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Where are NFTs Stored?

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Hannah Scherwatzky / ONE37pm

Do you know where your NFTs are stored?

Most people assume the digital art, music, and media they collect are stored on the blockchain, but that isn’t always the case. In fact, it tends to be the exception.

What are Non-Fungible Tokens (NFTs)

Most people think NFTs are the actual art, and those people would be wrong.

An NFT is a unique digital identifier recorded on the blockchain. NFTs are used to certify the authenticity and ownership of a digital asset, such as artwork, music, collectibles, in game items, and more.

The NFT is simply an address. It’s a pointer that shows a user or application where to look in order to find the actual art.

Wait, why isn’t the art always stored on the blockchain?

Well, to answer that question, we need to understand what the blockchain is.

GettyImages 1296451458
Getty Images

What is the Blockchain?

A blockchain is a “cryptographically secure transactional singleton machine with a shared-state, according to the official Ethereum website.

Let’s break this down.

First, being “cryptographically secure” means the creation of each “block” of data uses highly complex mathematical algorithms that are nearly impossible to break.

Next, a “transactional singleton machine” means only one point of reference is needed. There is no reconciliation required between different accounting books to determine who is right and who is wrong.

There is a single, universal truth.

Finally, “with a shared-state” means this digital ledger is public and fully transparent for all in the world to see.

In other words, a blockchain is an accounting book that uses cryptography to record transactions. 

These transactions are coded in blocks of sequential data, wherein one block cannot even exist unless all the previous blocks were created in accordance with the established set of rules.

When these blocks of data are “chained” together, they tell one single and immutable story. They present a set of universally agreed upon facts that can never be changed.

They become a blockchain.

One of the features that differentiates a blockchain, like Ethereum, from a blockchain such as Bitcoin, is Ethereum’s ability to execute smart contracts.

A smart contract is a series of code that runs on the Ethereum Virtual Machine, which is the combination of all the computers and participants contributing to the creation and validation of the blocks of data.

An NFT is minted using a smart contract, which assigns the ownership of the NFT to a specific wallet and manages the transferability of the digital asset. These smart contracts are written using different standards, such as the ERC-721 standard for NFTs.

So, by now, you can imagine how monumentally difficult it would be to use encryption to store something as complex as a digital painting, or a digital photograph, or a music album inside one of these smart contracts or blocks of data.

In fact, common media files (such as JPG, PNG, GIF, MP3, etc.) associated with NFTs are so large, the cost of encrypting and storing them on the blockchain is prohibitively expensive.

Hence, the media is often stored elsewhere.

Where are NFTs Stored?

To answer this question, it’s important to separate the two parts of an NFT: the smart contract, and the media.

The smart contract is stored on the blockchain and contains the link, or address, which points to where the media is located.

But the media is what most people value. It’s what you see and hear. It’s the NFT profile picture, the digital art, or the song.

The common misconception is this media is stored on the blockchain, which typically isn’t the case.

Sometimes, the media is stored on a centralized server or computer. For example, the image of an NFT may be stored on an Amazon Web Services (AWS) cloud storage solution.

The problem with centralized storage, is if the host entity disappears, the media files are lost forever. Imagine if Amazon were to go bankrupt and turn off all their lights. The media stored on their servers would be inaccessible.

In this scenario, the link contained within the smart contract of your NFT would point to nothing. Your NFT would essentially become a broken web address.

This gap in the technology is burdensome, and is in direct conflict with the immutable nature of the blockchain. Collectors and owners of NFTs are generally buying them with the belief that what they’re getting will last forever and cannot be altered.

To help solve this issue, there are popular alternatives to centralized storage which are quickly becoming industry standards.

One of the most popular solutions for storing NFT media is the InterPlanetary File System, or IPFS.

IPFS is a protocol and peer-to-peer network for storing and sharing data in a distributed file system. It’s a decentralized way to store the media and content that serve as the backbone of our NFTs.

IPFS cares less about the location of information, and more about the actual content.

For example, if you were interested in learning more about aardvarks, you might start by visiting the Wikipedia page on aardvarks at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aardvark

The URL above directs your computer to one of Wikipedia’s computers, which you are then able to access in order to view the information.  But what if Wikipedia’s computer isn’t on?

Alternatively, you can find the exact same information using a mirror of Wikipedia stored on IPFS, through a link that looks like this: https://ipfs.io/ipfs/QmXoypizjW3WknFiJnKLwHCnL72vedxjQkDDP1mXWo6uco/wiki/Aardvark.html

The IPFS link retrieves the aardvark information according to its contents, not its location. This means your computer asks lots of computers around the world, not just Wikipedia’s, to share the information with you.

By focusing on the content and retrieving it from any location or computer in the world, IPFS decentralizes the media storage and uses cryptography in the process.

The string of cryptographic numbers in the middle of the IPFS URL (QmXo…) ensures the content being retrieved from various computers with the aardvark information is precisely what you were looking for.

Decentralizing file storage helps guarantee the media associated with your NFTs will be as immutable as the smart contracts that live on the blockchain.

How to View an NFT After Purchase

The easiest way to view an NFT in your wallet after purchase is to navigate to your Account Profile page on a centralized NFT exchange, such as OpenSea.

If you have just minted or purchased the NFT, it may take a few minutes to appear in your wallet once the transaction has been processed.

To find out where the media of your NFT is stored, navigate to the “Details” section after clicking into a particular item.

Select the hyperlink for the “Token ID” and search the metadata for an image address.

In the example below, you can see the media associated with this NFT is using an IPFS storage solution facilitated by Pinata, which further simplifies the IPFS protocol for NFT creators. Pinata is trusted by leaders in the NFT industry, including Yugalabs (the creators of Bored Ape Yacht Club).

If you copy and paste the image URL into the address bar of your web browser, it should load the content of your media. Voila!

Alternatively, you can view your NFT tokens in MetaMask by scrolling down the “Assets” tab. In some cases, you may have to manually add the token using the Contract Address in order for it to appear.

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