For those unfamiliar with the cryptocurrency, Ethereum, there are numerous reasons for why it now exists as a heavily forked currency. One reason is the ‘malleability’ of the Ethereum blockchain. When we say malleability, we mean that the chain is much easier for developers to work with than Bitcoin. Unlike Bitcoin, developers are able to build their on applications on top of the chain and power the transactions with ‘gas’. In addition, since this network also works via Proof of Work, it also possesses a consensus algorithm that gives the underlying protocol substantial strength and resilience to network attacks or other attack vectors. Thus, using the Ethereum chain as a sort of ‘baseline’ by which to develop their chain via hard forking, is a concept that is favorable for many individuals. However, only two projects have managed to successfully bridge from the basic Ethereum blockchain without failure.
One of the more prominent recent examples of a hard fork of the Ethereum protocol is ‘EtherZero’.
The EtherZero block was launched on block 4936270, which occurred on January 20th, 2018. According to its website at the time of writing, it still does not possess a block explorer, which is a bit disconcerting for any cryptocurrency in this space that wishes to receive any level of legitimacy or widespread adoption.
These are the purported features, according to its website:
Two-Layer Network System — In short, for those that do not know — Ethereum allows individuals to power their transactions via the Gas that is supplied to the network. EtherZero eliminates this system and instead has opted to add another layer to the protocol as a means of facilitating transactions that take place on the chain through the dApps.
0 TX Fee — This purported bonus feature speaks for itself!
Instant Payments — ‘Instant’ is always subjective in the crypto world and we won’t be able to assess the quickness of the payments of the network until it has reached the phase of 100% release.
High Scalability — See ‘Instant Payments’ ^
Autonomous Community Governance System — Rather than having a centralized authority that is able to settle disputes or make overarching decisions about the future direction of the chain, there is a governance system that has a democratized means of implementing solutions.
Masternode System — Becoming increasingly popular in the cryptoworld is the implementation of a Proof of Stake consensus algorithm that is contingent upon ‘masternodes’, or ‘voters’ that approve the blocks on the chain that are chosen based on how large their stake is in the cryptocurrency’s ecosystem.
It thrives on an initial supply of 194 million ‘EtherZero’ tokens, which is a quantity of 100 million more of its units than what Ethereum holds and it also utilizes the PoW consensus algorithm, just like Ethereum. The difficulty adjustment is dynamic, and one must use GPU hardware in order to mine blocks on its network.
According to its website, it can also scale to 10,000+ transactions per second as well.
This is the current roadmap that can be found on the coin’s website at this moment:
Based on their roadmap, they have not manifested any of the tech necessary to truly evaluate its efficacy as a currency, let alone one that is a fork of Ethereum.
As you most likely observed with the Bitcoin hard forks, the purpose of most forks is to provide some sort of inherent utility that the legacy chain did not possess and refused to or could not implement.
The primary feature that it boasts is that individuals will be able to make instant payments to one another with shocking speed without needing to receive any sort of fee or compensation. This design means that the miners must rely on the block reward exclusively. There are both pros and cons to such a PoW blockchain consensus structure that EtherZero will have to navigate between in the near future.
This is actually a ‘planned’ hard fork, unlike the others that have been discussed within this article. For those that are unfamiliar with Ethereum’s ‘Metropolis’ update/innovation, it is actually the name of this ‘phase’ of development for the network that focuses more on the scalability of the coin than anything else. There are four stages in total for the Ethereum network that were planned from the very beginning.
With the Metropolis network, there are a number of features associated with its implementation:
The proposed features of the network are as follows:
● Zk-Snarks — This refers to the feature that individuals have seen in coins like ZClassic which allow for greater privacy in transactions between users.
● PoS — This refers to ‘Proof of Stake’, which is a consensus algorithm. In Bitcoin, miners on the network all race to solve an algorithm in order to create the next block. Based on one’s speed in these calculations, they are allowed to create the block. The computer processing power that is necessitated in order to mine the next block is what qualifies as the ‘Proof of Work’. Conversely, Proof of Stake, relies on individuals in the community being selected to approve the block based on their ‘stake’ or holding of that particular cryptocurrency at that given point in time. There are many different ‘Proof of Stake’ formulas that are available at present, but all are contingent upon that fundamental precept.
● Smart Contract Upgrades — Smart Contracts refer to the ‘escrow’-like protections that blockchains can grant users that seek to make agreements with other users of the network. Typically, smart contracts are essentially ‘mini’-contracts that operate off of the principle of ‘When conditions A and B are met, C will happen’. The purpose of Smart Contracts are to provide a decentralized means of distributing payment to individuals based on the fulfillment of certain conditions that were previously agreed to between the two or more parties engaging in the transaction.
● ‘Account Abstraction’ — On the Ethereum network, there are two types of ‘accounts’ that users can hold on the network. The first type of account is the ‘classic’ account that many individuals are familiar with — holding a wallet with a private key attached to it. The second type of account is one that is operated/powered via a Smart Contract. The goal of account abstraction is to provide an equal level of programming/development malleability and flexibility to both types of accounts so that there is no discernible gap in difference between the two.
Each facet of this upgrade of the Ethereum network comes with its own pros and cons and the technical understanding/summary of each is extensive in nature.
Two concepts, however, that we want to delve into depth a bit more within this upgrade are ‘Byzantium’ and ‘Constantinople’.
In the Ethereum network, both of these city names correspond to different phases of the ‘Metropolis’ implementation.
The 1st phase is Byzantium.
What is Byzantium? — At the time of writing, this first phase of the hard fork/protocol upgrade process is currently finished. According to those that are a bit more familiar with the technical nature of the upgrades that were included within this portion of the Ethereum hard fork, the consensus appears to be that the technical upgrades were of a nature that don’t introduce a discernible change in the protocol for the ‘non-tech savvy’ user. However, there were a total of nine different improvement protocols that were initiated within this hard fork. The overall goal of Byzantium and Constantinople are to improve the scalability and functionality of the Ethereum chain itself.
The 2nd phase is Constantinople
The second phase of the protocol upgrade, Constantinople, is designed to be final half of the protocol upgrade that is supposed to usher/ensure that Ethereum has the capacity to make the smooth transition from a Proof of Work consensus algorithm to Proof of Stake. Thus, there are several ‘tweaks’ that must be made to the code to upgrade it and expand the current consensus rules to allow for a smooth transition without compromising the chain itself.
Byzantium released at block height 437000 for Ethereum.
The features that are to be rolled out with this update are the Zk-snarks that were mentioned above, as well as the account abstraction principle.
Thus far, there is no definitive date/block height time for the release of Constantinople yet, but it is expected that this will occur sometime within the next year from the time of writing. However, once this is completed, then the Ethereum blockchain will be ready for the long-anticipated implementation of ‘Serenity’, which is the protocol upgrade that will finally switch the consensus algorithm on the chain from Proof of Work to Proof of Stake using the Casper consensus algorithm.
Ethereum Minor Forks
Similar to Bitcoin Minor Forks, there are a number of ‘insignificant’ forks that have occurred on the Ethereum network as well. These forks are deemed to be minor or insubstantial due to the fact that the networks have hardly a fraction of the strength of their legacy networks and do not appear to be sustainable or viable projects in the long-term.
As discussed in the genesis article, there are a number of risks that are inherent when dealing with hard forks, particularly contentious ones. The immediate risk is to the blockchain/network where the hard fork occurred, which leads to a tertiary impact on those that use that blockchain. Even in situations where a hard fork reaches unanimous approval by all participants on the blockchain, the implementation process may not go smoothly due to sheer laziness on behalf of some members of the protocol that take excess time in upgrading the version of the client that they’re running. When there are unplanned, contentious hard forks, more chaos can erupt if there are a substantial portion of miner and nodes that choose to flee the network. In some cases, this could even lead to a blockchain reorganization, which would entail the loss of funds for all those that are on the reorganized chain. Thus, the risks associated with a hard fork are monumental for all those involved.
What About Free Coins?
The genesis article also discussed how ‘hard forks’ are sometimes embraced by the community because of the ‘issuance’ of ‘free’ coins that occur because the network resulting from the hard fork essentially takes all of the information that was contained on the legacy network in terms of coin distributions and ‘snapshots’ the network. There are several methods of obtaining these forked coins which include but aren’t limited to; receiving them via airdrops, pointing one’s respective node toward the new forked network then transferring the coins, or even distributing the private keys to the new network.
Are There Any Risks Associated With This Process?
One of the inherent, yet ambiguous risks associated with this is the fact that the community is relatively new to the concept of hard forks, so there are a fair number of unknowns regarding the long-term systemic impact of so many hard forks on the network, especially if the network is using a Proof of Work consensus algorithm. There’s been a substantial amount of scholarship written on this issue that goes into more depth about the risks inherent in there being such a substantial increase in the number of contentious hard forks taking place on a given network.
Overall, hard forks are an inevitable aspect of cryptocurrency at this point. Some projects have been good, some have been outright scams. However, we must respect the right of the community to develop such projects if we are to stay in-line with the principles of decentralization and open-source code, which is how Satoshi released the Bitcoin code. Ultimately, if one understands the principle of contentious hard forks, they should realize that it is really the community’s responsibility to audit itself — which means that this is perhaps the vision that Satoshi ultimately had when he was building Bitcoin and eventually disappeared.
Since the cryptospace is new, however, there is plenty of misinformation and misconceptions that have been spread about hard forks, their nature, implementation, and acquisition by coin holders, which had created a great deal of ire and cynicism within the larger community toward such projects. However, it is important to remember that some projects are very legitimate and, in some cases, even enhance the original software that was released by the developers.
Personally, I feel as though hard forks are beneficial to the cryptocommunity. They’re the community’s way of ensuring that they’ll always have a voice because it gives investors and miners a recourse in the instance that they come to a disagreement with the coin development team. While there will always be individuals in the community and supporters of the legacy chain that despise any and all hard forks and take the move to be a form of ‘betrayal’, we must all remember that we are essentially ‘knock offs’ of the original idea posited by Satoshi in his Bitcoin creation. And even in that instance, Satoshi owes many of his ideas, including Proof of Work, to the innovations of prior developers that had explored the creation of an online, digital currency.