With The Merge completed, what is next for Ethereum?
Well, The Surge, that’s what. But it won’t come as quickly as many hoped, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
No More Miners
In September, Ethereum executed the most significant upgrade in its history when it merged its Proof of Stake Beacon blockchain with its mainnet execution layer. As a result, Ethereum retired its Proof of Work consensus mechanism — the same one Bitcoin uses — and dispensed with the services of Ethereum miners. The No. 1 smart contract network now operates with 99.9% less energy usage than before.
The Ethereum network is now secured by Proof of Stake validators, who lock up at least 32 ETH to run a node and validate transactions. PoS validation is far less computationally intensive than PoW mining, reducing the barriers to Ethereum’s validators growing in number and becoming more decentralized.
The Surge was supposed to go live with Ethereum’s next upgrade and hard fork, Shanghai, which is expected to take place during the second half of 2023. The upgrade was originally expected to include EIP-4844, otherwise known as proto-danksharding, or “The Surge”, which is tipped to increase the scalability of Layer 2s by orders of magnitude and prime the network for sharding.
But on Dec. 8, Ethereum’s core devs confirmed that activating staked ETH withdrawals from the Beacon Chain will be prioritized for the network’s next upgrade, which is called Shanghai. The move was partly an answer to criticism over the lack of staked ETH withdrawal functionality despite users being able to stake on the Beacon Chain since December 2020.
Proto-danksharding is now penciled in as Ethereum’s next major upgrade after Beacon Chain withdrawals are live, and will pave the way for the network to become fully sharded in the future. Sharding will split Ethereum’s computational load across an ecosystem of Layer 2 chains working in parallel, with the mainnet providing execution finality.
The Surge will implement most of the infrastructure needed to facilitate sharding. EIP-4844 will allow Layer 2 validators to download a small portion of each block produced by the network. The “calldata” included in Layer 2 transactions will also be replaced with “blobs,” which are much smaller and cheaper for the network to process. Blob data will be deleted after 30 days.
Mofi Taiwo, an engineer at OP Labs, told The Defiant that for Layer 2s and dApps, proto-danksharding will offer the same user experience as full sharding. Diederik Loerakker, a researcher at Ethereum Foundation tweeted that EIP-4844 will increase the scalability of Layer 2 rollups by “100x.”
Looking ahead, “The Verge” will introduce a software feature called “verkle trees” alongside stateless clients to make Ethereum more lightweight and accelerate decentralization.
“The Purge” will come next, where old history is deleted from the blockchain to further simplify the Ethereum protocol and reduce the amount of hard drive space required by validators.
Vitalik Buterin, Ethereum’s chief scientist, noted that block explorers already host a historic record of all transactions, mitigating the need for every validator to sync up with the entire canonical blockchain.
Lastly, in Buterin’s words “The Splurge” will include “all of the other fun stuff” not included in previous upgrades that can improve the functionality of the network.
After The Splurge, Buterin predicts that Ethereum will enter a phase of relative stability, where the protocol’s form remains fairly consistent for many years.
“At some point, the rate of change of the Ethereum protocol is going to… slow down,” Buterin said during a conference in July. “It doesn’t necessarily mean that Ethereum ossifies completely, but it does mean that it looks somewhat more like a system that optimizes for safety and predictability, and less like an ecosystem that optimizes for impressing and dazzling people.”
Buterin added that Ethereum’s base layer will “optimize for being safe” while Layer 2s host “rapid iteration and action.”