Below the fold is an attempt to clarify my argument. It is a re-statement of part of the argument in my 2014 post Economies of Scale in Peer-to-Peer Networks, specifically in the context of decentralized storage networks.
To make my argument I use a model of decentralized storage that abstracts away the details of the technology. The goal is a network with a large number of peers each providing storage services. This network is:
- decentralized in the sense that no single entity, or small group of entities, controls the network (the peers are independently owned and operated), and
- sustainable, in that the peers do not lose financially by providing storage services to the network.
Let us start by supposing that such a decentralized storage network has, by magic, been created:
- It consists of a large number of peers, initially all providing the same amount of storage resource to the network.
- Users submit data to be stored to the network, not to individual peers. The network uses erasure coding to divide the data into shards and peers store shards.
- Each peer incurs costs to supply this resource, in the form of hardware, bandwidth, power, cooling, space and staff time.
- The network has no central organization which could contract with the peers to supply their resource. Instead, it rewards the peers in proportion to the resource they supply by a token, such as a crypto-currency, that the peers can convert into cash to cover their costs.
- The users of the network rent space in the network by buying tokens for cash on an exchange, setting a market price at which peers can sell their tokens for cash. This market price sets the $/TB/month rent that users must pay, and that peers receive as income. It also ensure that users do not know which peers store their data.
Suppose the demand for storage is increasing. That demand will preferentially be supplied from China, where the capital invested in adding capacity can earn a greater reward. Thus peers in China will add capacity faster than those in Silicon Valley and will enjoy not merely a lower cost base because of location, but also a lower cost base from economies of scale. This will increase the cost differential driving the peers to China, and create a feedback process.
Competition among the peers and decreasing hardware costs will drive down the $/TB/month rent to levels that are uneconomic for Silicon Valley peers, concentrating the storage resource in China (as we see with Bitcoin miners).
Lets assume that all the peers in China share the same low cost base. But some will have responded to the increase in demand before others. They will have better economies of scale than the laggards, so they will in turn grow at the laggards' expense. Growth may be by increasing the capacity of existing peers, or adding peers controlled by the entity with the economies of scale.
The result of this process is a network in which the aggregate storage resource is overwhelmingly controlled by a small number of entities, controlling large numbers of large peers in China. These are the ones which started with a cost base advantage and moved quickly to respond to demand. The network is no longer decentralized, and will suffer from the problems of centralized storage outlined above.
This should not be a surprise. We see the same winner-take-all behavior in most technology markets. We see this behavior in the Bitcoin network.
I believe it is up to the enthusiasts to explain why this model does not apply to their favorite decentralized storage technology, and thus why it won't become centralized. Or, alternatively, why they aren't worried that their decentralized storage network isn't actually decentralized after all.
- Arthur, W. Brian. Competing technologies and lock-in by historical small events: the dynamics of allocation under increasing returns. Center for Economic Policy Research, Stanford University, 1985. in Arthur, W. Brian. Increasing Returns and Path Dependence in the Economy, Michigan University Press, 1994.