By Nischal Shetty
Linear Scalability vs Vertical Scalability in Blockchains
In today’s world, linear scalability is a critical concept that organizations must understand to meet the needs of a universe of data and users that grow and change. Linear scalability in Web3 refers to the ability of a blockchain or distributed ledger system to handle a growing number of users and transactions while maintaining fast and reliable performance. It’s like having a website or app that can be used by more and more people without slowing down or crashing.
In traditional Web2 networks and the vast majority of blockchain networks, performance is often maintained through vertical scaling, i.e. adding more power (CPU, RAM) to existing machines. In contrast, linear scaling adds more machines/servers in proportion to the increase in network load. And why does that matter?
The USPs of Web3 networks, especially public blockchains, are highly secure and decentralized so that the global order of business operations is driven without intermediaries wherever possible. Instead of a centralized intermediary, public blockchains distribute the workload across multiple unrelated nodes (or validators) located around the world to validate transactions and reach consensus on their validity. One of the key features of blockchain networks is that the individual nodes/servers controlled by humans have a local copy of the network’s transaction history rather than the network storing it on centralized servers or data centers that are vulnerable to censorship and single points of failure.
Linear scalability is the Holy Grail for Web3 adoption
Web3 runs 24x7x365 unlike traditional settings. That said, don’t forget that blockchain was invented right after the 2008 financial crisis to minimize the impact of intermediaries abusing their clients’ resources and privacy. Blockchains are thus not conceptualized for scalability. As a result of blockchain’s additional design architecture, such as a consensus mechanism to ensure operations are performed reliably and individual nodes maintain network integrity, most networks today rely on vertical scalability similar to their Web2 peers to support their transit. Banks or large companies, on the other hand, process transactions through trusted sources such as verified staff and enhanced hardware devices without worrying about scalability trilemma – a universal challenge for decentralized blockchain platforms to achieve all 3 desired outcomes – scalability, security and decentralization – at the same time a certain moment.
Blockchain networks that rely primarily on vertical scalability often experience undesirable consequences when their throughput is throttled, especially during periods of high traffic. They include network congestion, repeated outages and high transaction costs. Such conditions turn out to be unfavorable for both users and developers who are building their decentralized applications (or dapps). Even in traditional systems, vertical scalability often leads to diminishing returns after a certain point in time. It further promotes the use of other stop gap measures to improve scalability, such as layer 2 solutions/networks, front running, rollups and sidechains. Such measures only improve scalability to a very limited extent, and this also by possibly compromising decentralization and/or security. Consider this: a tier 2 scaling solution today can handle up to 350 TPS (transactions per second). A Web2 network such as Nasdaq or Visa can handle up to 10,000 TPS. So how can we blame an online gaming company if, despite their noble intentions, they choose to use centralized services instead of Web3/blockchain?
There is no better way to solve the scalability trilemma than to linearly scale the network, allowing it to maintain high decentralization, security and scalability at all times, regardless of the demand in the network. Linear scalability represents true democratic growth of a blockchain network through community involvement in the form of nodes in exchange for an incentive (crypto’s use case started here and see how the industry is now as valuable as Apple in a few years and creating a lot of jobs right now!)
How can Web3 platforms achieve linear scalability?
To achieve linear scalability, you need to carefully plan, design and implement them. For systems to grow linearly, they must be prepared to be distributed, capable of addressing problems, and highly available. Also, the workload should be evenly distributed across the system using load balancing, sharding, caching, and other methods. Furthermore, more resources must be added to allow the system to use the additional resources without creating more bottlenecks or points of failure. Getting true linear scalability in the blockchain is a difficult task that requires knowledge of distributed systems, performance optimization, and software engineering.
For decades, the software industry has recognized sharding of centralized databases as an excellent solution for scalability in various applications. Simply put, sharding breaks the task of validating and confirming transactions into small and manageable chunks
Sharding, as Vitalik Buterin says, is one of the few solutions that can help blockchain networks scale without compromising the other 2 desired outcomes. A network can implement different types of sharding or a combination of them, including transaction sharding, state sharding, and network sharding. For example, dynamic state sharding is the most complex and advanced method of sharding that simultaneously shards state, network, and transactions on a network. Dynamic state sharding can work hand in hand with auto scale the distributed data book that allows the network to automatically adjust the number and size of shards based on the current workload. This helps the network parallelize transaction processing while maintaining atomic and cross-shard composability.
Other linear scalability factors
Sharding can be combined with other features such as auto-scaling, composability, and an optimal consensus mechanism that can ultimately help achieve true linear scalability. Essentially, a linearly scalable network should be able to increase its throughput simply by adding proportionally more servers/nodes. And this is the key X factor that favorably influences every other outcome on a public decentralized blockchain network, including throughput, decentralization, security, and low transaction costs, even as usage grows.
Linear or horizontal scalability is critical for modern technology systems, enabling them to handle increased workloads proportionally and consistently. And this is even more true for public blockchain networks that strive to serve people in a trustless, peer-to-peer way (in other words, products and services are provided by the people for the people in Web3). Achieving true linear scalability requires careful planning, design, and implementation, including distributed computing, load balancing, sharding, autoscaling, and fault tolerance. With linear scalability, modern organizations can confidently face any challenge and grow their systems to meet the needs of a growing and evolving universe of data and users, minus the need for an intermediary.
The author is co-founder, Shardeum
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