Rethinking Service Systems: A Path Towards Secure and Equitable Resource Markets

Rethinking Service Systems:
A Path Towards Secure and Equitable Resource Markets

Net neutrality, equitable and monopoly-free ecosystems, decentralization and transparency, privacy and anti-censorship — these are some of the slogans we carry around when we think about the future of the Internet and its digital services. We dream of flexible systems that allow anyone, from anywhere, to obtain or provide a service without any pre-identification. We even imagine decentralized resource markets in which computing services are exchanged for payments.

The pursuit of this dream started a long time ago with the development of peer-to-peer (P2P) networks. BitTorrent is a prime example, enabling peers (or end users) to distribute content to each other without any mediator. Ambitious technologists started to think of ways to utilize this architecture to provide other types of services, like file storage and access control, with the goal of disrupting the traditional centralized infrastructure-based paradigm.

Cryptocurrencies and blockchain technology have accelerated this trend by providing a decentralized payment mechanism to reward service providers, and an append-only log to audit system operation. In fact, the circular dependency here is ironic; cryptocurrencies and their blockchains are basically P2P-based systems that are useful in building P2P-based resource markets.

To succeed in realizing this dream, we need to build secure and efficient large-scale systems. This cannot be done in an ad-hoc way. Instead, aspects of secure systems design, distributed services, applied cryptography, and economics need to be invoked. Towards this goal, we present a generic framework for building distributed resource markets, and discuss the security and performance challenges in building such markets along with potential solutions.

Distributed Resource Markets - A Myth or Reality

Are decentralized ecosystems that allow participants to trade resources securely and efficiently already a reality? Assuming that security and performance requirements are satisfied, can these ecosystems be financially efficient enough to achieve wide adoption?

The answer is yes and no!

Bitcoin, Ethereum, and other widely used cryptocurrencies are some examples of successful systems in which miners (or peers) trade computation, storage, and bandwidth power for mining rewards and transaction fees. Other initiatives have more recently attempted to build decentralized services on top of these cryptocurrencies with the goal of replacing other infrastructure-based services (see the table below).

Service Type Traditional Solution P2P-based Solution
Key management Azure Key Vault NuCypher
File storage Dropbox Filecoin
Content distribution Akamai CacheCash
Video Transcoding Amazon Elastic Transcoder Livepeer

Although most of these initiatives are still early stage, with a multitude of unknowns regarding the go-to-market strategy of Web 3.0 and its applications, we can still see a glorious future ahead.

A Paved Way Ahead of Us?!

Unfortunately, no! The permissionless, open access environment of P2P networks (i.e., allowing anyone to join and dealing with untrusted participants) introduces many security and performance issues. Will these peers be "available" when needed to provide the service? Can they be "trusted" to provide the correct service? How will financial incentives shape the behaviors of these peers? Will it be more profitable to attack or protect the system? Will added security harm the system's efficiency and scalability?

All these questions need to be addressed before having successful deployment and practical adoption.

A Design Framework for Distributed Resource Markets

The framework is a list of distilled steps based on our own experiences in blockchain-based systems design. Like any scientific design procedure, iteration and customization would be needed based on the task at hand.

Viability Assessment. Before looking into building a distributed resource market, one has to assess its viability. This includes studying demand side (who is interested in the service) and supply side (who can provide the service) to answer several questions; Are there tangible advantages to encourage customers to replace traditional solutions with fully distributed ones? Does providing the service require special machines or large amounts of resources that exceed the capabilities of the average end-user? Such a viability study is an important step in assessing the potential for practical adoption before investing time and effort into designing the system.

Threat Modeling. Despite the many advantages they offer — decentralization, transparency, and lowered service costs — there is still a big gap between the promise of P2P-based systems and their performance in practice. Adding monetary incentives, by using another P2P-based payment service, widens this gap. This is due to the perception that these systems are not secure, where the recent large number of security breaches give credence to these doubts.

The best practice for designing a secure system requires a threat modeling step to investigate potential security risks. Such a model can guide designers in deploying the proper countermeasures, and evaluating the security level of a system. For resource markets, building a threat model requires a framework that can handle large-scale distributed systems, explicitly account for the financial motivations of the attackers, and help in spotting any potential collusion between these attackers. An example of such a framework is ABC which is geared towards cryptocurrency-based models and managing the complexity of the threat spaces.

Unique Aspects of Operating a Distributed Market. Operating in a flexible open access environment comes at a cost. Dealing with untrusted parties means that fair exchange is impossible, which raises the question of when to pay servers - before or after providing the service? If paid first, a malicious server may not serve the customer; if served first, a malicious customer may not pay after obtaining the service.

Furthermore, accounting attacks, in which participants collude with each other pretending that the service has been delivered, could be a hammer that destroys the market. This is particularly a problem in systems that require sponsoring service requests. For example, in content distribution, a publisher (e.g., Netflix) can hire caches (or servers) to distribute content to its clients. Servers and clients may collude so that clients pretend to be served, allowing servers to collect payments from the publisher (the sponsor) for free.

The above security issues (and many others depending on the service type) require a careful design of a decentralized service-payment exchange protocol that can reduce the risks of dealing with untrusted, possibly colluding parties. Such a protocol represents the backbone of the resource market; if it fails, the whole market fails! Servers will not be willing to participate if they are not being paid. The same holds true for customers — they will not be willing to use the system if they pay for a service that they do not receive.

Operating such a market also requires devising mechanisms for service pricing, term negotiation for server recruiting, and matching protocols to match these servers with interested customers.

Financial and Cryptographic Security Measures. Usually, security threats are addressed via cryptographic means (e.g., encryption and digital signatures), or algorithmic approaches (e.g., ordering the actions in a way that enforces secure behavior). Monetary-incentivized systems introduce new types of attacks that cannot be addressed using conventional approaches. In particular, having financially-motivated attackers requires addressing certain types of threats using financial techniques. These fall into two categories: detect-and-punish mechanisms, where parties are required to lock penalty deposits that are forfeited if they are caught cheating, and designing algorithms that, if performed maliciously, require larger amounts of resources than when performed honestly. Such techniques make cheating unprofitable, so that rational parties will choose to act in an honest way.

For example, to reduce the risks of the impossibility of fair exchange, micropayments are usually employed. That is, instead of paying a large chunk of money for the full service, payment is divided into small values, each of which is exchanged for a small service amount. For instance, one can pay to retrieve a file in small data chunks instead of paying for the full file all at once. Thus, a server loses only a small payment if a client does not pay for a chunk retrieval. Similarly, a client loses only a small payment if it pays in advance and the server does not send the data chunk in return.

On the other hand, to thwart accounting attacks, system designers need to incorporate suitable techniques that prove or confirm resource expenditure, and consequently, confirm that payments are well deserved. In file storage, for example, proof-of-spacetime can be used to prove that a server is still storing the clients’ files.

It should be noted here that there is "no one solution fits all." Some services may not need high payment frequency of micropayments; the amount of service is already small and each client may send a few requests in any time period. Also, each service may require a different resource expenditure confirmation technique. Furthermore, which threat mitigation technique to deploy may depend on the operational stage of the network (i.e., early stages when the goal is encouraging adoption vs. later mature network operation).

Optimize for Efficiency. Although designing a secure system is the ultimate goal, efficiency is an important driving factor of the viability of practical adoption and deployment. Hence, system designers need to exploit any opportunity that allows for optimizing performance. This also involves choosing the right trade-off between security and efficiency in the sense of risk management. That is to say, threats that have high impact need to be prioritized over low impact ones. Moreover, looking into alternative cryptographic primitives that are lightweight (or optimizing their implementation) while maintaining the required security guarantees is another effective venue to utilize.

Another important aspect is system scalability — whether it is in terms of interactivity, amount of data exchanged between the participant, or the amount of data logged on the blockchain. A prime example is employing probabilistic micropayment schemes or payment networks to aggregate small transactions used to pay for the service into few larger ones before processing. Another example is batching client requests and replies together to reduce interaction, or even batching work confirmations to reduce the amount of data logged on the blockchain.

Testing and Deployment. To prove the viability of the system, conventional practices of prototyping, benchmarking, and controlled deployment (aka testnets) can be used to evaluate both efficiency and resistance to attacks before moving to production or mainnets. These also provide a starting point to attract early adopters and test the system at a large scale. This stage may inspire designers to revisit specific parts of the system for further optimization based on the results of the conducted experiments, or feedback from the community.

The Path Forward - The Sky is the Limit

The emerging movement towards decentralized applications (or dApps) and services highlights two facts; there is a wide passion for such a work paradigm, and there is a need for decentralized versions of all digital services/systems around us. Having a decentralized service (e.g., a file storage network) that relies on a centrally-managed service (e.g., an access control service) will imprint the whole system as centrally-managed.

The good news is that the sky is the limit when it comes to what we want to build. The bad news is that the sky is also the limit, to some extent, when it comes to the challenges we will face on the security, privacy, scalability, and performance fronts. Thus, following a systematized design approach is a key. We hope that the framework described here will provide a stepping stone along this path.