Internxt, Sia, Storj: Blockchain Decentralized Cloud Storage

Blockchain’s strengths have a flip side.
Odin Odin (54)
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Blockchain has become a buzzword during the last decade, a term that for many is just so much technobabble. But blockchain technology is here to stay and it is steadily expanding to corner larger portions of the data market, including cloud storage solutions.

Google, for instance, uses a massive amount of meta-data attached to your data to create new software, serve you advertisements, and increase their monopoly over various portions of the tech sector. They’re an advertising company, so it makes sense that this is what they’re doing, but most users don’t realize that this is happening (or realize it but don’t understand it well enough to know why they should care). Besides, where is the competition? Dropbox, one of the largest names in the industry, costs a large chunk of monthly change and data within Dropbox isn’t encrypted in such a way that only the uploader can access it!

Cost, privacy, and security are elements where providers of new decentralized cloud storage say they excel… but is this true? We need to consider **the difference between decentralization and distribution. A distributed network is fairly common, this just means that data is being distributed across more than one location. Decentralized (generally speaking in this case) means that your data is not passing through a middle-man. There absolutely are projects that allow for true decentralized file sharing, but these are sometimes a bit more complicated to set up and operate than an average Dropbox subscription. Plenty of other “blockchain” cloud storage systems just use blockchain as a sort of pointer for where the data is being stored, and the system is ultimately controlled by a single actor (such as a company). Understanding which is which can be tricky.

The pros of blockchain and decentralized storage

The pros of blockchain and decentralized storage
The pros of blockchain and decentralized storage

Decentralized and distributed data storage is very likely here to stay, and blockchain storage is likely to become one of the main “blocks” upon which that decentralization takes place. It offers some native strengths, such as redundancy, data transparency, and potential for far better storage to cost ratios than are offered by traditional storage providers.

  • Redundancy: Most blockchain storage providers use a technique where uploaded information is split into “shards” and distributed to a number of data storage locations around the world. These shards are all encrypted and need to be recombined to form the whole, which can only by accomplished using the data-owner’s private key. The information itself lives on the various nodes while the blockchain records a unique identifier for that information. This means that when you upload your data it’s actually getting stored in multiple locations around the world, so if a disaster strikes on one place it’s unlikely to effect your data.

  • Data transparency: Everything that happens on the blockchain stays on the blockchain, that’s the whole point of the system. Every “transaction” to or from the blockchain (every time data is uploaded or downloaded) leaves a signature called a “hash” on the blockchain code, a unique combination of symbols that represents that unique data (and there are a huge range of things that go into creating this unique hash). This means that it’s very hard to fool the blockchain into thinking something has happened if it hasn’t really happened — if data is sent, anywhere, then the blockchain records that.

  • Security: most decentralized platforms use powerful public key cryptography systems that ensure zero-knowledge encryption. Only you can unlock your data and see what’s inside. The process sometimes referred to as “sharding” also comes into play; your data is spread out across a bunch of hosting servers as chunks of the original and a complete copy is never stored remotely, so even if one of these chunks were decrypted somehow, it would only be a useless collection of partial data. The original only becomes useful when it’s recombined with your key. Finally, these systems rely on other features to ensure that your data remains intact even if a number of hosts were to go offline — you actually only need a small percentage of hosts available to recombine your data and access it.

  • Storage to cost: This form of storage usually spreads out the storage space across many different nodes. These are people and organizations around the world that provide storage space in some form. Shards are downloaded into their storage whenever the blockchain says it should be, and then can be requested at any point in time. A complex set of features ensures that these providers maintain the data, and the innate encryption features of the shard process ensure that your data remains secure. Because data is split like this, no single provider needs to host a huge data server to store your information. This distributes the cost across a huge group of providers and lowers the ultimate end cost to you, the user.

Cons of blockchain and decentralized storage

Cons of blockchain and decentralized storage
Cons of blockchain and decentralized storage

There are a bunch of potential cons to using decentralized storage that need to be seriously considered before implementing this method of storing your data. These come in a number of areas, but specifically relate to the lifetime of a decentralized service, the speed of a decentralized service, and “the right to be forgotten” which creates inherent difficulties with blockchain technology.

Decentralized storage relies on a large network of active nodes — those users who are offering a portion of their available storage capacity to host shards from the network. Most decentralized storage providers use some form of cryptocurrency option to pay these users and provide them with an incentive to maintain high quality servers (with consistent “uptime” or availability). But that doesn’t mean that these providers won’t vanish. Unless enough people remain excited about a service, or the rewards are significant and consistent enough to merit continued hosting, it’s entirely possible the providers will vanish from the system. That doesn’t mean your data would be lost… right away, but if enough of those providers were to vanish then the whole infrastructure would break down.

Likewise, the system relies upon providers who can offer solid hosting, and that means speed. Decentralized cloud services can be slower than traditional ones if their network isn’t filled with providers who offer fast always accessible nodes within the network. They can also be potentially a lot faster because they might be relying on nodes that are far closer to your physical location than would normally be the case, as well as using multiple such nodes simultaneous to download data--so it’s not a cut and dry issue.

One of the largest issues that can frustrate potential users is the limitation of the right to be forgotten from the blockchain. Blockchains ensure security by making it so that every “block” of data relies on another block to exist. Some efforts have gone towards solving this problem, however it’s largely unclear from the perspective of an average user if their request for complete data deletion will be (or even can be) honored by the blockchain.

What I cover in this article are some of the top distributed blockchain providers.

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Sia
Sia

TLDR; One of the oldest attempts at providing decentralized cloud storage via blockchain, Sia does its job well and is respected within the industry, but it’s more complicated to set up and operate than an ordinary user will want to deal with.

The idea behind Sia was to disrupt the cloud storage monopolies by getting rid of the need for any sort of middleman broker. A user who needs cloud storage space could use the Sia platform to contract directly with a provider in the world. Using a unique backup system, Sia provides users with a means of ensuring their data is always safe, easily accessible at top speeds, and is purchased at a cost that beats out all the high-end competition.

Overall, Sia is actually pretty great but it’s not for the faint of heart. If you’re an experienced techhie looking for a data storage solution, Sia is something you should totally explore. The community behind Sia has proved by this point that this is not just another blockchain catchphrase project, but something that really does have the dedication and collective will to succeed. But it’s a work-in-progress system and users who expect a simple “sign up and use” experience will probably need to sit back and prepare themselves for a bit of a learning curve.

Sia also doesn’t currently have any mobile apps at the moment which will be a dealbreaker for many. There are, however, neat linked projects like SiaStream that allow for ultra low-cost secure storage and streaming solutions for media (optimized for Plex), making Sia a special case for low-cost media storage.

My experience

I love the idea behind Sia and I think the project is great, as a whole. Due to the lack of simple multi-platform software that handles things with a nice GUI (there is a desktop program with a graphical user interface but that’s it), it’s just too much work to deal with and my needs are more simple than what this is intended for. I liken this to projects like FileCoin and Swarm, all of which are superb but none of which have quite reached the level of mass appeal yet.

Internxt
Internxt

TLDR; Despite Internxt’s high-minded advertising, members in the privacy community remain skeptical, in part because Internxt pushes their product in a slightly skeevy manner.

Internxt offers great deals on storage, from its basic 2GB (free forever) plan, to various other seemingly generous hosting plans (including a “lifetime” plan that costs about $400 for 2TB of data space). On its face, this all seems great. They’re a growing company trying to leverage a new technology in a competitive market.

However, users around the Internet and especially those on privacy-centered Reddit forums, have raised numerous concerns about the company’s ability to provide the services it says it wants to offer, as well as regarding various unfortunate advertising campaigns made by the company. Poor promotion standards are not necessarily a reason to egg a service, but they are an indication that something isn’t as polished as it should be, and when you’re relying on a service to protect your valuable data you really need to make sure there’s trust between you and the provider.

There are further concerns that users online have raised about the founder of the company.

My experience

I tried out Internxt just as they were transitioning to a new app design so I got to experience both their earlier design and their newer. There’s totally an improvement, speeds seemed reasonable to me (I uploaded and downloaded a 1GB video file in comparable time to what Google Drive would have taken). But note that my testing of the service beyond that was pretty limited. Where I ran into real trouble was when I contacted the company and asked them to delete my account — something they told me they could not do.

The message from Internxt
The message Internxt sent me.

They offered me a workaround but that was supremely unsatisfactory. I don’t know why this issue happened (but my guess is that it’s because lost users would deflate the current user number that the company can leverage for backing), and I can’t say 100% if all the criticisms I found were accurate, but I do know that I found it worrying and certainly wouldn’t store important data through this service.

Storj
Storj

TLDR; Storj is probably the best bet for a true alternative to the major cloud storage providers. They’re focused on “trustless” security, too, which is the buzzphrase of the day in security circles, and they do a good job of protecting your data. That said, their focus on providing a cloud space for developers means they’re not super easy to work with for a normal user.

A hundred and fifty free GB of storage is noting to laugh at, and Storj provides that upfront for new users. With a clean and simple web interface, Storj provides the closest in terms of reliable service for any of these platforms at an extremely reasonable cost.

Storj is a powerful decentralized system that focuses on matching the ease-of-use of big cloud storage providers like Amazon, at a lower cost, with far greater security. Your data gets split, distributed, and stored all around the globe using advanced cryptographic security measures. There’s a lot to love here from both a security and privacy standpoint. Even cooler* Storj’s core code is open source, allowing a number of potential apps to be built by anyone to access the data — that way you’re not beholden to any one group who might change permissions or raise costs for access.

My experience

Storj is fast, simple, and friendly enough to a non-developer like me that I could probably use it to store files like those from my video projects quite easily. That said, the lack of Andorid apps for the Storj system cuts this off at the knees as an everyday replacement to something like Dropbox.

Which road should the average user take?
Which road should the average user take?

There are a lot more options than just these three but there’s a reason why these platforms have yet to take off: they’re new. Some of these projects are extremely legit and functional, with a cost and power that threatens to totally topple the monopoly that the tech giants have on cloud infrastructure. At the same time, there a dozens of pop-up companies that are promising things that are too good to be true.

A good reminder when you’re exploring these hosting options is to take note of any time buzzwords are used. Military-grade encryption, blockchain security, etc., are all phrases that don’t necessarily mean much on their own--they just look cool.

Blockchain isn’t as difficult to understand as some might think, but neither is it a simple thing to grasp, and it comes with potential complications. If it’s not understood well, it’s easy for people to fall prey to potential scams, or, even if using a legitimate service, to mishandle their own security and lose their data or open themselves up to bad actors on the net.

This isn’t to say that blockchain-based, or otherwise decentralized cloud storage isn’t something to consider. It’s likely that this sort of technology will go on to revolutionize how we experience the internet in time.

Projects like MaidSafe’s Safe Network have the ability to fundamentally alter the balance of power on the internet, revitalizing human communication and interaction. So do projects like Sia, Storj, and Filecoin in their own ways. But for the average use I recommend sticking with one of the traditional secure file storage providers I write about here, or using BoxCryptor or a similar product to encrypt the files that will be stored on a classic provider like Dropbox.

File encryption and security is vitally important and you always want to approach this with a “trust no one” perspective, but don’t let your search for alternatives to the brand names lead you down a rabbit hole that doesn’t solve the problem at hand.

Some of these tech gadgets went obsolete and some we still use today!
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The 2000s were a decade of insane technological advancement.