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What to Make of Solana’s Nearly 24-Hour Outage

On September 14th, the Solana blockchain went down for roughly 17 hours. Although no funds were actually lost, the system wasn’t fully functional for almost 24 hours.

What Solana is calling a ‘network stall’ was apparently caused by a Denial-of-Service, or DoS, attack. A Denial-of-Service attack is pretty straightforward; typically attackers will flood the target with traffic, the goal being to eventually overwhelm the system and make it inaccessible to users. The high volume of illegitimate strain on the network makes the legitimate requests of the same network impossible.

The sun of the Solana network went dark for a 24-hour period in 2021

On the day of the attack, an unknown number of bots, apparently from Defi protocol Raydium, showed up on Solana’s doorstep.

These bots generated transaction volumes that flooded the network, maxing it out at 400,000 transactions per second (TPS). If you’re curious about what kind of transaction volume that is, Visa typically maxes out at 1,700 transactions per second. From there, the rising tide spilled over and Solana validators crashed, forcing the network into a slow-down and eventually an outright stall.

Is Solana’s Blockchain Truly Decentralized?

Decentralization matters here. Specifically, the true nature of Solana’s decentralization.

When validators crashed to the extent that they could not mutually agree on the accurate and current state of the network, the processing and confirmation of new blocks was not possible.

The Attack on Solana

It’s clear that Solana validators play a key role in securing the ledger.

Validators lend computing power to the network to help maintain its authenticity. They process transactions and participate in consensus, allowing the network to maintain its performance. After the September 14th attack, a majority of validators, of which there are over 1000, elected to coordinate a ‘restart of the network’.

A fix was proposed but wasn’t implemented until at least 80% of the validators agreed to patch the software. Almost 15.5 hours after the network stalled, consensus was reached within the community, and the validator network restored full functionality roughly 18 hours after the initial attack.

An Infinitely Scalable Blockchain

Solana describes itself as a decentralized blockchain built to enable scalable, user-friendly apps for the world. It positions itself as high throughput and its claim to fame is that it is ‘powerful for developers, and fast for everyone.’ If the level of transactions we saw in the DoS attack is any indication, proponents of Solana may be right. The network maxed out and then stalled when it hit 400,000 TPS. What if it was stable and pumping as usual at 250,000? What about 300,000? If this was the case, and we may be given those numbers in the future, that’s still in the ballpark of 175x Visa’s processing power.

It also claims to be the fastest blockchain in the world, with the fastest growing ecosystem in the crypto space. Typically, as usage on most blockchains increases, so do the fees and transaction times, which as Solana says, limits their potential. From a security perspective, Solana claims to be censorship resistant, meaning the user base can build unencumbered infinitely and transactions will never be stopped, making it “truly unstoppable.”

Although its rapid growth has been impressive, is it truly unstoppable? Is it even truly decentralized?

Solanas Response to Critics

In a truly decentralized world, where we all accept and adopt the responsibility that comes with managing and storing our own wealth, the community is responsible for ultimate success or failure. Solana claims that the outage and their response prove the true decentralization of the network. The comparison they make is to Amazon.

If AWS was to go down tomorrow, its entire user base is reliant on Amazon to restore functionality. It’s not like every organization that uses AWS is responsible for finding consensus and processing transactions: it’s a centralized system. In a decentralized system, each validator works to bring functionality back to the network and their work is verified by their peers.

What this means is that independent Solana validators across the globe worked in tandem to reach a unified solution. In this kind of system, we don’t have to rely on, or trust that a third party will find a solution, the entire network verifies the solution as one.

What is True Decentralization?

The flip-side of that coin is that what the attack may really show is that Solana cannot claim true decentralization. If a validator community of 1,000 can get together and reach a consensus that the entire network should be reset, how do we know this won’t happen in the future for much less obvious or extreme reasons?

It begs the ever-important question: what’s the point? Is the point true decentralization, consistency, and security? Or is the point transaction volume, speed, and fees? It’s the essence of the blockchain trilemma of security, speed, or scalability. You want more security? Then we may need more decentralization. You want more scalability? Then you may need to centralize more than you’d like.

The Size of Solana and its Dedication to Low Fees

Market cap matters here too. The bigger you are, the less margin for error because you have a community of trusted users. A project may be new, but as Nic Carter says, with a strong user base it appears mature so the stakes are high. Let’s double-click on fees as an example.

Solana claims that it will be low cost forever, ensuring transactions at less than $0.01 for developers and end-users. Typically, when networks get congested, fees go up. The higher the throughput, in theory, the lower the fees. Sounds great in practice, but the reality is less clear. As Nic Carter points out:

“Low fee chains have suffered from bloat and irrelevance….Ethereum has effectively embraced the reality of meaningful fees.”

Bloat and Irrelevance

When it comes to Bitcoin, protection against this ‘bloat and irrelevance,’ was built in by its creator(s). Bitcoin’s combination of fees and a cap in blocksize has been called an ‘anti-spam mechanism’. In effect, it works to prevent the delivery of overwhelming amounts of data that would make the blockchain impossible to validate.

This is exactly what happened to Solana on September 14th. Higher fees also work to reinforce the quality of transactions executed on the blockchain. Higher value transactions are naturally encouraged and less meaningful transactions get priced out over time.

On September 20th, Solana issued a blog post that covers the initial overview of what happened on the 14th. They end the piece by informing us that the community is in the middle of an intensive post-mortem and more intel surrounding the root cause of the outage will be available to us in the coming weeks.

By Matt George

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