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Blockstack naming service (BNS)
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Blockstack Naming Service (BNS)

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This document gives an overview of how the Blockstack Naming Service work. This section introduces you to BNS and explains the following concepts:

  • TOC {:toc}

The (Blockstack Core) repository is the reference implementation of the Blockstack Naming Service.

What is BNS

The Blockstack Naming Service (BNS) is a network system that binds names to off-chain state without relying on any central points of control. It does so by embedding a log of its control-plane messages within a public blockchain, like Bitcoin.

Each BNS peer determines the state of each name by indexing these specially-crafted transactions. In doing so, each peer independently calculates the same global name state.

Names in BNS have three properties:

  • Names are globally unique. The protocol does not allow name collisions, and all well-behaved nodes resolve a given name to the same state.
  • Names are human-meaningful. Each name is chosen by its creator.
  • Names are strongly-owned. Only the name's owner can change the state it resolves to. Specifically, a name is owned by one or more ECDSA private keys.

Internally, a BNS node implements a replicated name database. Each BNS node keeps itself synchronized to all of the other ones in the world, so queries on one BNS node will be the same on other nodes. BNS nodes allow a name's owner to bind up to 40Kb of off-chain state to their name, which will be replicated to all BNS nodes via the [Atlas network]({{ site.baseurl }}/core/atlas/overview.html).

BNS nodes extract the name database log from an underlying blockchain (Blockstack Core currently uses Bitcoin, and had used Namecoin in the past). BNS uses the blockchain to establish a shared "ground truth" for the system: as long as two nodes have the same view of the blockchain, then they will build up the same database.

The biggest consequence for developers is that in BNS, reading name state is fast and cheap but writing name state is slow and expensive. This is because registering and modifying names requires one or more transactions to be sent to the underlying blockchain, and BNS nodes will not process them until they are sufficiently confirmed. Users and developers need to acquire and spend the requisite cryptocurrency (i.e. Bitcoin) to send BNS transactions.

Motivation behind naming services

We rely on naming systems in everyday life, and they play a critical role in many different applications. For example, when you look up a friend on social media, you are using the platform's naming service to resolve their name to their profile. When you look up a website, you are using the Domain Name Service to resolve the hostname to its host's IP address. When you check out a Git branch, you are using your Git client to resolve the branch name to a commit hash. When you look up someone's PGP key on a keyserver, you are resolving their key ID to their public key.

What kinds of things do we want to be true about names? In BNS, names are globally unique, names are human-meaningful, and names are strongly-owned. However, if you look at these examples, you'll see that each of them only guarantees two of these properties. This limits how useful they can be.

  • In DNS and social media, names are globally unique and human-readable, but not strongly-owned. The system operator has the final say as to what each names resolves to.

    • Problem: Clients must trust the system to make the right choice in what a given name resolves to. This includes trusting that no one but the system administrators can make these changes.
  • In Git, branch names are human-meaningful and strongly-owned, but not globally unique. Two different Git nodes may resolve the same branch name to different unrelated repository states.

    • Problem: Since names can refer to conflicting state, developers have to figure out some other mechanism to resolve ambiguities. In Git's case, the user has to manually intervene.
  • In PGP, names are key IDs. They are are globally unique and cryptographically owned, but not human-readable. PGP key IDs are derived from the keys they reference.

    • Problem: These names are difficult for most users to remember since they do not carry semantic information relating to their use in the system.

BNS names have all three properties, and none of these problems. This makes it a powerful tool for building all kinds of network applications. With BNS, we can do the following and more:

  • Build domain name services where hostnames can't be hijacked.
  • Build social media platforms where user names can't be stolen by phishers.
  • Build version control systems where repository branches do not conflict.
  • Build public-key infrastructure where it's easy for users to discover and remember each other's keys.

Organization of BNS

BNS names are organized into a global name hierarchy. There are three different layers in this hierarchy related to naming:

  • Namespaces. These are the top-level names in the hierarchy. An analogy to BNS namespaces are DNS top-level domains. Existing BNS namespaces include .id, .podcast, and .helloworld. All other names belong to exactly one namespace. Anyone can create a namespace, but in order for the namespace to be persisted, it must be launched so that anyone can register names in it. Namespaces are not owned by their creators.

  • BNS names. These are names whose records are stored directly on the blockchain. The ownership and state of these names are controlled by sending blockchain transactions. Example names include verified.podcast and muneeb.id. Anyone can create a BNS name, as long as the namespace that contains it exists already. The state for BNS names is usually stored in the [Atlas network]({{ site.baseurl }}/core/atlas/overview.html).

  • BNS subdomains. These are names whose records are stored off-chain, but are collectively anchored to the blockchain. The ownership and state for these names lives within the [Atlas network]({{ site.baseurl }}/core/atlas/overview.html). While BNS subdomains are owned by separate private keys, a BNS name owner must broadcast their subdomain state. Example subdomains include jude.personal.id and podsaveamerica.verified.podcast. Unlike BNS namespaces and names, the state of BNS subdomains is not part of the blockchain consensus rules.

A feature comparison matrix summarizing the similarities and differences between these name objects is presented below:

Feature Namespaces BNS names BNS Subdomains
Globally unique X X X
Human-meaningful X X X
Owned by a private key X X
Anyone can create X X [1]
Owner can update X [1]
State hosted on-chain X X
State hosted off-chain X X
Behavior controlled by consensus rules X X
May have an expiration date X

[1] Requires the cooperation of a BNS name owner to broadcast its transactions

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