Among the high-performance computers discussed at MIT Technology Review’s Future Compute 2021, perhaps the most unusual was something simply called the Internet Computer. It’s being built by the DFINITY Foundation.
Structurally, it’s a blockchain, but what makes it unique, according to Dominic Williams, (above), founder and chief scientist of DFINITY, is that it runs faster than most blockchain, at web speed, and it’s a boundless blockchain, able to increase its capacity without limits. If it’s launched as planned later this year and it meets the goals set for it, it might actually earn the nickname it has acquired by some, the Cloud 3.0.
Crunchbase—a platform that lists company, investor, and funding data for innovative concerns—describes the plans DFINITY has for its computer: “DFINITY’s mission…[is] to transform the public internet into a powerful decentralized cloud to host the next-generation of software and services. The Internet Computer is being built by the industry’s leading team of distributed systems and cryptography experts, across several centers around the world, and backed by investors such as Andreesen Horowitz and Polychain Capital.” The foundation’s three major centers are in Palo Alto and San Francisco, Calif., and Zurich, Switzerland, and the total initial funding in August 2018 was $195 million.
The goals for the Internet Computer are expansive and impressive. The computer will “complete the blockchain trinity,” according to Williams.
(The term “DeFi” under the central Ethereum symbol is short for “decentralized finance.”)
This third stage, or “third invention,” will run at web speed at the internet’s edge (the edge of the cloud), and DFINITY expects that by removing critical usability issues and troublesome intermediaries from its blockchain, it’ll build “a richer open internet that beats out mega monopolies running today in private clouds.” The overall goal is “to build a public utility that grows exponentially with builders, with systems and services that are secure by default and preserve privacy, and that offer open internet services with tokenized governance systems.”
Williams is a crypto theoretician, and he founded DFINITY in 2016. He is currently supported by an international cast of 129 distributed computing engineers, cryptographers, and operational experts. On December 18, 2020, as promised, DFINITY launched the mainnet of its Internet Computer. (The term “mainnet” describes when a blockchain protocol is complete and deployed.)
Blockchain news source Cointelegraph reported, “The mainnet is currently running on nodes held in seven independent data centers across the United States, Germany and Switzerland. The subnet controlling the Network Nervous System [open algorithmic governance system] has produced around 400,000 blocks since the December 18 launch and is in the process of onboarding 896 nodes by the Genesis transition…. [T]he current futures price of over $21 on ICP [Internet Computer Protocol] governance tokens would put Dfinity just outside the top five digital assets by market cap. While that may still be on hold for now, this massive undertaking has just passed another major milestone”.
While that’s a somewhat technical overview of the network and the relative value of the tokens it’s generating, TechCrunch was a little more direct in its evaluation of the technology. In an article in late August 2018, their reporters predicted, “Since blockchain technology appeared, there has been a persistent problem in its development: how to make it scale to billions of users. Bitcoin was famously never really designed for this, and today other platforms like Ethereum are also struggling. If you could crack this problem, the thinking goes, you’d end up with the hottest property in blockchain right now.” DFINITY is on its way to establishing what it claims will be a boundless blockchain.
DESIGN AND USES
The explanations of the DFINITY computer/blockchain can get opaque pretty quickly, so for just a quick look at the architecture and some of the uses for its Internet Computer, here are two slides from a Williams presentation of the system.
The internet uses Internet Protocol, rules that control the format of data sent over its networks, and the DFINITY computer sits atop that layer with its own decentralized protocol (Internet Computer Protocol) “that independent data centers around the world run to combine the power of individual computers into an unstoppable seamless universe where internet native software is hosted and run with the same security guarantees as smart contracts.” The system uses the international domain name system and can deliver content to web browsers and smartphones.
The applications for this kind of network are broad.
According to DFINITY, “Many will use the Internet Computer to reduce complexity when building websites and enterprise systems without the need for legacy technologies such as cloud services, databases, and firewalls. Entrepreneurs and developers will take advantage of the emerging ‘open internet boom’ to create pan-industry platforms, DeFi apps, and open internet services by building reimaged software directly on the public internet.” This will happen on the public internet where open internet services can “run on the network itself rather than on servers owned by Facebook, Google or Amazon,”according to MIT Technology Review.
THE EVOLVING INTERNET
A quick scan of the internet landscape today displays offerings now from cloud, edge, and fog computing, on public or private platforms. And now appearing on the horizon are two even more dramatic computing possibilities—DFINITY’s Internet Computer and quantum internets both fluttering “Coming Soon” tags in the network winds. DFINITY says it will launch later this year, and some quantum networks are already operational over relatively short distances. Considering its very modest beginnings as the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET) messaging utility in the late 1960s, the internet has made planet-sized strides and shows few signs of slowing down.