When a website goes down, often it’s due to the failure of a centralized service, such as a hosting server or domain name system (DNS) issue, or a distributed denial of service (DDOS) attack. Sometimes, it’s a matter of Internet censorship, particularly in countries that suppress certain content to keep it from their citizens.

Source: decrypt.co

What can you do? That’s a problem that IPFS, or the InterPlanetary File System, aims to solve. It’s a decentralized, peer-to-peer file-sharing network and open-source Web3 service designed to overcome centralized points of failure and censorship efforts, to ensure that the web is freely accessible to all.

It’s also a way to back up digital files, such as non-fungible token (NFT) crypto collectibles, so that they don’t suddenly disappear from the web. Here’s a look at how IPFS works and how you can use it.

What is IPFS?

Built by Protocol Labs, IPFS is a service that relies on a distributed network of computers that host content, such as mirrored web pages, files, and apps, all of which you can pull up by entering a link.

Rather than point you towards a location, IPFS links point you towards the content, which could be stored on any number of nodes or computers around the world. As long as the website or content is hosted on at least one computer, however, it will always be accessible.

Did you know?

As of August 2021, IPFS claims to have 2 million unique weekly users, some 200,000 network nodes, and about 125TB worth of gateway traffic per week.

How does IPFS work?

Files uploaded to IPFS are split into smaller chunks, distributed across multiple computers, and assigned a hash to allow users to locate them. Rather than use a familiar location-based link like the normal web, IPFS links are based on the unique hash identifier of each item. That helps locate which node or nodes have the file or website available; it’s then served to the user via a peer-to-peer connection, similar to BitTorrent technology.

IPFS isn’t based on blockchain, but it is similarly immutable: the contents cannot be changed, otherwise the hash itself would also change. However, IPFS has a versioning system that lets you add a new version of a file and connect it to the previous one, ensuring that the entire history is maintained.

Who’s using IPFS?

There’s a variety of Web3 services already making use of IPFS, across a wide range of different applications. Here are a few of the headline services:

  • 📁 Filecoin, Protocol Labs’ own distributed storage network, is based on IPFS. It incentivizes node operators to host files via cryptocurrency rewards.
  • 🎧 Audius, a decentralized music service, uses IPFS to host its audio files.
  • 🃏 Pinata is an NFT hosting service that uses IPFS to back up crypto collectibles for partners like Rarible and Sorare.
  • 🛍️ OpenBazaar is a peer-to-peer ecommerce platform driven by IPFS.
  • 🚛 Morpheus.Network is a supply chain network service that also utilizes IPFS.

How to use IPFS

Some browsers support IPFS browsing natively, while others require an add-on. Brave and Opera both support IPFS links directly: you can just paste the link into your browser and go to the site or file. Brave gives you the option to access IPFS content through a public gateway or through your own local node—the latter option is for those who want to verify content locally.

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Alternatively, you can access IPFS content from any browser by using a public gateway such as https://ipfs.io or https://cloudflare-ipfs.com. A gateway will automatically route you to IPFS content using the link, and there’s a long list of alternative gateways available.

Running an IPFS node

Want to run your own IPFS node and add content to the network? The easiest way to get started is with IPFS Desktop, the official software suite from Protocol Labs. It’s available for Windows, Mac, and Ubuntu, and lets you install and operate your own node, so you can add your own files to the network. Want to upload a photo of your cats? It’s easy as pie.

Meanwhile, IPFS Companion is a web browser add-on available for Chrome, Edge, Brave, Firefox, and Opera. It lets you interact with IPFS Desktop and your installed IPFS node right from your browser. It also adds support for ipfs:// addresses to browsers that don’t natively support them.

Did you know?

In 2017, the Turkish government blocked access to Wikipedia. The IPFS team responded by mirroring the Turkish version of the website on its decentralized network.

The future

IPFS has not updated its official roadmap since early 2020, as of this writing, but IPFS Project Lead Molly Mackinlay wrote on GitHub that her team is focused on a bevy of technical enhancements, as well as further browser integrations. Perhaps most interesting, her team is working on better telling the story of why to use IPFS.

It’s the pitch, essentially. While IPFS should make sense to any web-savvy user at a very basic level, how many of those users want to download and operate a node, and use clunky content identifier (CID) links instead of standard, familiar web URLs?

IPFS is not as smooth and easy to use as standard websites, but like a lot of Web3 platforms right now, that should improve over time—particularly as native link support comes to more web browsers. There’s also a service called Unstoppable Domains that provides easier-to-remember URLs to point to IPFS content, and more browsers are starting to support those as well.

IPFS has smartly latched onto the burgeoning NFT market as a way to help make its pitch. When NFT collectibles blew up in early 2021, suddenly there were stories about people’s pricey new purchases going missing because the platform or server hosting it went down. IPFS offers a way to effectively back up NFTs to the distributed network: there’s a dedicated website for doing so, plus NFT marketplaces like OpenSea have implemented the functionality as well.

Otherwise, Protocol Labs looks to be focused on expanding the core premise of IPFS into new products and use cases. IPFS led to Filecoin, a distributed web storage platform that pays node operators in cryptocurrency for their spare storage space and bandwidth. In August 2021, the firm added Web3.storage, a service that ties into both IPFS and Filecoin to facilitate the creation of Web3 applications.

IPFS is being used in a variety of other interesting ways to fuel the future of Web3 development. For example, a governance voting system called Snapshot allows token holders to vote on proposals within decentralized autonomous organizations (DAOs), an increasingly common component of decentralized finance (DeFi) projects.

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Decrypt’s own DAO uses Snapshot to poll readers on which articles they’d like to see next. Indeed, the very article you’re reading is the second in a series chosen by Decrypt NFT holders using Snapshot voting. The next step in the DAO’s development will see voting functionalities expanded as we transition to an ERC-20 token.

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