[bitcoin-dev] Capacity increases for the Bitcoin system.

Gregory Maxwell greg at xiph.org
Mon Dec 7 22:02:17 UTC 2015

The Scaling Bitcoin Workshop in HK is just wrapping up. Many fascinating
proposals were presented. I think this would be a good time to share my
view of the near term arc for capacity increases in the Bitcoin system. I
believe we’re in a fantastic place right now and that the community
is ready to deliver on a clear forward path with a shared vision that
addresses the needs of the system while upholding its values.

I think it’s important to first clearly express some of the relevant
principles that I think should guide the ongoing development of the
Bitcoin system.

Bitcoin is P2P electronic cash that is valuable over legacy systems
because of the monetary autonomy it brings to its users through
decentralization. Bitcoin seeks to address the root problem with
conventional currency: all the trust that's required to make it work--

-- Not that justified trust is a bad thing, but trust makes systems
brittle, opaque, and costly to operate. Trust failures result in systemic
collapses, trust curation creates inequality and monopoly lock-in, and
naturally arising trust choke-points can be abused to deny access to
due process. Through the use of cryptographic proof and decentralized
networks Bitcoin minimizes and replaces these trust costs.

With the available technology, there are fundamental trade-offs between
scale and decentralization. If the system is too costly people will be
forced to trust third parties rather than independently enforcing the
system's rules. If the Bitcoin blockchain’s resource usage, relative
to the available technology, is too great, Bitcoin loses its competitive
advantages compared to legacy systems because validation will be too
costly (pricing out many users), forcing trust back into the system.
If capacity is too low and our methods of transacting too inefficient,
access to the chain for dispute resolution will be too costly, again
pushing trust back into the system.

Since Bitcoin is an electronic cash, it _isn't_ a generic database;
the demand for cheap highly-replicated perpetual storage is unbounded,
and Bitcoin cannot and will not satisfy that demand for non-ecash
(non-Bitcoin) usage, and there is no shame in that. Fortunately, Bitcoin
can interoperate with other systems that address other applications,
and--with luck and hard work--the Bitcoin system can and will satisfy
the world's demand for electronic cash.

Fortunately, a lot of great technology is in the works that make
navigating the trade-offs easier.

First up: after several years in the making Bitcoin Core has recently
merged libsecp256k1, which results in a huge increase in signature
validation performance. Combined with other recent work we're now getting
ConnectTip performance 7x higher in 0.12 than in prior versions. This
has been a long time coming, and without its anticipation and earlier
work such as headers-first I probably would have been arguing for a
block size decrease last year.  This improvement in the state of the
art for widely available production Bitcoin software sets a stage for
some capacity increases while still catching up on our decentralization
deficit. This shifts the bottlenecks off of CPU and more strongly onto
propagation latency and bandwidth.

Versionbits (BIP9) is approaching maturity and will allow the Bitcoin
network to have multiple in-flight soft-forks. Up until now we’ve had to
completely serialize soft-fork work, and also had no real way to handle
a soft-fork that was merged in core but rejected by the network. All
that is solved in BIP9, which should allow us to pick up the pace of
improvements in the network. It looks like versionbits will be ready
for use in the next soft-fork performed on the network.

The next thing is that, at Scaling Bitcoin Hong Kong, Pieter Wuille
presented on bringing Segregated Witness to Bitcoin. What is proposed
is a _soft-fork_ that increases Bitcoin's scalability and capacity by
reorganizing data in blocks to handle the signatures separately, and in
doing so takes them outside the scope of the current blocksize limit.

The particular proposal amounts to a 4MB blocksize increase at worst. The
separation allows new security models, such as skipping downloading data
you're not going to check and improved performance for lite clients
(especially ones with high privacy). The proposal also includes fraud
proofs which make violations of the Bitcoin system provable with a compact
proof. This completes the vision of "alerts" described in the "Simplified
Payment Verification" section of the Bitcoin whitepaper, and would make it
possible for lite clients to enforce all the rules of the system (under
a new strong assumption that they're not partitioned from someone who
would generate the proofs). The design has numerous other features like
making further enhancements safer and eliminating signature malleability
problems. If widely used this proposal gives a 2x capacity increase
(more if multisig is widely used), but most importantly it makes that
additional capacity--and future capacity beyond it--safer by increasing
efficiency and allowing more trade-offs (in particular, you can use much
less bandwidth in exchange for a strong non-partitioning assumption).

There is a working implementation (though it doesn't yet have the fraud
proofs) at https://github.com/sipa/bitcoin/commits/segwit

(Pieter's talk is at:  transcript:
Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fst1IK_mrng#t=36m )

I had good success deploying an earlier (hard-fork) version of segwit
in the Elements Alpha sidechain; the soft-fork segwit now proposed
is a second-generation design. And I think it's quite reasonable to
get this deployed in a relatively short time frame. The segwit design
calls for a future bitcoinj compatible hardfork to further increase its
efficiency--but it's not necessary to reap most of the benefits,and that
means it can happen on its own schedule and in a non-contentious manner.

Going beyond segwit, there has been some considerable activity brewing
around more efficient block relay.  There is a collection of proposals,
some stemming from a p2pool-inspired informal sketch of mine and some
independently invented, called "weak blocks", "thin blocks" or "soft
blocks".  These proposals build on top of efficient relay techniques
(like the relay network protocol or IBLT) and move virtually all the
transmission time of a block to before the block is found, eliminating
size from the orphan race calculation. We already desperately need this
at the current block sizes. These have not yet been implemented, but
fortunately the path appears clear. I've seen at least one more or less
complete specification, and I expect to see things running using this in a
few months. This tool will remove propagation latency from being a problem
in the absence of strategic behavior by miners.  Better understanding
their behavior when miners behave strategically is an open question.

Concurrently, there is a lot of activity ongoing related to
“non-bandwidth” scaling mechanisms. Non-bandwidth scaling mechanisms
are tools like transaction cut-through and bidirectional payment channels
which increase Bitcoin’s capacity and speed using clever smart contracts
rather than increased bandwidth. Critically, these approaches strike right
at the heart of the capacity vs autotomy trade-off, and may allow us to
achieve very high capacity and very high decentralization. CLTV (BIP65),
deployed a month ago and now active on the network, is very useful for
these techniques (essential for making hold-up refunds work); CSV (BIP68
/ BIP112) is in the pipeline for merge in core and making good progress
(and will likely be ready ahead of segwit). Further Bitcoin protocol
improvements for non-bandwidth scaling are in the works: Many of these
proposals really want anti-malleability fixes (which would be provided
by segwit), and there are checksig flag improvements already tendered and
more being worked on, which would be much easier to deploy with segwit. I
expect that within six months we could have considerably more features
ready for deployment to enable these techniques. Even without them I
believe we’ll be in an acceptable position with respect to capacity
in the near term, but it’s important to enable them for the future.

is a relevant talk for some of the wanted network features for Lightning,
a bidirectional payment channel proposal which many parties are working
on right now; other non-bandwidth improvements discussed in the past
include transaction cut-through, which I consider a must-read for the
basic intuition about how transaction capacity can be greater than
blockchain capacity: https://bitcointalk.org/index.php?topic=281848.0 ,
though there are many others.)

Further out, there are several proposals related to flex caps or
incentive-aligned dynamic block size controls based on allowing miners
to produce larger blocks at some cost. These proposals help preserve
the alignment of incentives between miners and general node operators,
and prevent defection between the miners from undermining the fee
market behavior that will eventually fund security. I think that right
now capacity is high enough and the needed capacity is low enough that
we don't immediately need these proposals, but they will be critically
important long term. I'm planning to help out and drive towards a more
concrete direction out of these proposals in the following months.

(Relevant talks include

Finally--at some point the capacity increases from the above may not
be enough.  Delivery on relay improvements, segwit fraud proofs, dynamic
block size controls, and other advances in technology will reduce the risk
and therefore controversy around moderate block size increase proposals
(such as 2/4/8 rescaled to respect segwit's increase). Bitcoin will
be able to move forward with these increases when improvements and
understanding render their risks widely acceptable relative to the
risks of not deploying them. In Bitcoin Core we should keep patches
ready to implement them as the need and the will arises, to keep the
basic software engineering from being the limiting factor.

Our recent and current progress has well positioned the Bitcoin ecosystem
to handle its current capacity needs. I think the above sets out some
clear achievable milestones to continue to advance the art in Bitcoin
capacity while putting us in a good position for further improvement and

TL;DR:  I propose we work immediately towards the segwit 4MB block
soft-fork which increases capacity and scalability, and recent speedups
and incoming relay improvements make segwit a reasonable risk. BIP9
and segwit will also make further improvements easier and faster to
deploy. We’ll continue to set the stage for non-bandwidth-increase-based
scaling, while building additional tools that would make bandwidth
increases safer long term. Further work will prepare Bitcoin for further
increases, which will become possible when justified, while also providing
the groundwork to make them justifiable.

Thanks for your time,

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