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Blockchain 101 #5: Fork in the Road: A Deep Dive into Blockchain Upgrades

Delves into the concept of blockchain forks, discussing both hard and soft forks, and their implications.

Blockchain technology has rapidly evolved, becoming a cornerstone of innovation across various industries. However, to maintain relevance, blockchains need to adapt, and one of the mechanisms through which they achieve this is the blockchain fork. In this comprehensive exploration, we'll navigate the intricate landscape of blockchain forks, dissecting both hard and soft forks and unveiling their profound implications for the blockchain ecosystem.

The Fundamental Concept of Blockchain Forks

At its core, a blockchain serves as an immutable ledger, recording transactions in a secure, chronological manner. A blockchain fork, in essence, represents a significant alteration to the rules governing a blockchain. These forks can be categorised into two primary types: hard forks and soft forks.

Hard Forks: The Radical Transformation

A hard fork is an extensive, irreversible modification to a blockchain's protocol that renders previous blocks and transactions incompatible with the new version. This means that once a hard fork has occurred, users of the new blockchain will no longer be able to interact with the old one, and vice versa. This transformation results in the creation of two separate chains, each evolving independently with different rules and protocols.

Let's delve into 2 historical instances where cryptocurrency communities decided to take different paths and undergo a "hard fork".

The first historical instance of a hard fork occurred in 2016 when Ethereum was grappling with the aftermath of a notorious DAO hack. In response, a hard fork was implemented to undo the effects of the hack. However, not everyone within the Ethereum community was in agreement with this fix. Some members believed in preserving the original, unaltered state of the blockchain, even in the face of the hack. This difference of opinion resulted in a split, giving rise to the Ethereum Classic.

The second historical instance occurred in 2017 when the Bitcoin community had a disagreement revolving around the size of data blocks in the blockchain. This led to a significant divide, leading to the creation of Bitcoin Cash, with a desire to boost transaction speed and efficiency by increasing the block size limits.

As hard forks can spark contentious debates within the community, it might lead to the creation of two competing networks. This means that users must choose which chain to follow, potentially causing disruption and instability within the ecosystem.

Soft Forks: A More Conservative Approach

A soft fork represents a backwards-compatible upgrade to a blockchain's protocol which tightens the rules of the network. This means that it doesn't break compatibility with the existing system, it just raises the bar slightly for future transactions or blocks. Transactions which were already playing by the rules won't notice much of a change, however, some transactions might be incompatible under the new rules.

An example of a soft fork that occurred was Segregated Witness (SegWit) on Bitcoin that occurred in 2017 which was introduced to address Bitcoin's scalability issues by separating transaction data from witness data, effectively increasing block capacity.

Another example of a soft fork that occurred was Taproot in 2021. It was a soft fork that improved the privacy and flexibility of Bitcoin transactions. Taproot works by making it more difficult to distinguish between different types of Bitcoin transactions, such as simple payments and multi-signature transactions.

Soft forks typically create fewer divisions within the community, as all users can continue to interact with the same chain. However, older software may require updates to remain compatible with the evolving network.

Now you must be wondering, aren't these blockchain forks really disruptive to the ecosystem?

The answer is 'Yes! It is disruptive'. However, blockchain forks are necessary for upgrading outdated blockchains in order to bring technical improvements and flexibility in ideological considerations.

Technical Improvements

Forks can introduce performance enhancements to optimise a blockchain's speed, scalability, and efficiency. These enhancements aim to make the blockchain more suitable for everyday transactions and accommodate a growing user base. Additionally, forks can also introduce modifications in cryptographic algorithms or consensus mechanisms that are essential for safeguarding user assets and data from potential attacks.

Governance and Ideology

As blockchains have passionate community members comprising of either builders, miners or users of the blockchain, forks can arise from governance and ideological considerations within the blockchain community. Disagreements over aspects like block size, transaction fees, or the role of miners in the network can lead to ideological differences, resulting in forks. Some forks are initiated to preserve or enhance decentralisation while ensuring power remains distributed.

Risks and Challenges

However, the journey of forks is not without challenges and risks. Community divisions, often stemming from hard forks, can lead to fragmented user bases and reduced security as participants decide which chain to support. This fragmentation diminishes the network effect, slowing user adoption and compromising overall security as smaller chains can become more vulnerable to 51% attacks, where a single entity gains control over the majority of mining power.

Loss of Consensus

Moreover, highly publicised forks, especially contentious ones, can tarnish a blockchain's reputation, impacting investor, developer, and user confidence in the blockchain's stability and governance. Despite these challenges, the success or failure of a fork ultimately hinges on the community's ability to reach a consensus and adapt to change.

In conclusion, as blockchain technology matures, a nuanced understanding of fork subtleties becomes increasingly crucial. These forks, whether radical or conservative, exemplify the continual evolution of blockchain technology. Embracing change and adeptly managing associated challenges is paramount for ensuring the sustained growth and success of blockchain ecosystems worldwide. These pivotal moments in the blockchain's journey undoubtedly shape the future of this transformative technology.

We, from Blockchain at NTU, thank you for being part of this enlightening journey and extend a warm welcome to the enthralling universe of blockchain!

NOTE: Articles written by Blockchain at NTU ARE NOT FINANCIAL ADVICE!

Written By:
Dann Wee
Research Director of Blockchain at NTU Club AY23/24

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