Skip to main content

Down with the data center: can a peer-to-peer swarm replace cloud computing?

Down with the data center: can a peer-to-peer swarm replace cloud computing?


Space Monkey wants to put a peoples' cloud in every home

Share this story

GOOGLE Connie Zhou data center server
GOOGLE Connie Zhou data center server

Not long ago, we looked to "the cloud" and saw a liberating force, a way to unshackle ourselves from the messiness of computing by offloading our data into large, mysterious, supposedly secure servers in undisclosed locations. But the reality is a bit different: the cloud kind of sucks, and as time goes on, we keep seeing more reasons why.

One of them made landfall along America’s east coast last October. On top of the destruction of peoples' homes and property, Hurricane Sandy also caused extensive downtime for websites like Gawker, Buzzfeed, and the Huffington Post after it took out a data center in lower Manhattan. Far from liberating us, the cloud has left us almost completely dependent upon the consolidated power of corporate computing lords like Amazon and Google, meaning a failure in one location potentially causes chaos for multiple companies and countless users.

But look around at some noteworthy recent advancements — a new BitTorrent product model and the crypto-currency Bitcoin, to name just a few — and you might think we're beginning to see some opposition to this regime: a second renaissance of decentralized, peer-to-peer applications. If that comes to pass, it follows we could wind up using P2P for some of the same tasks the cloud performs, with a distributed cloud instead of one focused around data centers — something less like a "cloud" and more like a "swarm."

“The internet as originally envisioned is very different from what we have now.”

Somewhere in the middle of this is Space Monkey, a kind of "hybrid" P2P solution that's sort of a mix between Dropbox and BitTorrent. Its creators, Alen Peacock and Clint Gordon-Carroll, are being backed by funding from Google Ventures and are close to tripling their original goal on Kickstarter. And while they avoid billing it as a “P2P” service for fear of being associated with piracy, it’s an interesting argument for the future of that once-infamous model, first brought to mainstream appeal in the Napster era.

“The internet as originally envisioned is very different from what we have now,” co-founder Alen Peacock said during a recent phone interview with The Verge, noting the move from self-hosted homepages to Facebook's centralized hub. “We wanted to get back to those core principles of how do you make a system that’s decentralized and democratized that everyone participates in.”

It works like this: Everyone who signs up for $10 a month gets their own Space Monkey device, a low-power, one terabyte personal mini-server that connects from your home. The catch is, the drive is actually three terabytes — the first one is for you, and the extra two store the broken-up, encrypted pieces of other peoples’ files on the network.

Likewise, all of your stuff also gets exploded into little bits, which are encrypted end-to-end and spread throughout the Space Monkey swarm. So when you open Space Monkey to retrieve the data, it’s like an entirely peer-sourced version of how streaming works on Spotify, connecting to other clients to quickly assemble and decrypt the whole file.

By creating redundant backups and erasure encoding for those tiny file-bits, decentralizing storage means that even if half the machines storing your data go offline, the system can still locate copies of your partial files, shift stuff around, and “regenerate” the missing pieces. If your hardware fails, Space Monkey ships you a new one, which is no big deal since the network already retains your crowd-stored redundant backups.

Data centers consume an estimated 30 billion watts of electricity each year

Space Monkey is betting that because cloud pricing still doesn’t seem to match the plummeting costs of data storage, this strategy will make sense financially for cloud-sick consumers needing cheap and dependable data access. More importantly though, the model is a lot better for the environment. Worldwide, data centers require ungodly amounts of electricity, consuming an estimated 30 billion watts each year to keep server farms online and sufficiently cooled. That's roughly the output of around 30 nuclear power plants, with somewhere between one quarter to one third of that power being used by data centers in the United States alone, according to research done last year by the New York Times. Space Monkey claims its low-power device only adds about $0.49 per month to your power bill, and consumes “minimal” bandwidth.

Of course, the formula behind Space Monkey still isn’t perfectly decentralized: currently, it still needs its own central servers to allow new users onto the network, and to prevent a malicious group or entity with enough combined computing power from seizing control — a common worry with P2P networks.

P2P itself seems to be maturing

That means that, at least for now, an attack or outage on those servers would cause some disruption, but not a full-blown shutdown. “We would expect the network to continue working for existing participants, but new devices would not be able to join,” Peacock explains. He hopes to phase out this and other “centralizing” elements as the project evolves.

Whether or not that happens, P2P itself seems to be maturing. BitTorrent has been demonstrating this recently, revealing a YouTube-like video streaming service and file sync utility built on P2P architecture. It’s also announced BitTorrent Bundles, which allow the creation of payment and registration portals for torrent files. And love it or hate it, Bitcoin is helping to prove that P2P can be good at plenty of things besides pirating Game of Thrones — more so when you consider the network currently holds more computing power than all of the world’s top 500 supercomputers combined.

Even if the data center is here to stay for a little while longer, P2P seems to at least be expanding and experimenting in the right direction. As the costs of computing go down, services like Space Monkey may stop being part of a rented proprietary hardware business and start becoming more like a box attached to everyone’s router.