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.

Blockchain: A Definition

This post is the first one of a series dedicated to the blockchain. In the coming weeks, I will discuss many aspects of the blockchain. As some of my views may be perceived as pessimistic, a cautionary note is mandatory: I am a skeptical blockchain enthusiast. Blockchain has great potential but also many pitfalls. I hope that these posts will shed some lights on the blockchain.

The first step is to propose a definition for blockchain.

A blockchain is a secure distributed ledger.

Let us examine the four elements of this definition.

  • A blockchain is a ledger. It stores the complete chronological records of transactions. The transactions are combined in a data structure called a block. Each block is cryptographically bound to its predecessor, thus creating a chain of blocks. The blockchain is well suited for transactions and time series. For instance, Bitcoin records the exchange of bitcoins. Other types of information, for instance, graphs, are not necessarily well suited for blockchain. Nevertheless, many
    information can be transcribed in a set of transactions.
  • A blockchain is shared. Many entities use the same ledger. They may not all have the same access rights: Some entities may be allowed to submit transactions to the blockchain whereas other entities may only read these transactions. The use case defines the rules for access control. If the ledger is not to be shared, then probably a traditional database is more suitable than a blockchain.
  • A blockchain is distributed. No central server holds all the blockchain. Every node has the same complete copy of the ledger. And the nodes are connected through a peer-to-peer network. Therefore, the blockchain offers high availability and resilience. There is not one point of failure in the system.
  • A blockchain is secure. Each issuer signs its transactions. Each node validates every transaction according to validation rules that are defined by the blockchain governance. For instance, for a cryptocurrency, the validation of a transaction verifies that Alice owned the coins she transfers to Bob. In the case of a land registry or a supply chain tracking, the validation will be most probably more complicated.
    Once all the transactions of the block validated, the nodes engage in a consensus protocol to decide whether the block is to be appended to the blockchain. Once the consensus reached, all nodes add the new block to their copy of the blockchain. The consensus is the most complex element of the blockchain. Many consensus protocols are available. The most famous one is the Proof of Work (PoW) designed by Nakamoto Sato for Bitcoin. Mining is establishing the consensus for Bitcoin. In a next post, we will study in detail the PoW and other types of consensus. The consensus ensures that every node has the same ledger.
    Transactions are immutable. To alter an already recorded transaction, the attacker must modify the block containing the forged transaction, and also adjust all the subsequent blocks to maintain the cryptographic link. Furthermore, the attacker must trick the consensus protocol to vote the forged fork to be the valid one. Thus, it is reasonable to assume that the transactions are carved in stone. As a side note, immutability may become an issue in case of an error or if the “right to forget” is needed. What is in the blockchain stays in the blockchain.

This first post provides a broad definition of the blockchain. Next posts will explore technical elements of a blockchain.

Reference:

Nakamoto, Satoshi. “Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System,” 2008. http://www.cryptovest.co.uk/resources/Bitcoin%20paper%20Original.pdf.

Symposium on Foundations and Applications of Blockchain 2018

The University of South California (USC) will host on Friday March 9, 2018 the first Symposium on Foundations and Applications of Blockchain 2018.  Its program is available at https://scfab.github.io/2018/schedule.html.   Note the presence of Leonard Adelman at the discussion panel!  I hope to meet some of you there.

Full disclosure:  I am member of its PC.

NIST overview on Blockchain

There are not many excellent available overviews of blockchain technologies. Thus, when NIST issues a draft “Blockchain Technology Overview,” it is interesting to have a look. It is a 57-page document open for public comments.

I like their description:

Blockchains are distributed digital ledgers of cryptographically signed transactions that are grouped into blocks. Each block is cryptographically linked to the previous one after validation and undergoing a consensus decision. As new blocks are added, older blocks become more difficult to modify. New blocks are replicated across all copies of the ledger within the network, and any conflicts are resolved automatically using established rules.

The document provides a high-level overview of blockchain. There are not many detailed technical descriptions. The document uses the bitcoin structure and vocabulary as all blockchains would use them. Thus, a generic block has necessary a nonce (for the Proof of Work) as well as a Merkle Tree. I am sure that many blockchains will not have such elements. Similarly, it uses the terminology of mining nodes for the validators. For consensus mechanisms that are not Proof of Work, it is not suitable. The sections dedicated to consensus (section 4) and Smart Contracts (section 6) are too light. The golden nugget is section 9: Blockchain Limitations and Misconceptions.

Nevertheless, it is worthwhile to read it and potentially to comment. Knowing the NIST, I am confident that the final document will be a reference document.

Symposium on Foundations and Applications of Blockchain

 

The University of South California (USC) organizes a   Symposium on Foundations and Applications of Blockchain. Following in the call for paper.

Full disclosure: I am member of the PC

 

                                           Symposium on Foundations and Applications of Blockchain

 

9 March 2018, Los Angeles, California

                                 

https://scfab.github.io/2018/

 

Blockchain – the technology behind Bitcoin and Ethereum – is flourishing into an impressive spectrum of research projects and initiatives, corporate alliances, and startup companies. This multidisciplinary effort spans diverse disciplines ranging from Computer Science and Engineering to Communications, Social Sciences, Public Policy, Banking and Finance, Journalism, and Political Sciences to name a few. This one day event strives to bring researchers and practitioners of blockchain together to share and exchange results. We are interested in papers and presentations on a broad range of topics including:

  • Application use cases of blockchain
  • Secure smart contracts
  • Bitcoin and cryptocurrency
  • Blockchain for social networking
  • Distributed systems for blockchain
  • Blockchain consensus protocols
  • Blockchain and Governance
  • Blockchains and network systems
  • Partitioned and replicated data stores for blockchain
  • Transactions and blockchain
  • Software engineering practices and life cycle management of blockchain
  • Societal impact and social aspects of blockchain
  • Game theory and its applications to blockchain
  • Blockchain protocol analysis and security
  • Algorithm design, complexity analysis, implementation of efficient blockchains
  • Experience with blockchain

 

Important Dates:

Dec 15, 2017:  Paper submission Deadline

Feb 5, 2018:  Author notification

March 9, 2018:  One day symposium

 

Paper submission:

Authors are invited to submit papers through the CMT3 conference submission system by December 15, 2018. Submissions must be original and should not have been published previously or be under consideration for publication while being evaluated for this conference. FAB’18 welcomes long and short papers in four categories:  Research, Industrial, Vision, and Poster.  See the online call for paper for additional details.

 

General Chair:  Bhaskar Krishnamachari, USC

Program Chair:  Shahram Ghandeharizadeh, USC

Program Committee:

Sumita Barahmand, Microsoft

Yu Chen, State University of New York – Binghamton

Bhagwan Chowdhry, UCLA

Eric Chung, DApperNetwork

Ming-Deh Huang, USC

Eric Diehl, Sony Pictures Entertainment

Abdelkader Hameurlain, Paul Sabatier University, Toulouse, France

Zhiyuan Jiang, Tsinghua University

Lou Kerner, Flight VC

Bhaskar Krishnamachari, USC

Genevieve Leveille, Otentic8

Chen Li, UC Irvine

David MacFadyen, UCLA

Beng Chin Ooi, National University of Singapore

Avinash Sridharan, Mesosphere

Vassilis Tsotras, UC Riverside

Nick Vyas, USC

Li Xiong, Emory University

Kiran Yedavalli, Cisco

 

Contact Us

In case of questions, please contact us at bkrishna@usc.edu and shahram@usc.edu