Strong, weak, and ghost nodes: A glimpse of the a Bitcoin topography (I)

Bitcoin has been a digital buzz for some years now. Its controversial winds have awaken banners of different and sometimes opposed realms. It has been both tool and weapon for novel finance models, resistance movements, cries for privacy, and regulatory concerns. It is a fuzzy animal with no defined physiology. In an attempt to know more of its habits, I am particularly interested in its movements: what is exactly Bitcoin in space? Where does it exist? and in which forms? To where does it migrate, if it does it at all? Where are the borders of its ecosystem(s)? In which regions (or in whose hands) does it concentrate? The technical design of the device makes some of these questions challenging, as it was solidly arranged for keeping a strong privacy, but at the same time, its technical affordances open a path to start tracing a topography. Seeking to trace a sketch of its rhizomatic life, the first part of this post will map and discuss machine-nodes within the Bitcoin network, a second part will add and discuss new kind of entities of its ecosystem(s).

I consider the Bitcoin network as a common relationship in the order of the physical, a collection of relations between material nodes. Although these nodes are potentially undifferentiated, four kinds of nodes have been distinguished, depending on its main function: Wallet, Miner, Full Blockchain and Network Routing. Miners try to solve PoW algorithms to generate blocks of transactions (and, if successfully, new bitcoins); Wallets are clients that ‘store’ coins and the main interface to send and receive coins; Routers communicate information to peers; and a Full Blockhains store a complete copy of the Blockchain (the history of chained transactions). However, a single node can have all the four functions or any combination of them. A Wallet can store the blockchain and a Router may try to mine, even without specialized hardware. Miners of a pool may depend on a central full node, without each of them storing the whole blockchain, by using another protocol.

The former distinctions depend on the nodes’ static functionality, but since I am interested in the commitment of the nodes, I add three more elements constructed in time. Strong, weak and ghost categories, depending on the persistence of the nodes in a sample distributed in time. I understand commitment as having a dedicated machine for maintaining the network healthy, therefore, I ignore lightweight nodes (nodes that don’t store the blockchain) and consider only full nodes. Among these, I consider strong nodes those who are connected at every moment of the sample (in red on the map), ghost nodes those connected in less than 10% of the moments in the sample, and nine levels of weak nodes, where ‘weak9’ are the nodes present in 90%-99% of the sample, ‘weak8’ those present in 80%-89% and so on. The notion of commitment is relevant because support for the network has decayed since its highpoint at the end of 2013.[1] What is more, a basis of Bitcoin for every realm and banner depends on the maintenance of the P2P system. The life of Bitcoin is synonymous to its network: the communication of transactions, block building, security and consensus are all possible by these means. Strong, weak and ghost nodes are, as expected, not equally distributed. On an average week (roughly 1320 snapshots of bitnodes) merely 4.3% of the nodes are strong, a small sum compared to 69.4% of ghosts nodes (FIG 1).

Distribution of a broad sample of strong, weak and ghost nodes.
Fig. 1 – Distribution of a broad sample of strong, weak and ghost nodes.

The broader the sample, the more predominant the ghosts become and the commitment of the strong nodes grows in time. A broader sample (taken randomly from a 4 month period [March-June], which was used to fill the following maps) shows a significant ghost group of recurrent users or curious bystanders, with low commitment. Among the weak nodes, the majority are weaker: not part of dedicated servers but eventual users of the Core, who connect to the network to make a transaction but without the intention to continually preserve its infrastructure. A significant number of ghost and weak nodes may be zombie machines, specially in geographic areas of low-cost bots, as this is a known and problematic practice. Strong nodes, on the other hand, given the range of time and schedule of the sample, are highly unlikely to be unwilling operators. These nodes have been connected uninterruptedly, and I consider them resolute supporters of the network, whose rationales for support may differ: ideology, economical benefits, scholar research, etc. In the following map of the networked nodes, strong, weak and ghost nodes are red, blue and grey, respectively.

full screen version of the map

Bitcoin does not escape Internet geographical tendencies. It’s network of strongly committed nodes resides mostly in USA and the north of Europe. The network is universal in theory, but as contemporary phenomenon is highly localized. Only a fistful of strong nodes spreads in Asia, Latin America, Africa and the middle East. In USA the machines in the network, as the country’s population, escape from the middle and cluster in the coasts. It is no surprise that the Silicon Valley area has a huge number of nodes. In Europe, the majority of strong nodes are in Germany, the UK, France and the Netherlands, in descending order, but few are committed in Spain, Portugal and the whole region of the Balkans. Nonetheless, it is interesting to see that regions with a great percentage of Internet Users are not necessarily the ones with the biggest percentage of strong nodes (Fig 2). Canada, the Czech Republic, Australia, France, Germany, Ireland, the Netherlands, Singapore, Sweden and Switzerland show a considerable number of bitcoin network users when considering its population of Internet users. An open question remains on the particular interest of these regions in the cryptocoin.

Strong nodes vs Internet users (both percentages) by country.
Fig. 2 – Strong nodes vs Internet users (both percentages) by country.

The geographies of the network take into account only its nodes, but something accumulates on its edges too. The information between nodes flows -securely- throughout data centers, ISP’s and many in-betweeners. DNS, for example, play an important role for the bitcoin traffic, if only for the first run of the core; and all its communications rely on TCP, most probably routing over the US like a lot of the digital traffic. US infrastructure centrality is also reflected on the organizations where the Bitcoin network moves. Most of them are US based big telecommunications players: information on the nodes ‘ownership’ comes primarily from Comcast Cable Communications, covering 7.9% of the total connections of the sample, Verizon Business (4.0%), OVH (3.89%, France), Time Warner Cable (3.63%), Hetzner (2.73%, Germany), Digital Ocean (2.23%), Cox Communications (1.92%), Charter Communications (1.92%), (1.77%) and Virgin Media (1.59%, UK). This does not mean they are owners of the nodes or responsible for them but reflects that a majority of USA corporations own the pipes between them. This marks an uncomfortable dichotomy between free (‘as in freedom’) software (or protocols) and the proprietary infrastructures on which it depends.

The map of the network shows only a minimal perspective of a broader ecosystem. In order to obtain a more comprehensive topography new kinds of agencies (legal position for countries, indigenous markets) will be added and mapped in the second part of this post.

1. There is even an incentive program that provides a monthly amount of money to nodes that accomplish certain criteria to be considered highly healthy peers.

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