Lightning Has a Problem: People Are Already Using It

Early use of the Lightning Network is catching bugs, but developers are concerned that it could also slow down the building of bitcoin's second layer.

AccessTimeIconJan 26, 2018 at 5:00 a.m. UTC
Updated Sep 13, 2021 at 7:29 a.m. UTC
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Fake money is boring.

At least, that's the contention of many micropayment enthusiasts, whose impatience for the Lightning Network has led to an influx of real bitcoin being transacted over the network, even though developers caution people against doing so since it's still in the testing phase.

"The testnet just doesn't have the same adrenaline rush," representatives of VPN service TorGuard told CoinDesk, after announcing it would be accepting Lightning payments.

And they're not the only ones – Blockstream launched a Lightning-only merchandise store using its own Lightning implementation, c-lightning, and a Lightning main net explorer suggests more than $33,000 in bitcoin has been transacted via Lightning Networks.

The excitement is not hard to explain – the off-chain technology promises near-instant transaction speeds with vastly reduced fees – and many enthusiasts believe using the network on the bitcoin mainnet, as opposed to on the testnet, will speed up the time it takes to get the Lightning Network ready for prime time.

"I think it's time for [Lightning Network] to go live, even if still buggy. But this is the best way to harden it," one Twitter user wrote.

Yet using the network while it's still in development has not only led to confusion as to its readiness, but it's also caused several people to lose real bitcoin funds. Because of that, Blockstream's decision has been criticized, and others have called opening Lightning channels with hundreds and thousands of dollars of bitcoin "crazy."

In spite of persistent warnings, though, mainnet implementations of Lightning already have over 205 nodes and 548 channels, at press time, with no sign of stalling.

Yet, what this momentum is slowing, according to developers, is the rate at which Lightning will be safe to use on the bitcoin mainnet.

As Pierre-Marie Padiou, who develops Lightning at ACINQ, told CoinDesk:

"Recently we have seen more and more users configuring their software for mainnet, some thinking that this will make Lightning Network deployment happen faster somehow."

Distracting the devs

But that's just not the case.

In a recent interview, CEO of Lightning Labs, Elizabeth Stark, approximated the developer count on the Lightning Network to be as low as ten individuals – a factor which as detailed by CoinDesk could be slowing down the release of the tech. Perhaps due to this shortage, Lightning Labs has appealed to users to stop sending money over the system, stating that, "It has become an unnecessary distraction for our devs."

"A lot of people want to get on mainnet and it’s hard to tell them that it’s not quite ready and that they should test on testnet," said Alex Bosworth, a Lightning developer. "I wouldn't recommend using mainnet unless you are explicitly testing and fully know what you are doing."

According to Bosworth, who runs two of his own mainnet nodes, one major problem Lightning developers could run into as they move to release a mainnet implementation is needing to be backwards-compatible, so that the upcoming release would interoperate with the current prototypes being developed.

If the nascent mainnet continues to mature – it has doubled in node count in the past 72 hours – it could "reduce the speed of development," as devs would "have to worry about keeping backwards compatibility with previous versions," Bosworth said.

Yet, even with all this in mind, there's no sign active use will stop.

"We plan on keeping our Lightning Network nodes up and running permanently to help support the network," said TorGuard CEO Ben Van Pelt.

Finding bugs

And that aligns with Lightning adopter David R. Sterry's defense of the active use of the in-development network, saying the criticism "isn't unanimous," and adding that developers "could have made it harder to do if [they were] really against it."

He continued, "There are some issues you'll only find with real money."

And mainnet testing has led to the uncovering of several bugs.

According to the International Business Times, Blockstream's deployment of the tech led to the discovery of 20 bugs in the first 14 hours following its launch. And the CEO of TorGuard, Ben Van Pelt, told CoinDesk the company has encountered a few bugs along the way, but none that have caused the company or its users to lose money.

In this same vein, CSO of Blockstream Samsom Mow tweeted: "Using Lightning Network on mainnet isn't just bug fixing, stickers and being #reckless. It's also learning about usability issues that we may not be considering."

But Padiou thinks this overlooks an important point, saying once the network is live, "Every bug encountered will potentially be orders of magnitude more costly in terms of development resources. That's why on the way to a stable, working Lightning Network, rushing things will not make us actually go faster."

The active network "just puts more pressure and adds more distraction to the already small number of people actually doing the development," he continued, adding:

"Let's not forget that [developers] are the scarcest resource of all."

Disclosure: CoinDesk is a subsidiary Digital Currency Group, which has an ownership stake in Blockstream. 

Lightning over palm trees image via Shutterstock


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