Decentralized File Sharing, Explained

What is decentralized file sharing?

Decentralized file sharing is a way of storing files across multiple nodes in a network rather than on a single centralized server.

As the digital era has progressed, the internet has become a vast and complex web of data and files that communicate using the Hypertext Transfer Protocol, or HTTP. As internet traffic has increased over time and the sheer volume of information transmitted has become enormous, HTTP has started to crack under this strain. For example, each time we load a web page, HTTP is used to retrieve content from centralized servers. If the content involves transmitting large files, it may consume a lot of bandwidth. If a server is taken down, a website might still exist but with missing pieces, such as images or graphic files.

Furthermore, due to a reliance on centralized servers, HTTP makes it easy to introduce censorship.

Decentralized file sharing has emerged as a solution to some of these problems. Torrenting is the best-known solution by the general public. Torrenting has been used as a way of distributing much larger files, such as audio and video, over the internet to overcome the challenges of using HTTP.

However, the earlier versions of file sharing protocols also have some limitations. Nodes are generally run by volunteers. They can choose to stop volunteering their services, meaning that there’s no guarantee there will always be enough people to host files.

Using blockchain technology is a way to create robust decentralized file sharing networks where participants are incentivized to continue contributing. A token-based reward system ensures there are always enough nodes providing their services to the network.

How does decentralized file sharing work?

Using centralized servers to deliver files and data is known as a client-server model. To put it simply, the client, or user, requests what they want by typing in a URL, and a server delivers it via HTTP.

Decentralized file sharing uses a different model known as peer-to-peer sharing. In the client-server model, the URL points to an IP address, which is based on the server location where the website data is stored.

With P2P sharing, files aren’t stored in a single place. Instead, they’re distributed across a network of many nodes. Each file, or piece of a file, is given a unique cryptographic hash. This means all versions are tracked across the network. When a user requests the data, the network finds the nodes holding a perfect match to the unique hash or hashes.

What are the benefits of decentralized file sharing?

Using hash addresses distributed across multiple nodes means the content is immutable yet permanently available. It doesn’t matter if a single node goes down because other nodes may instantly deliver a duplicate.

When users are retrieving data from centralized servers using HTTP, their service moves more slowly. Decentralized file sharing frees up bandwidth because the weight of files is distributed across many channels.

This also introduces resistance to censorship. Governments may order their nations’ internet service providers to block a particular website or service simply by blocking its IP address. If files or data stored across an entire network are encrypted, it is impossible to block access to it. 

Due to these benefits and many more, a decentralized file sharing network based on blockchain supports the ongoing evolution of the internet to Web 3.0 and beyond.

Are there any examples of decentralized file sharing protocols?

There are two major decentralized file sharing service providers. BitTorrent was developed in 2001 as a peer-to-peer file sharing protocol and was acquired by Tron in July 2018. By that time, BitTorrent had reached 100 million monthly active users around the globe.

Last year, BitTorrent announced the launch of the BitTorrent File System, or BTFS, based on the Tron network. The launch of BTFS addresses two needs within the decentralized file storage segment. Firstly, it introduces incentivization to BitTorrent’s peer-to-peer network, allowing participants to be rewarded in tokens for their contributions.

Secondly, it provides a decentralized file storage solution to decentralized applications running on a blockchain. File storage on a blockchain is expensive, meaning that many developers default to centralized solutions. BTFS aims to address this gap, introducing decentralized file storage that’s both cost-effective and accessible. BTFS is live now.

Another project, the InterPlanetary File System, or IPFS, aims to solve a similar need. Protocol Labs launched IPFS in 2015 as a peer-to-peer file sharing protocol. Protocol Labs has also been developing Filecoin, its own blockchain layer, to complement IPFS. Filecoin has been in beta for a long time and will allegedly launch this summer.

Are there decentralized file sharing use cases already in operation?

Two examples where IPFS has been used are with Wikipedia and the Android version of the Opera browser. The Turkish government previously attempted to ban Wikipedia, citing it as a national security threat. Hacktivists uploaded a version of Turkish Wikipedia and posted it using IPFS as a way of circumventing the ban. IPFS has also been integrated into the Android version of the Opera web browser as part of its bid to introduce Web 3.0 capabilities.

BTFS is integrated into decentralized video streaming network DLive, enabling fast and censorship-resistant livestreaming. This marks yet another milestone and example wherein decentralized file sharing proves to have unlimited potential.

The views, thoughts and opinions expressed here are the author’s alone and do not necessarily reflect or represent the views and opinions of Cointelegraph.

Justin Sun is the founder of Tron and CEO of BitTorrent. He holds a master’s degree in East Asia studies from the University of Pennsylvania and a bachelor’s degree in history from Peking University. Sun has become one of the most famous figures in the blockchain space, known for his elaborate marketing tactics.