Most of today’s most popular apps and websites rely on centralised servers to thrive. That's a problem for everyone, but particularly decentralised applications in web3, that aren't as decentralised as they might seem. Randy Ginsburg explores how Aleph provides truly decentralised solution to secure the web.
At its core, the internet is kept alive by a handful of companies with enormous data centres and server farms distributed around the world. That this is a weak link for the decentralised applications of web3 – as well as a significant risk for the rest of the internet – is an open secret.
It's a problem that Jonathan Schemoul was determined to fix. “When everyone talks about decentralisation, they’re all looking at blockchains or smart contracts,” he tells CoinDesk. “But the truth is that there is a lot of middleware in between. When you go to a dApp, in most cases, you still have a server between you and the blockchain.”
That’s why Schemoul founded Aleph.im, a decentralised storage and cloud computing network, with the aim of providing a decentralised alternative to the likes of Amazon’s AWS, Microsoft Azure, and Google Cloud. This is where the applications that make the internet useful actually run. Amazon alone powers 34% of the top 100,000 websites, including Spotify, Airbnb, and Expedia.
Outages at providers like AWS are not uncommon, and take down much of the internet when they happen. It is this problem that Aleph is aiming to fix. A blockchain-based solution at its core, Aleph looks just like a web2 service for its users, but Schemoul has begun by focusing on the web3 applications that value decentralisation the most. “If a government wants to shut down a decentralised protocol, they can,” he explains. “With Aleph, we are trying to do decentralise the last mile.”
Where early dApps were constrained by the data, computation, and storage limits of their native blockchain, Aleph allows dApps and protocols to replace the centralized portions of their technology stack with decentralised computational tools like cloud computing, file storage, identification frameworks and more.
Rather than relying on centralised servers to power these tools, Aleph leverages computing power operated by global Aleph network, in which community members are rewarded with $ALEPH tokens for contributing their computational resources. Ultimately, Aleph plans to become an eternal network in which anyone can earn from putting their computers to work on the behalf of others.
“We are trying to do decentralise the last mile.”
— Jonathan Schemoul, founder, Arweave
Aleph’s services are split into two types of computer nodes: core channel nodes and compute resource nodes. While core nodes validate, control, and manage the Aleph network, the resource nodes make it possible to run code in the cloud in a decentralized way. In addition, both provide database and file storage that is not reliant upon any sole provider.
Technically, the Aleph ecosystem is split between two types of computer nodes, which power the actions performed in the network. Core channel nodes, of which there are 70, are responsible for governing the network, ensuring that all nodes are behaving as expected. As well as monitoring each other, they also monitor the 220 compute resource nodes, which performs the computational work that lets applications run code in the cloud. In addition, both node types provide database and file storage that is does not rely upon any sole provider.
Since its inception in 2020, Aleph has been used for a variety of functions, including storing NFT and KYC metadata, hosting websites, and running decentralised order books. Aleph has also released its own suite of applications built on the platform, including an explorer for the Solana blockchain, a blogging app, and the world’s first-ever NFT backup app.
One application that illustrates the value proposition of Aleph's network is their IPFS pinning application, which adds an incentive alignment layer to the IPFS protocol. The InterPlanetary File System is a decentralised network for storing data in a resilient way. Yet whilst it is decentralised in nature, this does not mean it comes without risk.
That's because IPFS only functions as a reliable data storage option if a node operator is online and hosting the data at all times. Yet as server costs rise, it is far from uncommon for operators to clear data from their nodes or to even shut down entirely. We’ve already seen numerous instances of NFTs stored on IPFS disappearing or files being deleted by the IPFS automated 'garbage collector' feature, which sees content deleted when it is deemed to serve no further purpose.
“What we really want to do is decentralise the web.”
— Jonathan Schemoul
To combat this, node operators can ‘pin’ data to a node, letting the node know that the data remains important and should be saved. But most pinning services are controlled by the node operators themselves, which means they face the issues of centralised entities that decentralised file storage was designed to avoid.
Ultimately, this risk stems from a misalignment of incentives between the node operators who store data and the individuals who want to access it, whether the data is NFTs, photos, websites, or anything else. Aleph’s pinning dApp adds the incentivisation layer that IPFS is missing. Whilst IPFS and similar storage solutions provided a means for highly-resilient and decentralised data storage, Aleph ensures that this data remains eternally available.
The company closed a $10 million fundraise in January 2022. Equipped with that funding, Aleph plans to scale its resource nodes to more than 150 operators, bringing further decentralisation to its ecosystem.
As for the end goal, Schemoul aims to be bigger than just the crypto ecosystem, recalling the broader scope of cloud computing and storage online. “I want it to be as easy as spinning up servers on AWS, so you can just spin up virtual machines under the network. What we really want to do is decentralise the web.”
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