Polkadot 101: Connecting the Dots for Beginners

By August 5, 2022DeFi
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As the cryptocurrency space exploded, thousands of new projects with distinct blockchains were created. But while many of these blockchains sought to solve unique problems or serve specific functions, most of them were completely walled off and had no way to communicate or connect with one another. Polkadot is a project that aims to fix that problem.

Gavin Wood founded the project in 2016, which launched alongside its native token, DOT, in October 2017. The open-source project is developed by the community and supported by the Web3 Foundation. In line with the beliefs of the Web3 Foundation, Polkadot aims to make all blockchains interoperable and create a truly decentralized system where users are in control.

Before founding Polkadot and developing the blockchain at Parity, Wood was a co-founder of Ethereum. While working on Ethereum, Wood helped develop Ethereum’s programming language Solidity as well as defined the technical language of the Ethereum Virtual Machine. Wood’s work on the Ethereum white paper and programming language is reflected in both the Polkadot white paper and the main programming framework for Polkadot development, Substrate.

DOT, the native token for the Polkadot ecosystem, is used to facilitate transactions on the Polkadot network. Polkadot network participants are also empowered through DOT to participate in governance and validator voting. The token is among the top 25 cryptocurrencies by market capitalization. At the time of writing, the crypto asset has a total supply of 1.7B DOT and a nearly $10 billion market cap. Because DOT does not have a hard limit on its total supply, new DOT will continually be added to the supply at an annual rate of around 10%.

Polkadot was created with the goal of creating an interoperable ecosystem for all blockchains and decentralized app (dapp) platforms. The goal Polkadot wants to achieve already sets it apart from many other blockchains under development, but Polkadot stands out for a variety of other reasons as well:

  1. Multichain: Polkadot is a multichain, “layer 0” blockchain that creates a framework for other blockchains to communicate.
  2. Parallel processing: Instead of handling one transaction at a time, Polkadot can validate multiple transactions and operate under different functions simultaneously.
  3. Twin bockchain: Polkadot has a twin blockchain, Kusama (KSM), that shares the same codebase as Polkadot, but is on its own independent mainnet.

One key difference that sets Polkadot apart from other blockchains is that it is a multichain. Often described as a layer 0 blockchain, Polkadot creates the infrastructure for other blockchains to build on through two key developments: the relay chain and parachains.

Parachains, or parallel blockchains, are interconnected blockchains that help bridge Polkadot to external chains and communicate with one another through the relay chain. The relay chain is responsible for reaching consensus and providing cross-chain interoperability among the different blockchains. Since the relay chain connects all parachains to the Polkadot blockchain, relay chains enable shared security, meaning all other chains are equally as secure as Polkadot.

Another key difference between Polkadot and other blockchains is its ability to process transactions in parallel. Other blockchains – the Ethereum network, for example – executes transactions individually, which can lead to longer transaction times. To increase transaction speeds, Polkadot uses its parachains to spread transactions across the broader network.

Since parachains enable multiple blockchains to run within the Polkadot network, use-case specific tasks can be handled by one parachain, while the Polkadot chain and other parachains continue to handle others.

A third reason Polkadot is unique among other blockchains is its cousin: Kusama (KSM). Polkadot and Kusama both operate independently, but were built using the same codebase. Kusama is a “wild and fast” blockchain that lets users experiment with the ecosystem and test new updates to the code. Polkadot, on the other hand, is much more stable and improvements are rolled out more slowly.

Experimentation and development of the Kusama blockchain may make it seem like a testnet for Polkadot, but it is also a mainnet blockchain. This provides benefits to Polkadot for two reasons. First, Kusama’s fast-moving development lets Polkadot learn from its mistakes and implement upgrades when they’ve proven successful. Second, Kusama offers a lower barrier to entry for developers so they can launch successful projects prior to moving to Polkadot.

Though the twin blockchains started out from the same codebase, the different natures of the projects will slowly cause them to diverge in use. So the Kusama-Polkadot relationship not only helps build a more stable Polkadot blockchain but also makes for an interesting long-term experiment.

Polkadot uses a modified version of the proof-of-stake consensus protocol known as nominated proof-of-stake. Under a traditional PoS model used by such blockchains as Solana (SOL) and Cardano (ADA), any network participant can validate transactions by meeting the blockchain’s requirements. Polkadot’s NPoS model instead lets participants use their tokens to vote on validators, and only those validators who have received enough backing can start validating transactions.

What makes Polkadot’s NPoS consensus unique from others is its original interpretation of the model known as GRANDPA. GRANDPA (GHOST-based recursive ancestor deriving prefix agreement). Instead of validating blocks at a fixed rate, GRANDPA serves in a more dynamic way and is capable of handling millions of blocks at once. In doing so, GRANDPA enables Polkadot to quickly settle transactions while the blockchain is operating smoothly and avoid network delays by catching up on transactions when it isn’t running as well.

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