Are distributed networks and decentralized systems the same?

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The emergence of Blockchain has paved way for the implementation of non-centralized network architecture. The seeds of distributed network architecture was sown back in 1964, by Paul Baran in his paper “On Distributed Networks“. Since then, there have been many attempts at implementing this architecture in network systems. The most recent implementation has been aided by the discovery of Blockchain technology, in 2009, by the anonymous Satoshi Nakamoto.

Terminologies:

  • Network: A collection of interlinked nodes that exchange information.
  • Node: The most basic part of the network; for example, a user or computer.
  • Link: The connection between two nodes.
  • Server: A node that has connections to a relatively large amount of other nodes

The mother of all the network architectures is a centralized Network. Here, the primary decision making control rests with one Node. The message is carried on by Sub Nodes. Distributed networks are in a way, a conglomeration of small centralized networks. It consists of multiple Nodes which themselves are miniature versions of centralized networks. Decentralized networks consist of individual nodes and every one of these Nodes are capable of independent decision making. Hence there is no central control in Decentralized networks.

distributed networks


Source: Meshworld

A common misconception is that Distributed and Decentralized systems are the same; they just have different nomenclature and slightly different functionalities. In a way this is true, but not completely. A distributed system still has one central control algorithm, that takes the final call over the process and protocol to be followed.

As an example, let’s consider distributed digital ledgers.

Each of these ledgers are independent network nodes. These ledgers get updated with individual transactions and other details and this information is not passed on to the other Nodes. This particular feature makes this system secure and decentralized. The other Nodes are not aware of the information stored. This is how a decentralized network behaves.

Now the same system behaves a bit differently, when the Nodes communicate with each other, (in-case of Ethereum, by the movement of “Ether” between nodes). Although the individual Node’s information stays secure, the information about the state of the Nodes is passed on, finally to a central peer. Then the peer takes on the decision of which state to finally change to and what is the optimum process to change the state. This is decided by the votes of the individual nodes. The Nodes then change to the new state, preserving information about the previous state. This makes the system dynamic, secure and distributed, because although the Nodes get to vote based on their individual states, the final decision is taken by the centralized peer. This is a distributed system.

Hence we can clearly state that decentralized systems are a subset of distributed systems, more independent and minus any central controlling authority. This presents a familiar question to us – are the current blockchain based apps purely decentralized, or are they just distributed systems with a central control?

Could this be the reason why we have not yet reached the ultimate Cryptocurrency based alternative economy? Put differently, is the invisible central control hindering the evolution of blockchain based systems to a purely decentralized system and economy? Only time and more dedicated research, along with better practical implementation of decentralized applications will answer these questions.

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