Alyssa Hertig for CoinDesk
Lightning is spreading across the cryptocurrency landscape.
Originally designed for use on bitcoin, the world’s largest cryptocurrency by market size was also the first to implement the concept, touted as a way to make transactions faster and cheaper by moving them to a layer above the blockchain. But with scalability emerging as a pressing issue across the industry, developers of other cryptocurrencies aren’t letting the once-novel idea go to waste.
Known as the “silver to bitcoin’s gold,” it’s perhaps not a surprise that litecoin is one of the furthest along, working closely with startup Lightning Labs to launch its version at the same time as bitcoin’s.
But others are close behind, with developers taking formal steps to add the concept to their outlooks. The most recent project to embrace the idea is stellar, the seventh-largest cryptocurrency, which added lightning to its 2018 roadmap in January.
And its developers there see a similar potential in unlocking lightning’s advances.
Bitcoin Core contributor Jeremy Rubin, who’s leading development of stellar’s lightning network, went so far as to call the tech a necessity for any platform that would like to remain efficient for payments.
Rubin told CoinDesk:
“Lightning is perhaps the most important protocol innovation happening in the cryptocurrency space right now. When bitcoin’s lightning network comes online fully, any community not preparing scalable off-chain solutions is going to get left in the payments dust.”
That said, not all blockchain projects are interested in lightning exactly as its described for bitcoin.
For instance, ethereum developers are working on an off-chain scaling technology called raiden, while neo has its own version called trinity. While working from different code, both projects take the same concept, seeking to create a top-level network with which users can move transactions.
Other crypto networks simply recognize that a lighting-like system will be needed to scale in the future, although they don’t have time to focus on actual implementations right now.
Several cryptographers working on the privacy-minded cryptocurrency zcash, as an example, have proposed BOLT, a new type of lightning-style micropayments tech that also preserves the network’s anonymity. And project developers have hinted the technology is being worked on, even though it’s not clear when it will launch.
Likewise, monero, another privacy-oriented cryptocurrency, also plans to add a second-layer scaling technology, although its developers say getting its core privacy tech right is a priority.
Still, there are some who believe that are trying to scale blockchains at the base layer.
Grin, which is expected to launch later this year, uses clever cryptography to construct a blockchain that eats up old, unneeded data as it grows larger, so it requires much less space in the long term. And IOTA, claims to have created a “blockchain-less blockchain,” which allows the system to scale (though the project has seen a fair share of skepticism).
Good to better
Yet, other developers see it as part of a multi-faceted approach to scaling, one that’s perhaps best approached with a number of potential options.
Indeed, developers of some blockchain projects, such as stellar and ripple, believe their protocols are ready for scale, but are nonetheless looking at technologies similar to lightning as a kind of insurance policy.
Stellar’s roadmap states specifically that the cryptocurrency doesn’t need lightning, but that the tech would have a “huge[ly] positive effect on stellar’s long-term scalability and security.”
“Of course, unlike bitcoin, stellar doesn’t need ‘saving.’ We’re just going from a good place to an even better one,” it reads.
Ripple CTO and Interledger co-founder Stefan Thomas argues much the same thing – saying the XRP ledger is already more scalable than bitcoin’s blockchain. Still, despite the claims, it’s worth noting the team is still exploring layer-two payment channel technologies in an effort to prepare for future users.
There’s even some talk about the possibilities that could be enabled when multiple lightning networks could be interconnected, though that possibility appears far off.
Elizabeth Stark, co-founder and CEO of Lightning Labs, just one of a number of startups globally working on the idea, contends that, outside bitcoin and litecoin, she hasn’t seen the technology adopted in “any meaningful way.”
“Some communities are interested in it or working on it in the early stages, but it’ll take time,” she said.
That’s not to say there wouldn’t be far-reaching effects if and when all these cryptocurrencies successfully absorb lightning’s technology. Developers are already beginning to envision how today’s dominant exchanges could be replaced with technologies that would allow users to trade various assets between blockchains, and many see connected lightning networks as a key enabler.
“My sense is a lot of other cryptocurrencies are interested in cross-chain swaps and decentralized exchange tech,” Stark said, adding:
“Lightning is an obvious way to get there.”
Disclosure: CoinDesk is a subsidiary of Digital Currency Group, which has an ownership stake in Ripple and Zcash Company, the for-profit entity that develops the zcash protocol.