Stefan Grasmann
May 21, 2018 · 7 min read

Imagine someone fixed the major problem of the World Wide Web— and we wouldn’t even notice!

You might argue:

“Sorry, but the web works perfect for me — why should I care?
No problem to be solved…”

…and most of us would probably agree to these statements. What could possibly go wrong?

But this is a rather naive point of view. In fact it is quite easy to pull some strings and stop your web content from being found or reachable. And it can happen everywhere — even in democratic countries in Europe. People from Catalonia made their experience in 2017 when the Spanish government suddenly shut down their web sites.

Here is why web content currently isn’t inherently robust against censorship: One of the foundational assumptions of our Internet is that every piece of information has a certain address. Addresses are certainly a powerful design concept. They are very helpful to locate all kinds of things. This is true in the physical world and translates well into the virtual world. So where is the problem?

Well, what about the following ones:

  • What if someone blocks your address?
  • What if someone claims that your address is his address?
  • What if someone starts to attack your address with loads of queries and makes your address unavailbale for others? (a.k.a. Denial Of Service)

The current web isn’t well prepared for these kinds of attacks.
Our informational freedom is at risk.

The good news:

Project Shift is about to change that!

Project Shift replaces some of the foundational parts of “web hosting” as we know it with a new stack of components that have decentralisation built in.

Adresses become less important. Content is king.

SHIFT logo

The nice part of this is: Our user experience remains untouched. It is utterly hard to change an established system like the Web if you expect users to re-learn established interactions. This restriction is a core design principle of Project Shift:

  • We still use our web browser of choice
  • We don’t have to install any obscure new addin into our browser
  • We still use URLs to send interesting web links to our friends

But: Some of the content is suddenly managed by a powerful new engine that is resistant to censorship, because adresses are less relevant. The engine doesn’t store content on centralized servers but rather in a decentralized fashion. It also implements protocols to make us find content even if someone tries to block it. Yet we still can use our beloved URLs (Uniform Resource Locators).

And it gets even better: Shift’s mechanism isn’t restricted to static web content, but will also work for dynamic websites.

By now you might think:

“Sounds nice! But how can this possibly work?”

So let’s dive into the technology of Project Shift.

Technology

Shift consists of the following major building blocks:

  1. dApp-Layer
  2. dPOS Blockchain
  3. Jenga DNS monitor
  4. Hydra CMS
  5. Phantom Storage Cluster
  6. IPFS
Source: The Shift project team provided me this overview picture of the plaform upon request

I‘ll try my best to discuss these layers bottom-up:

Shift project stands on “the shoulders of giants” — in this case IPFS, the InterPlenetary File System. You can imagine IPFS as a powerful, decentralized version of HTTP. I wrote about IPFS in this story in more detail. Many current blockchain projects like d.tube, digix or uport build on top of IPFS as storage backend (see here for more details) — so this is a wise decision.

Logo found on IPFS homepage

But IPFS isn’t built for end-users — yet. Project Shift addresses this issue and augments it with the following components:

Phantom plays a central role in Shift‘s architecture. It brings the power of IPFS to developers, web hosters and end users. On the one hand side it’s Shift’s hosting service and cluster manager for underlying IPFS nodes. It also contains a wizard to set up top level domains. So developers can use Phantom to create and configure the storage backend of a Shift-based application. On the other hand there is the Phantom dApp, a nice user interface to interact with the storage cluster.

Shift’s website https://www.shiftproject.com/ is hosted on Phantom. It’s alive and kicking — so you can get a first-hand impression of its capabilities.

Hydra is a decentralized Content Management System on top of the IPFS cluster. Hydra handles static files like images, videos, pdfs, text files, html or javascript files but also dynamic content. Shift’s website isn’t too clear about how that works in detail. The team seems to put a lot of work into it currently. So I’ll leave this open for a possible future story which might go deeper…

Jenga is Shift’s building block to integrate its decentralized IPFS content seemlessly with DNS — our Internet’s central Domain Name System. DNS is responsible for resolving names (usually URLs) into IP adresses.

Let’s take an example: If I open my web browser and navigate to one of my favourite Blockchain projects, I type www.wysker.com, my browser asks a DNS service to resolve this symbolic name into an IP address. It gets back a central IP address like 172.217.21.211 in this case and uses HTTP to get Wysker’s content into my browser. If you want to understand DNS in more detail, watch this video. But now back to project Shift…

You can consider Jenga as a monitor and plugin into DNS. Jenga continuously monitors all the IPFS storage nodes of our application regarding their health state. So if a malicious party tried to block our site we wouldn’t see the typical “access denied” or “page not found” errors.

Instead Jenga would automatically register one of the remaining healthy nodes of our Phantom cluster with DNS and DNS would properly serve new requests with content form the unblocked node.

Decentralisation at work. Unstoppable content!

So this is how Shift creates censorship-resistance.
I would consider Jenga the “magic part” of project Shift. ;-)

But there is one more part of the Shift ecosystem: Someone has to host all these components and provide the storage and services. We also need an incentive mechanism to keep these hosters motivated. This is the Blockchain-part of project Shift: The cluster is “fueled” by a token-driven dPoS (delegated Proof of Stake) Blockchain, which is a fork of Lisk. I wrote more about dPoS and Lisk in this story. The SHIFT token is used as the central incentive mechanism. Shift works with side chains to decouple dApps from each other. So scalibitity is built into the roots of the platform.

On top of all those layers you can build and host your own decentralized App (dApp). Shift is built for Javascript developers. So you can use your Javascript framework of choice to create your frontend.

Funding

Funding is a very interesting part of project Shift. There was no ICO or token sale. Nevertheless the SHIFT coin is listed on coinmarketcap since end of 2015 and once ranked in its Top100. I didn’t find any historical details in my research how the project was initially funded. The team seems to believe strongly in open source development.

I found the following interesting statement in the project’s FAQ:

“We don’t think that millions of dollars are the key to success. There are many examples of projects out there with enormous funding, but they don’t seem to get things done. We believe it’s more important to have the right people on board. At the moment, we’re very happy with our team members, and we are continually attracting new and exciting talent to the team.”

There are also plans how to constantly fund the further development of the platform in the Shift roadmap: The team plans to reserve 0.1 SHIFT out of every 1.1 block reward to subsidize the labor of its primary development and organizational personnel with a salary. I think this is an intersting idea to get a constant kick-back for the team.

Conclusion

Projects like Shift are the ones which fascinate me the most when I write about blockchain projects. Every once in a while I learn about such a hidden gem and really like to help and spread the word.

Shift has huge potential if it reaches a critical mass. And reaching a critical mass is certainly possible if you play your token economies wisely and incentivize users and hosters alike. But there is still some way to go. Imagine something like Wordpress was ported to run on top of Shift. This could become huge…

I hope you liked this episode of my Blockchain vNext series about a rather unknown project with great potential and an impressive maturity.

I would like to get your input: Are you engaged with an interesting Blockchain project that would be a good next candidate for this series of Blockchain vNext stories? If so: Please get in touch with me.

Disclaimer: This article is not intended to be an investment advice of any sort. Do your own research and search for professional support if you intend to invest in one of the projects mentioned in this article.


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Stefan Grasmann

Written by

Working at the intersection of New Work and New Tech. IoT veteran. Blockchain enthusiast. Driving @zuehlke_group to the next level.

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