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A frequent question I see being asked is how Cosmos, Polkadot and Avalanche compare? Whilst there are similarities there are also a lot of differences. This article is not intended to be an extensive in-depth list, but rather an overview based on some of the criteria that I feel are most important.
For better formatting see https://medium.com/ava-hub/comparison-between-avalanche-cosmos-and-polkadot-a2a98f46c03b
CosmosCosmos is a heterogeneous network of many independent parallel blockchains, each powered by classical BFT consensus algorithms like Tendermint. Developers can easily build custom application specific blockchains, called Zones, through the Cosmos SDK framework. These Zones connect to Hubs, which are specifically designed to connect zones together.
The vision of Cosmos is to have thousands of Zones and Hubs that are Interoperable through the Inter-Blockchain Communication Protocol (IBC). Cosmos can also connect to other systems through peg zones, which are specifically designed zones that each are custom made to interact with another ecosystem such as Ethereum and Bitcoin. Cosmos does not use Sharding with each Zone and Hub being sovereign with their own validator set.
For a more in-depth look at Cosmos and provide more reference to points made in this article, please see my three part series — Part One, Part Two, Part Three
(There's a youtube video with a quick video overview of Cosmos on the medium article - https://medium.com/ava-hub/comparison-between-avalanche-cosmos-and-polkadot-a2a98f46c03b)
PolkadotPolkadot is a heterogeneous blockchain protocol that connects multiple specialised blockchains into one unified network. It achieves scalability through a sharding infrastructure with multiple blockchains running in parallel, called parachains, that connect to a central chain called the Relay Chain. Developers can easily build custom application specific parachains through the Substrate development framework.
The relay chain validates the state transition of connected parachains, providing shared state across the entire ecosystem. If the Relay Chain must revert for any reason, then all of the parachains would also revert. This is to ensure that the validity of the entire system can persist, and no individual part is corruptible. The shared state makes it so that the trust assumptions when using parachains are only those of the Relay Chain validator set, and no other. Interoperability is enabled between parachains through Cross-Chain Message Passing (XCMP) protocol and is also possible to connect to other systems through bridges, which are specifically designed parachains or parathreads that each are custom made to interact with another ecosystem such as Ethereum and Bitcoin. The hope is to have 100 parachains connect to the relay chain.
For a more in-depth look at Polkadot and provide more reference to points made in this article, please see my three part series — Part One, Part Two, Part Three
(There's a youtube video with a quick video overview of Polkadot on the medium article - https://medium.com/ava-hub/comparison-between-avalanche-cosmos-and-polkadot-a2a98f46c03b)
AvalancheAvalanche is a platform of platforms, ultimately consisting of thousands of subnets to form a heterogeneous interoperable network of many blockchains, that takes advantage of the revolutionary Avalanche Consensus protocols to provide a secure, globally distributed, interoperable and trustless framework offering unprecedented decentralisation whilst being able to comply with regulatory requirements.
Avalanche allows anyone to create their own tailor-made application specific blockchains, supporting multiple custom virtual machines such as EVM and WASM and written in popular languages like Go (with others coming in the future) rather than lightly used, poorly-understood languages like Solidity. This virtual machine can then be deployed on a custom blockchain network, called a subnet, which consist of a dynamic set of validators working together to achieve consensus on the state of a set of many blockchains where complex rulesets can be configured to meet regulatory compliance.
Avalanche was built with serving financial markets in mind. It has native support for easily creating and trading digital smart assets with complex custom rule sets that define how the asset is handled and traded to ensure regulatory compliance can be met. Interoperability is enabled between blockchains within a subnet as well as between subnets. Like Cosmos and Polkadot, Avalanche is also able to connect to other systems through bridges, through custom virtual machines made to interact with another ecosystem such as Ethereum and Bitcoin.
For a more in-depth look at Avalanche and provide more reference to points made in this article, please see here and here
(There's a youtube video with a quick video overview of Avalanche on the medium article - https://medium.com/ava-hub/comparison-between-avalanche-cosmos-and-polkadot-a2a98f46c03b)
Comparison between Cosmos, Polkadot and AvalancheA frequent question I see being asked is how Cosmos, Polkadot and Avalanche compare? Whilst there are similarities there are also a lot of differences. This article is not intended to be an extensive in-depth list, but rather an overview based on some of the criteria that I feel are most important. For a more in-depth view I recommend reading the articles for each of the projects linked above and coming to your own conclusions. I want to stress that it’s not a case of one platform being the killer of all other platforms, far from it. There won’t be one platform to rule them all, and too often the tribalism has plagued this space. Blockchains are going to completely revolutionise most industries and have a profound effect on the world we know today. It’s still very early in this space with most adoption limited to speculation and trading mainly due to the limitations of Blockchain and current iteration of Ethereum, which all three of these platforms hope to address. For those who just want a quick summary see the image at the bottom of the article. With that said let’s have a look
CosmosEach Zone and Hub in Cosmos is capable of up to around 1000 transactions per second with bandwidth being the bottleneck in consensus. Cosmos aims to have thousands of Zones and Hubs all connected through IBC. There is no limit on the number of Zones / Hubs that can be created
PolkadotParachains in Polkadot are also capable of up to around 1500 transactions per second. A portion of the parachain slots on the Relay Chain will be designated as part of the parathread pool, the performance of a parachain is split between many parathreads offering lower performance and compete amongst themselves in a per-block auction to have their transactions included in the next relay chain block. The number of parachains is limited by the number of validators on the relay chain, they hope to be able to achieve 100 parachains.
AvalancheAvalanche is capable of around 4500 transactions per second per subnet, this is based on modest hardware requirements to ensure maximum decentralisation of just 2 CPU cores and 4 GB of Memory and with a validator size of over 2,000 nodes. Performance is CPU-bound and if higher performance is required then more specialised subnets can be created with higher minimum requirements to be able to achieve 10,000 tps+ in a subnet. Avalanche aims to have thousands of subnets (each with multiple virtual machines / blockchains) all interoperable with each other. There is no limit on the number of Subnets that can be created.
ResultsAll three platforms offer vastly superior performance to the likes of Bitcoin and Ethereum 1.0. Avalanche with its higher transactions per second, no limit on the number of subnets / blockchains that can be created and the consensus can scale to potentially millions of validators all participating in consensus scores ✅✅✅. Polkadot claims to offer more tps than cosmos, but is limited to the number of parachains (around 100) whereas with Cosmos there is no limit on the number of hubs / zones that can be created. Cosmos is limited to a fairly small validator size of around 200 before performance degrades whereas Polkadot hopes to be able to reach 1000 validators in the relay chain (albeit only a small number of validators are assigned to each parachain). Thus Cosmos and Polkadot scores ✅✅
CosmosTendermint consensus is limited to around 200 validators before performance starts to degrade. Whilst there is the Cosmos Hub it is one of many hubs in the network and there is no central hub or limit on the number of zones / hubs that can be created.
PolkadotPolkadot has 1000 validators in the relay chain and these are split up into a small number that validate each parachain (minimum of 14). The relay chain is a central point of failure as all parachains connect to it and the number of parachains is limited depending on the number of validators (they hope to achieve 100 parachains). Due to the limited number of parachain slots available, significant sums of DOT will need to be purchased to win an auction to lease the slot for up to 24 months at a time. Thus likely to lead to only those with enough funds to secure a parachain slot. Parathreads are however an alternative for those that require less and more varied performance for those that can’t secure a parachain slot.
AvalancheAvalanche consensus scan scale to tens of thousands of validators, even potentially millions of validators all participating in consensus through repeated sub-sampling. The more validators, the faster the network becomes as the load is split between them. There are modest hardware requirements so anyone can run a node and there is no limit on the number of subnets / virtual machines that can be created.
ResultsAvalanche offers unparalleled decentralisation using its revolutionary consensus protocols that can scale to millions of validators all participating in consensus at the same time. There is no limit to the number of subnets and virtual machines that can be created, and they can be created by anyone for a small fee, it scores ✅✅✅. Cosmos is limited to 200 validators but no limit on the number of zones / hubs that can be created, which anyone can create and scores ✅✅. Polkadot hopes to accommodate 1000 validators in the relay chain (albeit these are split amongst each of the parachains). The number of parachains is limited and maybe cost prohibitive for many and the relay chain is a ultimately a single point of failure. Whilst definitely not saying it’s centralised and it is more decentralised than many others, just in comparison between the three, it scores ✅
CosmosTendermint consensus used in Cosmos reaches finality within 6 seconds. Cosmos consists of many Zones and Hubs that connect to each other. Communication between 2 zones could pass through many hubs along the way, thus also can contribute to latency times depending on the path taken as explained in part two of the articles on Cosmos. It doesn’t need to wait for an extended period of time with risk of rollbacks.
PolkadotPolkadot provides a Hybrid consensus protocol consisting of Block producing protocol, BABE, and then a finality gadget called GRANDPA that works to agree on a chain, out of many possible forks, by following some simpler fork choice rule. Rather than voting on every block, instead it reaches agreements on chains. As soon as more than 2/3 of validators attest to a chain containing a certain block, all blocks leading up to that one are finalized at once.
If an invalid block is detected after it has been finalised then the relay chain would need to be reverted along with every parachain. This is particularly important when connecting to external blockchains as those don’t share the state of the relay chain and thus can’t be rolled back. The longer the time period, the more secure the network is, as there is more time for additional checks to be performed and reported but at the expense of finality. Finality is reached within 60 seconds between parachains but for external ecosystems like Ethereum their state obviously can’t be rolled back like a parachain and so finality will need to be much longer (60 minutes was suggested in the whitepaper) and discussed in more detail in part three
AvalancheAvalanche consensus achieves finality within 3 seconds, with most happening sub 1 second, immutable and completely irreversible. Any subnet can connect directly to another without having to go through multiple hops and any VM can talk to another VM within the same subnet as well as external subnets. It doesn’t need to wait for an extended period of time with risk of rollbacks.
ResultsWith regards to performance far too much emphasis is just put on tps as a metric, the other equally important metric, if not more important with regards to finance is latency. Throughput measures the amount of data at any given time that it can handle whereas latency is the amount of time it takes to perform an action. It’s pointless saying you can process more transactions per second than VISA when it takes 60 seconds for a transaction to complete. Low latency also greatly increases general usability and customer satisfaction, nowadays everyone expects card payments, online payments to happen instantly. Avalanche achieves the best results scoring ✅✅✅, Cosmos with comes in second with 6 second finality ✅✅ and Polkadot with 60 second finality (which may be 60 minutes for external blockchains) scores ✅
CosmosEvery Zone and Hub in Cosmos has their own validator set and different trust assumptions. Cosmos are researching a shared security model where a Hub can validate the state of connected zones for a fee but not released yet. Once available this will make shared security optional rather than mandatory.
PolkadotShared Security is mandatory with Polkadot which uses a Shared State infrastructure between the Relay Chain and all of the connected parachains. If the Relay Chain must revert for any reason, then all of the parachains would also revert. Every parachain makes the same trust assumptions, and as such the relay chain validates state transition and enables seamless interoperability between them. In return for this benefit, they have to purchase DOT and win an auction for one of the available parachain slots.
However, parachains can’t just rely on the relay chain for their security, they will also need to implement censorship resistance measures and utilise proof of work / proof of stake for each parachain as well as discussed in part three, thus parachains can’t just rely on the security of the relay chain, they need to ensure sybil resistance mechanisms using POW and POS are implemented on the parachain as well.
AvalancheA subnet in Avalanche consists of a dynamic set of validators working together to achieve consensus on the state of a set of many blockchains where complex rulesets can be configured to meet regulatory compliance. So unlike in Cosmos where each zone / hub has their own validators, A subnet can validate a single or many virtual machines / blockchains with a single validator set. Shared security is optional
ResultsShared security is mandatory in polkadot and a key design decision in its infrastructure. The relay chain validates the state transition of all connected parachains and thus scores ✅✅✅. Subnets in Avalanche can validate state of either a single or many virtual machines. Each subnet can have their own token and shares a validator set, where complex rulesets can be configured to meet regulatory compliance. It scores ✅ ✅. Every Zone and Hub in cosmos has their own validator set / token but research is underway to have the hub validate the state transition of connected zones, but as this is still early in the research phase scores ✅ for now.
CosmosThe Cosmos project started in 2016 with an ICO held in April 2017. There are currently around 50 projects building on the Cosmos SDK with a full list can be seen here and filtering for Cosmos SDK . Not all of the projects will necessarily connect using native cosmos sdk and IBC and some have forked parts of the Cosmos SDK and utilise the tendermint consensus such as Binance Chain but have said they will connect in the future.
PolkadotThe Polkadot project started in 2016 with an ICO held in October 2017. There are currently around 70 projects building on Substrate and a full list can be seen here and filtering for Substrate Based. Like with Cosmos not all projects built using substrate will necessarily connect to Polkadot and parachains or parathreads aren’t currently implemented in either the Live or Test network (Kusama) as of the time of this writing.
AvalancheAvalanche in comparison started much later with Ava Labs being founded in 2018. Avalanche held it’s ICO in July 2020. Due to lot shorter time it has been in development, the number of projects confirmed are smaller with around 14 projects currently building on Avalanche. Due to the customisability of the platform though, many virtual machines can be used within a subnet making the process incredibly easy to port projects over. As an example, it will launch with the Ethereum Virtual Machine which enables byte for byte compatibility and all the tooling like Metamask, Truffle etc. will work, so projects can easily move over to benefit from the performance, decentralisation and low gas fees offered. In the future Cosmos and Substrate virtual machines could be implemented on Avalanche.
ResultsWhilst it’s still early for all 3 projects (and the entire blockchain space as a whole), there is currently more projects confirmed to be building on Cosmos and Polkadot, mostly due to their longer time in development. Whilst Cosmos has fewer projects, zones are implemented compared to Polkadot which doesn’t currently have parachains. IBC to connect zones and hubs together is due to launch Q2 2021, thus both score ✅✅✅. Avalanche has been in development for a lot shorter time period, but is launching with an impressive feature set right from the start with ability to create subnets, VMs, assets, NFTs, permissioned and permissionless blockchains, cross chain atomic swaps within a subnet, smart contracts, bridge to Ethereum etc. Applications can easily port over from other platforms and use all the existing tooling such as Metamask / Truffle etc but benefit from the performance, decentralisation and low gas fees offered. Currently though just based on the number of projects in comparison it scores ✅.
CosmosCosmos enables permissioned and permissionless zones which can connect to each other with the ability to have full control over who validates the blockchain. For permissionless zones each zone / hub can have their own token and they are in control who validates.
PolkadotWith polkadot the state transition is performed by a small randomly selected assigned group of validators from the relay chain plus with the possibility that state is rolled back if an invalid transaction of any of the other parachains is found. This may pose a problem for enterprises that need complete control over who performs validation for regulatory reasons. In addition due to the limited number of parachain slots available Enterprises would have to acquire and lock up large amounts of a highly volatile asset (DOT) and have the possibility that they are outbid in future auctions and find they no longer can have their parachain validated and parathreads don’t provide the guaranteed performance requirements for the application to function.
AvalancheAvalanche enables permissioned and permissionless subnets and complex rulesets can be configured to meet regulatory compliance. For example a subnet can be created where its mandatory that all validators are from a certain legal jurisdiction, or they hold a specific license and regulated by the SEC etc. Subnets are also able to scale to tens of thousands of validators, and even potentially millions of nodes, all participating in consensus so every enterprise can run their own node rather than only a small amount. Enterprises don’t have to hold large amounts of a highly volatile asset, but instead pay a fee in AVAX for the creation of the subnets and blockchains which is burnt.
ResultsAvalanche provides the customisability to run private permissioned blockchains as well as permissionless where the enterprise is in control over who validates the blockchain, with the ability to use complex rulesets to meet regulatory compliance, thus scores ✅✅✅. Cosmos is also able to run permissioned and permissionless zones / hubs so enterprises have full control over who validates a blockchain and scores ✅✅. Polkadot requires locking up large amounts of a highly volatile asset with the possibility of being outbid by competitors and being unable to run the application if the guaranteed performance is required and having to migrate away. The relay chain validates the state transition and can roll back the parachain should an invalid block be detected on another parachain, thus scores ✅.
CosmosCosmos will connect Hubs and Zones together through its IBC protocol (due to release in Q1 2020). Connecting to blockchains outside of the Cosmos ecosystem would either require the connected blockchain to fork their code to implement IBC or more likely a custom “Peg Zone” will be created specific to work with a particular blockchain it’s trying to bridge to such as Ethereum etc. Each Zone and Hub has different trust levels and connectivity between 2 zones can have different trust depending on which path it takes (this is discussed more in this article). Finality time is low at 6 seconds, but depending on the number of hops, this can increase significantly.
PolkadotPolkadot’s shared state means each parachain that connects shares the same trust assumptions, of the relay chain validators and that if one blockchain needs to be reverted, all of them will need to be reverted. Interoperability is enabled between parachains through Cross-Chain Message Passing (XCMP) protocol and is also possible to connect to other systems through bridges, which are specifically designed parachains or parathreads that each are custom made to interact with another ecosystem such as Ethereum and Bitcoin. Finality time between parachains is around 60 seconds, but longer will be needed (initial figures of 60 minutes in the whitepaper) for connecting to external blockchains. Thus limiting the appeal of connecting two external ecosystems together through Polkadot. Polkadot is also limited in the number of Parachain slots available, thus limiting the amount of blockchains that can be bridged. Parathreads could be used for lower performance bridges, but the speed of future blockchains is only going to increase.
AvalancheA subnet can validate multiple virtual machines / blockchains and all blockchains within a subnet share the same trust assumptions / validator set, enabling cross chain interoperability. Interoperability is also possible between any other subnet, with the hope Avalanche will consist of thousands of subnets. Each subnet may have a different trust level, but as the primary network consists of all validators then this can be used as a source of trust if required. As Avalanche supports many virtual machines, bridges to other ecosystems are created by running the connected virtual machine. There will be an Ethereum bridge using the EVM shortly after mainnet. Finality time is much faster at sub 3 seconds (with most happening under 1 second) with no chance of rolling back so more appealing when connecting to external blockchains.
ResultsAll 3 systems are able to perform interoperability within their ecosystem and transfer assets as well as data, as well as use bridges to connect to external blockchains. Cosmos has different trust levels between its zones and hubs and can create issues depending on which path it takes and additional latency added. Polkadot provides the same trust assumptions for all connected parachains but has long finality and limited number of parachain slots available. Avalanche provides the same trust assumptions for all blockchains within a subnet, and different trust levels between subnets. However due to the primary network consisting of all validators it can be used for trust. Avalanche also has a much faster finality time with no limitation on the number of blockchains / subnets / bridges that can be created. Overall all three blockchains excel with interoperability within their ecosystem and each score ✅✅.
CosmosThe ATOM token is the native token for the Cosmos Hub. It is commonly mistaken by people that think it’s the token used throughout the cosmos ecosystem, whereas it’s just used for one of many hubs in Cosmos, each with their own token. Currently ATOM has little utility as IBC isn’t released and has no connections to other zones / hubs. Once IBC is released zones may prefer to connect to a different hub instead and so ATOM is not used. ATOM isn’t a fixed capped supply token and supply will continuously increase with a yearly inflation of around 10% depending on the % staked. The current market cap for ATOM as of the time of this writing is $1 Billion with 203 million circulating supply. Rewards can be earnt through staking to offset the dilution caused by inflation. Delegators can also get slashed and lose a portion of their ATOM should the validator misbehave.
PolkadotPolkadot’s native token is DOT and it’s used to secure the Relay Chain. Each parachain needs to acquire sufficient DOT to win an auction on an available parachain lease period of up to 24 months at a time. Parathreads have a fixed fee for registration that would realistically be much lower than the cost of acquiring a parachain slot and compete with other parathreads in a per-block auction to have their transactions included in the next relay chain block. DOT isn’t a fixed capped supply token and supply will continuously increase with a yearly inflation of around 10% depending on the % staked. The current market cap for DOT as of the time of this writing is $4.4 Billion with 852 million circulating supply. Delegators can also get slashed and lose their DOT (potentially 100% of their DOT for serious attacks) should the validator misbehave.
AvalancheAVAX is the native token for the primary network in Avalanche. Every validator of any subnet also has to validate the primary network and stake a minimum of 2000 AVAX. There is no limit to the number of validators like other consensus methods then this can cater for tens of thousands even potentially millions of validators. As every validator validates the primary network, this can be a source of trust for interoperability between subnets as well as connecting to other ecosystems, thus increasing amount of transaction fees of AVAX. There is no slashing in Avalanche, so there is no risk to lose your AVAX when selecting a validator, instead rewards earnt for staking can be slashed should the validator misbehave. Because Avalanche doesn’t have direct slashing, it is technically possible for someone to both stake AND deliver tokens for something like a flash loan, under the invariant that all tokens that are staked are returned, thus being able to make profit with staked tokens outside of staking itself.
There will also be a separate subnet for Athereum which is a ‘spoon,’ or friendly fork, of Ethereum, which benefits from the Avalanche consensus protocol and applications in the Ethereum ecosystem. It’s native token ATH will be airdropped to ETH holders as well as potentially AVAX holders as well. This can be done for other blockchains as well.
Transaction fees on the primary network for all 3 of the blockchains as well as subscription fees for creating a subnet and blockchain are paid in AVAX and are burnt, creating deflationary pressure. AVAX is a fixed capped supply of 720 million tokens, creating scarcity rather than an unlimited supply which continuously increase of tokens at a compounded rate each year like others. Initially there will be 360 tokens minted at Mainnet with vesting periods between 1 and 10 years, with tokens gradually unlocking each quarter. The Circulating supply is 24.5 million AVAX with tokens gradually released each quater. The current market cap of AVAX is around $100 million.
ResultsAvalanche’s AVAX with its fixed capped supply, deflationary pressure, very strong utility, potential to receive air drops and low market cap, means it scores ✅✅✅. Polkadot’s DOT also has very strong utility with the need for auctions to acquire parachain slots, but has no deflationary mechanisms, no fixed capped supply and already valued at $3.8 billion, therefore scores ✅✅. Cosmos’s ATOM token is only for the Cosmos Hub, of which there will be many hubs in the ecosystem and has very little utility currently. (this may improve once IBC is released and if Cosmos hub actually becomes the hub that people want to connect to and not something like Binance instead. There is no fixed capped supply and currently valued at $1.1 Billion, so scores ✅.
All three are excellent projects and have similarities as well as many differences. Just to reiterate this article is not intended to be an extensive in-depth list, but rather an overview based on some of the criteria that I feel are most important. For a more in-depth view I recommend reading the articles for each of the projects linked above and coming to your own conclusions, you may have different criteria which is important to you, and score them differently. There won’t be one platform to rule them all however, with some uses cases better suited to one platform over another, and it’s not a zero-sum game. Blockchain is going to completely revolutionize industries and the Internet itself. The more projects researching and delivering breakthrough technology the better, each learning from each other and pushing each other to reach that goal earlier. The current market is a tiny speck of what’s in store in terms of value and adoption and it’s going to be exciting to watch it unfold.
For more information see the articles below (each with additional sources at the bottom of their articles)
Avalanche, a Revolutionary Consensus Engine and Platform. A Game Changer for Blockchain
Avalanche Consensus, The Biggest Breakthrough since Nakamoto
Cosmos — An Early In-Depth Analysis — Part One
Cosmos — An Early In-Depth Analysis — Part Two
Cosmos Hub ATOM Token and the commonly misunderstood staking tokens — Part Three
Polkadot — An Early In-Depth Analysis — Part One — Overview and Benefits
Polkadot — An Early In-Depth Analysis — Part Two — How Consensus Works
Polkadot — An Early In-Depth Analysis — Part Three — Limitations and Issues
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1. What is Bitcoin (BTC)?
2. Bitcoin’s core featuresFor a more beginner’s introduction to Bitcoin, please visit Binance Academy’s guide to Bitcoin.
Unspent Transaction Output (UTXO) modelA UTXO transaction works like cash payment between two parties: Alice gives money to Bob and receives change (i.e., unspent amount). In comparison, blockchains like Ethereum rely on the account model.
Nakamoto consensusIn the Bitcoin network, anyone can join the network and become a bookkeeping service provider i.e., a validator. All validators are allowed in the race to become the block producer for the next block, yet only the first to complete a computationally heavy task will win. This feature is called Proof of Work (PoW).
The probability of any single validator to finish the task first is equal to the percentage of the total network computation power, or hash power, the validator has. For instance, a validator with 5% of the total network computation power will have a 5% chance of completing the task first, and therefore becoming the next block producer.
Since anyone can join the race, competition is prone to increase. In the early days, Bitcoin mining was mostly done by personal computer CPUs.
As of today, Bitcoin validators, or miners, have opted for dedicated and more powerful devices such as machines based on Application-Specific Integrated Circuit (“ASIC”).
Proof of Work secures the network as block producers must have spent resources external to the network (i.e., money to pay electricity), and can provide proof to other participants that they did so.
With various miners competing for block rewards, it becomes difficult for one single malicious party to gain network majority (defined as more than 51% of the network’s hash power in the Nakamoto consensus mechanism). The ability to rearrange transactions via 51% attacks indicates another feature of the Nakamoto consensus: the finality of transactions is only probabilistic.
Once a block is produced, it is then propagated by the block producer to all other validators to check on the validity of all transactions in that block. The block producer will receive rewards in the network’s native currency (i.e., bitcoin) as all validators approve the block and update their ledgers.
Block productionThe Bitcoin protocol utilizes the Merkle tree data structure in order to organize hashes of numerous individual transactions into each block. This concept is named after Ralph Merkle, who patented it in 1979.
With the use of a Merkle tree, though each block might contain thousands of transactions, it will have the ability to combine all of their hashes and condense them into one, allowing efficient and secure verification of this group of transactions. This single hash called is a Merkle root, which is stored in the Block Header of a block. The Block Header also stores other meta information of a block, such as a hash of the previous Block Header, which enables blocks to be associated in a chain-like structure (hence the name “blockchain”).
An illustration of block production in the Bitcoin Protocol is demonstrated below.
Block time and mining difficultyBlock time is the period required to create the next block in a network. As mentioned above, the node who solves the computationally intensive task will be allowed to produce the next block. Therefore, block time is directly correlated to the amount of time it takes for a node to find a solution to the task. The Bitcoin protocol sets a target block time of 10 minutes, and attempts to achieve this by introducing a variable named mining difficulty.
Mining difficulty refers to how difficult it is for the node to solve the computationally intensive task. If the network sets a high difficulty for the task, while miners have low computational power, which is often referred to as “hashrate”, it would statistically take longer for the nodes to get an answer for the task. If the difficulty is low, but miners have rather strong computational power, statistically, some nodes will be able to solve the task quickly.
Therefore, the 10 minute target block time is achieved by constantly and automatically adjusting the mining difficulty according to how much computational power there is amongst the nodes. The average block time of the network is evaluated after a certain number of blocks, and if it is greater than the expected block time, the difficulty level will decrease; if it is less than the expected block time, the difficulty level will increase.
What are orphan blocks?In a PoW blockchain network, if the block time is too low, it would increase the likelihood of nodes producingorphan blocks, for which they would receive no reward. Orphan blocks are produced by nodes who solved the task but did not broadcast their results to the whole network the quickest due to network latency.
It takes time for a message to travel through a network, and it is entirely possible for 2 nodes to complete the task and start to broadcast their results to the network at roughly the same time, while one’s messages are received by all other nodes earlier as the node has low latency.
Imagine there is a network latency of 1 minute and a target block time of 2 minutes. A node could solve the task in around 1 minute but his message would take 1 minute to reach the rest of the nodes that are still working on the solution. While his message travels through the network, all the work done by all other nodes during that 1 minute, even if these nodes also complete the task, would go to waste. In this case, 50% of the computational power contributed to the network is wasted.
The percentage of wasted computational power would proportionally decrease if the mining difficulty were higher, as it would statistically take longer for miners to complete the task. In other words, if the mining difficulty, and therefore targeted block time is low, miners with powerful and often centralized mining facilities would get a higher chance of becoming the block producer, while the participation of weaker miners would become in vain. This introduces possible centralization and weakens the overall security of the network.
However, given a limited amount of transactions that can be stored in a block, making the block time too longwould decrease the number of transactions the network can process per second, negatively affecting network scalability.
3. Bitcoin’s additional features
Segregated Witness (SegWit)Segregated Witness, often abbreviated as SegWit, is a protocol upgrade proposal that went live in August 2017.
SegWit separates witness signatures from transaction-related data. Witness signatures in legacy Bitcoin blocks often take more than 50% of the block size. By removing witness signatures from the transaction block, this protocol upgrade effectively increases the number of transactions that can be stored in a single block, enabling the network to handle more transactions per second. As a result, SegWit increases the scalability of Nakamoto consensus-based blockchain networks like Bitcoin and Litecoin.
SegWit also makes transactions cheaper. Since transaction fees are derived from how much data is being processed by the block producer, the more transactions that can be stored in a 1MB block, the cheaper individual transactions become.
The legacy Bitcoin block has a block size limit of 1 megabyte, and any change on the block size would require a network hard-fork. On August 1st 2017, the first hard-fork occurred, leading to the creation of Bitcoin Cash (“BCH”), which introduced an 8 megabyte block size limit.
Conversely, Segregated Witness was a soft-fork: it never changed the transaction block size limit of the network. Instead, it added an extended block with an upper limit of 3 megabytes, which contains solely witness signatures, to the 1 megabyte block that contains only transaction data. This new block type can be processed even by nodes that have not completed the SegWit protocol upgrade.
Furthermore, the separation of witness signatures from transaction data solves the malleability issue with the original Bitcoin protocol. Without Segregated Witness, these signatures could be altered before the block is validated by miners. Indeed, alterations can be done in such a way that if the system does a mathematical check, the signature would still be valid. However, since the values in the signature are changed, the two signatures would create vastly different hash values.
For instance, if a witness signature states “6,” it has a mathematical value of 6, and would create a hash value of 12345. However, if the witness signature were changed to “06”, it would maintain a mathematical value of 6 while creating a (faulty) hash value of 67890.
Since the mathematical values are the same, the altered signature remains a valid signature. This would create a bookkeeping issue, as transactions in Nakamoto consensus-based blockchain networks are documented with these hash values, or transaction IDs. Effectively, one can alter a transaction ID to a new one, and the new ID can still be valid.
This can create many issues, as illustrated in the below example:
Since the transaction malleability issue is fixed, Segregated Witness also enables the proper functioning of second-layer scalability solutions on the Bitcoin protocol, such as the Lightning Network.
Lightning NetworkLightning Network is a second-layer micropayment solution for scalability.
Specifically, Lightning Network aims to enable near-instant and low-cost payments between merchants and customers that wish to use bitcoins.
Lightning Network was conceptualized in a whitepaper by Joseph Poon and Thaddeus Dryja in 2015. Since then, it has been implemented by multiple companies. The most prominent of them include Blockstream, Lightning Labs, and ACINQ.
A list of curated resources relevant to Lightning Network can be found here.
In the Lightning Network, if a customer wishes to transact with a merchant, both of them need to open a payment channel, which operates off the Bitcoin blockchain (i.e., off-chain vs. on-chain). None of the transaction details from this payment channel are recorded on the blockchain, and only when the channel is closed will the end result of both party’s wallet balances be updated to the blockchain. The blockchain only serves as a settlement layer for Lightning transactions.
Since all transactions done via the payment channel are conducted independently of the Nakamoto consensus, both parties involved in transactions do not need to wait for network confirmation on transactions. Instead, transacting parties would pay transaction fees to Bitcoin miners only when they decide to close the channel.
One limitation to the Lightning Network is that it requires a person to be online to receive transactions attributing towards him. Another limitation in user experience could be that one needs to lock up some funds every time he wishes to open a payment channel, and is only able to use that fund within the channel.
However, this does not mean he needs to create new channels every time he wishes to transact with a different person on the Lightning Network. If Alice wants to send money to Carol, but they do not have a payment channel open, they can ask Bob, who has payment channels open to both Alice and Carol, to help make that transaction. Alice will be able to send funds to Bob, and Bob to Carol. Hence, the number of “payment hubs” (i.e., Bob in the previous example) correlates with both the convenience and the usability of the Lightning Network for real-world applications.
Schnorr Signature upgrade proposalElliptic Curve Digital Signature Algorithm (“ECDSA”) signatures are used to sign transactions on the Bitcoin blockchain.
However, many developers now advocate for replacing ECDSA with Schnorr Signature. Once Schnorr Signatures are implemented, multiple parties can collaborate in producing a signature that is valid for the sum of their public keys.
This would primarily be beneficial for network scalability. When multiple addresses were to conduct transactions to a single address, each transaction would require their own signature. With Schnorr Signature, all these signatures would be combined into one. As a result, the network would be able to store more transactions in a single block.
The reduced size in signatures implies a reduced cost on transaction fees. The group of senders can split the transaction fees for that one group signature, instead of paying for one personal signature individually.
Schnorr Signature also improves network privacy and token fungibility. A third-party observer will not be able to detect if a user is sending a multi-signature transaction, since the signature will be in the same format as a single-signature transaction.
4. Economics and supply distributionThe Bitcoin protocol utilizes the Nakamoto consensus, and nodes validate blocks via Proof-of-Work mining. The bitcoin token was not pre-mined, and has a maximum supply of 21 million. The initial reward for a block was 50 BTC per block. Block mining rewards halve every 210,000 blocks. Since the average time for block production on the blockchain is 10 minutes, it implies that the block reward halving events will approximately take place every 4 years.
As of May 12th 2020, the block mining rewards are 6.25 BTC per block. Transaction fees also represent a minor revenue stream for miners.
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