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How to Access the Interplanetary File System

7-8-19



The Interplanetary File System (IPFS) is a peer-to-peer, distributed computer network that can be accessed from the internet. Some might call it a new internet separate from the regular internet. In a peer-to-peer network, computers talk to each other directly, rather than through a central server. This makes peer-to-peer networks much less susceptible to censorship of information. In 2017, when the Turkish government declared Wikipedia to be a threat to its national security and blocked it in Turkey, a turkish-language copy of Wikipedia was put on the IPFS. Although development of the IPFS is still on-going, and issues still need to be resolved, anyone can use the IPFS for free right now to access information or even to create their own static website, without paying domain name registration fees.

In this article, I will explain how to install software onto your computer for accessing the IPFS and show how to access information stored on the IPFS. I'll leave a tutorial on creating IPFS websites for another time.

Installing the IPFS Desktop onto Your Computer

Since many novice computer users are not completely comfortable installing random software from the internet onto their computers, I'll try to give some of the details they may need to successfully install the IPFS software. First, the IPFS software runs on Windows, Apple, and Linux computers. There are two versions, the command line version and the GUI version. I'll assume that most people would rather run the GUI version, so that is the version on which I will focus our attention. But, if you prefer the command line version, called "go-ipfs", it can be found here. You do not have to install the command line version before installing the GUI version.

To install the GUI version of the IPFS software, called "IPFS desktop", go to this Github page on the internet. Github code is opensource, so Github is generally considered a safe place from which to download code. I'm not sure about binaries (executable programs), however, so download at your own risk. Honestly, I doubt there is much risk associated with downloading this software from Github or in using it to access the IPFS. Linux users: go two-thirds of the way down the page to the Linux installation packages section, and select the package that is appropriate for your version of Linux. Windows 10 users: download the 64-bit binary of the IPFS desktop labeled "ipfs-desktop-setup-0.8.0.exe". If a newer version is available by the time you read this article, then install the newer version. A 32-bit binary version of the IPFS desktop does not appear to be available, so if you are running a 32-bit version of Windows, you will either have to run the 32-bit, command-line version of go-ipfs or download the source code for the IPFS desktop and compile it yourself.

On Windows, once "ipfs-desktop-setup-0.8.0.exe" is on your hard drive, double click on it to start the installation. When the blue IPFS desktop icon appears on your Windows desktop, the IPFS desktop has been installed.

Linux users: on Linux Mint 17, the IPFS desktop installs into the /opt/IPFS Desktop directory. When I installed the IPFS desktop onto my Linux machine, despite the fact that the deb package installation process produced a message that said all dependencies had been satisfied, libnss3 was missing. After I installed libnss3 (using "sudo apt-get install libnss3") and started running the IPFS desktop program, the IPFS desktop blue cube icon appeared on my task bar at the bottom of my monitor.



Running the IPFS Desktop

To run the IPFS desktop in Windows, just double click on its icon on your Windows desktop. Nothing appears to happen, but if you click on the appropriate icon on your Windows menu bar (for Windows 7, that's the icon that is used to eject USB devices), you will see the IPFS desktop's blue cube icon. Left click on that icon and select "status" to bring up the status page of IPFS panel that looks like this:

IPFS Status Panel


Except perhaps for the IPFS desktop's blue cube icon appearing in a different location on the task bar, the Windows and Linux versions of the IPFS desktop appear to work exactly the same. Some of the things the status page shows are:



I noticed a couple of other interesting things on the status page of the IPFS pannel. One was that a significant amount of traffic appeared as soon as I started running the IPFS desktop for the first time (like a few kb/s outgoing), when I would have thought nothing should have been happening. And, after 5 minutes or so, I had about 600 KB of IPFS content data files on my hard drive, according to the status page. Another thing I noticed was that the number of peers varied greatly, from less than ten at times to over 100 at other times. I don't know why this is, but I would guess that one of the things it means is that you may have to wait for a while before a peer comes on line that has a copy of the file you want.



Finding Content on the IPFS Network

There are three ways to access information on the IPFS network. The first is by clicking on the "explore" link on the left side of the IPFS desktop panel. Then click on one of the links to content that come up on the right side of the panel. Then click on the "view on IPFS gateway" link. Your internet browser should come up and connect to the page you selected. This can take a while, because the IPFS network can be slow at times. Glacially slow. Downloading a random 800 KB page took me 5 to 10 minutes. At other times, the IPFS network is just as fast as the regular internet.

The second way to get to content on the IPFS is to bring up your regular internet browser and copy and paste an IPFS document address (from wherever you may have found it) onto the browser's URL line. Naturally, the IPFS desktop must be running for this method to work. For example, by searching on the regular internet on duckduckgo.com for "IPFS links", I found this IPFS link to an IPFS blog that explains how to host a website on IPFS: http://127.0.0.1:8080/ipfs/QmdPtC3T7Kcu9iJg6hYzLBWR5XCDcYMY7HV685E3kH3EcS/ . This is a link to an english language version of the Wikipedia main page on the IPFS: https://ipfs.io/ipfs/QmXoypizjW3WknFiJnKLwHCnL72vedxjQkDDP1mXWo6uco/wiki/ . I noticed, however, that this page does not have a search field or any links to general topics like, art, history, and math. So, I don't know how to look up a specific topic on this IPFS-hosted version of Wikipedia. Here is a link to information about the IPFS team's goals for the IPFS version of Wikipedia: https://cloudflare-ipfs.com/ipfs/Qmb6SjJMzkqfKEZxXX5uET64fPkvHHoVUou84m3HAKbeZC/ . Regular internet search engines can be used to find other IPFS websites and music and video files, including the copyrighted kind. However, given the length of time it sometimes takes data to download over the IPFS network, I question whether anyone would have the patience to wait around while an entire commercial movie downloads.

The third method of finding content on the IPFS is with an IPFS-dedicated search engine called IPFS Search. IPFS Search is a search engine on the regular internet that gives links to information on the IPFS, just like a regular search engine. IPFS Search also displays information about the last time a particular link was successfully accessed. When you use it, you will see that most of the content that can be found through IPFS Search was last successfully accessed months ago and, therefore, is unlikely to be accessible now. Other than often having terse titles for listed content, the most noticeable problem with IPFS Search is that it has no description below the link to give you a better idea of what information is pointed to by the link. This means it can be difficult to tell whether the link is useful or not before you click on it.



Sources of Additional Information

Several good sources of information on the IPFS can be found on the regular internet. This page gives a brief history of the IPFS network and explains the basics of how it works. A 66-page, pdf manual, called The Decentralized Web Primer is also available. This manual gives more details about the installation of the command line version of the IPFS software. It also contains detailed information about how to upload content to the IPFS. You can also find more documentation on the IPFS network here.



Last Words about the IPFS

From the little experience I've had using the IPFS, the speed at which information can be accessed seems so inconsistent that I can think of only three current uses for it: 1) creating a small, static website where you don't have to pay domain name registration fees or be concerned about your information being blocked by a government or internet service provider, 2) accessing information that normally resides on a part of the internet that is blocked in the country in which you live, or 3) doing something illegal, like downloading copyrighted material. While today the IPFS is often glacially slow, it may speed up as more people use it, but there is no guarantee of this.

One thing will become immediately apparent through the use of IPFS Search. That is that the IPFS does not currently contain much content, especially compared to the regular internet. My guess is that the IPFS contains about as much now as the regular internet did back in the very late 1980's, before most people even knew it existed. You can look at this in one of two ways. You can see it as depressing that the IPFS has so little content. Or, you can see it as exciting that you are one of the first to access this new version of the internet that is virtually unknown to non-geeks. You may be able to watch it grow into something remarkable and life-changing, as the regular internet has. Or, you may see it fail to come into wide-spread use and never live up to its potential. With all the efforts being made by various governments to cut off their countries' populations from parts of the internet, my guess it that the former outcome is more likely than the latter.



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