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Ethereum dodges difficulty bomb with last-minute fork

Ethereum celebrated New Year's Day with a last-minute network upgrade, Muir Glacier, which is designed to delay the onset of the ‘Ice Age'

The upgrade, named after the melting Alaskan natural wonder, patches a mistake made in the Istanbul update of December 2019. When Istanbul was put in place, Ethereum developers apparently forgot to adjust the feature known as the ‘difficulty bomb’. This slows down block settlement to gradually push the network towards a proof-of-stake consensus mechanism.

According to critics such as Bitcoin maximalist Udi Wertheimer, the developer’s forgetfulness caused a significant mishap, creating "an unplanned reduction" of twenty percent in inflation rate and security on the Ethereum network.

Nevertheless, the error was addressed with the mining of block number 9,200,000 on January 1st. And now that it is complete, Ethereum’s ‘Ice Age’ is delayed by 4 million blocks (around 611 days), giving developers plenty of time to arrange the eventual transition to proof-of-stake and Ethereum 2.0.

‘Ice Age’ postponed

The hard fork contained a single Ethereum Improvement Plan—EIP 2384—that is best understood by looking back to the beginnings of Ethereum.

Back in early 2014, Vitalik Buterin and the Ethereum co-founders planned to create a network that would run on proof-of-stake, as shown by a blog post from the time in which launch guru Vinay Gupta praised the consensus algorithm for its environmental benefits.

Nevertheless, the network still adopted proof-of-work to start off with and laid out a roadmap for a gradual transition to proof-of-stake that would rely on frequent upgrades to the blockchain.

To help prevent developers from avoiding these updates, which are expensive and cumbersome as they require every single node to upgrade, the developers created a controversial mechanism: the difficulty bomb.

The difficulty bomb was first introduced to the network in the Homestead update of March 2016 and is designed to make the puzzles used to mine Ethereum blocks more difficult over time until eventually they are so difficult to solve it causes delays on the network. In this way, miners will be gradually incentivized to transition to a more sustainable network, before an ‘Ice Age’ is ushered in and they are forced to switch because mining has become unprofitable.

Unfortunately, the snippet of code that controls this mechanism wasn’t updated during the Istanbul hard fork. And without a quick fix, the cost of transactions on the current Ethereum network could have skyrocketed as block settlement times got longer and longer.

A long fuse

Since inception, the difficulty bomb has attracted criticism. A group of heretical developers suggests its impact on the network is not only impossible to predict but potentially dangerous. Now the mechanism is back in the spotlight, its critics are re-energized, and have attacked Ethereum with renewed vigor.

As ever, Bitcoin maximalists are the most vocal critics. Adamant Capital’s Tuur Demeester draws a political comparison; suggesting the mining difficulty bomb is akin to a gradual transition to enforced communism. "Communism destroys property rights and thereby the means of production in an economy. The difficulty bomb does the same by removing the economic incentive to mine ETH and thus removes the protection of the network," tweeted Demeester.

Bitcoin developer Udi Wertheimer blames Ethereum developers for the unfortunate choice of a new year holiday for the upgrade date. And in a more cutting remark, he suggests the ‘Ice Age’ has become a political tool for Ethereum developers "to gain support for whatever changes they push."

Indeed, if the mining difficulty bomb can be perpetually delayed, then it loses its ability to act as a threat—just like a bomb with an infinitely long fuse, or as Tuur Demeester put it, "like contracts written with pre-boiled spaghetti."

Nevertheless, now that the threat of detonating the mining bomb is out the way, the groundwork is set for the next phase of Ethereum’s development. Beacon Chain, which represents the first major structural shift of the Serenity upgrade, is scheduled for the early part of 2020. This is set to be followed by the highly-anticipated Shard Chains upgrade, which promises to hold the keys to the future scalability of Ethereum.


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