Building 'The Blockchain': Developers Aren't Giving Up on Big Ambitions

A developer conference in Malta this week saw researchers present new ideas for how blockchains could be built and deployed.

AccessTimeIconApr 5, 2017 at 2:55 p.m. UTC
Updated Mar 6, 2023 at 2:53 p.m. UTC
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Even as bitcoin's block size debate rages on, enterprising developers are looking beyond the infighting to focus attention on what's ahead.

Adem Efe Gencer is one such developer. A research assistant at Cornell University's center for blockchain and cryptocurrencies, he believes blockchain technologies will come to be used on a broad scale to track everything from land records to deeds, fine arts and even precious metals.

But as Gencer explained, if we put each each and every asset on its own blockchain, we risk splitting the mining power that secures these transactions and their history. Putting everything on one blockchain, he countered, will lead to cluttering.

So, how will blockchains handle all of these multiple assets? Should we have dedicated chains? Or is there a better way?

At the Financial Cryptography and Data Security conference in Malta yesterday, Gencer offered a solution, outlining an approach called "service-oriented sharding".

Sharding is basically a way of splitting data into parts, and then storing those parts across multiple databases for better throughput.

Gencer explained that service-oriented sharding applies that same idea to blockchains, so that transactions for different assets run on independent subchains. Users only keep track of the subchains they are in, and mining is combined.

Gencer told CoinDesk:

"We want to shard the blockchain with respect to services, so that each shard contains the transactions of only the related service, but not the other services."

Sharding for tomorrow

Gencer and his colleagues have currently implemented sharding on a blockchain called Aspen, designed to run on bitcoin-NG, a protocol for scaling bitcoin.

Developed by Cornell researchers in 2015, bitcoin-NG, which breaks up certain functions of block creation, was one of the more radical proposals to increase network performance.

Still, Gencer said service-oriented sharding could just as easily be applied to bitcoin, ethereum or another blockchain protocol, as it simply re-orders how data is stored.

"In terms of mining, this change will have no effect," Gencer said.

He believes that sharding is the future of blockchains, but points out that it is not easy to do. If you naively try and get rid of some part of transaction history, a blockchain will lose its tamper-resistant, immutable structure.

With Aspen, he said, it is possible to maintain all those properties while requiring less computing power and providing un-fragmented, unified security.

Nodes for the masses

Gencer was not the only one at the conference examining a future where every single car and property is being traded on a blockchain.

Dmitry Meshkov, a researcher at distributed systems firm IOHK, presented yet another idea for making blockchains more manageable, proposing a way to solve what he called the problem of "big state".

As Meshkov described it, the problem is that you can’t store an entire copy of a blockchain on commodity hardware. What's more, he explained, you don’t need all of that data to validate a single transaction anyway.

If Alice wants to give some asset to Bob, you only need to know whether or not Alice has enough tokens to allow a transaction to go through.

Meshkov presented a solution called "cryptographic authenticated data structures" as a way to verify transactions more cheaply. Essentially, the approach adds a proof with a transaction, so you know with certainty whether a transaction is valid, or not.

The solution, he says, will reduce the memory requirements of a blockchain, enabling everyday mobile phone users to validate transactions.

Solutions like these promise to make blockchain more accessible to a broader community of users. They also bring into perspective that cryptocurrencies like bitcoin may one day take a backseat to other assets traded on a blockchain.

Disclaimer: CoinDesk received a subsidy to attend the Financial Cryptography and Data Security conference from the event's organizers.

Image via Amy Castor for CoinDesk; Shutterstock


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