The =nil; Foundation, the playfully-named blockchain infrastructure startup, introduced a toolkit Thursday that it said will radically decrease the time it will take for developers to build platforms that use zero-knowledge cryptography.
The new project from =nil; called zkLLVM, is intended to act as a compiler for developers building zero-knowledge circuits – fancy algorithms that enable someone to guarantee something is true without walking through the steps to prove it.
ZK technology has been around since the 1980s, but its applicability to crypto – which ranges from transaction privacy to blockchain scaling – has fueled a kind of ZK renaissance in recent years. Breakthroughs in ZK research have driven hundreds of millions in funding to startups like Matter Labs, StarkWare and Mina that develop ZK-based blockchain infrastructure, and CoinDesk reported last week that =nil; had raised $22 million to build its own suite of zero-knowledge products.
Komarov says =nil; created zkLLVM to dramatically slice workloads for ZK developers by making it possible for them to easily turn code written in familiar programming languages – like C++ and Rust – into fully working zero-knowledge circuits.
Writing a zero-knowledge circuit tends to be a complicated, timely endeavor for developers. It generally involves familiarizing oneself with niche programming languages and finicky, domain-specific software libraries.
LLVM, which stands for “low-level virtual machine,” refers to a set of open-source code libraries that developers use to “compile” their human-readable code into a format that can be interpreted by a computer. Building off the LLVM project, “we built a compiler from mainstream languages that are already known to everybody” =nil; founder Mikhail Komarov told CoinDesk.
The zkLLVM project will also automatically plug into =nil;’s recently announced ZK proof market, which it created to help ZK teams decentralize their operations, and outsource certain kinds of computation to third parties.
The =nil; Foundation released the project Thursday on Github under an open-source license, meaning any developer can freely use or modify the zkLLVM code.
The =nil; Foundation says its technology will be particularly useful for the myriad companies racing to build so-called zkEVMs, a kind of Ethereum scaling solution that uses ZK technology to slice the blockchain’s fees and wait times.
Using the zkEVM platform Scroll as an example, Komarov explained that “they built their circuits manually” using a special software library developed for the Rust programming language. “They spent like a year and a half for that and a lot of money as well,” said Komarov. “If they had access to what we made a little bit earlier, maybe they could have spent only a couple of months to just build and debug stuff.”
Read more: The Sudden Rise of EVM-Compatible ZK Rollups
ZK circuits are increasingly used to secure the flow of valuable digital assets, meaning programming errors can prove extremely expensive. Komarov acknowledged to CoinDesk that zkLLVM will need to prove itself before it earns the trust of developers. When an earlier version of the zkLLVM codebase leaked online, some developers said they would be wary of trusting =nil;’s circuit-generation capabilities, given the code’s complexity.
Komarov also noted that zkLLVM currently has limitations when it comes to handling particularly large circuits – programs that are more complicated to translate into zero-knowledge form. He hopes, however, that the zkLLVM codebase will mature to a point where developers can finally stop thinking about the nitty-gritty of ZK-circuit building and focus on other parts of their software.
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