Polkadot From Beginning to Today: How the Network Is Evolving. Part I

Polkadot is one of the more promising blockchain networks, designed to rival Ethereum 2.0, which isn’t even out yet. With a market cap of billions of dollars and auctions for new blockchains connected to the mainnet raking in billions as well. However, the price of Polkadot’s main token, DOT, seems to be rapidly falling, and it lost more than 85% of its value in the last half a year ($53 → $7). So what is Polkadot, what’s the idea behind it and where is it heading?

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Gavin Wood and the Need for Ethereum 2.0

Our story starts with British computer scientist, computer engineer and blockchain enthusiast Gavin Wood. In 2013, he left his well-paid research job at Microsoft to pursue an interesting challenge: to develop a new technology that could potentially become the basis for the new Web3 Internet. It would be fully decentralized and in the hands of its users. The term “Web3” was actually coined by Gavin Wood himself in 2014 to mean “a fully decentralized blockchain-based online ecosystem.”

Dr. Wood was one of the first to see the potential of blockchain networks, and he began to invest his money and time in trying to develop their infrastructure. At the same time, he realized that storing data on the blockchain instead of centralized servers could open up almost limitless opportunities for users and companies, especially new startups. This could make the process of crowdfunding and launching new businesses much safer and easier, due to the nature of the technology.

Together with Vitalik Buterin and five others he started the development of Ethereum and all the surrounding infrastructure. In the spring of 2014, he published the so-called yellow paper for Ethereum, a technical specification for Buterin’s White Paper. He was also responsible for developing Ethereum’s native programming language, Solidity. This would allow anyone to develop smart contracts — small programs that are stored on blockchain and run whenever predetermined conditions are met.

Wood saw Ethereum as “one computer for the entire planet”, an all-encompassing transaction system that operates on a decentralized basis, making it immune to any breaches or outages. This idea later found recognition in the same Microsoft Dr. Wood started in. In 2016 the company enabled the option to store Ethereum projects software on its Azure Cloud platform and invested in ConsenSys that operates applications built on Ethereum chain.

Ethereum was revolutionary for its time, allowing for the development of smart contracts and, as a result, entire applications on top of its blockchain. This is why at one point Ethereum market cap was more than $550 billion. The Internet of the future sure can cost a lot! However, expensive fees, sometimes reaching hundreds of dollars per transaction, slowed down the growth of the ecosystem. Another apparent problem was the proof-of-work consensus mechanism, which is very energy intensive and far from ideal for the environment. This is why, shortly after Ethereum was introduced in 2015, many visionaries started working on Ethereum 2.0, which could fix all these issues.

Ethereum 2.0 was supposed to consist of many shards, which could dramatically increase network bandwidth and lower fees. It would make it much cheaper to transfer tokens, and interact with smart contracts. Ethereum 2.0 was supposed to also scale the network and spread its load, switch to Proof-of-Stake mechanism, and support staking nodes, which would allow users to earn Ethereum as a passive income.

One of those who worked on developing Ethereum 2.0 was, of course, Gavin Wood. According to this interview with Dr. Wood on YouTube, this is where he got the original idea for Polkadot. He thought of it in the summer of 2016 as he was waiting for the Ethereum 2.0 sharding specifications to finally be ready so he could start designing the space around them. On the advice of one of his fellow blockchain visionaries, he started trying to envision the most efficient version of sharded Ethereum. And it felt more and more to him that it would be better to just build a new network from the ground up.

Dr. Wood started developing his idea of a “sharded and more efficient Ethereum” in mid-2016, and released the first draft of the Polkadot white paper in October 2016.

The Idea of Polkadot

Polkadot was originally conceived as a solution for overburdened networks such as Ethereum, which have a limited transaction volume due to the fact that each node must verify each transaction. The idea for Polkadot is that several parallel chains (called parachains) working together are connected into one big blockchain (relay chain). Nodes will only need to confirm transactions occurring on one parachain, while other parachains can remain free to process their own transactions. This will allow scaling throughput of transactions by adding additional parachains. The relay chain ensures that all chains remain connected and safe to operate, while data can be transferred much faster without any fear of collisions. In short, if we have 10 parachains, we can do 10 times more work using the same security source. And Polkadot is designed to connect up to 100 parachains to the main network.

If we want Internet 3.0, it seems that one blockchain simply won’t do. The data transfer rate and the amount that needs to be processed every second is simply too high. However, if we have hundreds of disparate blockchains (as we currently have), there is no way to transfer data between them, including something as simple as tokens. Additional services are needed (for example, exchanges), which significantly slows down the process and is not free for the user. Even a very simple transfer of information turns out to be quite problematic. You can’t build a third-generation Internet on such a foundation.

Polkadot solves all this by connecting all blockchains together. But! These blockchains must be built in a specific way and connected to the main DOT cluster, working with a relay chain and supporting data transfer between them. And to really jumpstart the development of the third-generation Internet, there would need to be a lot of applications built on top of these blockchains, allowing users to do various things, not just transfer tokens. For this, building a blockchain app would need to be as easy as creating a website…

The Language Barrier

One of the most impressive parts of the Ethereum project was Solidity, a now open-source programming language for smart contracts. Proposed, you guessed it, by Gavin Wood in 2014. This language allowed many developers to join and write code for decentralized apps built on the Ethereum network. However, there were problems with it: as a first-ever coding language for smart contracts it was too difficult to learn for the average developer, and not consistent enough to build large architectures with.

So, after becoming a multimillionaire on Ethereum, Wood, again, decided to do it the right way. He left the project and founded Parity Technologies. This blockchain company would develop its own programming language.

The amount of code contributed to the Polkadot codebase over time.

As a basis Parity used Rust, a programming language developed in 2010 and proven to be much easier to learn than its predecessors. Later on introduction of Rust as one of the programming languages for Ethereum contracts has lowered entry barriers for newcomers and led to revolutionary changes and made possible the emergence of many new decentralized applications from smaller teams.

Parity developed its own ink! language for smart contracts on Polkadot and Kusama. It is Rust-based and domain-specific, very easy to learn and to develop your first contract with (as we will see later on). It compiles smart contract code into WebAssembly format that can be easily deployed on any parachain (but not on the relay chain, which acts only as a mediator and doesn’t support smart contracts).ink! can be used for developing smart contracts, and for building entire parachains the company introduced Substrate, an open and flexible framework. It acts as a constructor, allowing you to configure the specifics of your protocols and consensuses within them (strictly PoW, strictly PoS, or something in-between). As a result, new blockchain can be developed in mere weeks, while remaining completely secure.

ink! is very simple to use and, as this post details, will also:

  • Allow any chain built on Substrate to support smart contracts
  • Ensure the security of smart contracts developed with it
  • Show how to use a general-purpose toolkit such as Wasm to get the built-in features of supported high-level languages.

Use of ink! and Substrate simplified the development of parachain-based dApps and ensured the growth of the ecosystem. As we will see, this idea completely paid off. Polkadot. despite being launched less than a year ago, is now one of the most popular blockchains for developers. By the amount of contributed code the project is second in the crypto world, behind only Ethereum (which was launched 6.5 years earlier).

Ecosystem developer analysis by ElectricCapital shows Polkadot has the strongest developer growth since launch of any Web3 protocol


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