On Jan. 26, the internet came to a screeching halt along much of the East Coast. Email services went down; YouTube videos flickered out midstream; millions were likely affected, if only temporarily. But the outage, attributed to a surge in traffic, underscores the metastasizing vulnerabilities surrounding the way most of the world conducts commerce, consumes entertainment and communicates.
The implications of such outages should be seen as particularly alarming for those in cryptoland: namely, for the ever-growing numbers of participants in an emerging decentralized ecosystem for transferring peer-to-peer value with Bitcoin (BTC) who build smart contracts on Ethereum or launch any number of platforms and tokens that perform untold numbers of functions and services.
Indeed, such outages highlight a serious challenge to building the hoped-for future of a decentralized web that is more secure, reliable and safer.
Every time Gmail or Telegram goes down because of such disruptions to the existing web, it’s a reminder of how exposed this emergent decentralized world is to centralized vulnerabilities. And it’s something of an Achilles heel that has yet to be satisfactorily addressed.
In short, the full blossoming of blockchain and other decentralized systems depends on the reliability of an existing web architecture that is not only highly centralized but also in need of a facelift.
Internet: The beauty and the beast
As beautiful as the original architecture of it — and, believe me, it is beautiful — the internet as we know it has become a tad clunky. It’s been decades since its creation, and it’s showing its proverbial age. The evidence of this is the rising number of outages that have disrupted major cloud services, such as Amazon Web Services and Microsoft Azure, along with business-critical messaging platforms like Slack. The resulting losses to corporations, as well as to everyday web users and crypto enthusiasts, could be in the billions.
Last year, for example, Cloudflare went down and the drop in Bitcoin transactions that resulted was palpable. It’s notable in that case that the Bitcoin network itself was not down. The peer-to-peer consensus-building infrastructure it’s built on was fully intact at all times, but the drop in completed transactions indicates a serious weakness in the system given that so many crypto users depend on centralized storage and exchange options. And many of those services were depending on, in turn, Cloudflare.
The above example highlights how, in many cases, the viability of those services boiled down to one single point of failure — utterly contrary to the raison d’être of Bitcoin and blockchains more generally.
It’s a problem that has grown far worse during the COVID-19 pandemic, unfortunately, notably because the web has become even more central to our work and personal lives. According to recent data published by ThousandEyes, a network intelligence company, global internet disruptions soared as the pandemic struck last year. Rising rates of usage were cited as a reason behind the outages that increased 63% in March when compared to the pre-pandemic period. By June, there were an estimated 44% more disruptions than that which occurred at the beginning of last year.
It’s safe to say that when taking into account that an astounding 25% of all Ethereum workloads in the world run on Amazon Web Services, there should be more than pause for concern. At this moment in time, every single blockchain-based application, whether it’s Bitcoin, Polkadot or Cosmos, is completely powerless without the help of a handful of centralized, internet-based services and infrastructure.
The solution exists
This isn’t to convey pessimism or hopelessness, however, because there are solutions to the problem that can be implemented relatively quickly and without radically overhauling what is already in use. One is to leverage the strength of the internet as it currently stands, enhancing the mechanics that underpin it by focusing on the abundance of nodes and redundancies in data that are already built into the system.
Think of a node as a conduit for channeling the data you rely on. And with a smarter, more dynamic routing protocol that could easily be layered on top of the existing internet, for example, we can more efficiently route transmissions around the nodes that are blocked or congested and, instead, retrieve data from the nodes through which such data can flow more freely.
In addition to this, there’s the issue of resolving underlying security issues. In particular, an examination of the internet’s default routing technology, known as the Border Gateway Protocol, or the BGP, reveals vulnerabilities that are currently being exploited by organized attackers with potentially broad-ranging effects on all forms of internet-based applications. Such attacks are not only increasing in frequency but they also threaten more costly outages and delays.
For example, in April 2018, criminal actors exploited weak points in core internet infrastructure to redirect users of an Ethereum wallet developer’s website to a phishing site. This compromised their account credentials and robbed them of hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of cryptocurrency. It’s complicated, but during the attack, the internet’s authoritative routing servers were corrupted and told to direct traffic to IP addresses owned by the criminal actors instead of the intended IP destination that would normally have been specified by the BGP.
The weakness is rooted in the fact that the BGP was designed when there were far fewer internet users, meaning that its original architects didn’t foresee, understandably so, today’s need to secure the network against so many malicious actors. Thus, this routing protocol is easily manipulated for nefarious ends.
Blockchain is the answer
Blockchain technology, it should be noted, provides a potentially critical solution to this problem. Though IPs could still be hijacked at the lowest level, a blockchain-powered routing layer would allow enterprises to connect their devices and infrastructures via a private network without publishing their IP addresses — the ones bad actors could use to target their particular services. And within this layer, every connection between devices can be encrypted without using the centralized authorities that have been a key vulnerability in current architectures.
Indeed, by more efficiently routing internet data and harnessing the power of blockchain to bolster security, I’m hopeful for new synergies to emerge between the existing web and the nascent decentralized one. It’s only a matter of time, I believe. And when this happens, the sky is the limit for Bitcoin, Ethereum and all the incredible blockchain-based systems being built.
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.
Jonas Simanavicius is the chief technology officer of Syntropy, a San Francisco-based company that focuses on building a programmable internet that delivers novel technologies for making web interactions faster, more reliable and secure for businesses and everyday users. He is responsible for all technology development at the company, including the SDN engine, platform, network and blockchain strategy. Previously, he worked on the engineering teams of Royal Bank of Scotland and JPMorgan Chase.