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Lessons Learned from BitShares 0.x

There are many reasons for starting over from scratch and producing a new toolkit and this article hopes to shed some light on what we learned from BitShares 1.0 and the many advancements that BitShares 2.0 allows.

The primary focus of BitShares 2.0 is on Performance, Reliability, Maintainability, and Scalability. As a result, BitShares 2.0 can process 1000 times more transactions per second than the BitShares 1.0 Toolkit and is able to handle VISA level transaction volumes. In addition to performance, the built-in fee structure and revenue sharing incentive structure should motivate adoption far more effectively than any other blockchain.

Technology Lessons

Keep Everything in Memory

Profiling consistently demonstrated to us that LevelDB and disk access were the major bottleneck of BitShares. Every time a transaction is processed there are literally dozens of Level DB key/value databases that are consulted, and every time these databases are accessed there is disk IO. We wanted to keep everything synchronized via a proven database like LevelDB so that nodes were robust against power failure. As we will demonstrate below, this was a bad requirement.

This lesson may seem counterintuitive to those who are familiar with the huge RAM requirements that BitShares has demanded, often approaching 2GB or more at times. The reality is that almost all of that RAM was being used for database caches. But the actual data requirements for an individual account consisting of a name, a key, and a couple of balances is well under 1KB of data, so the entire set of balances for all BTS accounts could be kept in just 30 MB of RAM. In fact, we could easily keep all of the data associated with 1 million accounts in just 1 GB of RAM. With this realization sinking in, it became clear that our problem wasn’t the data we needed to store, but how we chose to represent it and the overhead associated with the various database indices.

If we remove the database entirely and simply load all states at startup and save all states on exit then it becomes possible to process all of the blocks and transactions in BitShares history in mere seconds. This is game changing. The only thing BitShares 2.0 logs to disk in real time are new blocks as they come in and this disk access is done asynchronously so it does not slow down processing of blocks. In the event of a power outage it is trivial to replay the block history to recover state.

Keeping everything in memory works well at any scale supported by the average home internet connection. Long before the memory requirements grow out of reach of the average individual, the internet bandwidth will become the bottleneck. Memory capacity is growing at a far faster rate than bandwidth. Delegated Proof of Stake gives us the power to have “trusted and accountable” centralization. For just $15,000 you can build a machine with 1 TB of RAM. This is well below what many people are spending for Bitcoin mining hardware and probably a fraction of the cost of the bandwidth required. This means the network could support 1 billion users while keeping all accounts in memory on “commodity” hardware.

Assign IDs rather than using UUIDs

Every cryptocurrency I know of uses Addresses which are 160+ bit hashes to identify objects. Large hashes are used because they are collision resistant and unambiguous. Bitcoin uses them to reference outputs and keys. BitShares 1.0 uses them to reference balance objects (the moral equivalent of a bitcoin transaction output). Ethereum uses 256 bit hashes to reference everything and Ripple uses hashes to identify accounts.

The problem with hashes is that they take up a lot of space in indexes and are computationally slow to calculate, compare, and otherwise manipulate. If only we had a way to allocate globally unique IDs without using a content-addressable hashing scheme! Fortunately, that is exactly what a blockchain does: achieve consensus about resource allocation. This means that we can use the blockchain to assign globally unique IDs to every account, asset, order, key, or other concept. These ids can easily be represented as a variant using just a couple of bytes rather than the 20 to 32 bytes used to represent a hash. These IDs are not “random” and are thus far more compressible than the hashes used by other protocols.

Embrace the Single Threaded Reality of Blockchains

There has been a ton of research and development on how to achieve scalable blockchains. Most approaches assume that the goal must be to divide the task among nodes rather than having all nodes do all processing. This divide and conquer approach seems most intuitive, but it is fundamentally flawed because parallelism isn’t free. It is very common for developers to take a single threaded program, make it multi-threaded and have performance fall rather than climb. Our research into scalability lead us to an article about the LMAX trading platform.

LMAX is a new retail financial trading platform. It has to process many trades with low latency. The system is built on the JVM platform and centers on a Business Logic Processor that can handle 6 million orders per second on a single thread. The Business Logic Processor runs entirely in-memory using event sourcing. The Business Logic Processor is surrounded by Disruptors – a concurrency component that implements a network of queues that operate without needing locks. During the design process the team concluded that recent directions in high-performance concurrency models using queues are fundamentally at odds with modern CPU design.

Based upon the success of LMAX, we now have proof that a single core of a desktop processor is able to handle 6 million orders per second. We also know that their architecture operates on the basis of a deterministic event processor that logs inputs rather than logging database state. In many ways, LMAX can be thought of as a blockchain where each event is a transaction. LMAX is a case study on why attempting to multi-thread an inherently sequential process is fundamentally flawed. All they needed to do was get all inputs into an ordered sequence and then get everything out of the way of the core Business Logic Processor (BLP). The most important aspect is that no blocking operations occur in the BLP which means no network operations, no disk IO, no locks, and no atomic operations.

When you look at the approaches to solving scalability concerns presented by others, it is like throwing a ton of network operations into the middle of the Business Logic Processor. Ultimately, every node needs to achieve consensus on the state of things. Ultimately, all orders must be matched in some order.

A single processor and a fiber-optic connection to the Internet can easily process the Business Logic of the blockchain even at millions of transactions per second. This reality should be embraced and used to guide architecture design. To this end, BitShares 2.0 takes great care to separate validation and constraint checking from actually applying the changes made by a transaction. Reindexing a blockchain to rebuild the current world state can skip the validation and constraint checking for blocks it has previously validated.

Keep Transaction Interpretation Deterministic and Explicit

One of the major challenges faced by developers of wallets is how to represent the transaction history as a ledger. Most cryptocurrencies, including BitShares, have logical accounts that consist of many balances controlled by different keys. Transactions consist of combining funds from several balances and distributing them to other balances. The problem is that there is no way of accurately and consistently abstracting meaning from these transactions in a general purpose way. Wallets end up using fuzzy logic to determine who sent money to whom and often depend upon a limited subset of the valid transactions. This gets even worse with blockchains that define everything in terms of scripts (including Bitcoin).

This becomes particularly problematic when attempting to convey to the user what a particular transaction will do prior to the user signing it. Worse yet, it may not even be clear which combination of keys is required to sign it. In BitShares there are cases where the meaning of the transaction depends upon blockchain state information that is not stated in the transaction itself and may not be available until the transaction is actually included in a block. This “assumed information” complicates things for everyone involved. In order to accurately display the impact of a transaction to a user, the blockchain must capture and record all of this assumed information. This creates significant bloat with extra indices and is still unable to give the users absolute certainty about what the side effects of signing a particular transaction will be.

Under BitShares 2.0, every single operation has an explicit fee, a defined set of accounts that must approve of the operation, a defined set of accounts that are impacted by the operation, and a defined set of balance changes that will result from the transaction. An account balance can be entirely calculated with only the raw transactions that reference it. This means transactions are slightly larger than theoretically necessary, but what they lose in size they gain in clarity which is critical for usability, reliability, and ultimately performance. As explained earlier, we save more bytes in the transaction by using 48 bit identifiers (instead of 20-32 byte hashes/addresses) than we lose by having slightly more verbose transactions.

Use Rational/Ratio Prices rather than Fixed Point

BitShares represented all prices as 128 bit numbers using a fix point representation. Despite the very high degree of precision, rounding errors gave unpredictable results and all markets were forced to pick a single orientation for prices. Using the same number of bits, all prices can be represented as a ratio between two assets and can be inverted without any loss in precision.

Regulatory & Political Lessons

Membership Organization, not Decentralized Company

A working paper, summarizing the takeaways from the aforementioned workshop and published by CoinDesk, says that tokens for a Decentralized Collaborative Organization represent “membership” in it. Holders of such tokens are granted unique rights in the organization, and are effectively “managers and/or partners” in its success. The membership may or may not be financially incentivized. The paper concludes that such organizations are likely not to be considered securities.

We have long used many metaphors to describe BitShares including a company, co-op, club, country and community. With BitShares 2.0, we move one step closer to a more regulation immune architecture. With DPOS 2.0 and the built-in referral model built around paid memberships, we have gone to great lengths to ensure that no one can be deemed an administrator and that the network is entirely run by its users, who are jointly “managers and/or partners” in its success.

Anonymity is an Illusion

Great effort went into designing a system for BitShares that would allow users to keep their balances secret. TITAN used stealth addresses which allowed the sender to create as many new balances for the receiver as necessary to avoid combining funds and revealing their identity. The problem is that timing attacks and voting patterns can more or less completely reveal all balances belonging to an individual account. To actually gain any privacy under TITAN would require significant manual effort, an abstention from voting, and require dividing transactions over hours or days to make a single “stealth” payment. As a result most people had a false sense of anonymity. The side effect of attempting to build in privacy was a lack of scalability and significant complexity in building lightweight wallets and infrastructure. Abandoning the requirement for anonymity opens up a wide range of design options that were denied to us before.

Under BitShares 2.0, each named account has exactly one balance per asset type and everyone can see what that balance is and all transaction history except the private content contained in memos. This significantly reduces memory consumption associated with maintaining many different balance records each containing a fraction of the account’s balance. This also greatly simplifies voting which can now be done on a per-account basis rather than per-balance basis. White-listing and web-of-trust implementations are now much easier to implement and maintain. Bottom line: the cost of maintaining the illusion of anonymity far outweighs its value which is practically zero.

Users can still create many different accounts that never transact with one another, and thereby maintain a high level of privacy. The difference is that users are aware of what is public, and have the ability to understand what is necessary to maintain their privacy.

Voter Apathy

Voters do not have enough time to continually evaluate the performance of delegates and as a result network security can suffer from having too many delegates and too little attention per delegate. This combined with a hard requirement for 101 delegates means that voter turnout is low and their ability to quickly adjust their votes to handle non-performing delegates is less than would be desired.

To resolve this issue, BitShares 2.0 allows each account to “follow” another account’s voting preferences. Users can thus delegate their voting decisions to a trusted party which can be more pro-active.

Delegate Pay is Political and not tied to Performance

Delegates campaigning for “marketing” positions get paid regardless of their results and the stakeholders have no way to evaluate whether or not the funds were well spent. The total budget available to BitShares is about $40,000 per month even with a market capitalization of just $8 million. This budget is more than enough to fund the entire development team, but unfortunately the most any one person can get is $400 per month, which can only cover the development team for 3 days per month.

For most marketing positions, the referral program is designed to replace delegate pay. Introducing vesting periods and finer grain control over how funds are allocated means dilution is reserved for relatively non-political purposes such as funding a core team with a single position.

Separating block producers and parameter setters from workers keeps “money” out of the politics of running the network, and keeps it far more focused on the viability of a much smaller list of funded initiatives.

Fear of Dilution is Worse than Dilution

The BitShares bear market has lead to many people blaming sell pressure caused by dilution, despite the fact that dilution is less than 2% per year and the total value of daily dilution is just a few percent of daily trading volume. Despite the reality that dilution has little direct impact on the price, its presence has been used as an excuse for others to sell.

Under BitShares 2.0, projects funded by dilution can specify a vesting period which guarantees that the diluted stake cannot be sold for years and thus alleviate any fears that selling of newly created tokens is the cause of short-term price movements.

MIT licensed

Even through it takes a lot of time and money to build a blockchain and the fear of people copying the code and starting a new killer chain scares off many investors. The code must be open source, but not necessarily free to use for any other blockchain. Anyway, BitShares is open source, and the underlying technology Graphene is MIT licensed and thus free for anybody to use for anything.

Changing the Rules (aka Hard Forks)

The BitShares developers have taken a lot of heat for changing the rules. This leads to fears of centralization and regulatory risks for the developers themselves. It would be nice if there existed one perfect set of rules; however, experience has taught us that adaptability is key to survival of the fittest. Under DPOS 2.0 there will be a new policy adhered to by the developers.

From time to time it is necessary to upgrade a network to add new features. With DPOS 2.0, all changes must be triggered by active stakeholder approval. While it is technically possible for the witnesses to collude to change their software unilaterally, it is not in their interest to do so. Witnesses are selected based upon their commitment to remain neutral to blockchain policy. Remaining neutral protects witnesses against allegations that they are the administrators/managers/owners/operators of the network. A witness is merely an employee of the stakeholders.

Developers may implement whatever changes they deem appropriate so long as those changes are contingent upon stakeholder approval. This policy protects the developers as much as it protects the stakeholders and ensures that no one has unilateral control over the direction of the network.

The threshold for changing the rules is the same as replacing 51% of the elected witnesses. The more stakeholder participation in electing witnesses the harder it becomes to change the rules.

Ultimately changing the rules depends upon everyone using the network upgrading their software and no blockchain level protocol can enforce how rules are changed. This means that hard-forking “bug fixes” can be rolled out without requiring a vote of the stakeholders so long as they remain true to the universally expected behavior of the code.

In practice only security critical hard-forks should be implemented in such a manner. The developers and witnesses should wait for the stakeholders to approve even the most minor changes.

Economic Lessons

Underpricing is not Sustainable

We have always maintained that a blockchain needs to be profitable to be sustainable and grow in value. It doesn’t matter how valuable your product is or how much demand you have, if you sell your product for less than the cost of production then you will go bankrupt and your business will fail. In the case of BitShares, we assumed the cost of user acquisition would be close to 0 and set our fees at $0.01 or less. This is giving away a great product with high value for next to nothing and ultimately the business is not profitable because it has not funded user acquisition from revenue.

Under BitShares 2.0, we charge prices that are competitive with successful real world businesses providing similar services. These real world businesses have real world costs for user acquisition and charge far more than it costs them to merely update their database balances. We need to be cheaper than PayPal, Dwolla, and centralized exchanges. We do not need to be “as cheap as possible” because that will undermine our product.

BitAsset’s need a floor not a perfect peg

The BitAsset system has evolved over the 9 months since it first launched as we learned how market participants reacted to various rules. Liquidity at the feed price is critical to confidence in the value of the token. A system with unbalanced rules will tend to bias the price in one direction or the other. Early on, BitUSD was driven down to $0.85 as demand for shorting outstripped demand for BitUSD and shorts were not forced to cover. Then, after implementing 30 day forced covering rules, the price stabilized around $0.98 to $1.00. Later, as the bear market progressed, we now have BitUSD trading at $1.05 or more because everyone is scared to use leverage and those that have open positions look to cover their position while those who hold BitUSD are not looking to sell. Over the course of these past 9 months, we have seen 3 different markets and had an opportunity to better understand the behavior of market participants.

In order for BitUSD to be accepted as being equal to $1.00 for the purposes of setting prices and online shopping, it only needs to maintain a floor of $1.00. If it can maintain a floor of $1.00, then merchants can accept it and know their margins are safe and that they are not exposed to currency risk. In order to enable a guaranteed floor, all BitUSD can be force liquidated at a trustworthy price feed within days. If this rule is present, then those who create the BitUSD must sell it at a price that properly accounts for this risk of forced settlement. This means that at almost all times new BitUSD will only enter circulation when there is a buyer willing to pay a premium for a guaranteed floor.

Because USD holders can initiate settlement, there is no need for artificial forced covering every 30 days. This relieves shorts of risk, helps increase short demand, and keeps the price of BitUSD near the floor.

Socialized Yield is Broken

Under BitShares the BitAsset holders receive a yield simply by holding BitUSD. This yield was between 1% and 5% APR on average. Unfortunately, yield harvesting can happen at any time by someone shorting to themselves to gain a very low risk return and undermining goal of encouraging people to buy and hold BitUSD. The yield was funded from transaction fees and by interest paid by shorts.

As we stated previously, undercharging for transactions is bad for business and BitShares was effectively earning nothing for all transactions of BitUSD because 100% of the income generated from fees was paid out to BitUSD holders as yield and nothing was left over to cover network expenses.

Charging shorts interest seemed like a good idea when there was surplus demand to short below $1.00, but in a bear market all interest is effectively 0%. Even in a bull market where there was interest paid it did not help increase liquidity because the benefits of buying the high interest short were shared with all BitUSD holders. Ultimately interest will not be paid in most circumstances and when it is paid it complicates the market.

Attempting to boost the value of BitUSD with yield is counter productive once the new approach to BitAssets is internalized and shorts know they can be force settled at the price feed at any time. Under these rules BitUSD already has a floor and paying yield on BitUSD would only serve to raise BitUSD above the floor and break the peg.

While Socialized Yield is broken, BitShares 2.0 offers a far better alternative: Collateralized Bonds. Collateralized Bonds enable arbitrary shorting between any two assets, guaranteed interest, and no risk of being force settled. This system privatizes the yield to individual bonds and the terms and leverage available can be far more flexible. In effect, BitUSD becomes cash and a Bond becomes a Certificate of Deposit.

Unnecessary Collateral Restrictions

All collateral above the maintenance collateral limit is effectively meaningless when it comes to enforcing the peg. A black swan event occurs whenever the least collateralized position is unable to buy enough BitUSD to cover. At this point, all positions are force settled and any additional collateral maintained by the shorts is returned to them. The only reason for a short to provide additional collateral beyond the maintenance level is to avoid being forced to cover at a loss during a short squeeze or to avoid being the first to be force settled by a BitUSD holder.

Either the maintenance collateral level is sufficient or the system is fundamentally unsound. Maintenance collateral only needs to be high enough to cover any slippage as a result of a short squeeze. Rules in BitShares that only allowed users to increase their collateral put extra risk on shorts and did nothing to protect against a black swan. By relaxing this restriction, shorts face less risk and can gain higher leverage which will enable them to sell closer to the floor.

You Get What you Ask for Orders were a Bad Idea

BitShares went to great effort to avoid market manipulation and eliminate the supposed evil of “front running”. To stop front running, all orders were matched at the exact price specified in the order. Any overlap in the market was captured as fees. This means that to get the best price, a client would have to submit many orders manually matching each order. This had the side effect of slowing down how quickly someone could “walk the book”. This “slow down” effect was pitched as protection against market manipulation attacks on BitAssets.

Experience has taught us that the lack of standard limit orders has harmed market liquidity and adoption. BitShares 2.0 matches orders on a first-come, first-serve basis and gives the buyer the best price possible up to the limit. Rather than charging “unpredictable fees” from market overlap, the network charges a defined fee based upon the size of the order matched and the assets involved. Each asset issuer gets an opportunity to configure their fees.

Usability Lessons

Multi-Sig is Difficult

A user-centric design greatly enhances usability and security over the key-centric approaches taken by other blockchain technologies. This means that a company account can require approval of its board of directors and each board member may in turn require 2 factor authentication. The result is a new concept which we call hierarchical threshold multi-sig. With corporate accounts, board members can change their personal keys without having to change the permissions associated with the company. Permissions can be nested arbitrarily deep with funds being jointly managed by several companies, each of which is managed by their own board, each member of which utilizes 2 factor authentication, while all accounts have a cold-storage backup key.

Design for Hosted Wallet First ( style)

With the ultimate goal of achieving VISA level transaction volumes, the end user is ultimately going to be forced to use a light wallet solution. Hosted wallets are easier to use, require no setup time, and can acquire users much easier than a downloadable wallet. When a network is evolving, the constant need to upgrade wallets and re-index a full node prevents adoption. The system needs to be designed to be secure for hosted wallets from day one, and it is an all-around better alternative to full desktop clients.

There are many aspects to BitShares 0.x that make implementing a hosted wallet difficult. The API for querying the chain state required constant polling and the sheer number of queries and their relatively slow performance meant that a hosted wallet service required too many servers per active user to maintain responsiveness.

Under BitShares 2.0, a new websocket-based API eliminates polling and provides a far more efficient way to synchronize thousands of users to a single server.

This article was originally published on: The Bitshares Blog on