Blockchain Scaling - Monolithic and Homogeneous

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--- title: "Blockchain Scaling 1: Monolithic and Homogeneous" duration: 45 mins ---

Blockchain Scaling

Monolithic and Homogeneous

Lesson format

  • Two approaches:
    • Historically, we move from protocols that are monolithic and homogeneous to ones that are modular and heterogeneous
    • Structurally, we can compare in terms of security assumptions and design trade-offs
  • First half covers theory, homogeneous sharding, shared security
  • Second half is rollups and beyond

What do we mean by scaling?

  • Increasing throughput: data executed through state transitions
  • TPS:
    • Widely stated
    • Often gamed
      • Individually signed user transactions (no inherents)
      • Peak vs. sustained load
      • sTPS used in Polkadot (no db caching)
    • Not currently the driver of throughput needs (DeFi + NFT drops)

Horizontal vs. Vertical Scaling

  • Vertical scaling: adding more resources per machine
  • Horizontal scaling: adding more machines

Scalability Trilemma

  • Why do we care about horizontal scaling for blockchains?
    • Lower barrier of entry -> more decentralization

Vertical scaling approaches

  • Adaptive responsiveness (HotStuff)
  • Mempool optimization:
    • Pipelining: building future blocks before previous ones have been included
    • DAG-based (Narwhal)
    • To avoid MEV (for Polkadot: Sassafras)
  • Parallel execution
    • UTXOs
    • Move Language: STM with linear types
    • For Polkadot: elastic scaling



  • Existing validator sets (Cosmos Hub, Ethereum with Eigenlayer) can opt-in to validating other protocols using same bond
  • Capital scaling, not throughput scaling
  • All validators must validate all protocols in order to have the same security


  • Two arguments in favor (shared with Polkadot)
    • Shared economic security against market buying tokens to attack PoS
    • Reduces capital costs to validators, while increasing revenue sources -> security is much cheaper for client protocols
  • Appchain thesis: flexible blockspace has advantages over generalized smart contract platforms (including for throughput)



  • Term from traditional databases
  • Definition: distributing over subsets of machines (committees)
  • Execution vs. data sharding


Problem Space: Byzantine Thresholds

  • Typically can't assume f holds within committees
    • Unless they're statistically representative
    • Alternatively we rely on 1-of-n assumptions

Problem Space: Adaptive Corruption

  • Easier to corrupt (DOS, bribe, etc.) small committees than entire validator set
  • Must be sorted with strong on-chain randomness (e.g. VRFs not PoW hashes)
  • Must be frequently rotated
  • Weaker assumption: adaptive corruption isn't immediate

Problem Space: Cross-shard Messaging

  • Imbalanced message queues (different with heterogeneous vs. homogeneous shards)
  • Creates a dependency when shards are rolled back -> easier when finality is tied together and fast
  • Undirected graph approach (Casper/Chainweb):
    • Only allows messaging between adjacent shards
    • Adjacent shards are validated together

Solutions: 1-of-n assumptions

  • Polkadot (eager)
  • Optimistic rollups (lazy)
  • Nightshade (Near)
    • Optimistic homogeneous sharding
    • Availability protocol based on Polkadot's



Statistically Representative Committees

  • Statistically representative committees (Omniledger, Polkadot with multiple relay chains)
  • Very large validator sets (thousands)
  • Large (hundreds) statistically representative committees
  • Committees aren't rotated every block (weaker adaptive corruption assumption)
  • 4f trust assumption in validator set -> 2f+1 in Committees
  • Separate "beacon" chain for Sybil resistance


Solutions: Validity proofs (zk-rollups)

  • Cryptographic proofs of execution
  • Asymmetry between proving and verifying times
    • Proving is slow
    • Verifying is fast and constant time
  • Proofs are succinct, can go on chain
  • Typically ZK proofs, but not necessary

State Channels, Plasma, and Beyond

State Channels

  • Part of state is locked, updated off-chain between closed set of participants, then unlocked and committed to chain
  • Payment channels, e.g. Lightning network, are a special case
  • Composition between channels sharing parties
  • Can be application-specific or generalized (e.g. Counterfactual)


State Channels

  • Greater liveness assumptions:
    • The chain will accept stale state transitions as final
    • Someone must be regularly online to submit later ones
    • This can be outsourced to watchtower networks
    • Typically challenge period after closing channel

State Channels

  • Cannot be used for all kinds of operations
    • Sending funds to new parties outside the channel
    • State transitions with no owner (e.g. DEX operations)
    • Account-based systems


  • "Ether + Lightning"
  • Like state channels, but hashes published to L1 at regular checkpoints
  • "Map-reduce" blockchains, PoS on top of PoW Ethereum
  • Downsides:
    • State transitions still need "owner"
    • Still not ideal for account-based systems
    • Mass exit problem in case of data unavailability


Flavors of Plasma

  • Plasma MVP: UTXO-based
  • Plasma Cash: NFT-based -> only prove ownership of own coins
  • Polygon: Plasma and PoS bridges


The Life and Death of Plasma

  • 2017-2019: Plasma paper to the emergence of rollups
    • zk-rollups
    • Merged consensus
    • Generalized fraud proofs
  • Plasma Group becomes Optimism