Most people never even see the server that runs the internet network in their houses. But Start9 Labs is working to change that with its latest upgrades to the Embassy Server, a self-sovereign, private internet server and operating system for your home.
It’s an ambitious project to make self-sovereign computing viable for consumers, but one that offers a way out of the centralized internet people know.
To expand on their efforts, Start9 Labs recently closed a $1.2 million funding round spearheaded by Collider Ventures, Ten31 and Erik Voorhees, CEO of the decentralized exchange ShapeShift. The money will drive additional Embassy developments including additional apps for its decentralized app store, further open-source development by contributors and the “killer of all messaging apps.”
“Self-sovereignty in a digital age is impossible when all applications and data are served by a handful of centralized custodians,” said Voorhees. “Start9 is building an ambitious alternative and it’s arriving upon the world stage at just the right time.”
Creating a self-sovereign, private internet network
Start9 Labs’ Embassy server and operating system (OS) creates its own private internet network. It comes with its own operating system as well as an expanding range of services such as bitcoin transactions, messaging and password management that cut out middlemen and use the Tor network to communicate.
Start9 Labs is not building on Web 2.0; rather, it is hijacking that existing infrastructure so people can run their own private networks. To build a new internet from the ground up would require a physical hardware device in every single home Hill told CoinDesk last year. The Embassy OS and server is hosted on Raspberry Pi delivered preset by Start9, or it can be set up on its own by any user, given the OS is open source.
What makes the Embassy interesting is it takes a generalized approach to running self-hosted software in an easy-to-use way. While terms such as “sovereign computing” and “self-hosted server” might seem opaque to the general public, the Embassy lets users set up a server and make it easy to use. It’s pretty much a plug-and-play device.
Internet service providers (ISPs), such as Verizon, for example, have some of the most invasive views into, and surveillance of, network traffic on the networks they provide. They’re hard to escape because there are only a handful of companies in the U.S., for example, that offer internet services.
Privacy and independence are hard to achieve in such an environment, particularly for people in authoritarian countries where private internet services would be a boon to its citizens. Self-sovereign computing offers one way around these methods of control.
There aren’t huge profits to be made in this area, and that’s what makes the funding round important. It’s rare to see hundreds of thousands dollars being put behind an entirely new ecosystem like this.
Where the Embassy is headed
Since launching in January 2020, the availability of services has only expanded.
“The 0.3.x architecture is radically different from 0.2.x,” said Matt Hill, co-founder of Start9 Labs. “It introduces external drive support, such that Embassy users can choose which service to install on which drive and use as much space as they want. This also results in dramatically faster sync times.”
A marketplace redesign will also allow users to search for new services by category, such as “Bitcoin/Lightning,” “Messaging,” “Storage,” “Social, and “Blockchains.” Start9 Labs’ software development kit makes it easy for anyone to package a service for distribution on the Embassy Marketplace, meaning Start9 will become less and less involved with the service roadmap.
“For instance, both Monero and Haven will soon be available, thanks entirely to their enthusiastic communities,” said Hill. “We believe very strongly that people should be able to run whatever software they want to run on their own server.”
“Bitcoin’s vision of sovereignty is not complete without a computing platform that makes it easy to run a node alongside other self-hosted software,” said Ofer Rotem of Collider Ventures. “Start9 Labs has developed this platform with great [user experience], and is a great fit for our thesis and portfolio. We are excited by their progress so far, and for what’s to come.”
A hundred services by end of year
Hill expects upward of 100 services to be available on the Marketplace by the end of the year. He said the biggest deal of Q2 is Matrix, “the killer of all messaging apps.”
“Matrix is the holy grail of messaging: an open, federated protocol that can accommodate all the advanced messaging and voice/video features consumers are accustomed to, but with no third-party servers, no middlemen, no chance of corruption in the form of back doors or censorship, totally self-served and accessible over a private, end-to-end encrypted, onion-routed channel,” said Hill.
Start9 Labs is also planning to introduce Tor relay-node functionality into the Embassy itself, meaning users can choose to have their Embassy serve as a Tor relay node. That would allow users to get fast initial load times when connecting to the websites of their Embassy while simultaneously enhancing the robustness and efficiency of the Tor network itself.
“We are about to flood the Tor network with thousands of new relay nodes, making Tor bigger and faster than ever,” said Hill.