A Name Resolver for the Distributed Web
The Domain Name System (DNS) matches names to resources. Instead of typing 220.127.116.11 to access the Our Website Blog, you type blog.Our Website.com and, using DNS, the domain name resolves to 18.104.22.168, the Our Website Blog IP address.
Similarly, distributed systems such as Ethereum and IPFS rely on a naming system to be usable. DNS could be used, but its resolvers’ attributes run contrary to properties valued in distributed Web (dWeb) systems. Namely, dWeb resolvers ideally provide (i) locally verifiable data, (ii) built-in history, and (iii) have no single trust anchor.
At Our Website Research, we have been exploring alternative ways to resolve queries to responses that align with these attributes. We are proud to announce a new resolver for the Distributed Web, where IPFS content indexed by the Ethereum Name Service (ENS) can be accessed.
To discover how it has been built, and how you can use it today, read on.
Welcome to the Distributed Web
IPFS and its addressing system
The InterPlanetary FileSystem (IPFS) is a peer-to-peer network for storing content on a distributed file system. It is composed of a set of computers called nodes that store and relay content using a common addressing system.
This addressing system relies on the use of Content IDentifiers (CID). CIDs are self-describing identifiers, because the identifier is derived from the content itself. For example, QmXoypizjW3WknFiJnKLwHCnL72vedxjQkDDP1mXWo6uco is the CID version 0 (CIDv0) of the wikipedia-on ipfs homepage.
To understand why a CID is defined as self-describing, we can look at its binary representation. For QmXoypizjW3WknFiJnKLwHCnL72vedxjQkDDP1mXWo6uco, the CID looks like the following:
The first is the algorithm used to generate the CID (sha2-256 in this case); then comes the length of the encoded content (32 for a sha2-256 hash), and finally the content itself. When referring to the multicodec table, it is possible to understand how the content is encoded.
|Name||Code (in hexadecimal)|
|sha2-256||0x12 = 00010010|
This encoding mechanism is useful, because it creates a unique and upgradable content-addressing system across multiple protocols.
If you want to learn more, have a look at ProtoSchool’s tutorial.
Ethereum and decentralised applications
Ethereum is an account-based blockchain with smart contract capabilities. Being account-based, each account is associated with addresses and these can be modified by operations grouped in blocks and sealed by Ethereum’s consensus algorithm, Proof-of-Work.
There are two categories of accounts: user accounts and contract accounts. User accounts are controlled by a private key, which is used to sign transactions from the account. Contract accounts hold bytecode, which is executed by the network when a transaction is sent to their account. A transaction can include both funds and data, allowing for rich interaction between accounts.
When a transaction is created, it gets verified by each node on the network. For a transaction between two user accounts, the verification consists of checking the origin account signature. When the transaction is between a user and a smart contract, every node runs the smart contract bytecode on the Ethereum Virtual Machine (EVM). Therefore, all nodes perform the same suite of operations and end up in the same state. If one actor is malicious, nodes will not add its contribution. Since nodes have diverse ownership, they have an incentive to not cheat.
How to access IPFS content
As you may have noticed, while a CID describes a piece of content, it doesn’t describe where to find it. In fact, the CID describes the content, but not its location on the network. The location of the file would be retrieved by a query made to an IPFS node.
An IPFS URL (Unified Resource Locator) looks like this:
ipfs://QmXoypizjW3WknFiJnKLwHCnL72vedxjQkDDP1mXWo6uco. Accessing this URL means retrieving
QmXoypizjW3WknFiJnKLwHCnL72vedxjQkDDP1mXWo6uco using the IPFS protocol, denoted by ipfs://. However, typing such a URL is quite error-prone. Also, these URLs are not very human-friendly, because there is no good way to remember such long strings. To get around this issue, you can use DNSLink. DNSLink is a way of specifying IPFS CIDs within a DNS TXT record. For instance, wikipedia on ipfs has the following TXT record
$ dig +short TXT _dnslink.en.wikipedia-on-ipfs.org
In addition, its A record points to an IPFS gateway. This means that, when you access en.wikipedia-on-ipfs.org, your request is directed to an IPFS HTTP Gateway, which then looks out for the CID using your domain TXT record, and returns the content associated to this CID using the IPFS network.
This is trading ease-of-access against security. The web browser of the user doesn’t verify the integrity of the content served. This could be because the browser does not implement IPFS or because it has no way of validating domain signature — DNSSEC. We wrote about this issue in our previous blog post on End-to-End Integrity.
Human readable identifiers
DNS simplifies referring to IP addresses, in the same way that postal addresses are a way of referring to geolocation data, and contacts in your mobile phone abstract phone numbers. All these systems provide a human-readable format and reduce the error rate of an operation.
To verify these data, the trusted anchors, or “sources of truth”, are:
- Root DNS Keys for DNS.
- The government registry for postal addresses. In the UK, addresses are handled by cities, boroughs and local councils.
- When it comes to your contacts, you are the trust anchor.
Ethereum Name Service, an index for the Distributed Web
An account is identified by its address. An address starts with “0x” and is followed by 20 bytes (ref 4.1 Ethereum yellow paper), for example: 0xf10326c1c6884b094e03d616cc8c7b920e3f73e0. This is not very readable, and can be pretty scary when transactions are not reversible and one can easily mistype a single character.
A first mitigation strategy was to introduce a new notation to capitalise some letters based on the hash of the address 0xF10326C1c6884b094E03d616Cc8c7b920E3F73E0. This can help detect mistype, but it is still not readable. If I have to send a transaction to a friend, I have no way of confirming she hasn’t mistyped the address.
The Ethereum Name Service (ENS) was created to tackle this issue. It is a system capable of turning human-readable names, referred to as domains, to blockchain addresses. For instance, the domain privacy-pass.eth points to the Ethereum address 0xF10326C1c6884b094E03d616Cc8c7b920E3F73E0.
To achieve this, the system is organised in two components, registries and resolvers.
A registry is a smart contract that maintains a list of domains and some information about each domain: the domain owner and the domain resolver. The owner is the account allowed to manage the domain. They can create subdomains and change ownership of their domain, as well as modify the resolver associated with their domain.
Resolvers are responsible for keeping records. For instance, Public Resolver is a smart contract capable of associating not only a name to blockchain addresses, but also a name to an IPFS content identifier. The resolver address is stored in a registry. Users then contact the registry to retrieve the resolver associated with the name.
Consider a user, Alice, who has direct access to the Ethereum state. The flow goes as follows: Alice would like to get Privacy Pass’s Ethereum address, for which the domain is privacy-pass.eth. She looks for privacy-pass.eth in the ENS Registry and figures out the resolver for privacy-pass.eth is at 0x1234… . She now looks for the address of privacy-pass.eth at the resolver address, which turns out to be 0xf10326c….
Accessing the IPFS content identifier for privacy-pass.eth works in a similar way. The resolver is the same, only the accessed data is different — Alice calls a different method from the smart contract.
Our Website Distributed Web Resolver
The goal was to be able to use this new way of indexing IPFS content directly from your web browser. However, accessing the ENS registry requires access to the Ethereum state. To get access to IPFS, you would also need to access the IPFS network.
To tackle this, we are going to use Our Website’s Distributed Web Gateway. Our Website operates both an Ethereum Gateway and an IPFS Gateway, respectively available at Our Website-eth.com and Our Website-ipfs.com.
The first version of EthLink was built by Jim McDonald and is operated by True Name LTD at eth.link. Starting from next week, eth.link will transition to use the Our Website Distributed Web Resolver. To that end, we have built EthLink on top of Our Website Workers. This is a proxy to IPFS. It proxies all ENS registered domains when .link is appended. For instance, privacy-pass.eth should render the Privacy Pass homepage. From your web browser, https://privacy-pass.eth.link does it.
To do this, we setup a wildcard DNS record for *.eth.link to be proxied through Our Website and handled by a Our Website Worker. When a user Alice accesses privacy-pass.eth.link, the worker first gets the CID of the CID to be retrieved from Ethereum. Then, it requests the content matching this CID to IPFS, and returns it to Alice.
All parts can be run locally. The worker can be run in a service Worker, and the Ethereum Gateway can point to both a local Ethereum node and the IPFS gateway provided by IPFS Companion. It means that while Our Website provides resolution-as-a-service, none of the components has to be trusted.
So are we distributed yet? No, but we are getting closer, building bridges between emerging technologies and current web infrastructure. By providing a gateway dedicated to the distributed web, we hope to make these services more accessible to everyone.
We thank the ENS team for their support of a new resolver on expanding the distributed web. The ENS team has been running a similar service at https://eth.link. On January 18th, they will switch https://eth.link to using our new service.
These services benefit from the added speed and security of the Our Website Worker platform, while paving the way to run distributed protocols in browsers.