The debate that started between members of the Bitcoin and Ethereum communities has continued into its second week. After worries about the extent of ether's circulating supply were largely put to bed by efforts sponsored by Kraken's Pierre Rochard, the focus has now shifted to Ethereum nodes.
Core to any blockchain, be that Bitcoin or Ethereum, are nodes. A node is a computer that contains a partial or full copy of a blockchain's block history and can be connected to the network to verify transactions and balances.
A point of contention that has come to light in recent days is the confusion surrounding the labeling and perceived importance of different Ethereum node types, coupled with the difficulty some are facing in running their own full node.
At least with Bitcoin, the node type critical to the security of the network is a full node. A full node, or full validation node, is a device that has validated the entire transaction history of a blockchain.
John Carvalho, a former executive at Bitrefill, explained the importance of full nodes in an October 2019 Medium post:
"If securing Bitcoin requires consensus on what Bitcoin is, and Bitcoin is a database of values assigned to keys, and Bitcoin has a protocol for reassignment of keys, then securing Bitcoin can only be done by … your node!"
Full nodes, Carvalho and others argue, allow Bitcoin to be secure as consensus can be achieved with the database of addresses and with the underlying protocol.
For Ethereum, it's not that simple. Because Ethereum is a state machine rather than a ledger, a node also maintains a snapshot of the current state of existing accounts. Sentiment has arisen that unlike with Bitcoin, a full node is not enough to secure Ethereum.
According to Arcane Assets CIO Eric Wall, there are two key differences between the node types: a full node "keeps track of old Ethereum transactions" while archive nodes store a "full history of interim states each block resulted in." To generate interim states, archive nodes are required to evaluate the contract calls of each transaction.
It has been suggested that archive nodes are not needed for the Ethereum blockchain to be fully validated. Ethereum founder Vitalik Buterin wrote that he personally runs a full Ethereum node on his laptop, not an archive node:
Andreas Brekken, founder of SideShift.ai and formerly of digital asset exchange Kraken, noted that without running a node "with [the] full archive and tracing," you cannot properly observe all ether transaction data. Tracing, he explained, "logs execution of contracts," meaning they need to be scanned through "to find ETH transfer operations."
In an interview with the BTC Times, Brekken explained that in operating SideShift.ai, he needs archive nodes with tracing enabled to “automate deposits and withdrawals for exchanges in a secure manner.” He further suggested that archive nodes are also important in ensuring ether’s supply is correct.
As evidenced by the disagreements between the assertions of the two sides of the debate, the jury is still out on what type of Ethereum node one should run to ensure the validity of transactions and fully secure the blockchain.
A bottom line that many have come to, though, is that running archive Ethereum nodes appears to be a difficult task. Those that have tried it claim that a computer with lots of storage and lots of time is needed.
Igor Artamonov, the founder of Ethereum Classic development consortium ETCDEV, said that it is taking him one day to sync 20 days of Ethereum blocks. Artamonov added that he currently has three out of four of his nodes syncing. Aratamonov runs an archive node for a block explorer he operates, Emerald Receipt.
Artamonov isn’t the only operator of a block explorer that has run into trouble with Ethereum archive nodes. In 2019, BlockCypher chief executive Catheryne Nicholson had to shut down its Ethereum block explorer for a number of weeks to sync the company archive node.
Andreas Brekken explained to the BTC Times that his attempt to run an archive Ethereum node with tracing has cost him over $10,000 USD and lots of time, so he decided to throw in the towel:
“The last time I tried to sync a node with full history of the blockchain, I gave up. After a few weeks and an Amazon AWS bill of over $10K, I gave up. I was syncing with full tracing, meaning every action taken by smart contracts is logged, which is required to properly detect incoming payments when running an exchange. It's worth noting that a much less powerful computer would have sufficed given the bottlenecks in syncing an Ethereum node.”
The difficulty some have had in attempting to run full Ethereum nodes has reached a point that it is even spawning jokes. Pierre Rochard joked that a "mass spectrometer is less expensive than an Ethereum node."
Pundits say that without the ability for a mom and pop user to trustlessly verify a blockchain — be that for its total supply, the chain state, or any host of reasons — the cryptocurrency that sits on that chain cannot be classified as hard money.
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