Efforts to downsize the ethereum, the second largest blockchain in the world, are becoming more and more varied as a solution that is so far ahead meets with the dangers in its continuous development.
At the forefront of this transition was plasma, a concept widely announced as the best bet of ethereum for short-term downsizing. Already, researchers behind the technology have built five distinct versions of the protocol – but within these multiple iterations, there is evidence that the work does not proceed as originally hoped for, with little implementation code put together well over a year from its beginning.
With the slowing down of the plasma, however, attention is drawn to zk-snarks, a form of cryptography created for the first time by zcash cryptocurrency focused on privacy. In fact, startups are already adopting technology, which allows developers to aggregate transactions in batches, while trying to scale the network among other efforts to expand, upgrade and grow ethereum.
For example, the predictive market platform Gnosis is exploring the use of zk-snarks to support a decentralized exchange, in what is known as "snapp" (snark dapp). The pseudonym developer "barrywhitehat" has also used technology to create "roll-up", another snapp that can potentially be applied to the etherum scale more widely.
Vitalik Buterin, the creator of ethereum, has even written about the potential of this approach, stating that it could be applied to get 500 transactions per second in the short term.
This is notable because as we progress towards the longer term of ethereum, high-performance rewriting – Serenity (sometimes called Shasper and ethereum 2.0) – continues to proceed, the developers suggest the switch is still two years away. As such, developers are looking for more immediate options to cope with the increase in the number of users on the network.
In fact, at Devcon4's annual developer conference – ethereum – there was a palpable sense of excitement about zk-snarks and their applications. The event featured seven tracks dedicated to technology and related systems, and Kelvin Fichter, a plasma researcher at the decentralized OmiseGo exchange, referred to the growing hype as a "snark-nado".
Speaking with CoinDesk, Gnosis CTO Stefan George explained that what is convincing of the approach not only has the potential to be more decentralized than plasma, but that it is ready for short-term implementation.
He told CoinDesk:
"More and more people understand what the possibilities are: even beyond zero knowledge, it is also a great scalability tool that is missing at ethereum, and we can use it without waiting".
So, what's going on with the plasma, exactly? Speaking with Devcon4, the researchers contributed to what was built – and what is preventing progress.
Plasma was first conceived by Buterin and Joseph Poon, coauthor of Bitcoin's Lightning Network white paper, in April 2017, the idea is that scaling can be achieved by pushing the actual calculation of smart contracts outside the main block of ethereum.
Since its publication, various iterations of the downsizing method have emerged, with an increasing number of research groups and capitals dedicated to it. Nevertheless, every new plasma iteration reveals a new research problem that needs to be addressed, leading to multiple plasma variants that shift distribution compromises in different ways.
For example, an implementation dubbed minimal vital plasma "has time constraints, is horrible for the user interface and is vulnerable to network congestion," Devcon4 told David Plott, a plasma researcher for OmiseGo.
While a plasma iteration – the so-called cash plasma – is usable today, it is difficult for users and developers to interact. Likewise, since it relies on non-fungible tokens (NFTs) to function, the project requires heavy transaction histories.
"You still have to keep track of the value and you have to constantly gather evidence of non inclusion, so when you transfer ownership of the NFT you must also transfer its story," Knott said.
With an infinite number of researches surrounding the idea, the confusion about what is really basic technology has pushed companies and research groups to behave asynchronously.
"Plasma is a confusing term," Fichter said during his Devcon presentation last week. "No one really knows what plasma is, the document defines it as one, the researchers define it as something different".
As such, there is a push towards what Fichter called the "Holy Grail" of plasma research: a generalized plasma that seeks to combine elements – as well as lessons learned – from all techniques.
"We are not really close to the generalized plasma, I think a lot of time and money will be spent over the next few months or years," Fichter said.
Snarks for resizing
And this is because, to work, the plasma is based on what is known as "output", ie how users extract funds from the plasma and reposition them on the blockchain itself.
By requiring the complex game theory to work, this process can be cumbersome and complicated, while the zk-snarks are distinguished by their elegant design. While plasma "can become super-complex", George told CoinDesk, "with snapp we have a super simple architecture".
The plasma also requires a centralized component to function, George continued, as the off-line component is managed by the authorities in order to achieve a higher volume of transactions.
While on plasma, this is achieved in a way that has no confidence – which means there is no risk that transactions can be falsified – George said that this has another downside, since its centralization means that could be a potential closure by regulators.
"You have this operator, he has no confidence, he is not decentralized, he is rather centralized, he is subject to regulation and so on," he told CoinDesk.
George plans to use the method as part of a decentralized exchange, or DEX, which may also have zero knowledge properties. Called dFusion, the new DEX is expected to reach a proof-of-concept phase within the next three to four months.
Yet, there is evidence that the two research flows – focusing separately on plasma and snarks – can actually reconnect with one another.
For example, talking to CoinDesk, Fichter said that one of the most challenging aspects of plasma can be solved by using the right application of snark technology.
Fichter introduced a new term – "plapps" – which means decentralized applications that work on plasma. These apps can rely on snarks in terms of how to check transactions on the blockchain itself.
"[Snarks] we solve what we were solving with crypto-economic hypotheses simply with cryptographic assumptions. It means we have to worry a lot less, "said Fichter.
Also, in the future, zk-snarks could be used to make the plasma layer more private.
That said, solutions like barrywhitehat roll-up and Gnosis & dFusion currently struggle with the anonymity aspect, due to the resources needed to add a level of privacy. Currently, sizing solutions are used only for verification purposes and do not offer additional anonymity benefits.
"Purely zero-knowledge systems and the use of zero-knowledge systems in plasma is still a long way off," Fichter told CoinDesk adding:
"There's some work left on" Do we have less hash functions? "and once we get to that point, we'll see an explosion of zero-knowledge applications."
Image Vitalik via Devcon