We are at the dawn of a new era of the internet. Decentralized networks, enabled by the blockchain and its underlying technologies, are in the process of redefining what it means to work, play, and interact in the online world. While there are many companies and blockchain projects racing toward being the first to provide such infrastructure, one organization in particular, DFINITY, has quietly made its way into the conversation – proposing a next-generation internet model that aims to completely turn existing Web 2.0 technologies on its head.
Introducing the DFINITY Foundation
The DFINITY Foundation is a Switzerland-based, not-for-profit organization that is on a mission to develop technology that supports the next generation of the internet. Founded in 2016, DFINITY has research and development centers in some of the most talent- and resource-rich areas of the world, including Palo Alto, San Francisco, Tokyo, and of course, Zurich. With over 200 team members, the organization is led by the charismatic Dominic Williams, who serves as the president and chief Scientist of DFINITY. These days, Williams is playing an active role more than ever, appearing not only as the key spokesperson for DFINITY and the work that it has been tackling, but also globally, most recently appearing alongside Vitalik Buterin (one of the co-founders of Ethereum) and Juan Benet (founder and CEO of Protocol Labs, and creator of FileCoin) at the 2021 Shanghai International Blockchain Week.
In working toward its mission, DFINITY has become the major contributor to the Internet Computer blockchain project. DFINITY believes that “smart contracts” that run on a public blockchain are a vastly superior new form of software – and ultimately, the foundation believes that in the future, internet – all systems and services – can be built using smart contracts and leveraging the underlying infrastructure of the Internet Computer.
What Is the Internet Computer, and How Does It Work?
While today’s internet may appear open and decentralized to the average user, the reality is far from it. Look closely and one can easily see that today’s online world is, in fact, a network of proprietary ecosystems, managed by tech goliaths such as Google and Amazon, among others. These companies, besides providing search results and two-day deliveries, are providing the tech infrastructure for a significant portion of the internet today.
Individuals or companies who want to build a website or internet service currently need to use a proprietary legacy stack, which, according to DFINITY’s Dominic Williams, includes cloud services such as Amazon’s AWS service, as well as other layers like databases, web servers, and more. Access to these services is ultimately controlled by centralized big tech, where the support services and equipment are being provided by one organization. Under such a model, it isn’t difficult to see that as companies continue to build onto these platforms, they become locked in the ecosystem created by the cloud service provider, and eventually fall at their mercy.
The Internet Computer wants to disrupt this – and instead provide a decentralized internet platform that users can build on at any time, without leveraging any of the big-tech infrastructure that the behemoth cloud service providers of today are selling. What is this decentralized internet platform? Say “hello” to the Internet Computer.
The Internet Computer allows users to build directly on the internet itself, and is ultimately a replacement for the proprietary legacy stack that was described earlier. Instead of running on centralized servers provided by cloud providers, the new Internet Computer technology stack runs on independent data centers across the globe in a decentralized capacity – connected via a new internet protocol called “ICP” (Internet Computer Protocol).
The Internet Computer makes this new model of the internet possible through the reimagining of what software looks like. The Internet Computer’s version of software is called “canisters.” At a high level, canisters are interoperable compute units that are an evolution of smart contracts. These canisters provide many features that are currently served by different parts of the legacy tech stack. Because of the way canisters are constructed, users will no longer need to source database servers, web servers, DNS services, or firewalls, among other things, because all these services and functions are provided by the canister itself, and they operate overall in a tamperproof environment. Canisters are also interoperable across programming languages and different systems, making them highly flexible and usable across applications and systems.
Regarding interoperability, suppose that an individual has a flight to catch at LAX late one afternoon. Using the Internet Computer, the person could have their online calendar sync with a ride-sharing platform (e.g. Uber), and automatically arrange for an Uber to arrive three hours before the scheduled flight time to pick up the individual from their home or office. Better yet, if the airline’s flight-scheduling systems were also built on the Internet Computer, changes in flight times due to delays could also help to update the individual’s calendar, cascading into a later pickup time from Uber to match the timing of an inbound flight that is arriving late to LAX.
Without the use of traditional cloud providers, the Internet Computer allows a user to build end-to-end directly on the internet. From websites to enterprise systems, it seems almost anything imaginable can be built on the Internet Computer.
To create new systems or services on the Internet Computer, a user starts with any programming language that can compile down to a WebAssembly canister (e.g. Rust or Motoko, the programming language created by the DFINITY team). When it is ready to be deployed, users upload the canister to the Internet Computer utilizing the ICP protocol. With that, the system/service can start being used online.
The Future of the Internet
DFINITY and its Internet Computer are just getting started. With the Internet Computer’s “mainnet,” or independent blockchain, having only launched in May 2021, a host of other exciting new features and developments is on the foundation’s road map for the foreseeable future.
Many projects speak of decentralization, but the Internet Computer is not only providing the technology to support a decentralized internet model, but also the underlying infrastructure (through its network of independent data centers) to turn this into a reality. Toward the end of 2019, it was reported that more than 60% of Ethereum nodes run on cloud-based servers, a quarter of which run on AWS. This likely is not the vision of decentralization that many are hoping for – making the ambitions of DFINITY and the Internet Computer project all the more critical and important in the months and years to come.
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