If you go to the Holochain website, you will see that they have big and bold ambitions. It’s a currency system, an online data storage system, a way of managing your identity, the basis of a social network, and more. Pretty much everything you’ve ever heard anyone propose as a blockchain-based service, Holochain claims they are going to offer that as well.
Whereas most blockchain companies are focused on a particular service, and maybe have some overlap with one or two other potential use cases, Holochain plans to rewrite the fundamentals of the internet itself. The implication of that ambition is that anything that has ever been or could be a service on the internet could be built from a Holochain foundation.
Why does the internet need an overhaul? Fundamentally, the nature of the internet is of server and client. Information is stored centrally, and offered out to people who request it. This creates a power dynamic where the people running the servers and housing the data accrue value, and often with that comes wealth and power.
Conversely, storing data can be a demanding task, forcing people to set up security systems and invest large sums of money into infrastructure. This creates barriers to entry that favor the previously empowered. The internet is often viewed as a democratic technology, but as time goes on, that notion is challenged by the practicalities of making available the data that everyone would like to have access to.
Decentralized Internet Before Holochain
There have been methods of data sharing offered in peer-to-peer solutions in the past, most notably the BitTorrent protocol which can break files into fragments and share them across multiple servers. BitTorrent’s weak point, though, is that all file fragments need to be located by their IP addresses, so ultimately all traffic can be traced and participants, or at least their computers, can be identified.
Another peer-to-peer technology is the Tor network, whose servers relay connections, and as they do, they do not pass data about where they received a connection from. The Tor network can also leverage multiple server connections to obscure the directional path of data requests among multiple inputs and outputs.
This means you can only trace data connection back one step, and that one step is the last of an obfuscated, circuitous route. However, a Tor network does nothing to address the problem of server storage. Data requested or offered on the Tor network must be stored somewhere.
Blockchain technology is the only currently viable approach to both privatizing and fragmenting data, solving the fundamental centralization problems that have arisen on the internet in general. Holochain hopes to be the one to spearhead the permeation of the blockchain solution to the entirety of the internet.
What Does Holochain Do?
People have questions about whether or not any of the existing blockchain proposals will be able to scale to the levels necessary to handle the data flow of their particular niche markets, whether that be a global currency, globally distributed smart contract system, or something else. However, while the markets most blockchains are looking to enter are huge, and scaling issues are a serious concern, they are practically nothing compared to attempting to scale to a level capable of handling everything that everybody does on the internet.
If there are doubts about how any one niche blockchain will fulfill its promise, how could Holochain even hope to tackle the entirety of the internet?
The key to Holochain’s proposal is to essentially run distributed blockchains. They describe the system as being a combination of proven technologies derived from BitTorrent, GitHub, and Blockchain.
Specifically, on the Holochain network, each node runs its own chain, the same way GitHub developers make their own copies of source code, and can check them in and out from the a central repository. From BitTorrent, Holochain uses what’s called a “distributed hash table” (DHT), which is a way for storing data using keys, but the actual location of the data can be spread over many locations. And, of course, there is the blockchain technology, which allows for secure storage without the need for central servers.
This methodology is designed to make it fast and easy for developers and users alike to launch applications from the central, GitHub-like, repository, and execute them on localized blockchains. Not having to wait for confirmation from a larger, universal blockchain, that could be affected in terms of responsiveness by applications completely unrelated to your own, creates less wait time.
How exactly these technologies all come together is complicated and will require a fair degree of computer science or similar knowledge to understand. This is reflected in their whitepaper, which, unlike most whitepapers, is almost entirely made of formulae and terminology that will be inaccessible to the average person.
However, while it might possibly be an oversimplification, the fundamental premise seems to be that Holochain will be a system of running many concurrent blockchains, tied together under an organizational system similar to the peer-to-peer network systems that predate blockchains. Without individual blockchains having to necessarily come together to agree on every single transaction as they occur, the system could potentially scale to any degree, even to the size of the entire internet.
History of Holochain
Holochain claims that its roots go back to before the 2008 financial crisis and the advent of Bitcoin, where key members “dreamed” of a better internet. It’s vague as to which members that might refer to and what exactly their paths were that led to the founding of the Holochain project. They do mention a connection to a project called Metacurrency, which is a set of open-source applications and developer tools for constructing currencies.
Without any specifics, claims of having roots going back to before Bitcoin seems to be merely an attempt to declare extra legitimacy in what would otherwise be a fairly typical story of capable entrepreneurs getting together in the current zeitgeist of cryptocurrency mania and trying to capitalize on that opportunity.
The Holochain Team
As you might expect from looking at the source materials explaining Holochain, such as the whitepaper, the Holochain team is heavily tech-focused, made up entirely of developers and engineers. There is no community manager, no marketing division, nor anyone listed as any kind of business developer.
The founder, Arthur Brock, has a degree in artificial intelligence and has worked at cryptocurrency-related companies previous to this, though he emphasizes his brand as a “social engineer” and “culture hacker” as much as his technical background.
Note there are two websites, with the one above for the Holochain blockchain and another for their token, HOT. This second website is geared toward promoting their ICO, and the team on the HOT website is a little more well-rounded, with community managers and people dedicated to outreach. They also list a “film maker.”
Also, unusual for blockchain companies, they list no advisors on either website.
Competitors and Challenges
The popular HBO show Silicon Valley has as part of its central premise the concept of making a fully decentralized internet. Although the show does not get too specific about how that works, it does show that the concept of a decentralized internet is understood among a broader spectrum of people than high-tech engineers.
One might expect that there would therefore be lots of contenders vying to capture that market, but if Holochain has competitors, there aren’t any so well established that they are readily apparent. With Holochain itself being just out of the starting gates, it’s possible that we have yet to see others emerge to significance.
How to Purchase and Store Holochain
The Holochain token, HOT, is an ERC-20 token created for their March 2018 ICO to fund the Holochain project. There are 250 billion tokens in existence, and they can be bought and sold on HotBit, IDEX, and LATOKEN.
The HOT token is intended to be swapped for a mainnet token called Holofuel, with a ticker designation of HOLO, though the exact time for when that will take place is currently not specified. Holofuel will be used to pay for transactions on the Holochain mainnet and essentially fund and fuel the Holochain ecosystem. Until then, HOT is just a placeholder.
Holochain certainly has its work cut out for itself, to not only build their proof of concept and establish its merits on a technical basis, but then also to roll that out to widespread adoption. For each and every application they claim Holochain can service, there is a competitor focusing on that service specifically, which means that they will face strong competition on all fronts by highly focused, specialized rivals.
It may be that their generalist approach has the advantage of building synergies between services that other specialized projects would not be able to emulate, but we are a long way off from seeing if that’s the case. Also out in the world of blockchains are services that seek to provide interoperability between chains, which could render the synergistic advantage moot.
The grand vision behind Holochain, of a truly decentralized, democratic, fairly distributed, yet secure internet, is one anyone and everyone can get behind. It’s a big dream, and a big payoff for all investors if it gets realized. But this is an incredibly long-term play, suitable for the truly patient investor.
To find out more, you can start with the Holochain website, which focuses on the blockchain technology. They have a separate website for the HOT token. If you’re especially mathematically minded, you could read the whitepaper, which is almost entirely technical terminology and formulas for describing algorithms, both of which will be largely incomprehensible to a lay person.