Blockchain may be one of the fastest-growing technologies in the enterprise, with applications across a wide range of processes, but we shouldn’t forget that, at its core, it is still a database. And, like all databases, it requires a search function.
To date, however, development on this crucial aspect of blockchain is distinctly lacking, giving rise to concerns that the technology may not be quite as conducive to modern data applications as it seems.
Blockchain: A Search for Answers
According to a recent paper by researchers at China’s Hebei University of Technology and Australia’s Deakin University, most blockchains today offer only limited search functionality. While records stored in the chain are in good order, query results are generated by reading the content or metadata of increasingly large numbers of blocks.
This is not only time-consuming but often fails to protect data privacy and does not provide proper weight to individual data sets — potentially skewing the accuracy of more complex searches.
If not addressed now, this issue could substantially limit blockchain’s usefulness as it scales to meet the needs of the Internet of Things (IoT), Web3, and the metaverse. Creating the necessary index structure to ensure search results are both timely and effectively governed is a significant challenge, however, given that it requires the capacity to house not just keywords but image, transaction, special-temporal, and other types of data.
The standard for efficient search, of course, are those that emerged from the world wide web, which itself is just a giant database as well.
Blockchain explorers, for example, Etherscan and BaseScan, are becoming increasingly popular with crypto investors and other tech-savvy users, but they usually come with steep learning curves – far steeper than the plain language approaches of Google and Bing.
Nevertheless, they can provide the means to look up wallet sizes and addresses, transaction volumes, pending transactions, and other records to help guide future activity on the chain. They can also delve into operating metrics like network hash rates, mempool status, and the rate of failed transactions for those who are trying to assess a chain’s performance.
Most of the explorers developed so far are applicable to the financial side of blockchain, namely the mining and trading of Bitcoin. As blockchain starts to take on other roles, such as smart contracts, supply chain management, and collaborative development, it is unclear whether current explorer technology will be able to keep up with these more complex data sets.
One of the most appealing aspects of blockchain is its distributed architecture. No one owns the chain, so trust and transparency are functions of its broad replication across disparate servers, sometimes on a global footprint. It stands to reason, then, that a distributed blockchain should have an equally distributed search engine – one that can query at least a majority of the chain to ensure that the data it collects represents the true state of the chain, not the preferred vision of the search engine’s provider.
Newly created decentralized search engines like Presearch and Nebulas utilize the same basic structure of blockchain: each piece of the search index is distributed across any number of network nodes. All queries are, therefore, processed independently, with each node conducting its own search based on its portion of the index. The engine then compiles the aggregated results and forwards them to the user.
The advantage of this approach is that it reduces bias and single-entity control of the search while at the same time enhancing privacy and control of personal data. On the downside, gaps in search coverage can arise if too many nodes are off-line, and the need for coordination among multiple nodes can add latency to the process.
Things get even trickier when the data environment that houses multiple blockchains is decentralized. Web3 architecture, for one, has amassed more than five million decentralized domain names that utilize backend tools like smart contracts and frontend hosting services like FileCoin. As yet, though, all of these components exist in isolation, primarily because there is no search engine capable of bringing it all together, as Google did for Web2.
A company called Blockstars.tech is trying to change this with its W3 Compass (W3C) search engine, which indexes and categorizes decentralized websites, distributed applications (dApps), and blockchain data.
For websites, the system sheds the traditional Domain Name System (DNS) for the decentralized (and rather haughty) Interplanetary File System (IPFS) while also making use of blockchain’s ENS and Unstoppable domains. The expectation is that these changes will make it easier to search for Web3 data and make it more accessible to non-technically savvy users.
Search is such a fundamental requirement of any data-driven construct that it’s hard to see how blockchain can thrive for much longer without improvements to current solutions. But in a way, the complexity needed to create a trusted, immutable ledger also inhibits the development of a highly functional search engine.
The good news is that these challenges are not insurmountable. It just might take a little while longer before an optimal solution comes out of the development pipeline.