A dominant narrative around the contemporary Internet is the global proliferation of user-generated content and applications. Thanks to the rise of social media, online publishing platforms, and other tools — a trend described as ‘Web 2.0’ — it’s easy for individuals and organisations alike to share content and web experiences with a broad audience.
However, this accessible, democratic approach doesn’t extend to every aspect of the Internet. When it comes to hosting web applications, the opposite is often true — because a person or organisation who wants to launch an application currently has few realistic choices about where it is stored and run.
But these limitations are changing. Thanks to technologies like the blockchain, we’re observing a slow but steady move towards a more decentralised Internet — with fascinating implications for security, privacy, and reliability.
When an individual or organisation wants to launch a web application, they have historically had relatively few places to host it.
The application may be able to live in a private, on-premise server or data centre if it has few users and uses limited bandwidth. When bandwidth requirements increase, however — or if the organisation wants to provide the fast, secure experience many users now expect — all but the largest, most well-resourced organisations find that their only economical choice is some form of cloud hosting.
This choice is by no means a bad one. Cloud hosting provides many performance, security, and flexibility benefits compared with on-premises hosting. But the centralisation of data in a select few cloud providers also creates challenges, including:
Loss of control over data: Hosting web application data on third-party servers technically gives an organisation less control over that data. This can become a problem when cloud providers are legally compelled to provide governments and law enforcement agencies with access to private data, or if a provider suffers a data breach.
Performance risks for global audiences: Cloud providers operate a relatively limited number of massive data centres, and cloud users often must choose which geographic region their application will live in. If an application’s users are far from its servers, they may experience latency due to the traffic’s long journey.
Vendor lock-in: Migrating from one cloud service to another can be extremely challenging. Should the cloud vendor’s service quality decline — or should it institute unfair pricing policies — organisations may struggle to find a better alternative.
Again, these challenges are not reasons to abandon the cloud. But they may explain a recent, fascinating trend — the conception, and slow emergence, of a model for a decentralised Internet, driven by technologies like the blockchain. This model is often referred to as “Web 3.0”
Web 3.0 is expected to more closely align with the original vision of one of the Internet’s architects, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, who envisioned a distributed network with no central authorities or single point of failure. Originally called the “Semantic Web”, Web 3.0 will be an intelligent Internet that understands everything a user conveys in both content and context, processing information with human-like intelligence. This will be achieved through the interconnection and decentralisation of data across networks that operate through decentralised protocols.
The fruition of Berners-Lee’s vision is presumed to be ushered in in part by emerging technologies like blockchain. These technologies will decentralise the Internet’s infrastructure and applications, altering data flows and the centralisation of information.
Blockchain in particular is presumed to be one of the most pivotal technologies necessary for the infrastructure of Web 3.0. Blockchain emerged in 2009 with the creation of Bitcoin. Bitcoin was created by Satoshi Nakamoto, an anonymous person or group that looked to respond to the 2008 financial crisis by decentralising the global financial sector. As Forbes defines it, “Blockchain is the innovative database technology that’s at the heart of nearly all cryptocurrencies. By distributing identical copies of a database across an entire network, blockchain makes it very difficult to hack or cheat the system. While cryptocurrency is the most popular use for blockchain presently, the technology offers the potential to serve a very wide range of applications.”
While Bitcoin was the originator of blockchain technology, it is but one of many blockchains that stand to disrupt nearly every vertical and industry, offering the range of impactful applications described by Forbes. The most prominent blockchain after Bitcoin, and the one most likely to further the advancement of Web 3.0, is Ethereum.
In 2013, Vitalik Buterin released the Ethereum whitepaper, and by mid-2015 its network went live. According to Consensys, “Ethereum is a decentralised, open-source, and distributed computing platform that enables the creation of smart contracts and decentralised applications.” While Bitcoin and Ethereum are both blockchain-based, they have several key differences. Bitcoin is a cryptocurrency and store of value solely intended for transactions. Ethereum, like Bitcoin, can be used for transactions, but more important is its enablement of decentralised apps, or DApps - computer applications that run on a decentralised computing system.
Today, the Ethereum blockchain is thought to be the ideal open and trustless platform to serve as the infrastructure of a decentralised Internet. With the likes of Ethereum driving the onset of Web 3.0, the world could see a new, intelligent Internet that builds upon the trends of Web 2.0 but is powered by blockchain and InterPlanetary File System (IPFS) technology. This will result in an online experience that is infinitely more powerful and tailored to the user and will revolutionise the interconnection of the Internet, applications, and the physical world. Through this, there will be huge improvements in terms of privacy and security thanks to the decentralisation of data and privacy-preserving cryptographic and computational techniques.
While Web 3.0 promises to radically change the Internet and its ability to provide value to users around the world, key hurdles must be overcome before it can be adopted en masse. Today, there are several issues with decentralised networks that are impeding the rise of Web 3.0, including speed and scale.
Despite providing better security, the decentralised web is currently much slower than the centralised web due to the need for authentication nodes. Whereas a centralised app can process an incredible amount of requests at one time, a decentralised app pales in comparison by orders of magnitude.
Scalability is also an ongoing issue. Because the Ethereum Network is made up and secured by over 8,000 nodes, every transaction must be processed by all nodes. This can lead to network congestion and is a significant limiting factor in Ethereum’s ability to handle the enterprise-class applications of tomorrow. There is ongoing work to help scale Ethereum, but if it or a similar blockchain, such as Cardano or Polkadot, were to become the backbone of the decentralised web, solutions for scaling, speed and privacy must be developed.
Once the challenges that currently stand in the way of Web 3.0 are solved, it will provide impactful solutions to some of the Internet’s most persistent problems. For example, while the centralised apps of today can experience downtime for any number of reasons, DApps and Web 3.0 servers promise to be more resilient with a much-reduced risk of downtime as they will be run on Ethereum’s decentralised network of tens of thousands of computers. And with greater adoption and increasing network effects, the reliability of the Web 3.0 Internet will continue to improve.
Similarly, Web 3.0 will eradicate the volume and efficacy of DDoS attacks that we see today, further improving reliability. With the Peer-to-Peer networks that secure the Ethereum blockchain rather than centralised servers, bad actors will not have the same ability to disrupt Internet services as easily as they can now. There will no longer be single points of failure, allowing the network to function as normal regardless of participants being attacked or taken out.
While the issues of latency, scale, and reliability are still challenges in the transition to Web 3.0, organisations focused on improving the Internet will help address these problems and spark greater adoption of DApps and the decentralised web. As adoption rises, the network effect will continue to amplify the benefits of Web 3.0, driving further adoption in turn.
Currently, interacting with the Ethereum Network is difficult and requires running complex software, including downloading and cryptographically verifying massive amounts of data, which creates technical barriers and can preclude those with low-power devices. As Web 3.0 gains further adoption, Cloudflare will continue to help lower the accessibility barriers of users who want to participate.
As such, Cloudflare has developed Cloudflare’s Ethereum Gateway - another tool in Cloudflare’s Distributed Web Gateway toolset - which users can use to interact with the Ethereum Network without installing additional software, allowing any person and any Internet-enabled device to interact with the Ethereum Network safely and reliably. With the Distributed Web Gateway, users can host content on the IPFS, interact with and develop Ethereum smart contracts, create fully decentralised websites, and more. In line with Cloudflare’s mission, these developments in Internet technology will provide greater speed, security, and reliability, all powered by Cloudflare’s edge network.
This article is part of a series on the latest trends and topics impacting today’s technology decision-makers.
After reading this article you will be able to understand:
Ways in which the modern Internet remains relatively centralised
What a decentralised Internet might look like
The blockchain’s role in a decentralised Internet
How to interact with the Ethereum network