Q&A with Duncan Coutts, Principal Technical Architect at IO Global
The Cardano blockchain has been experiencing huge amounts of updates recently. With the recent announcements of the Lace lightwallet and EVM sidechains, and the Vasil hard fork taking place, there’s a lot going on.
No one knows this more than Duncan Coutts, IO Global’s (IOG) Principal Technical Architect for Cardano. IOG is the research and software development company behind the Cardano blockchain. Freshly returned from paternity leave, he’s back at IOG to oversee what’s coming next for Cardano. I sat down with Duncan to find out what he’s most looking forward to in the coming months...
What about IOG makes you most excited to be back?
I’m thrilled to be returning to IOG following my paternity leave and getting to work again, and a big part of that is IOG’s foundations in academic, peer-reviewed research.
IOG’s teams are dedicated to applying academic rigor to our development. That’s what initially attracted me to the company. IOG is applying techniques to our work that aren’t typically deployed in mainstream software development. Peer-reviewed science, watertight design and implementation and an essential part of our process. If we believe our industry is worth billions, we should build our systems to be worth billions. This means building with research and computer science as a foundation.
What are you most looking forward to now you’re back?
There are a lot of things that I’m excited about in the coming months for Cardano. We have many new technical developments in the pipeline. Some of them are happening sooner than others, but all of them will have big impacts on our community.
I understand one of the things you’re working on is input endorsers. Can you tell me a bit about the work you’re doing there?
We created Cardano to solve the issues of blockchain speed, scalability and interoperability. Input endorsers are one of the tools we’re using to scale Cardano this year, and are all about addressing speed. Input endorsers improve block propagation times – the time it takes for a new block to reach all the nodes in a network – by allowing transactions to be separated into pre-constructed blocks. This improves the consistency of block propagation times and allows higher transaction rates. The way we’re going to achieve this is with improvements to Ouroboros, the proof-of-stake consensus protocol for Cardano.
Ouroboros is unique in its combination of design elements, such as proof-of-stake, trustless setting, and a reward-sharing incentive scheme. We’re always looking at how we can improve Ouroboros. Something exciting we’re working on is a new version of Ouroboros which can scale to use all the available resources on Cardano’s servers. Cardano’s servers have a lot of resources at the moment, but we aren’t able to make use of all of them. The reason for this comes down to the linear nature of the blockchain. You have to get a block from here to everywhere in time for the next block to be produced.
That’s why we’re developing a new stage of Ouroboros, called Leios. With Ouroboros Leios, instead of each block having a header and a single body as is currently the case, we’re saying each block has a header and many bodies. So we’ll be producing ranking blocks that have 10-20 smaller block bodies. These are the pre-constructed blocks, which will be spread out overtime with input endorsers, allowing the resources to be used more fully, the spread of blocks to happen faster, and for transaction rates to be higher. There’s still a lot of development that needs to take place for this, and it’s definitely early stage, but we’re excited about the journey.
Peer-to-peer networking is another big thing for your team?
That’s right. Peer-to-peer networking essentially comes back to decentralization. At IOG we define decentralisation by three pillars: block production, governance and physical decentralisation. We started decentralizing block production with the Shelley upgrade a couple of years ago. It’s been fully decentralised now for some time. With the Vasil hard fork, the d parameter (decentralization parameter) which governs this will be totally removed. It’s an important moment really and reflects how much the community is now running the network.
Peer-to-peer networking is another step in empowering the community to run the network itself. Cardano is powered by distributed nodes, which are run by stake pool operators. In a decentralised and distributed network, there has to be reliable communication between these nodes. Until recently, IOG has been running nodes to help establish node to node connectivity, supported by a community-led topology. Peer-to-peer networking will remove this IOG connectivity framework and instead create direct interaction between peers, streamlining communications between the thousands of distributed nodes that will maintain the network, without reliance on a central party to relay those communications.
We also work to ensure this is based on not just our own research, but research in partnership with a number of world-leading academic institutions and researchers in Europe, Asia and North America.
Alongside the University of Athens, we’ve come up with a good scheme for automating the process by which nodes choose to connect to each other, and a unique method to prevent eclipse attacks.
In this unique method, everyone makes local decisions, but there’s a global outcome, with no trust needed and no info exchange. To prevent attacks, we select randomly from the sets of nodes we have visibility over when looking at promoting them. Random choices made locally cannot have their outcomes influenced, making them more secure.
The clever part is that over time we look at how good each of the peers are and rank them, and then once an hour the bottom two are demoted, and then pick another two randomly. So we’re always cycling and making sure the best peers are in the network.
There’s been a lot of excitement around the Vasil upgrade, can you share your thoughts on that?
We’re thrilled about the Vasil upgrade, and we hard forked the Cardano Testnet on Monday this week in preparation.
Although ‘hard fork’ is probably a misleading term when talking about how we do updates. IOG’s unique hard fork combinator means Cardano continues through the hard fork without a “break”, and that there’s no need to stop block production – this ensures smooth upgrades to the network. There’s no core network disruption. It’s a rather special piece of technology.
The Basho era of the Cardano roadmap is all about optimizing and scaling Cardano to better support Defi applications and facilitate growth and adoption, and the Vasil enhancements are a key element. With over 1000 projects building on Cardano and counting, and over five million native tokens created on the blockchain, we want to make sure we’re preparing for Cardano’s growth appropriately. The improvements that Vasil is making to Cardano’s scalability are a critical part of preparing for continuing growth.
A key scalability-focused element of Vasil will be the introduction of ‘diffusion pipelining’. This will allow for continued network tuning and optimisation, including an increase in block size, ensuring we’re scaling Cardano as much as possible. The hard fork on the testnet is a key step towards the fork on the mainnet, and we’re keeping the community updated on our progress as we work towards that milestone.