Blockchain: Permissionless versus Permissioned

This post is the second one in a series dedicated to demystifying blockchains. The first post proposed a definition of blockchain. I intended that the topic of this second post would be consensus. The consensus is the cornerstone of blockchain. While starting to write it, I discovered that I needed first to introduce a fundamental characteristic of blockchain: permission.

Entities decide whether a block is valid and appended to the blockchain. They may be called blockchain nodes or validators. Validators are the pieces of software that determine which is the new block on the chain. In Sato’s vision, everybody could/should be a validator. Thus, his blockchain has no central authority. It is claimed that the blockchain is ruled by everybody (or nobody depending on your point of view). Bitcoin is a permissionless blockchain. This is the case for most cryptocurrencies and many other systems. Ethereum is another example of a permissionless blockchain. In a permissionless blockchain, users delegate their trust to uncontrolled, unknown validators under the assumption that the consensus mechanism does not allow a bad acting validator to cheat.

This delegation of trust is not always possible or desirable. Therefore, there is a second breed of blockchains that operate with a different configuration: permissioned blockchains. The validators are a set of finite known servers. A consortium manages this list following some defined governance rules. You may have noticed that the validators were not necessarily trusted. Depending on the chosen consensus mechanism, the level of expected trust may vary. The open source projects of Hyperledger offer many such permissioned architectures.

Which one is the best?

The advantage of the permissionless blockchain is that there is no (at least claimed) central authority. There is not a single point of failure that may be attacked. This advantage comes at a price: the consensus mechanism is complicated and/or extremely power consuming. It will have to be slow. Furthermore, it requires that the nodes have a robust method to validate a transaction. When managing financial ledgers, it is easy. Checking that Alice currently has the number of tokens she asks to transfer to Bob is straightforward. With more complex transactions, it may be less obvious. Would you trust an unknown validator to check whether your land deed belongs to you and to register it on a land registry blockchain? Or a copyright right? Smart contracts are not the golden answer to that issue.

The advantage of permissioned blockchain is that a set of entities that share a common interest in the fulfillment of the transactions can manage it efficiently. The validators have the authority and implement the complex validation rules that some use cases may be requiring. The consensus mechanisms are simpler and faster than the ones used by permissionless blockchains.

Many “purists” claim that permissionless blockchains are more secure than permissioned ones due to the absence of a central authority, arguing that the management of the validators is a weak point. As usual, the answer is more balanced. It mainly depends on the use cases. Some industrial use cases may benefit from permissioned blockchains. Personally, I would argue that the trust model of a permissioned blockchain can usually be more accurately defined than the trust model of permissionless blockchain. I have not yet read a convincing complete
convincing trust model of a permissionless blockchain.

Conclusion

Thus, a hyper-simplified definition: A permissionless blockchain does not trust nor know its validators whereas a permissioned blockchain knows all its validators but does not need to trust all of them.

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