Ripple Papers Pledge New Start for $40 Billion XRP

FEATURE
Alyssa Hertig
Feb 21, 2018 at 16:00 UTC  |  Updated  Feb 26, 2018 at 12:36 UTC

The startup that oversees development of the world's third most-valuable cryptocurrency, XRP, is moving to upgrade the underlying technology on which it operates.

Announced Wednesday, San Francisco-based startup Ripple is releasing two new white papers for peer review – one describing XRP's consensus algorithm in a more formal way and the other outlining a way to improve the diversity of connections of each node, the software users run to relay and verify transactions on the network.

Taken together, the moves show that Ripple, whose investors include banks like Santander and SBI, is ready and willing to invest in the core infrastructure supporting its cryptocurrency, which despite falling out of favor with the company at times, now secures more than $40 billion in value.

Yet, while XRP has become one of the most in-demand crypto assets, in some ways its development has lagged behind other more established offerings like bitcoin and ether.

Indeed, Ripple CTO Stefan Thomas sought to portray the papers as a step towards developing a tighter relationship between the company's research arm and academia. In short, the startup wants it to be easier for researchers to follow Ripple's technology, so its easier for them to contribute.

In interview, Thomas sought to stress how the papers open up the possibility of further building a network effect around the tech – one that might be key now that traders are buying in.

Thomas told CoinDesk:

"This is the first time we're releasing peer-reviewed academic papers. Obviously, it opens the door for future research. After this, I expect you'll hear much more about us interacting with academia."

More broadly, the papers can be seen as perhaps the first attempt in some time for the company to refresh and improve documentation around the open-source platform. (The work is the first since 2014 to detail the XRP Ledger, then called the Ripple Consensus Ledger.)

As such, the papers are also a statement on the continuing evolution of Ripple, which after launching with the goal of repurposing cryptocurrency into a secure payments network is seeking to replace centralized bank messaging and liquidity services with decentralized alternatives.

Playing defense

For Thomas, however, the two releases have one central theme: security.

"What we're trying to do here is add some defenses against some unlikely attack scenarios. Basically, it says you can't completely manipulate the entire network," he explained.

The key word here is "unlikely." Thomas argues these attack vectors aren't viable unless the attacker was a state actor, say the U.S. government, with enough money and technological resources to disrupt the network. And though he isn't particularly worried about this happening, Thomas said the startup is trying to protect against those use cases anyway.

"We're extremely cautious. We want the best security," he added.

The first paper, called "Analysis of the XRP Ledger Consensus Protocol" builds on the company's 2014 paper, providing a formal, mathematical proof that what's supposed to happen on the network will really happen. It boils down to two things: "safety," that the network won't fork into two competing networks, and "liveness," that the network won't get stuck and will keep processing transactions.

The second paper, "Cobalt: BFT Governance in Open Networks" seeks to improve on previous XRP plans with an algorithm that supports a richer array of validators.

You can think of XRP as kind of like a voting system, where each node storing Ripple's transaction history gets a vote on what happens next. To help it accomplish this, each node in Ripple carries something called a Unique Node List (UNL), a list of nodes on the Ripple network that the node considers legitimate.

So, if each node is connecting to a better variety of nodes, the argument goes, that's good for the long-term resiliency and decentralization of the network.

Both papers draw heavily on distributed systems, a body of computer science research describing how large connected networks function. And because they're more theoretical, Thomas stressed these papers will likely have a longer-term impact.

"It's not going to affect how users use XRP right now. They won't experience any downtime or anything," he said.

One step behind

Still, it will remain to be seen if Ripple's developments, including these papers, are enough to allay criticisms of Ripple and its arguably hot-and-cold relationship with XRP. It's worth noting there are some who have been skeptical of its tech from the beginning, and that these criticisms have only grown as XRP has seen more attention.

Critics are often supporters of other blockchains, like bitcoin or ethereum, which seek to use decentralization in a different way. (Some even going as far as to argue the technology "serves no purpose" as an alternative to today's global, financial technology.)

Thomas, though, is unfazed by these negative assessments.

In statements, he sought to position critics as out of touch, while remarking that the nature of the technology is that it can improve and respond to market needs.

"Critics are always one step behind," Thomas told CoinDesk. "When I started at Ripple, all sorts of things didn't happen. It wasn't open-source, we didn't have validators, but over time it's grown and we've been able to accomplish all of these things."

In this way, Thomas sees the papers as just another way Ripple is responding to market needs, whether that's ensuring it's providing an alternative to SWIFT or that its cryptocurrency is secure.

As Thomas views it, curbing centralization of validation is what they're working on next, even going as far as to argue that Ripple will be "far more decentralized" than bitcoin in the future.

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

Ripple coin image via Shutterstock

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