Substratum is a start-up developing a decentralized approach web, one which may seeks to free and provide unrestricted access to content. The Substratum network is a worldwide collection of nodes that uses blockchain-based cryptography to deliver secure content anywhere, all without the need for VPNs or Tor.
Substratum hopes to revolutionise the hosting industry by introducing:
- payments to node hosting owners (which could be your or my PC)
- distributed content access, shared across those nodes
- per-request billing to content providers, delivered via micro transactions.
The guts of this is the deployment of combination blockchain technology. This is not one blockchain but three, combined in novel ways.
The content provider problem
Today web content providers:
- either possess and run their own website infrastructure
- or they ‘rent’ it from an AWS or Rackspace or other provider.
In the latter case this means that payment for the capability has little to do with the traffic engendered. Or, described another way, if your site has lots of traffic, then the service provider will ‘encourage’ you to upgrade to more expensive capabilities (not least by throttling your access). Alternatively, if your site is low traffic or ‘bursty’, you probably overpay for the service your site needs. This approach is inflexible and is largely kept honest with reasonable pricing by the volume of competition. There is no other sensible alternative.
The theoretical benefits of decentralized web content are obvious, especially if combined for content providers with pay-as-it is-used services. But to deliver this the following issues need addressing:
- serving up of decentralized content
- incentivising sufficient resource providers to serve content
- DNS resolution
- development tools appropriate to decentralized content
- removal or bypassing of international digital barriers (for example the Great Firewall of China)
- reduced hosting costs.
Substratum claims to have solved all of these. It says it has, in beta, software for both the content servers and content providers. Access will not change the experience for content consumers. They will use the standard browsers (Safari, Firefox, Chrome, IE, etc) without any special software installed on their devices, PCs or mobile phones.
Substratum’s blockchain combinations
To deliver decentralised content, Substratum integrates the use of three distinct blockchains which have different purposes:
- the first is private (to Substratum) and handles security and encryption; each piece of split content is encrypted and this blockchain holds the information about which encryption algorithm applies (multiple, rotating encryption algorithms will be in use)
- the second is currently private, but may go open source; this handles the location of content (across the content serving nodes)
- the third is public and is where the accounting for content servers and for content providers is visible.
How might this work?
A spare resource owner signs up to become a content server (a content serving node). This could be using spare capacity on a home computer or an idle server, potentially even on a mobile phone according to Substratum.
The content serving node owner will receive a piece of software with which he or she tunes how much resource he or she wishes to make available – for example a maximum of 50% of CPU availability from 0800-2300 each day and 95% from 2300 to 0800 overnight along with an allocation of (say) 2GB of unused disk space. Payment for usage (making this available) will be in a cryptocurrency called Substrate or Sub, the value of which ties to the Ethereum cryptocurrency.
In parallel, content owners will use a Substratum tool to upload their content. Substratum will split and encode/encrypt this – using a rotating variety of encryption algorithms – and place this across multiple content serving nodes. In this context:
- any given content can exist on multiple content serving nodes (which accelerates geographical access because the nearest node, to the consumer, will be the one to provide the requested content)
- no one content serving node will have all of a content owner’s information
- no content serving node owner can access the encrypted information held on his or her content serving node (encoding and encryption of the content occurs before loading onto content serving nodes)
- content is decentralised and occurs multiple times
- the keys to access content and location exist on the two first Substratum blockchains
- the assembly of content, from multiple content serving nodes, only happens in memory and thus is inaccessible except for that consumer (this is also the means to bypass constrictions like the Great Firewall of China and Iranian and Russian equivalents – only that consumer can see what is being consumed at that moment)
- the usage of the content serving node becomes the basis for payment of the content node server owner and for charging the content owner, on a micro transaction basis.
Behind the scenes
How will this work for the content consumer. He or she will, from their browser, type in a URL as the initiating request. The following then happens:
- the Substratum DNS directs the user to the closest content serving node (by reference to the consumer location and one of the blockchains)
- that content serving node checks with the Substratum blockchains to find the nodes with the relevant content
- the relevant content serving nodes (and there will be several) will serve the relevant encrypted content to the node to which the consumer has attached
- this node will connect to the blockchains to ascertain the various applicable decryption algorithms
- this node will apply each relevant algorithm and assemble the sought content and serve this to the consumer.
Substratum claims that the current status of its approach (and it knows of competitors with broadly similar web-decentralising objectives) is:
- a private beta is operational now
- many hundreds of potential people, globally, have expressed interest in becoming content node servers
- the public beta will commence in December 2017; this is less about proving functionality than obtaining sufficient information so as to how to refine the criteria whether content node servers have sufficient capability to serve
- target production is for January 2018.
What does this mean
Substratum’s use of multiple interworking blockchains is both complex and startling. If it can execute it could be a game changer.
But it is dependent on a large number of pieces coming together:
- first there is the issue of whether Substratum has dealt with the technological and blockchain challenges about encrypting and decrypting content
- second, is there sufficient skin in the game for content providers to make the effort to buy into the Substratum approach; much will depend on how easy it is, for instance, take an existing web site and make it available via Substratum
- third, there is the issue of attracting node content servers; maybe the offer of cryptocurrency payment for spare cycles will attract sufficient resources – it is not in the control of Substratum
- fourth, there are all the complexities surrounding the accounting, payment and charging in cryptocurrencies
- fifth, while content is decentralised across many nodes, the blockchains represent potential points of failure.
This is a pretty formidable list. Nevertheless, the concept is fascinating – especially the combination of private, potentially public and open blockchains along with rotating encryption algorithms. One can only wish Substratum well, if only so as to find out if it can deliver.