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Decentralized data storage is emerging as a potential disruptor to centralized cloud storage and could represent a significant shift in the way organizations distribute and store data in the future. Numerous companies already offer decentralized storage options, some of which use blockchain technology to facilitate storage operations and validate transactions across a distributed network.
With decentralized storage, data is encrypted and stored across multiple locations, or nodes, that are run by individuals or organizations that share their extra disk space for a fee. Only the data's owner holds the encryption key; storage providers cannot access the data. In many cases, the files are also sharded and spread across multiple locations, providing yet another layer of security.
Decentralized data storage products often use blockchain to track storage transactions. Blockchain is a distributed ledger technology that can automatically synchronize and validate storage transactions across distributed nodes. The blockchain ledger might record shard hashes, data locations, leasing costs or other transaction-specific information. Blockchain can also match users looking for storage with hosts that are offering it.
Decentralized storage has been gaining traction in recent years, and numerous options are already on the market. Most of these products rely on blockchain to support their storage strategies, including three of the four we cover below. However, blockchain and decentralized storage are not one in the same, and one can exist without the other. Here are four up-and-coming decentralized data storage products to consider.
Filecoin is widely known for having had one of the largest initial coin offerings of all time, raising $257 million in 2017. Filecoin is a peer-to-peer (P2P) network service that uses blockchain and native cryptocurrency to deliver storage services. The cryptocurrency, referred to as FIL, supports all transactions. Users pay FIL to store their files, and "miners," or storage nodes, earn FIL to store the files. The blockchain ledger records the transactions and provides proof that miners are storing files correctly. Filecoin is built on the Interplanetary File System, a P2P hypermedia protocol designed to address some of the limitations of using HTTP for distributed storage.
Filecoin pricing is not controlled by any single company; instead, it is an open market in which anyone can participate. Although this offers greater flexibility, it can make it difficult for organizations working within specific storage budgets, especially when trying to calculate "gas fees," which are charges for resources consumed by messages.
Filecoin has only recently gone live, and many of its features are still under development. For example, there are three types of miners -- storage, retrieval and repair -- but repair has yet to be implemented. In addition, Filecoin does not include a built-in mechanism for ensuring data redundancy. The only way to ensure redundancy is to store data with multiple miners. Lotus, the first alternate Filecoin implementation offered by the company, works only on Linux and macOS computers, not Windows.
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MaidSafe and the Safe Network
MaidSafe is a small team of individuals who are building the Safe Network, an autonomous global network made up of storage nodes running Vault software. Collectively, the software manages storage across the network, routing data and messages securely between the nodes. Vault nodes are clustered into sections that control the data stored within them. Section formation and data movement are all autonomous operations, without the need for centralized servers, agents or human oversight. Anyone can join the network anonymously as a provider, subject to a resource test, and anyone can store data or access public information on the network. The Safe project also provides an API that developers can use to interact directly with the network.
Unlike Filecoin and other decentralized storage options, the Safe Network does not use blockchain or any type of public ledger, making it easier to scale the network while eliminating the need to synchronize ledger data across nodes. End users can use the client software to store data on the Safe Network. The software divides the data into a minimum of three segments, hashes and encrypts the segments, and then applies additional protections. Multiple copies of each segment are stored within a section to ensure redundancy. Users pay in Safecoin to store data and hosts, or "farmers," receive Safecoin for storing data. The Safe Network is an ongoing, open source project launched in 2006 but is still very much a work in progress, with features being added and updated at regular intervals.
Like Filecoin, Sia uses blockchain technology to provide a decentralized data storage platform that encrypts and distributes files across a global P2P network. The Sia client software -- available for Windows, Linux and macOS -- breaks each file into 30 segments, which it then distributes to different hosts. The software uses Reed-Solomon erasure coding to ensure redundancy and make it possible to recover a file from only 10 of its segments. The software also uses the open source Threefish algorithm to encrypt the segments before sending them to the storage hosts. Renters use Siacoin to purchase storage, and hosts use Siacoin as collateral when storing files.
Compared to Filecoin or Safe Network, Sia is a more feature-rich option, with advanced data protections. Sia software is completely open source and includes an API that developers can use when building applications. Setting up Sia -- as either a renter or host -- is a straightforward, well-documented process, which makes it stand out from competitors. Sia provides a decentralized storage marketplace in which storage providers compete for business. As a result, pricing is less predictable. According to Sia, 1 TB of storage should cost under $2 per month, but renters should also be aware of additional costs, such as contract formation fees and bandwidth fees for uploading and downloading files.
Storj and Tardigrade
Storj is one of Sia's top competitors and delivers similar services, including blockchain storage. However, there has been some confusion around Storj naming. Storj and Tardigrade refer to two different Storj Labs business areas. Storj focuses on the supply side and Tardigrade on the demand side. Node operators and hosts that offer storage participate in the Storj Network, which falls on the supply side. Users who purchase storage carry out transactions through the tardigrade.io website, which falls on the demand side. In other words, Storj node operators provide decentralized storage to Tardigrade customers.
Storj storage is S3-compatible, with data broken into smaller segments, encrypted and stored across the global network, like Sia. However, Storj breaks a file into 80 segments, and a customer can use any 30 of those segments to reconstitute the file. According to Storj Labs, Tardigrade storage is well suited to backups, archives, media content, hybrid cloud storage, large file transfers, log files over 4 KB and database snapshots. Tardigrade also bills its service as decentralized cloud storage for developers.
Unlike other services, Tardigrade offers fixed pricing, making it easier to budget storage costs. The exact price depends on the amount of data the organization stores and downloads. For example, a customer will pay about $55 per month for 1 TB of storage and 1 TB of downloads. Currently, the Storj network supports only Windows hosts, but Storj Labs plans on introducing Linux and macOS support in the near future.