[bitcoin-dev] Modern Soft Fork Activation

Luke Dashjr luke at dashjr.org
Fri Jan 10 23:37:49 UTC 2020

I think BIP 9 is a proven failure, and flag day softforks have their own 

A) There is no way to unambiguously say "the rules for this chain are 
<x,y,z>". It leaves the chain in a kind of "quantum state" where the rules 
could be one thing, or could be another. Until the new rules are violated, we 
do not know if the softfork was a success or not. Because of this, people 
will rightly shy away from relying on the new rules. This problem is made 
worse by the fact that common node policies might not produce blocks which 
violate the rules. If we had gone with BIP149 for Segwit, it is IMO probable 
we would still not have a clear answer today to "Is Segwit active or not?"

B) Because of (A), there is also no clear way to intentionally reject the 
softfork. Those who do not consent to it are effectively compelled to accept 
it anyway. While it is usually possible to craft an opposing softfork, this 
should IMO be well-defined and simple to do (including a plan to do so in any 
BIP9-alike spec).

For these reasons, in 2017, I proposed revising BIP 8 with a mandatory signal, 
similar to how BIP148 worked: https://github.com/bitcoin/bips/pull/550
However, the author of BIP 8 has since vanished, and because we had no 
immediate softfork plans, efforts to move this forward were abandoned 
temporarily. It seems like a good time to resume this work.

In regard to your goal #3, I would like to note that after the mandatory 
signal period, old miners could resume mining unchanged. This means there is 
a temporary loss of hashrate to the network, but I think it is overall better 
than the alternatives. The temporary loss of income from invalid blocks will 
also give affected miners a last push to upgrade, hopefully improving the 
long run security of the network hashrate.


(P.S. As for your #1, I do think it is oversimplified in some cases, but we 
should leave that for later discussion when it actually becomes relevant.)

On Friday 10 January 2020 21:30:09 Matt Corallo via bitcoin-dev wrote:
> There are a series of soft-fork designs which have recently been making
> good progress towards implementation and future adoption. However, for
> various reasons, activation methods therefor have gotten limited
> discussion. I'd like to reopen that discussion here.
> It is likely worth revisiting the goals both for soft forks and their
> activation methods to start. I'm probably missing some, but some basic
> requirements:
> 1) Avoid activating in the face of significant, reasonable, and directed
> objection. Period. If someone has a well-accepted, reasonable use of
> Bitcoin that is working today, have no reason to believe wouldn't work
> long into the future without a change, and which would be made
> impossible or significantly more difficult by a change, that change must
> not happen. I certainly hope there is no objection on this point (see
> the last point for an important caveat that I'm sure everyone will jump
> to point out).
> 2) Avoid activating within a timeframe which does not make high
> node-level-adoption likely. As with all "node" arguments, I'll note that
> I mean "economically-used" nodes, not the thousand or so spy nodes on
> Google Cloud and AWS. Rule changes don't make sense without nodes
> enforcing them, whether they happen to be a soft fork, hard fork, or a
> blue fork, so activating in a reduced timeframe that doesn't allow for
> large-scale node adoption doesn't have any value, and may cause other
> unintended side effects.
> 3) Don't (needlessly) lose hashpower to un-upgraded miners. As a part of
> Bitcoin's security comes from miners, reducing the hashpower of the
> network as a side effect of a rule change is a needless reduction in a
> key security parameter of the network. This is why, in recent history,
> soft forks required 95% of hashpower to indicate that they have upgraded
> and are capable of enforcing the new rules. Further, this is why recent
> soft forks have not included changes which would result in a standard
> Bitcoin Core instance mining invalid-by-new-rules changes (by relying on
> the standardness behavior of Bitcoin Core).
> 4) Use hashpower enforcement to de-risk the upgrade process, wherever
> possible. As a corollary of the above, one of the primary reasons we use
> soft forks is that hashpower-based enforcement of rules is an elegant
> way to prevent network splits during the node upgrade process. While it
> does not make sense to invest material value in systems protected by new
> rules until a significant majority of "economic nodes" is enforcing said
> rules, hashpower lets us neatly bridge the gap in time between
> activation and then. By having a supermajority of miners enforce the new
> rules, attempts at violating the new rules does not result in a
> significant network split, disrupting existing users of the system. If
> we aren't going to take advantage of this, we should do a hard fork
> instead, with the necessarily slow timescale that entails.
> 5) Follow the will of the community, irrespective of individuals or
> unreasoned objection, but without ever overruling any reasonable
> objection. Recent history also includes "objection" to soft forks in the
> form of "this is bad because it doesn't fix a different problem I want
> fixed ASAP". I don't think anyone would argue this qualifies as a
> reasonable objection to a change, and we should be in a place, as a
> community (never as developers or purely one group), to ignore such
> objections and make forward progress in spite of them. We don't make
> good engineering decisions by "bundling" unrelated features together to
> enable political football and compromise.
> I think BIP 9 (plus a well-crafted softfork) pretty effectively checks
> the boxes for #2-4 here, and when done carefully with lots of community
> engagement and measurement, can effectively fulfill #1 as well. #5 is,
> as I'm sure everyone is aware, where it starts to fall down pretty hard.
> BIP 8 has been proposed as an alternative, largely in response to issues
> with #5. However, a naive deployment of it, rather obviously, completely
> fails #1, #3, and #4, and, in my view, fails #5 as well by both giving
> an impression of, setting a precedent of, and possibly even in practice
> increasing the ability of developers to decide the consensus rules of
> the system. A BIP 8 deployment that more accurately measures community
> support as a prerequisite could arguably fulfill #1 and #5, though I'm
> unaware of any concrete proposals on how to accomplish that. Arguably, a
> significantly longer activation window could also allow BIP 8 to fulfill
> #3 and #4, but only by exploiting the "needlessly" and "wherever
> possible" loopholes.
> You may note that, from the point of view of achieving the critical
> goals here, BIP 8 is only different from a flag-day activation in that,
> if it takes the "happy-path" of activating before the flag day, it looks
> like BIP 9, but isn't guaranteed to. It additionally has the
> "nice-to-have" property that activation can occur before the flag-day in
> the case of faster miner adoption, though there is a limit of how fast
> is useful due to node adoption.
> Thus, to strike a balance between the drawbacks of BIP 8 and BIP 9, the
> Great Consensus Cleanup softfork proposal included this text in the
> discussion section (with the spec describing a BIP 9 deployment):
> > In spite of some suggestion that other activation methods be used, BIP
> > 9 is proposed as ensuring miners have upgraded to enforce new rules is
> > an important part of minimizing disruption. While previous BIP 9 soft-
> > forks have resulted in political contention, this comparatively-
> > unimportant soft-fork provides a good opportunity to attempt to return
> > to utilizing BIP 9 to ensure miner upgrade prior to activation, which
> > the authors believe is a critical goal. However, if there is broad
> > agreement to activate these rules when the BIP 9 expiry time is
> > reached, and miners have not yet signaled sufficient level of
> > readiness, a later flag-day activation may be merited. For this
> > reason, implementations may wish to provide a compatibility option
> > which allows flag-day enforcement of these rules without an update.
> Ultimately, through admittedly rather limited discussion, I still like
> this model (though I cannot claim it as my own, the original proposal
> came from Greg Maxwell). BIP 9 only falls apart in case of unreasonable
> objection, which, naturally, should carry a high bar to ignore, given we
> have to have some level of agreement that it is, in fact, unreasonable
> (or untargeted). While I admit this is a possibility, I both find it
> less likely than in previous soft-forks, and even if it is the case, it
> only slows down the process, it doesn't necessarily stop it. In the case
> that it does fail, BIP 9 process, in fact, provides a good learning
> opportunity as to the level of community readiness and desire for a
> given change. While we can (and should, and are) learning a lot about
> community readiness for, and acceptability of a change through outreach
> and discussion, there is something about a change with a timeframe that
> forces people to more carefully consider it.
> Thus, as something a bit more concrete, I think an activation method
> which sets the right precedent and appropriately considers the above
> goals, would be:
> 1) a standard BIP 9 deployment with a one-year time horizon for
> activation with 95% miner readiness,
> 2) in the case that no activation occurs within a year, a six month
> quieting period during which the community can analyze and discussion
> the reasons for no activation and,
> 3) in the case that it makes sense, a simple command-line/bitcoin.conf
> parameter which was supported since the original deployment release
> would enable users to opt into a BIP 8 deployment with a 24-month
> time-horizon for flag-day activation (as well as a new Bitcoin Core
> release enabling the flag universally).
> This provides a very long time horizon for more standard activation,
> while still ensuring the goals in #5 are met, even if, in those cases,
> the time horizon needs to be significantly extended to meet the goals of
> #3. Developing Bitcoin is not a race. If we have to, waiting 42 months
> ensures we're not setting a negative precedent that we'll come to regret
> as Bitcoin continues to grow.
> Matt
> Thanks also to AJ for feedback on an earlier version of this rant.
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