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Deciding where to store your NFT

An explanation of NFT storage options and how to compare these options
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© RMIT 2022

This article explores NFT storage options and how to compare these options.

NFT storage varies in cost, depending on whether you choose a centralised solution, such as relying on an NFT marketplace, for example OpenSea, or a decentralised option, such as content addressing your NFT with IPFS and backing it up on a hard drive, or running an IPFS node.

However this article will focus on the issue of persistent storage of content as part of resilience in distributed networks. This comes down to a matter of metadata, and storage infrastructure.

Let’s explore each of these further.

Metadata

NFTs are ERC721 token standard wrapped data. In other words, NFTs are collateralised information. An NFT is a digital asset which represents a digital or a physical good by “pointing” to what it represents, such as an image, piece of multimedia, or in-game asset. The value of an NFT is based on what it represents or provides access to. Metadata is the descriptive data which provides information about what an NFT points to and represents.

Most NFTs are just JSON metadata files. If Metadata is not correctly hosted on a server, then an NFT can disappear. The following story illustrates this:

On the 12th of March 2021, “@jonty” on Twitter posted:

“The NFT token you bought either points to a URL on the internet, or an IPFS hash. In most circumstances it references an IPFS gateway on the internet run by the startup you bought the NFT from.”

@jonty then went on to outline that the $69 million Beeple NFT, sold by Christie’s art house is hosted on the Nifty NFT platforms servers. This means that when they go down, get hacked, or go out of business, the NFT could effectively disappear. The devil is in the metadata, as data persistence is a largely underrated undercurrent of the NFT craze.

Storage infrastructure

There are a variety of ways to store and host data. These can be centralised (relying on a trusted third-party to host that data) or decentralised (requiring greater participation in the use and maintenance of infrastructure to “trust” that your data is under your control).

The “Interplanetary File System” (IPFS) is a peer-to-peer protocol specifically designed to “address” content, which can then be found by that address. This is in contrast to location addressing, which is how most of the internet works and why you get a “404” error when content is no longer in that location.

IPFS works by storing content on people’s computers (nodes) in the network (known as “addressing”) and allowing this content to be requested by others. When content is “addressed” on IPFS, the data is assigned a “content identifier” (CID) which points to the specific file. IPFS nodes talk across the peer-to-peer network to find the closest node with a copy of that data and deliver it to your device.

There are multiple ways to access content on IPFS from the web browser, with varying levels of reliability and decentralisation, including:

  1. Via a HTTPs gateway, which offers a URL to content on the IPFS network, (for example: https://ipfs.io/ipfs/QmPAg1mjxcEQPPtqsLoEcauVedaeMH81WXDPvPx3VC5zUz). There are multiple gateway providers, of which Cloudflare is currently the biggest. The main use case for this approach is to pull a piece of content from the network.
  2. Opening your own gateway in the browser by running some lines of code. This has a number of limitations in terms of connectivity, and centralisation as it is still reliant on Domain Name Service (DNS) providers for more fluid content routing. This is the main approach taken by NFT platforms to pull and save data locally and eventually publish to the IPFS network.
  3. Via a web browser, such as Brave browser or Tor’s IPFS integration. Brave works via a public https gateway, as in example 1, or running a local IPFS node through the browser which can be done the options menu under “extensions”. This allows you to access previously accessed content while offline, verify content, and serve content to the rest of the network. This approach allows people to publish directly to the IPFS network and request content without going through a gateway. It is also more persistent, although a DNS provider can block access to users.

Alternately, infrastructure management and maintenance can be delegated to third-party “pinning” services, such as “NFT.storage”, “Pinata” and “Eternum”.

Understanding these subtle distinctions in infrastructure is often beyond the everyday user but could be make or break for the value of your next NFT. In terms of resilience, the strongest guarantee that the IPFS network can serve your content back to you is to run your own external node, host a copy of that content, and maintain that data.

Storage Best Practice

At present, there is no clear best practice standard of how data should be governed and stored in Web3.0.

NFTs, although of huge monetary value and interest, are only one example of why resilient, long-term, data persistence matters. In addition to NFTs, the decentralised web is used to store all kinds of content, including sensitive political or cultural information. There are several challenges here pertaining to who runs the servers that hosts the nodes to maintain the nodes that host the data, if not the individuals themselves as @Stammy asks in relation to NFTs, “is the onus on the owner…?”.

It is also imperative for system designers to design with resilience, meaning long term data persistence, in mind. @scott_lew_is on Twitter urges potential buyers to value NFTs based on them outlasting the issuing organisation.

Rather than relying on third-party NFT marketplace platforms that are less incentivised to maintain that content and may be vulnerable to attack, NFT owners and communities could collectively govern and back up their metadata by claiming greater ownership over their data storage architecture. This could look like NFT investing DAOs (such as FlamingoDAO and PoolTogether) ensuring that they copy and create multiple back-ups of the CIDs of their collections. It could also look like holders of certain classes of NFTs (such as “CryptoPunks” and “Pudgy Penguins”), collaborating to make numerous, redundant copies of NFT metadata between DAO members to ensure persistent and resilient data storage, and collectively manage and govern storage at a local-first level.

© RMIT 2022
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