Bitcoin …. SLOWS

And, we don’t mean price!

[By MIT Technology Review]

Bitcoin transactions have always been slow, but now they are expensive too, which means that small transactions are no longer worth it. The average cost has gone from less than a dollar at the beginning of 2017 to more than $40 per transaction yesterday, as the growing demand for new transactions has exceeded the network’s capacity to confirm them. Arguments over what to do about the bottleneck have grown into a full-fledged Bitcoin civil war.

One proposed solution is to build a secondary network that lets people transact “off-chain.” Some exchanges already allow users to exchange Bitcoin with each other without using the main blockchain. But in the context of blockchain research and development, “off-chain” means something more sophisticated.

The challenge: Bitcoin maintains its distributed ledger by having each computer running the Bitcoin software, called a “node,” process every single transaction. This is the essence of its decentralized nature, but it also makes the process of confirming transactions very slow, at least compared with traditional credit card networks. (Bitcoin can handle only a few transactions per second, whereas Visa can handle thousands.) Ethereum, the second largest public blockchain system, works similarly, which is why the network was brought to a near standstill recently by a mega-popular new platform for trading digital cats.

Finding a faster, more efficient way to confirm transactions on public blockchains would also reduce fees. Ideally, not every node would have to validate every transaction. But the trick will be achieving this without compromising the rest of the network’s trust.

How off-chain payments would work: It’s possible for multiple users to set up a “state channel,” in which a part of the main blockchain is locked in a certain state and can only be unlocked if each of the users signs off. The individuals can then send payments among themselves in a cryptographically-secure way, but without touching the main blockchain. At some point, users can update the state on the real chain to validate all of the transactions in between. The idea is that this principle can be extended to build a more complex payment network made of multiple channels, with a system for routing payments through them.

The players: One project aimed at creating a “layer two” for Bitcoin that would facilitate off-chain microtransactions is called the Lightning Network. An effort to achieve a similar goal for Ethereum is called the Raiden Network.

The current state of the tech: The Lightning and Raiden networks are still in the early stages of development, and each faces significant technical challenges. A simplified version of the Raiden Network that makes it possible to set up unidirectional payment channels is already available, however. The Lightning Network is said to have achieved a major milestone earlier this month when developers sent two Lightning transactions over the Bitcoin blockchain.



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