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What is the IPFS protocol and why does it matter?

Imagine a high-speed Internet with no buffering that preserves older web pages and ensures governments can no longer take down content. That’s why the IPFS protocol matters to people.

IFPS is a decentralized file-sharing system looking to improve the Internet for future generations. The open-source project offers an alternative to cloud-based storage systems, where our web data is currently stored and monetized by corporations.

With IPFS, you’ll no longer have to rely on slow, vulnerable, and centralized protocols like HTTP, as content will be made available on its peer-to-peer (P2P) networks instead.

Here we’ll look at how IPFS works and why it’s different from other Internet protocols.

illustration of servers

HTTP, HTTPS, and IPFS protocols

Before explaining the difference between HTTP, HTTPS, and IPFS, we need to understand what we mean by ‘protocol’. Essentially, a protocol is a set of rules we use for communication purposes.

Let’s say you travel to Paris on vacation without being able to speak the language. You may make a faux pas (a social blunder) at your favorite bistro if you don’t bring a phrasebook. The protocol requires you to speak French.

But when it comes to the web, there are multiple protocols used for communication purposes — not just language. For most people, the best-known Internet protocols are HTTP and HTTPS.

What is HTTP?

HTTP (HyperText Transfer Protocol) is a communication protocol created by Tim Berners Lee in 1989, and was adopted by most web browsers in 1996.

It’s become the prefix for websites such as http://example.com, which typically defaults to the HTTP protocol.

Typing out ‘www.example.com’ is the same as entering http://www.example.com — your browser adds the prefix for you.

What is HTTPS?

HTTPS (Hypertext transfer protocol secure) is an encrypted version of HTTP and is the primary protocol used to send sensitive data between a browser and a website.

The HTTPS protocol allows you to enter your credit card numbers and login details securely over the Internet.

If you go on Chrome, you may notice that websites without HTTPS are displayed differently. Make sure to check the green padlock in your address bar, as that will show if a website is secure or not.

What is IPFS, and how does it work?

IPFS (InterPlanetary File System) is a peer-to-peer (P2P) distributed file system created by Juan Benet in 2015, and it’s looking to challenge the HTTP-run web.

When you go on a regular website, a centralized server will transmit its text, pictures, and videos to your device using HTTP or HTTPS.

In contrast, IPFS is open source and uses multiple nodes to give you the same information faster. It also saves your bandwidth, allowing you to distribute massive volumes of data without duplication.

IPFS is similar to how BitTorrent (the world’s biggest distributed network) works, which also operates on a peer-to-peer basis.

hedgehog holding up a sign for IPFS

IPFS wants to redesign the Internet

Since the Internet already dominates our lives, from work, entertainment, and communications. Some might ask, why change it now? What’s wrong with it?

Here are a few reasons why IPFS may improve things for users:

  • Increases your browser speed – With IPFS, you’ll enjoy faster speeds as it runs through neighboring nodes instead of accessing data from a centralized location in a far-away place.
  • Saves you money – Since IPFS runs on a decentralized network, you’ll save money, too, as you’ll no longer have to pay for expensive server hosting.
  • Preserves the integrity of older web pages – Ever wondered what happens to your websites when you die? If your site relies on centralized social networks, it can suffer from ‘link rot’ and disappear forever – bringing your memories down with it. With a distributed IPFS system, your website will no longer be at the mercy of a central server as it will operate across a decentralized network instead.
  • Protects your privacy – IPFS crucially makes it more difficult for governments to block websites, such as Wikipedia, as it’s not dependent on central servers like HTTP.

    Molly Mackinlay, IPFS project lead, explains:

“Today, web users across the world are unable to access restricted content, including, for example, parts of Wikipedia in Thailand, over 100,000 blocked websites in Turkey, and critical access to COVID-19 information in China.

Now anyone with an Internet connection can access this critical information through IPFS on the Brave browser.”

Fortune favors the Brave

The Brave browser supports the IPFS protocol, and their 24 million users can now access content from ipfs:// addresses and even host an IPFS node themselves.

Brave believes IPFS helps extend the availability of content, reduces server costs, and improves “the overall resilience of the Internet.”

In an uncertain world, where content is vulnerable to censorship, a decentralized Internet will make it harder for governments to control the web.

Coming to a screen near you

If IPFS’s decentralizing goals are successful, it will have profound implications for the Internet. It’s already made a promising start with Brave, a growing player in the browser market, but the protocol is not on Chrome, which has over one billion users.

Getting on Chrome is IPFS’s biggest challenge to redesigning the web’s architecture as it will take their audience to make that possible.

As with all disruptive technologies, becoming a universal shorthand like HTTP remains the ultimate prize for those longing for real change.

You can access IPFS content by installing Brave, which is available to download today.

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Daniel Agnew

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