Update: We migrated our blog. Check out the new Blockstack blog!

We're excited to announce that Onename is opening up its API to the outside world for developers to register, update, and perform lookups on blockchain-based user identities (also known as blockchain ID).

The API we're releasing today is important for two main reasons:

It supports decentralization: Our API allows developers to register and update passcards while keeping ownership of private keys completely client-side. This is a big enabling factor for many types of decentralized applications.

It greatly simplifies things for developers: The API is meant for ease-of-use and reliability. The complexity of dealing with the blockchain is hidden from developers, as they don't need to run servers or deal with blockchain-level errors and can simply focus on their application logic. Further, most of the software underlying the API is open-source and developers can play with it themselves.

We use this API in our own production system and a few companies like Stampery and Kryptokit have already started using it. If you're a developer, check it out and if you plan on using it too, we'd love to hear about how.


Deeper Dive into the API check

The Onename API provides a common interface to a couple of separate sub-systems that we've built over the past year. Our current production system is built on Namecoin and we've solved several scalability challenges of Namecoin along with extending the basic functionality provided by the underlying blockchain.

Scaling Read Calls:

The Namecoin daemon (namecoind) is a monolithic piece of software where network operations, database management, wallet functionality etc is all done in the same process. Namecoind requires significantly higher memory for serving key/value pairs than other data stores because that's not the only job it's doing. Further, namecoind currently has poor memory management.

Figure (a) shows read performance for namecoind read calls for 30,000 passcards (user profiles). The tests were performed on a 15GB EC2 instance with a local client that is talking to the JSON-RPC interface of namecoind over HTTP (using this library). We compare the results with an equivalent JSON-RPC over HTTP implementation using MongoDB and memcached, respectively (code here). We used a local client to avoid wide-area latency in our test runs.

a) Network setup/overhead is the main bottleneck. Namecoind, MongoDB, and memcached have comparable performance to a dumb echo server (namecoind is making extra calls for certain profiles because of 520 bytes per record limit). Without the network setup/overhead, using MongoDB or memcached directly gives far better performance. When namecoind has "enough" memory, read-calls are mostly network bound.

b) Namecoind requires a lot of memory for scaling. Figure (b) shows the performance of a single call to fetch the entire namespace data from namecoind-2GB, namecoind-15GB, and MongoDB respectively. Using namecoind for read-calls really shouldn't require this much memory. Memory requirements and reliability (namecoind also crashes a lot) are the two main reasons why instead of deploying a lot of namecoind nodes, we instead deploy our custom index of namecoind data (available here).

Blockchain for Cache Invalidation:

One surprising use case of blockchain that we discovered is using it for cache invalidation. Our index of Namecoin data needs to stay in sync with the blockchain. Similarly, for building our search index, we get a copy of all passcards and process them. When passcards are registered or updated, we need to refresh our search index. This requires cache invalidation; our search index is made from a cached copy of the namespace and, as the original data changes, our index gets outdated.

Using the blockchain makes search index syncing fairly simple. Since all passcard updates/registrations must be announced in new blocks, we listen to the broadcast channel (blockchain) and refresh the index when there is new data.

The above figure shows our architecture for the search API. Onename API server is open to the Internet and can talk to our private subnet that runs namecoind nodes, search API server(s), and the search index. Blockchain is kept in-sync by talking to the Namecoin P2P network and when new data is detected in blocks, the search API server triggers a search index refresh. Explicit cache invalidation is a powerful use case of blockchain and we found it to be very useful.

Building Unspents Index:

The Namecoin daemon doesn't give unspent outputs (UTXOs) for all addresses. It only keeps UTXOs for addresses in your own wallet in the index. Jameson Lopp (Bitgo) has a great writeup on the challenges of blockchain indexing. We faced similar challenges for making the UTXOs index for Namecoin. The task requires going through all transaction in all blocks and saving only the outputs that haven't been spent yet. Below are two observations:

a) Blockchain is a poor data store. Our first implementation used the blockchain as the main data store and processed blocks/transaction starting from the genesis block. This was inherently a linear operation and 1) decoding of data and 2) inability to easily find specific UTXOs slowed down processing. We quickly switched to saving decoded data from transactions in an external datastore (MongoDB) and created custom indexes to speed up processing.

b) Choice of indexes and data structures matter a lot. The above graph shows the performance improvements from low-hanging fruit like database optimizations (ensuring indexes for frequent queries, using find().limit(1) instead of find_one(), etc.) and using appropriate data structures (e.g., not using Python arrays). Performance improvement from even basic optimizations was significant, given the large data set.

The size of blockchain (Bitcoin/Namecoin/other) is going to keep growing and calculating index of UTXOs will become a more costly operation with time. We plan to look at ways to parallelize this operation more and will report back on any interesting findings. Meanwhile, try out our API and feel free to give us feedback!

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