Blockchain is a computing revolution. Distributed ledger technology has evolved from a single platform for money transfers into multiple bulging databases. They contain not only code for smart contracts and dapps, but the log of every single interaction.
It's no surprise then that, two decades after it began indexing the web, Google has begun to do the same with blockchains. Since at least 2016, its big-data analytics platform, BigQuery, has been quietly indexing data from Bitcoin, Ethereum, Ripple and more. Now, tools have been added, allowing researchers to explore user demographics and gain insight into economic activities, exposing how blockchains are actually being used and, more controversially, by whom. Researchers and developers are enraptured by the opportunities presented: to shed light on everything from transaction flows to vulnerabilities in smart contracts and how many people are paying to watch porn. But libertarians say that Google is the decentralized bogeyman, and its proprietary and centralized nature will ruin the very thing it's trying to map. One company thinks it can provide the same searchability of Google, without sealing off the tools behind an IP-protected paywall.
Fluence, a decentralized data processing engine, is developing an open source database that will allow developers to build, deploy and run different kinds of search indexes for blockchain and other decentralized data (like IPFS or Swarm). Decrypt caught up with the startup’s co-founder and CEO, Evgeny Ponomarev via Telegram. The key, he told us, is that Fluence’s platform is made of the same stuff as blockchains; it has decentralization at its core.
“Google is using a traditional cloud services model—they develop proprietary software that works with open data, then they give paid access to this software,” explained Ponomarev.
Fluence, he believes, has a better solution and its free: “Because of the decentralization, our platform works like blockchains themselves—the data processing tools might be created by anybody and be uploaded to Fluence. Everybody else can reuse it and the innovation might happen faster in comparison to proprietary solutions.”
Beyond reading data from blockchains
Launched in 2017, Fluence has built a team of developers in Russia, Berlin, and San Francisco. “We recognized that one of the basic needs of every dapp is retrieving blockchain data. And this was (and is) a pretty complex and challenging task,” says Ponomarev.
In order to tackle it, Fluence has raised $2 million from investors to date, including 1kx, Dekrypt, and INBlockchain. The amount seems like a drop in the ocean, compared to Google’s bulging coffers—especially as Fluence’s ultimate goal is to disrupt Google’s proprietary, cloud-based backend and search index, or database, to create a fully-decentralized Web 3.0.
“Fluence’s scope goes way beyond reading data from blockchains,” says Lasse Clausen, a founding partner at 1kx, one of the company’s investors. “Their vision is to set up a decentralized data storage and processing infrastructure which would allow for running various databases and search indexes in a trustless fashion. This makes it much easier [to] build real-time applications for massive user adoption.”
While other projects, like Storj, Sia or Filecoin already operate in the decentralized storage space, Ponomarev describes Fluence as more than “a decentralized Dropbox.” The platform is designed for storing structured data, not just raw files, and works as a traditional database. Storage owners are incentivized with tokens to store the data published to Fluence, and developers can index and build on it.
“Some developers might publish the search index for the Ethereum blockchain, other people may build a wallet SDK [software development kit] on top of it, then dapp developers might use it right away,” explains Ponomarev.
To enable this, the infrastructure Fluence is developing has three layers: the Fluence platform provides core network connectivity, code running, and systems verification. On top of this, search indexes, on a par with Google’s BigQuery, are developed by Fluence as well as other developers. Finally, community-made end-user applications, such as meta-search engines (and those analogous to Google itself), crypto wallets, decentralized exchanges and more are built, together with apps to retrieve and consume blockchain data.
Unprecedented opportunity to innovate
Google has never disclosed how its search engines prioritize content when they throw up search results. “Users have no ability to verify or query results,” says Ponomarev. “It’s not transparent, it can exclude at will; it’s a blackbox.”
He believes that having so much information held centrally by a single company is a huge risk and compromises the decentralization of dapps. “Blockchains are limited today, they are forced to use centralized backends and databases, reducing the decentralization aspect of the dapps,” he says. “Unless this is fixed, the ground-breaking potential of blockchain technologies will be compromised.”
Fluence is working on the premise that open services, powered by crypto networks, will present an unprecedented opportunity for a new generation of developers and entrepreneurs to innovate and aims to unlock new use cases. In January, to better understand the needs and growing pains of its core customer base, Fluence published its Dapp Survey Results 2019.
There are manifold challenges attached. “Decentralized platforms are some of the most complex systems that software developers build,” says Ponomarev. “This is all new, so it creates lots of technical and mechanism design challenges. Because everyone can join the network and participate, we have to deal with lots of uncertainty; [consider] and prevent any possible attacks or other malicious behavior.”
A question of religion
There are no open internet services today that come close to the complexity or utility of dominant closed ones. Up to now, blockchain transaction history has only been searchable with specialized block explorer software, which allows a user to peer through a “window,” exposing a section of the blockchain.
In contrast, Google’s BigQuery allows large swathes of data from multiple blockchains to be correlated and analyzed.
Researchers have been busy uploading their own data onto Google’s system. Dutch developer, Wietse Wind has uploaded Ripple’s entire transaction history and Polish researcher, Tomasz Kolinko has combined BigQuery with his own software to better expose vulnerabilities in smart contracts.
As the utility of Google’s system increases, its user base will also expand. By providing a much-needed bridge from the decentralized world to the entirely centralized one, BigQuery could speed along adoption of a technology that’s still woefully misunderstood.
But that comes at a big price. Decentralization is not the only facet of blockchains that will be compromised; BigQuery’s leading developer, Allen Day believes that, in order to go mainstream, blockchain users will have to forego some of their anonymity.
Is being able to search and index blockchains to further the tech worth the price? It’s a billion dollar question and will come down to whether researchers, developers, and users want Google to impose its search-monopoly on a knowledge base designed to be decentralized.
“This is kind of a religious question,” says Ponomarev. “We believe that eventually all the web infrastructure will be updated to decentralized solutions because they bring more transparency, data sovereignty and robustness. We target dapp developers as people who have already recognized the benefits of building on decentralized infrastructure.”
But tech influencers caution that this is not enough. “They need to scale fast, raise capital and exit as [it’s] game over [by] 2023,” banking and technology expert Thomas Power, told Decrypt. “Big Tech will steal it all.”
Ponomarev is not immune to the danger posed by having an internet giant skulking on its doorstep:
‘Well, of course, when you hear such news from a big corporation, your first reaction is ‘oh shit.’ But it is more a good sign for us—we understand that we target a different market at this moment and having a big player moving [in a] similar way gives us confidence that we are working on the right thing.”
But are they working fast enough? Time is running out, and not just for Fluence.