Digging Into IPFS

I've been playing around with IPFS (the InterPlanetary File System) which describes itself as "[a] peer-to-peer hypermedia protocol to make the web faster, safer, and more open." I had some questions that weren't easily answered in the IPFS documentation. In this article, I'll be going over some of those questions and how I answered them through exploration.

I'm going to assume you have a rough idea of what IPFS is and why you would want to use it, but if not, read the overview first. If you want to follow along with the commands, you'll need the following packages: base58, bsdmainutils, openssl, protobuf-compiler, jq.

Getting Started

This is covered in more depth on the Getting Started page of the IPFS documentation, but I will summarize here for the sake of completeness.

Download go-ipfs and move the binary somewhere in your $PATH, such as /usr/local/bin or my preference, $HOME/.local/bin:

$ tar -xf go-ipfs_*.tar.gz
$ cp go-ipfs/ipfs $HOME/.local/bin

Run ipfs init to initialize your repository. This is where IPFS will store all the data for your node:

$ ipfs init
initializing ipfs node at /home/avery/.ipfs
generating 2048-bit RSA keypair...done
peer identity: QmaT8goMguQ4MxGZGfHjhFmiASq1FF8pAkCtfpTMXiAAZW
to get started, enter:

  ipfs cat /ipfs/QmaT8goMguQ4MxGZGfHjhFmiASq1FF8pAkCtfpTMXiAAZW/readme

A node is a network-addressable server that will talk to other nodes, called peers, in the network to handle requests for data.

Before we can access the IPFS network, we need to start the daemon using ipfs daemon. I have mine start automatically via a Systemd user service I adapted from the ArchLinux IPFS Wiki entry:


Description=IPFS daemon

ExecStart=%h/.local/bin/ipfs daemon


Enable and start the service:

$ systemctl --user enable --now ipfs

Or just run the daemon directly:

$ ipfs daemon

Content Identifiers

Content on the IPFS network is addressed using a content identifier (CID) which is derived from the hash of the content.

When you add a file, you'll get back a CID:

$ echo "hello world" > hello.txt
$ ipfs add --quiet hello.txt

There's two different formats for CIDs, but I'm only going to discuss the more common version 0, which always starts with Qm. A CID is a Base58-encoded multihash that describes the hash algorithm used, the length of the hash, and then the hash itself. Let's decode the CID into hexadecimal:

$ echo "QmT78zSuBmuS4z925WZfrqQ1qHaJ56DQaTfyMUF7F8ff5o" |
  base58 -d |
  hexdump -e '"0x" 18/1 "%02x" "\n      " 16/1 "%02x" "\n"'

The first byte, 0x12, tells us that this a SHA-256 hash. The possible values are listed in this table on the multicodec repo. The 0x20 (32 in decimal) tells us it's 32 bytes (256 bits) long. The rest of it is the SHA-256 hash itself.

As I mentioned, version 0 CIDs always start with Qm, so what that means is they will always be SHA-256 hashes. It may seem redundant, but this was done to provide a bit of future-proofing in case the hash algorithm needed to be changed.

That leaves us with the remainder of the address which is just the hash of the content, 46d44814b9c5af141c3aaab7c05dc5e844ead5f91f12858b021eba45768b4c0e.

$ openssl sha256 hello.txt
SHA256(hello.txt)= a948904f2f0f479b8f8197694b30184b0d2ed1c1cd2a1ec0fb85d299a192a447

Huh. That doesn't match. So what is the content that the hash is of?


When we added the file hello.txt, it's content wasn't simply added as raw data. ipfs block lets us take a look at the contents of a raw block:

$ ipfs block get QmT78zSuBmuS4z925WZfrqQ1qHaJ56DQaTfyMUF7F8ff5o |
  hexdump -e '8/1 "%02x " "  "' -e '8/1 "%_p" "\n"'
0a 12 08 02 12 0c 68 65  ......he
6c 6c 6f 20 77 6f 72 6c  llo worl
64 0a 18 0c              d...

Alright, we can see our "hello world" in there, but what's the rest of it? IPFS uses Merkle tree-like structures called "merkledags" or just "DAGs" as objects. These objects are encoded as protocol buffers. Using protoc, we can decode it:

$ ipfs block get QmT78zSuBmuS4z925WZfrqQ1qHaJ56DQaTfyMUF7F8ff5o |
  protoc --decode_raw
1 {
  1: 2
  2: "hello world\n"
  3: 12

If we look at the merkledag.proto definition, we can see that the outer field number 1 is "Data". Because we added a file, we know this is a UnixFS object.

Looking at the unixfs.proto definition, field 1 corresponds to DataType, which in this case is File (2). Field 2 is our data, the text of the document. Field 3 is the filesize, 12 bytes.

Going back to our question earlier about what content is actually hashed, it's the entire raw block.

$ ipfs block get QmT78zSuBmuS4z925WZfrqQ1qHaJ56DQaTfyMUF7F8ff5o |
  openssl sha256
(stdin)= 46d44814b9c5af141c3aaab7c05dc5e844ead5f91f12858b021eba45768b4c0e

Big Files

We looked at a very simple object containing a small file, but objects can link to other objects using their CID to form larger sets of data.

I'm going to add this Debian installer disk image:

$ ipfs add --quiet ~/Downloads/debian-9.6.0-amd64-netinst.iso

Instead of looking at the low-level protocol buffer encoding, we'll use ipfs object get to do a little bit of decoding for us:

$ ipfs object get Qma2qJEp4wWtksnvAY3msyT1w2JFRPKjEdr3WkLsNGHJbF | jq .
  "Links": [
      "Name": "",
      "Hash": "QmTGA5qUAbkUDdRMWZucmfSRJxpMGYfD4aR8pdhidUa75d",
      "Size": 45623854
      "Name": "",
      "Hash": "QmSLK3HyD5i78Ad24pjDZBoYPKvXCq7xM5p1VmWPJzTBnN",
      "Size": 45623854
      "Name": "",
      "Hash": "QmNdvLwwspM92gRroDDtSWo6MudapBE2TFMAE97xj964aN",
      "Size": 45623854
      "Name": "",
      "Hash": "QmV8akAbA4Bm8azUaBaEtyf9TE7d71NVxVL38mWZjLZpKs",
      "Size": 45623854
      "Name": "",
      "Hash": "QmbspCq1SjNPqPRr3yCCHmYeMVC4D6FsZenqNbLFn9kyMB",
      "Size": 45623854
      "Name": "",
      "Hash": "QmXhoJpA49eH7FygVHs8uZAYA1B95hWcPag9W84FeWJnXs",
      "Size": 45623854
      "Name": "",
      "Hash": "QmXEveBHyyZLb5ZCM8ewYWdYdh7DtizhdaChkpQPBu17tu",
      "Size": 31464730
  "Data": "\b\u0002\u0018����\u0001 ���\u0015 ���\u0015 ���\u0015 ���\u0015 ���\u0015 ���\u0015 ���\u000f"

We can see the file was split up into multiple blocks and each part get it's own CID. The Data field just contains some information about the total size of the file.


The ability to link content together in a tree structure lends well to using IPFS like a file system. If we add a directory, recursively, it will create objects with the same structure:

$ ipfs add -r themes/landscape
added Qmc27n1EhfiCq6dZu4TyrdUtoHBcKzMYBZcfV8SEt1CCAW landscape/LICENSE
added QmVCPij5GhKKZm2QmNWSbZU53RjY3hW6QAo33upMpKCbNK landscape/README.md
added QmUmZkFjnt3tmgKwN5Hc2eD2zEm6E1CLAavveskmBRESH9 landscape/_config.yml
# snip
added QmVCovLyHFgCzGLpoDukfsKGVamZMBu27hGFysuxcpCKhb landscape/source/js
added QmSh99jvHA4NkWULrYsBBiP8sCYJQ54H4EoCRHrtRdgVYB landscape/source
added QmbcND1QgCVkcBNJWPBUpZhPpXh5fWnpz9L9Qun2tuP3zD landscape

We can list the child objects with ipfs ls:

$ ipfs ls QmbcND1QgCVkcBNJWPBUpZhPpXh5fWnpz9L9Qun2tuP3zD/source
QmU1rLAeQogXNLXN1rM9gKKrvrZbSpocCHuxqZNhu39By7 - css/
QmSEX5GkTGEKxXbzVuacoRtZXHpRY5mWVxbqPBJovKrY7v - fancybox/
QmVCovLyHFgCzGLpoDukfsKGVamZMBu27hGFysuxcpCKhb - js/

And use ipfs cat to read out files:

$ ipfs cat QmbcND1QgCVkcBNJWPBUpZhPpXh5fWnpz9L9Qun2tuP3zD/package.json
  "name": "hexo-theme-landscape",
  "version": "0.0.2",
  "private": true