The long-awaited Constantinople hard fork upgrade is now estimated by developers to go live sometime between Feb 26 and Feb 28, with a block number to be determined at a future date.
While the initial upgrade was expected to have been activated in November 2018, it was pushed back after an upgrade protocol on its Ropsten Testnet was discovered to be defective, followed by a “reentrancy attack” vulnerability discovered by ChainSecurity in January this year.
Problems “On The Block”
Essentially, the Constantinople hard fork is meant to ease the transition from the current Proof-of-Work (PoW) to the Proof-of-Stake (PoS) consensus algorithm, which has been found to be more energy-efficient.
In Proof-of-Work, miners compete to add the next block (a set of transactions) in the chain by racing to solve an extremely difficult cryptographic puzzle. The main problem of this algorithm is that it requires enormous amounts of computational energy that it does not scale well. While Bitcoin can process a maximum of 3–7 transactions per second, Ethereum can do upwards from 15–30 transactions per second. This number by comparability is overshadowed by that of mainstream finance institutions. According to Visa, their VisaNet can process 150 million transactions every day and is capable of handling more than 24,000 transactions per second.
While most people are concerned with Bitcoin’s energy consumption, or rather the process of its mining, many fail to acknowledge that Ethereum, does not fall far behind either. Mining Ethereum consumes a quarter to half the energy that Bitcoin mining does. Simply put, the typical Ethereum transaction swallows more power than an average US household in a day.
Eventually, this results in the fact that the majority of mining is centralized in areas of the world where electricity is cheap.
With all the abovementioned issues, it is of paramount importance for the Ethereum network to strike the balance regarding the “blockchain trilemma” of scalability, security, and decentralization.
The New Ethereum
As proposed by the Ethereum core developers, the Constantinople hard fork will integrate 5 Ethereum Improvement Proposals (EIPs) into the Ethereum Blockchain with a view towards the scalability of the network, from minor code optimizations to more controversial changes.
Let’s take a deeper look at these code changes which are likely to shape the progress of the second most popular blockchain for years to come.
A revamped gas price structure is one of the most significant improvement proposals from the developers. EIP 1283 will implement better costs for smart contracts. This will be done by breaking down the contract changes that have been written in Ethereum’s memory storage. Since this does not affect any state changes on the blockchain, no gas is spent thus cutting costs for developers.
Nick Johnson, the author of the original proposal concept behind EIP 1283 has said in a statement:
“In some cases in the past, we were charging gas for things that didn’t actually happen or didn’t actually cost any real resources and now we’re trying to adjust things so we only charge gas that aligns with the work we actually have to do.”
The idea is to charge a fee for users holding data permanently stored on the blockchain. Johnson said this would be an effective way to disincentivize “using up storage for things you don’t need them for.”
Also in the works is optimizing the code for the EVM (Ethereum Virtual Machine) as specified in EIP 145 and 1052. The optimization introduces us to “Bitwise Shifting”, a concept meant to improve network efficiency. Bitwise Shifting is a shortcut in bytecode that doesn’t rely on complex arithmetic operations. That will allow faster processing of decentralized applications. As we have seen in the past, when a lot of users are on the Ethereum network it can easily slow to a crawl. Optimization in the code will allow more efficient use of computing resources which in turn can also save developers and users on the costs of computing on the Ethereum network.
Aside from a revamped gas fee structure for smart contract developers, EIP 1014 improves the enablement of an Ethereum scaling solution based on off-chain transactions called State Channels.
Meant to be a part of efforts to minimize the number of operations that need to happen on the Ethereum blockchain itself, these channels can help free up network resources and space.
This means that Ethereum contracts will no longer have to be deployed on-chain before you could use them. Instead, you can provide the address which corresponds to the contract you want to deploy, and the recipient can pay to the contract before you deploy.
This means that developers are able to generate receive addresses without paying the deployment fee of the receiving address until they want to spend from it.
This EIP also allows for certain off-chain state channel commitments to be possible without requiring a deployment of said state channel.
While the majority are non-controversial tweaks, one aspect of the upgrade has been the cause of some controversy.
In particular, the EIP 1234 delays the Difficulty Bomb for a period of 12 months, an algorithm in Ethereum’s codebase that increases mining difficulty over time. Because the upgrade will decrease the mining difficulty, it also takes steps to reduce the reward miners are given for securing the network – down from 3 ETH to 2 ETH per block. This has led miners to express discontent with the upgrade.
Though the total supply of Ether does not have an established limit, reducing the inflation rate is an essential tool to ensure scarcity. Simply put, the reduction in block rewards is needed in part due to Ethereum’s efforts to reduce the inflation of Ether in basic supply and demand economics.
The Road Ahead
If the Ethereum project successfully implements these upgrade features, then Serenity comes next, the Ethereum’s next release that runs purely on the Proof-of-Stake consensus protocol.
For what it’s worth, the Constantinople hard fork is expected to be an exciting evolution for the Ethereum community. With the implementation of efficiency, speed, and lower costs, it is certain that ETH supporters are moving closer towards the full realization of Ethereum’s potential.