Decentralizing the internet

By Scott Hamilton

Senior Expert Emerging Technologies 

The idea of decentralization is central to the inner workings of the internet. In the very beginning when the internet consisted of less then 200 computers networked between various research centers in the United States back in 1971 the network was designed around decentralized services.  David Clark’s “The Design Philosophy of the DARPA Internet Protocol’s published in 1988 stated among the top design goals was continuity of operations despite the loss of individual systems and networks across the infrastructure.

A large part of this decentralization still exists today. The basic infrastructure and general software design driving the internet is still decentralized.  Decentralization means that each device on the internet has the ability to control all the configuration related to it.  For example my web site www.techshepherd.org has it’s own server running the software to provide the web pages. The site has an ip address that needs an entry in the Directory Name Service (DNS), this entry is for the domain “techshepherd.org”. I manage the hosts in that domain, currently only two “www” and “mail”. My domain is decentralized as in no one else can control where on the internet my site lives. Hundreds of DNS servers above  mine gather information from hundreds of other private DNS servers like mine.  If any of the servers are shutdown the others take over the work and the internet stays working.  At least that is how it was originally designed and worked for the last 50 years.

In recent years changes to the internet not related to the technology itself is beginning to impact the decentralization.  I ran two articles earlier this year about major internet outages. These were caused by the centralization of DNS through content delivery networks (CDN). This is not a lack in the technology, but rather a lack in the distribution of the technology. The problem we are facing with the internet today is that a handful of companies manage a majority of the decentralized technology.  This creates centralization and reliance on a single platform, or provider to keep the internet functional.

So far in 2020 and 2021 there have been three major outages, one caused by each of the three major CDN. Cloud-flare in late 2020, Fastly in June 2021 and weeks later Akamai, all three caused nearly 30% of the internet to go offline.  Though the internet remained fully functional during the outage the websites were unreachable because the CDN software service failed. CDN inadvertently introduced a single point of failure in the otherwise completely distributed and decentralized ecosystem.

In the last few years the pendulum swung hard towards centralization with the rise of a Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Amazon to name the main US. players. These four companies control the way billions of people experience the internet. The pendulum is beginning to show signs of slowing to begin the swing back towards the original decentralized design and we can only hope the efforts are successful. As long as a small number of companies control the internet they have the power to control the voices of bloggers, artists and news media sources.

Until next week stay safe and learn something new   

Scott Hamilton is a Senior Expert in Emerging Technologies at ATOS and can be reached with questions and comments via email to scott.hamilton@atos.net or through his website at http://www.techshepherd.tk

Author: admin