Deterministic Querying for the Distributed Web

Brendan O’Brien
Michael Hucka

November 2017

Abstract

The current infrastructure that underlies the distribution and processing of data over the Internet has enabled dramatic advances in a wide variety of human activities. Recent trends promoting open data promise even greater benefits as the number and variety of networked datasets grow. However, while current technologies and architectures obviously do work, they also show signs of systemic inefficiencies that impede effective large-scale discovery, distribution, preservation and reuse of datasets. An important source of inefficiency is rooted in the database-centric architecture that underlies much of data processing on the Internet today. The transition to a content-addressed permanent web offers an opportunity to replace certain software architecture patterns with alternatives that are more efficient and scale more effectively. We introduce one such new pattern, deterministic querying, that combines formalized query definitions, formalized data descriptions, linked metadata, hashing, and a content-addressed file system. The result supports database-free reuse of data and data processing results—and can do so on the scale of the global Internet.

Table of Contents

1 Introduction

It is by now a cliché to say that we live in an information-rich world. Though exact numbers are unavailable for the amount of electronic data stored around the world, it is clear it must already be stupendous. Measured in terms of web pages, the best estimate in mid-2017 puts the number of visible web pages at nearly 50 billion [Bosch et al. 2016], while in terms of data transmitted over the Internet, global IP traffic was estimated at 1.2 zettabytes in 2016 and is predicted to reach 3.3 zettabytes per year by 2021 [Cisco 2017].

In the business, government, and academic sectors, making data sets freely available under open terms is not a new development historically, but it has in recent years accelerated. While there is no way to know what proportion of the total data visible today is open data rather than private data, even a small fraction would translate to a tremendous amount. This is a welcome development: open data is a boon to research and progress [Gewin 2016; Lowndes et al. 2017; Miguel et al. 2014; Murray-Rust 2008; Piwowar and Vision 2013]. The continuing growth of data being made available on the Internet promises a windfall of benefits in many areas, enabling new discoveries, powering new innovations, lowering costs, and increasing transparency [Ferguson et al. 2014; Kansakar and Hossain 2016; Madan 2017; Martin and Begany 2017; McKiernan et al. 2016; Uhlir and Schröder 2007; West et al. 2014].

The open data movement has in part been inspired by and driven by the open source movement, and many of the principles espoused by open data advocates mirror those of open source efforts [Baack 2015]. At the heart of both movements is the understanding that collective collaboration drives collective benefits. However, open source has developed methods that are arguably more effective than comparable methods used in open data today. In particular, open source developers have effective methods for structuring their work in composable packages intended for reuse. We argue that the comparable operations in open data today are cumbersome and inefficient due to the prevailing system architectures and design patterns in use.

1.1 The open-source advantage

In open source, developers are encouraged to share their work, and to seek out existing solutions to problems before developing new solutions [Bergquist and Ljungberg 2001; Crowston et al. 2008; Sojer and Henkel 2010]. As a result, open source software builds upon other software, often by composing larger works out of smaller, reusable elements [Haefliger et al. 2008]. This is possible because software elements—objects, functions, programs, modules—can be reused as static entities incorporated into other works. The software elements represent intellectual labor: they are answers to questions. Open-source developers solve new problems in part by seeking out answers to old questions and then using those answers to build their solutions. This approach works well in software partly because developers have created a concise lexicon to describe the questions, the forms of the answers, and how to store and exchange them. The questions and answers are defined by specific input and output conventions; storage, versioning, search and sharing is accomplished by revision control systems such as git; and composition is achieved by linking source code together into larger works.

In open data, the situation is more diverse and the steps are more inefficient. The most coherent framework for data reuse is Linked Data [Auer et al. 2014; Heath and Bizer 2011]. This involves databases serving content on the Internet in RDF format [e.g., Maali et al. 2012]; search and discovery is aided by some topical catalogs [e.g., Pesce et al. 2015]. Consumers can query and reference the content in the databases, often by creating pipelines to access, translate and process the data at the user end [e.g., Klímek et al. 2016]. However, Linked Data sources remain a minority today—most data sources are shared using the far simpler approach of exposing a network API that enables users to search and access content stored in databases. The heterogeneity of the APIs and data formats in these cases complicates reuse of data and pushes complexity to individual users.

Whether using Linked Data or more conventional networked databases, it is important to note that different users often end up recreating the same solutions over and over. The pattern is that a computing system is built to consume datasets, translate the data, perform operations on the data, and then interpret the results. Sometimes the results are stored in a local (not shared) database, usually in a different format than the source format; other times, the intermediate data produced by the operations is thrown away because the processed data is either assumed to be of no value to anyone else, or else the cost of storing, managing and sharing intermediate results is assumed to be higher than simply recomputing them on demand.

The consequence is that answers to questions are often not being shared, discovered or reused by other potential users of open data.

1.2 Databases and modern software stacks

Central to the problem of treating open data as reusable components is that there is no commonly-accepted method for composition. That is, using the output of an open data process as the input to another open data process when the processes are not part of a common pipeline. Methods for reusing computational results in distributed workflows do exist, but they are specific to particular execution environments or frameworks [e.g., Elghandour and Aboulnaga 2012]. No common scheme exists for persisting and reusing results of computations produced by widely-used software stacks such as those within today’s web applications—the applications that power so many cloud-based services.

The architectural patterns underlying modern software stacks are part of the problem. One of the greatest barriers to efficient reuse of results is the positioning of the database. In many cases, the database is placed at the heart of a modern web-based application. Data is stored in the database in a raw form, but then must be encoded into whatever form is consumed by the user at access time. This approach of interpreting the data outward towards the user makes perfect sense when the primary “view” or representation of this data is in the form of structured HTML:

  Database -> Process (HTML Render) -> Network -> Web Browser

From there, a common next step is to provide programmatic access to this data via an HTTP API, which is essentially another “view” on the same central database:

  Database -> Process (API Encode) -> Network -> API Decode

This approach is flexible, and there is no question that it works—after all, it serves as the basis of many software systems. However, this approach is the product of a long history of accumulated technical contexts, some of which are now the source of a great deal of inefficiency. Consider what happens when the results of a data service are processed by another service:

  Database -> Process (API Encode) -> Network -> Process (API Decode) -> Database

In today’s software environments, this pattern uses multiple servers to take data out of one database, serve it across a network, decode, process, and put it into another database (which requires additional encoding if the output of the processing does not match how it is stored in the database—and it often does not). Since the amount of computing needed to process data grows with the amount of data [e.g., Muir et al. 2016] and the amount of data generated by human activity grows continually, the amount of resources expended on this inefficient arrangement continues to increase. Of greater concern is that every step requires separate engineering and long-term software maintenance. The pattern favors holding the data as closed information because “opening” the data is an active effort that would require additional engineering time, CPU cycles, etc.

This “database in the middle” pattern is the result of serving the needs of application data, or data that mainly serves as structured state storage for software. When referring to open data, the data in question is often research data, that is, data whose primary purpose is to be mined and probed for insights. There is no doubt that many types of data can be both application and research data, but the vast majority of databases are built to favor application data, prioritizing speed and efficiency of query execution with little-to-no concern for what is done with the results of a query.

While speed and efficiency of query execution is certainly a concern for research data, a number of other factors take up far more time than the queries themselves. Finding, cleaning, and preparing a dataset often takes far longer than querying [García et al. 2016; Lohr 2014; Rogers 2013], and there is no clear method for storing, distributing, and composing the resulting datasets, queries, and their results.

1.3 Reimagining distributed open data

If it were possible to short-circuit some of the steps in the architectural pattern above, it could be made more efficient, at least for certain use cases. For example, what if the decoding steps could be removed? For that matter, what if the databases could be removed too, and the network itself somehow could be the database for both storage and querying? Then the process diagram would look like this:

  Network -> Process -> Network

The idea that the network itself could be “queried for data” as if it were a database may seem ludicrous at first. The rest of this white paper describes how this can be achieved, using a combination of technologies and architectural patterns. Renewed attention to distributed, content-addressed networks with a robust linked-data structure provides the foundation necessary for achieving this. What follows is a plan for a suite of tools that collectively provide the necessary components to be able to query a network, with the explicit design goal of facilitating accumulation of composable results through data that is held on the network.

2 Data, data structures, hashes, and queries

Deterministic querying is designed for content-addressed network systems. In content-based addressing, data is stored and retrieved not by its location (as is done in the current Web via HTTP), but rather by a function computed over its content—specifically, a hash function that uniquely identifies the content [Aurora 2007]. This content address can be computed independently by anyone for any content simply by running the hash function; they do not require a centralized authority to coordinate the assignment of labels or addresses. This decentralized approach is the foundation of an emerging, modern, reliable data commons that deterministic querying aims to support.

Content-based addressing, also known as compare-by-hash [Aurora 2007], was first used for networked file systems in the early 2000’s [Muthitacharoen et al. 2001; Tolia et al. 2003], and is a staple of peer-to-peer systems today. In this work, we specifically target IPFS (the InterPlanetary File System), an open-source, distributed, content-addressed, peer-to-peer, versioned file system and protocol [Benet 2014; Protocol Labs 2017a]. IPFS distributes content over a network using a secure distributed hash table [Baumgart and Mies 2007; Freedman et al. 2004; Maymounkov and Mazieres 2002]. The basic premise of IPFS and other content-addressed file systems is that identical content will produce identical hash values, and thus be identified uniquely.

A fundamental goal of deterministic querying is to maximize hash collisions in content-addressed networks, because hash collisions are what enable discovery and reuse of existing results. The techniques described below are designed to ensure that datasets with identical characteristics, as well as semantically-equivalent queries for datasets, each resolve to the same hash even if the datasets and queries are created by different parties in different locations at different times. These shared characteristics form a common lexicon that peers in a distributed network can use to compare datasets—and do that on an Internet-scale graph.

To maximize these hash collisions, the process of describing datasets and queries must be made precise and consistent. To the greatest extent possible, content and queries that are the same must produce the same hash value; thus, definitions of data resources and queries must follow carefully-defined conventions, and alternative forms must be limited. We compensate for this rigidity by storing nonessential data separately, then connecting that to datasets and queries using separate mechanisms for linking and discovery. This leads to the four building blocks of deterministic querying: Data, Dataset, Structure, and Query.

2.1 Data and Structure

In the context of deterministic querying, Data has its natural meaning: a collection of raw values of something—numerical values, qualitative values, anything—organized in some systematic way. An example file format for storing data today is the venerable comma-separated values (CSV) format, which consists of rows of numerical or text values separated by commas, with an optional first line containing column headings. Here is a fictitious example dataset named precip:

lat,lng,precip_amt,date,note
60.00,-50.049303,0,2017-02-14,no precip to report
60.00,-50.049303,1014,2017-02-15,two storm cells observed
...

A Data object in a content-addressed file system will be a static object identified by a hash value (henceforth, to be called simply its hash). Assume that this data file resolves to the following base58-encoded [Gagern et al. 2017] hash on the network:

QmNk2XkDpn8vBantgpHt6B52kcyfHcQVJUF4QzDqjiGu52

As discussed above, this hash will be unique: any file whose computed hash matches the one above will contain the same content, no matter how or where it was created (assuming we use the same conventions for line endings, spaces and some other details), or where it’s physically located in the content-addressed file system. Queries to this data file will always run against the same set of bytes because the hash is deterministic.

Being able to interpret the bytes contained inside a given Data object requires additional information outside of the Data itself. This information is needed to provide precise details about how to interpret the content of a Data object. That is the purpose of Structure. It contains fields that indicate such things as the format of a Data object, the character encoding, compression settings, and other details. Here is an example expressed in a human-readable JSON format:

{
  "qri" : "1.0",
  "format" : "text/csv",
  "formatConfig" : {
    "delimiter": ",",
    "doubleQuote": true,
    "lineTerminator": "\r\n",
    "quoteChar": "\"",
    "skipInitialSpace": true,
    "header": true
  },
  "encoding" : "utf-8",
  "compression" : "gzip",
  "schema" : {
    "fields" : [
      { "title" : "lat", "type" : "float", "default" : 0 },
      { "title" : "lng", "type" : "float", "default" : 0 },
      { "title" : "precip_amt", "type" : "integer", "default" : 0 },
      { "title" : "datestamp", "type" : "datestamp", "default" : 0 },
      { "title" : "note", "type": "string", "default": "" }
    ]
  },
}

The detailed specification of Structure is given elsewhere, but as the example above illustrates, a Structure contains information that enables software and users to read the content of a Data object. For example, format specifies how the data is stored; the field value is a MIME type value (e.g., "text/csv" for CSV [Shafranovich 2005]). The related field formatConfig removes as much ambiguity as possible about how to interpret the specified format because some formats have a number of dialects, and variants need to be identified exactly.

The field schema merits some additional explanation. Many formats such as CSV do not internally define the data types of values and provide no standard way of communicating this information, which forces the requirement to define an approach for externalizing it outside of a Data file. It turns out, however, that describing the format explicitly in a generalized way also makes it possible to store and reuse those descriptions independently: they become another object in the content-addressed storage space, hashed and stored like everything else. The structure of schema is intended to be as interoperable as possible with the frictionless data specification [Frictionless Data 2017], which has made great inroads in this area.

Structure is designed in such a way that it contains nothing about the meaning of the data. This has the benefit that if the values of a Data file change, the Structure can remain the same; if multiple Data objects anywhere on an IPFS network all have the same structure, the Structure object can remain the same. This is true even if the Data objects are about entirely different things_. As will become more clear below, this is part of the fundamental insight that makes deterministic querying possible.

While we focus on the CSV data format, these concepts apply just as easily to other data formats, and the structure specification is designed to accommodate this interoperability. JSON, XML, Microsoft Excel(TM) Spreadsheets, sqlite files, are all examples of formats that Structure should be able to normalize by using the same general approach.

2.2 Dataset

A Structure describes the form of a Data object. The two are connected together, along with metadata about the Data, in a Dataset object.

As illustrated above, a Dataset references one Data and one Structure object, and it also adds additional descriptive metadata. A Dataset must resolve to one and only one Data entity; this is accomplished by using the unique hashes of the associated Data and Structure objects. This separation of concerns achieves two important goals:

  1. The same data can be described by different metadata. For example, a repeated experiment may produce identical data, but it should be described differently if only to indicate different time stamps or conditions. Separating the description from the values saves storage and bandwidth because only the changes (the metadata) are stored separately.

  2. Metadata formats can be changed and updated independently. In many cases, data remains static after it is gathered. Software frameworks, however, often change rapidly, and developers and users find needs to change and update metadata about data. With the separation described here, metadata can be changed without changing the underlying data objects. This not only saves resources: it makes clear in a concrete way that it is the same data.

To retain a trail of changes, Dataset contains a field called previous that references the hash of another Dataset object. This establishes a directed, acyclic graph (DAG) of changes to any component of a dataset, whether this is the metadata, or the Data, or the Structure. For example, when changes are made to metadata without changing the Data or its Structure, only the Dataset object needs to change:

Conversely, if the Data changes but the Structure does not, the new Dataset object will reference the hash of a new Data object but point to the same Structure:

Finally, if the Structure changes, the Data may need to change as well, if the structural change affects how the data is read or written. When the Structure change does require a Data change, it is a schema migration. A new Dataset object is created and it points to two new Structure and Data objects. This indicates that the underlying dataset has changed in such a way—either in structure or in values—that its hash signature is no longer the same.

In each case above, the Dataset identifies the unique Structure object that defines the format of the data in the Data object(s), and the value of the previous has points to any previous Dataset definition that may have come before.

There are additional fields in Dataset; these are discussed further below.

2.3 Query

In the abstract, information retrieval is a process of obtaining information from resources by posing questions [Sanderson and Croft 2012]. In contemporary computer terms, those “questions” are expressed in some formal language and acted upon by computer programs. Information can be retrieved from many different kinds of resources; when the resources are databases, we speak of database queries. We focus initially on the world’s most widely-used database query language, SQL (Structured Query Language), which has a long history [Chamberlin 2009], a syntax standardized by ISO [ISO/IEC JTC 1/SC 32 2016], and is the basis of many database-powered software systems in the world today. As will become clear, the approach described here is not limited to SQL—any query language syntax that obeys similar principles and can be processed in similar ways can be used in deterministic queries.

Queries written in SQL make reference to columns in a tabular database, and express conditions that values must satisfy in order to be selected. Here is an example from the precip dataset referenced above:

SELECT datestamp, lat, lng, precip_amt FROM precip WHERE precip_amt > 1000

This query references a table in a database (precip) and columns within that table (datestamp, lat, lng, precip_amt), and stipulates a conditional expression (precip_amt > 1000) that certain column values must satisfy. Note that this query knows nothing about the purpose of the database: all that matters is that the table has four columns and the expression precip_amt > 1000 makes syntactic sense for the kinds of values in the table. Although labels such as lat, lng and precip may have meaning to human readers, in reality the labels in SQL have absolutely no semantic meaning to the database itself. This concept is nothing new—it is by design in SQL, so that database systems can be applied to many uses and types of data.

Now suppose we separate the query from the dataset it is referring to in such a way that the query is written in an abstract, data-agnostic way, and the binding of table columns in the query to table columns in an actual dataset is maintained separately. This abstract query can be written by establishing some conventions. We replace the concrete table name precip, with an abstract identifier: a, and repeat the process for table columns, replacing concrete column names with col_0, col_1, col_2, etc. We also strip out any ambiguity by adding the table name to each column reference, leaving us with the following abstract query:

SELECT a.col_3, a.col_0, a.col_1, a.col_2 FROM a WHERE a.col_2 > 1000

Now further suppose that we define the shape of table a by writing an abstracted form of the Structure object, described above. This defines precisely the types of data values expected for each column in the query, as well as other properties of the data. And naturally, we can do the same for the result of the query: use another Structure object to describe the form of the data that the query will produce.

This query is now independent of the semantics of the data: it operates on the form of the data and can be applied to any data that matches the description in the Structure of the input. What’s more, assuming that we define clear rules for writing these queries in a standard, consistent form, the same query will always have the same hash value even if it is regenerated by different processes at different times in different locations. And of course, the Structure objects for both the input and output are defined by their hashes.

{
  "qri" : "1.0",
  "inputStructures" : {
    "a" : "/ipfs/QmNxLFUUvPEY55E1DGLmBKJa51CmHAuoUqfLE6CetxqvvV",
  },
  "syntax" : "application/sql",
  "statement" : "SELECT a.col_3, a.col_0, a.col_1, a.col_2 FROM a WHERE a.col_2 > 1000",
  "outputStructure" : "/ipfs/QmP6XohRBYc8y52dpyJsANYq1SZBzy618t388Wk2SPKNG9"
}

The field syntax is a MIME media type string [Freed et al. 2013] indicating the syntax of the query statement. The media type for SQL [Shafranovich 2013] is used here as an example.

2.4 Query execution

Executing a query is conceptually simple, and requires only a consistent procedure for the process. After a user’s database query is obtained from an external mechanism (such as a user interface, or another software system), a query engine can proceed roughly as follows:

  1. The result of processing a query will be a Dataset object, so query processing begins with a blank Dataset. The query processing engine records the original, concrete query expression in the field queryString. The data referenced by the query are recorded as in the field resources as a set of other Dataset objects.

  2. The original query is parsed to produce internal Abstract Syntax Tree (AST) representation (a standard approach for parsing and manipulating structured languages).

  3. The query engine rewrites the AST. First, it examines the different parts of the query AST and processes any aliasing statements (e.g., an expression such as SELECT foo AS bar ... in SQL) or other modifications. The engine rewrites the AST to produce the abstract query. It then records the mappings between entities such as tables and columns in Data objects; this is done for both the inputs and outputs of the query expression. Finally, it rewrites the AST to convert data resource references into abstract resource references. In our example above, this is the step that converts query references like a.datestamp into a.col_0. This is written in the field statement in the Dataset object.

  4. Next, the engine executes the query, producing the resulting concrete Data .

  5. The query engine writes the results to IPFS as a Dataset object, writing the Data, Query and Structure hash references into the Dataset, and saving the output Data too.

2.5 Query output

The result of a query is another Dataset object and potentially a new Data object referenced by it. This form of Dataset makes use of a few additional fields. The example below illustrates a complete, mostly-dereferenced result (resources.precip dataset and data have been left as references for brevity).

{
  "queryString": "SELECT datestamp, lat, lng, precip_amt FROM precip",
  "resources": {
    "precip": "/ipfs/QmaPAxymKpMQDFjneKs8XRvrTWQF4gLbaenBQtB4MmSE46"
  },
  "query": {
    "statement": "SELECT a.col_2, a.col_3, a.col_4, a.col_5 FROM a",
    "inputStructures": {
      "a": {
        "format": "text/csv",
        "formatConfig": { "headerRow": false },
        "schema": {
          "fields": [
            { "name": "col_0", "type": "datestamp" },
            { "name": "col_1", "type": "float" },
            { "name": "col_2", "type": "float" },
            { "name": "col_3", "type": "integer" }
          ]
        }
      }
    },
    "outputStructure": {
      "format": "text/csv",
      "formatConfig": { "headerRow": false },
      "schema": {
        "fields": [
          { "name": "datestamp", "type": "datestamp" },
          { "name": "lat", "type": "float" },
          { "name": "lng", "type": "float" },
          { "name": "precip_amt", "type": "integer" }
        ]
      }
    },
    "syntax" : "application/sql",
    "qri" : "1.0",
  },
  "structure": {
    "format": "text/csv",
    "formatConfig": { "headerRow": false },
    "schema": {
      "fields": [
        { "name": "datestamp", "type": "datestamp" },
        { "name": "lng", "type": "float" },
        { "name": "lat", "type": "float" },
        { "name": "precip_amt", "type": "integer" }
      ]
    }
  },
  "abstractStructure": {
    "format": "text/csv",
    "formatConfig": { "headerRow": false },
    "schema": {
      "fields": [
        { "name": "col_0", "type": "datestamp" },
        { "name": "col_1", "type": "float" },
        { "name": "col_2", "type": "float" },
        { "name": "col_3", "type": "integer" }
      ]
    }
  }
  "data": "/ipfs/QmQg6LPcPTxrgDmhYpvCZSgDR7KJKjtveyDGp1T4583afp",
  "length": 2341472,
  "timestamp": "2017-08-27T13:14:10.479631674-04:00",
  "title": "Normalized Precipitation"
  ...
}

This brings all of the elements together: the fields for the concrete queryString and the resources it referenced, the query field holding the Query object, and the structure and data that indicate the results of running the query, with a length field to inform readers of the size of the data referenced by data. Note how the original query statement in queryString references a specific table name, "precip"; this is linked to a resource by the corresponding value inside the resources field. Along with structure we have included the full abstractStructure counterpart here as well.

A Dataset contains numerous additional metadata fields that provide context and useful information about the nature of what the query is about. A timestamp and title round out the example above, but other metadata fields exist.

2.6 Hash Collision and Discovery

So the question stands, why go to all this effort calculating abstract queries and structures? The advantage of using these abstract forms becomes clear when isolated and placed on a content-addressed network. At time of addition, we separate out the abstract structure as independent files and write each to the network, which gives us a concrete hash that we store in Dataset as a reference. For example, here is the above output dataset in its referenced form:

{
  "query" : "/ipfs/QmREmnNphzN2Eq2zqqRUqYzD8GuapgFCD3HyrDtoDt2t6y",
  "queryString": "SELECT datestamp, lat, lng, precip_amt FROM precip",
  "resources": {
    "precip": "/ipfs/QmaPAxymKpMQDFjneKs8XRvrTWQF4gLbaenBQtB4MmSE46"
  },
  "structure": "/ipfs/QmfC8G1Rb2Gnr2oViDVrQ53YWoZWqxixjNiqRUK2EV2bvu",
  "abstractStructure" : "/ipfs/QmVARDRfVh24FoYrzbdbwMQf7zQFdNv7VM15WVUuukSttV",
  "data": "/ipfs/QmQg6LPcPTxrgDmhYpvCZSgDR7KJKjtveyDGp1T4583afp",
  "length": 2341472,
  "timestamp": "2017-08-27T13:14:10.479631674-04:00",
  "title": "Normalized Precipitation"
  ...
}

Instead of storing the abstract structures itself in the dataset, we store the reference to its hash.

Sometime later, we come upon another dataset whose abstract structure is the same. When true, the hash of the abstract structure will collide with the previous hash. Once stored on the network, we can determine that these two datasets are machine-interoperable through simple string comparison of the field references. These datasets may in fact not be directly relatable due to practical differences in data collection methods or other conventions (which will hopefully be annotated in the concrete dataset structure definitions, which will carry a much higher degree of variance), but through this process we gain the crucial knowledge that these two datasets are interoperable at the machine level.

This collision property creates a naturally-occurring traversable graph if data interchangeability. Given any collection of datasets, it is possible to “discover” if any of datasets are interchangeable through comparison of their abstract structures. This represents a step forward in getting data “stacking” to work.

We take this concept one step further by having queries store references to abstract structures, and storing queries themselves as hash-references. If the first dataset is used in a query we know with confidence that we can run the second dataset through the same query.

In this form, queries become reusable by any dataset whose abstract structures match. Anyone who has written a nontrivial SQL query can attest to the desire to maximize the value of this labour. While this “query reuse” will be nonsensical in many forms, knowing that a query can be reused means that User interfaces can suggest “template” queries that may help reduce repeated work. This form of abstraction also opens up the possibilities of chaining multiple queries together to form data pipelines, flowing new datasets through a cascade of queries, producing a number of resulting datasets.

2.7 Structure and Query Analysis

While this natural interoperability is of great benefit to end users, a second benefit arises over time as the abstract structure and query address space is populated. These abstract forms limit the size of the hash space that will be consumed to a meaningfully small number of permutations. As more dataset and queries are added to the network, we can collect and analyze this address space for additional insights. Enumerating the frequency of occurrence of different types of abstract structures will allow us to build tools that steer datasets toward these naturally arising common-forms, which will add to the collective usefulness of these forms.

We can leverage this abstract interoperability to cut across different subjects of research. Because structures from vastly different areas of research may share the same abstract structure, they are naturally connected by the network. In this form, a number of “false positive” connections will naturally arise, showing the interoperability of seemingly unrelated datasets from dramatically different areas of research. With deterministic querying it is entirely possible that, for example, gorilla population data may hash-collide with data on the population of the city of London. While this may seem nonsensical, we believe this form of toll-free comparability will encourage users to conceive of entirely new uses for data that had gone previously undiscovered. Combined with machine learning (particularly random forest decision trees), it is possible to have a computer chase down any number of these data comparison permutations looking for new insights from hard-earned data and queries.

3 Metadata

The description so far has touched only briefly on metadata, but metadata is a fundamental ingredient in all open data applications. Data resources are useless to humans without descriptive metadata. It is commonly understood that without a proper description of the resource, it is impossible to develop meaningful ontological connections with other resources. At the machine level it may be perfectly fine to compare two fields from different Data objects named precip of type float, but clearly there will be a problem if one field is measured in millimeters and the other is measured in inches.

3.1 Metadata in Dataset

A Dataset is where metadata about data and data operations is stored. It is an express design goal of deterministic querying that it can support, at minimum, first-order metadata formats that are in use today. We also want to build on as many hard-earned lessons as possible from the Collections, Libraries, Archives and Museum communities (CLAM) for archival needs.

Dataset acts to hold descriptive metadata, and is intended to be able to hold arbitrary metadata content. Descriptive metadata can and should be author attributed, associating descriptive claims about a resource with a cryptographic keypair which may represent a person, group of people, or software (the specification for author attribution will be covered in a separate document).

The separation of metadata from data files allows metadata to change independently of Data, Query and Structure. Through the use of Linked Data (discussed in the next section), any number of resource definitions can form Directed Acyclic Graphs (DAGs). This encourages Structure and Query to participate in multiple DAG histories. This multiple-history approach allows connection between, say, a principle resource and a “cleaned” variant through descriptive metadata. This also allows queries to participate in the history formation process. Using these techniques it is possible to use querying a tool for transforming data into an alternate form, and writing the query to a DAG in a form that facilitates greater machine-repeatability.

3.2 Requirements for metadata interoperability

A technical challenge in designing useful support for metadata is that while a Dataset needs to support arbitrary metadata, it must also must place some restrictions on the use of reserved keywords. The approach followed here is influenced by Project Open Data [Data 2017]; in developing this scheme, we compared the metadata fields used in several prominent metadata formats, and selected a subset that can cover the minimum of many formats using a common set of terms whenever possible. We focus in particular on the Data Catalog vocabulary [W3C 2014], CKAN/DKAN [CKAN Association 2017], Schema.org [Guha et al. 2016; Schema.org 2012], the Open Knowledge Foundation datapackage [Frictionless Data 2017] format, and the DataVerse APIs [Crosas 2011; King 2007]. By making use of same-term metadata wherever possible, and placing restrictions on fields that intersect and cover the minimum information across these formats, we leave open the potential to write software libraries that can translate Dataset metadata to/from all of these metadata standards. It is worth noting that any translation to this format will require rewriting content-addressed network hashes to a URL-based system.

4 Integration with Linked Data and Linked Open Data

Other schemes for linking distributed datasets exist, particularly in the form of Linked Data [Heath and Bizer 2011]. The conceptual principles of Linked Data are relatively straightforward: data is represented as subject-predicate-object triples expressed in RDF, where everything (entities, predicates, data sources) uses URIs as identifiers, and data is made accessible over HTTP. The standard search mechanism for Linked Data is SPARQL, patterned after SQL. Linked Open Data is simply open data (i.e., data made available under open license terms) made available through Linked Data technologies.

There are similarities between Linked Data and deterministic querying, and it is an explicit design goal to advance natural interoperability. As with Linked Data, the deterministic querying approach is intended to allow the result of any operation on a dataset to be used by any number of outside software tools able to parse widely-adopted formats. The main difference is that it should be possible to traverse all recorded operations without the use of any database technology.

The first step toward realizing the value of this interoperability will be to add support for the InterPlanetary Linked Data specification, IPLD [Protocol Labs 2017b]. IPLD is the linked data complement to IPFS; it allows all hash-linked data structures to be treated using a unified data model analogous to linked data in the Semantic Web sense [Auer et al. 2014; Heath and Bizer 2011]. IPLD defines conventions for writing links between objects, such that the link is content-addressed. This allows linked paths to be expressed from one object, through middle objects, to a target object—much like linked data in general.

4.1 Linking to other distributed frameworks

Content addressing via hashes is not limited to IPFS: git, Ethereum and other distributed systems also use content addressing via hashes. IPLD is designed in such a way that it can work with other hash-based content addressing systems. Thus, IPLD provides a neutral, uniform way to address and link entities across different hash-based distributed systems—IPFS, git, Ethereum, and others.

This opens up additional potential for a deterministic querying processor. Through use of an IPLD adapter, it is possible to coordinate query results with other linked data structures like blockchain-based cryptocurrencies or git version histories. This data-format bridging opens up possibilities for connecting deterministic querying to other kinds of resources. For example, it should be possible to take advantage of Ethereum to create smart contracts for procuring data and fulfilling processing and analysis tasks. To take another example, an IPLD adapter could connect formal data schemas and test data with source code to process that data, referencing specific versions of source code stored using git.

5 Storage efficiency

A natural concern about the scheme described so far is the question of disk space usage. If every unique data file is saved to IPFS as a separate entity, it may seem that a storage explosion would be unavoidable over the course of using a scheme such as deterministic querying (or indeed IPFS in general). How can this be mitigated?

5.1 Leveraging the properties of IPFS

IPFS partially solves this problem for us. An IPFS file store is actually a content-addressed store of file blocks—files are broken into a set of fixed-size blocks that are each content-addressed by hashes. A file is in reality a collection of references to hashed blocks:

Crucially, file blocks can be shared: after all, if two content blocks hash to the same hash value, their content is identical, which means a given IPFS file store can simply point to the common blocks instead of storing separate copies. Moreover, as with everything else in IPFS, the hashes are unique across the entire IPFS address space, and so file blocks—parts of files—can be spread across the network.

This can be leveraged further in a deterministic querying system. In particular, we can take advantage of this feature to avoid duplication of data between slightly-altered files. Two files that have a similar-enough composition will be automatically deduplicated upon addition through hash collision. In a simplified example, adding data to the end of a raw file will result in only a one-block addition, instead of fully duplicating the entire file. This is yet another benefit of using content addressing and the underlying IPFS technology.

5.2 Implementing efficient file decomposition strategies

An implementation of deterministic querying can be smarter about file storage, and additional steps can be taken to improve the rate of deduplication. Using IPLD adapters for common file formats, CSV, JSON, and other files stored with “rows” of entries can be broken into blocks along breaks between rows. By breaking down these blocks into logical parts, we increase the chance of deduplication between files. This can achieve much smaller storage overhead for similar dataset data.

Coupled with the fact that operations on data will be row-oriented. This further opens up possibilities for streaming blocks and distributed computation, given that they will be stored as valid sets of one or more rows.

6 Properties of deterministic querying

The combination of IPFS and the machinery described above gives us the following. First, raw data in a file is permanently, uniquely identified by a cryptographic hash: given such a hash, we can retrieve the corresponding Data object from IPFS and we can be sure that what we get is the dataset that was stored at that hash. Second, describe the format of a raw data file using a reusable Structure object that provides information about the shape and other characteristics of the data. Like the data itself, the definition is hashed to IPFS, giving it a permanent, unique identifier. Third, a connection between a given Structure and a Data object, along with associated metadata, is stored in a Dataset object that uses the unique hashes to identify the data and the structure definition unambiguously. Finally, data queries and transformations are expressed in a canonical form using a reusable Query object that is defined in terms of Structure rather than specific datasets, thus making it reusable—and this, too, is hashed to IPFS.

With this in place, we also have deterministic results. Upon successfully executing a query, we can write the query and its resulting data to the network; the results will be one or more Data object, described by one or more Structure object. The results are deterministic because any software using the same data, structure definition, and query definition, will obtain the same results, regardless of where, when or why it is done.

This leads to several useful properties, described below.

6.1 Discoverability

The fact that the results of a query follow a consistent protocol and are written permanently to IPFS means that if the results of a query have already been computed and stored, other software systems can discover the results before they attempt to compute them. What’s more, since the results are described using lightweight Structure and Dataset objects, users can make these discoveries without downloading potentially large datasets. Thus, before executing a query, a software tool can calculate the hash of the Query and check IPFS for the existence of that hash value. If it exists, the results may be loaded from the network instead of being recomputed. There will be situations where local computation is easier than network streaming, and analyzing when to make this tradeoff is an area of research we’re excited to investigate.

6.2 Immutability and defensibility

In many data use scenarios, it is important to know that a given dataset has not been altered. This is often difficult to ensure. For example, a URL may refer to a dataset on the web, and the resource holding that dataset may claim that it is the original data stored in that file at that URL—but it could have been corrupted or purposefully altered, and for most of the popular data formats in use today, it would be difficult for the recipient to discover this.

The use of a cryptographic hashes to identify data virtually eliminates this possibility. If you publish the hash of a given dataset in IPFS, it is permanent: if you obtain the dataset that someone claims is the corresponding data for the hash you give them, you can compute hash of the given data file yourself and verify that it has not been altered. Moreover, in the deterministic querying scheme, this immutability applies not only to the data, but to the entire chain of processes that produce results from one set of Data objects to others.

Do you want to claim that a certain series of data manipulation and calculations produces a certain result? With deterministic querying, you can prove it incontrovertibly.

6.3 Software independence

By forcing the database to output to a standard format, the software version (even the entire application) that operates on a dataset can change at any point in the history of changes to a dataset. The software implementation does not matter, as long as it works according to the procedures described here, and reads and writes data and queries in the standard format defined by deterministic querying. This makes it possible to swap out different tools in the chain of operations, whether to take advantage of implementation improvements (perhaps because more efficient software is developed) or to optimize other characteristics. It also provides future-proofing: the results of using a tool can persist long after the usefulness of the tool itself has expired.

7 Conclusion

Building open data systems that can behave more like open-source code systems requires rethinking some assumptions. New content-addressed distributed networks being introduced today present an opportunity to question the assumptions that underlie a large number of today’s databased-backed open data systems. The goal of deterministic querying is to replace a set of common architectural patterns in use today with a more efficient and beneficial pattern that can take advantage of content-addressed file systems such as IPFS. If successful, we believe this can form the basis of an open data commons that naturally increases its capacity through use, for the benefit of all who use it, while still providing room for an evolving ecosystem of tools.

The intent of deterministic querying is not to eliminate database technologies in all situations. Rather, the goal is to reduce the need for large numbers of users to recreate identical accesses and encode/decode steps on the same data. Assuming that most data continue to be held in databases, database accesses will still be needed for novel queries; the gains in reduced computation and network accesses will be realized when multiple distributed users or processes repeat the same queries. The reality today is that queries to content-addressed networks are likely to be slower than queries to local databases, but those losses are expected to be offset by deduplication of data as well as resource use reduction in the aggregate. This form of deterministic querying deliberately accepts a number of performance tradeoffs for the sake of repeatability and interoperability.

The approach described here will be best suited to certain use cases. The efficacy of this technique is inversely correlated to how frequently the underlying data changes; data that is not mutated after initial insertion is ideal for this approach. Thankfully, many datasets fall into this category, including scientific research data, government data, industrial data, and more. We contend that the development of deterministic querying offers a way to build an open data commons to provide greater opportunity for the collective, accumulative advancement of open data.

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