alive.

It’s unclear to me whether the encryption key(s) used for rUDPs and the encryption key used for the data object are one and the same, functionally related, or completely independent? And how a “decentralized PKI”  and “self authentication” works is beyond me but they published a paper on it, if interested.

For-profit open source business model

MaidSafe code is completely Open Source (available at MaidSafe GitHub) and their APIs are freely available to anyone and require no API key. They also have multiple approved and pending patents which have been provided free to the world for use, which they use in a defensive capacity.

MaidSafe says it will take a 5% cut of all safecoin transactions over the SAFE network. And as the network grows their revenue should grow commensurately. The money will be used to maintain the core network software and  MaidSafe said that their 5% cut will be shared with developers that help develop/fix the core SAFE network code.

They are hoping to have multiple development groups maintaining the code. They currently have some across Europe and in California in the US. But this is just a start.

They are just now coming out of stealth, have recently received $6M USD investment (by auctioning off MaidSafeCoins a progenitor of safecoins) but have been in operation now, architecting/designing/developing the core code now for 8+ years now, which probably qualifies them for the longest running startup on the planet.

Replacing the Internet

MaidSafe believes that the Internet as currently designed is too dependent on server farms to hold pages and other data. By having a single place where network data is held, it’s inherently less secure than by having data spread out, uniformly/randomly across a multiple nodes. Also the fact that most network traffic is in plain text (un-encrypted) means anyone in the network data path can examine and potentially filter out data packets.

I am not sure how the SAFE network can be used to replace the Internet but then I’m no networking expert. For example, from my perspective, SAFE is dependent on current Internet infrastructure to store and forward rUDPs on along its trunk lines and network end-paths. I don’t see how SAFE can replace this current Internet infrastructure especially with nodes only present at the endpoints of the network.

I suppose as applications and other services start to make use of SAFE network core capabilities, maybe the SAFE network can become more like a mesh network and less dependent on the current hub and spoke current Internet we have today.  As a mesh network, node endpoints can store and forward packets themselves to locally accessed neighbors and only go out on Internet hubs/trunk lines when they have to go beyond the local network link.

Moreover, the SAFE can make any Internet infrastructure less vulnerable to filtering and spying. Also, it’s clear that SAFE applications are no longer executing in data center servers somewhere but rather are actually executing on end-point nodes of the SAFE network. This has a number of advantages, namely:

  • SAFE applications are less susceptible to denial of service attacks because they can execute on many nodes.
  • SAFE applications are inherently more resilient because the operate across multiple nodes all the time.
  • SAFE applications support faster execution because the applications could potentially be executing closer to the user and could potentially have many more instances running throughout the SAFE network.

Still all of this doesn’t replace the Internet hub and spoke architecture we have today but it does replace application server farms, CDNs, cloud storage data centers and probably another half dozen Internet infrastructure/services I don’t know anything about.

Yes, I can see how MaidSafe and its SAFE network can change the Internet as we know and love it today and make it much more secure and resilient.

Not sure how having all SAFE data being encrypted will work with search engines and other web-crawlers but maybe if you want the data searchable, you just cryptographically sign it. This could be both a good and a bad thing for the world.

Nonetheless, you have to give the MaidSafe group a lot of kudos/congrats for taking on securing the Internet and making it much more resilient. They have an active blog and forum that discusses the technology and what’s happening to it and I encourage anyone interested more in the technology to visit their website to learn more

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