What Does The Blockchain Trilemma Look Like in 2024?

KEY TAKEAWAYS

Blockchain's three main pillars – security, scalability, and decentralization – ensures that trade-offs must be made. Are we any closer to a solution?

Developers who specialize in applications tied to distributed ledger technology (DLT) have long dreamed of ways to overcome what is known as the “blockchain trilemma.”

This inherent conflict between the technology’s three main pillars – security, scalability, and decentralization – ensures that trade-offs must be made with every new product or architecture.

But if the trilemma cannot be conquered, there seems to be no lack of trying when it comes to minimizing these conflicts since that will provide a competitive advantage that would be too great to ignore.

The trilemma stems from the competing demands of the very attributes that make blockchain such a useful tool to begin with.

  • Decentralization is required to create communal trust in the sanctity of data in the chain,
  • Security ensures protection from both internal and external compromise,
  • Scalability provides seamless growth.

But, when decentralization is pushed to extremes, it hampers both scalability and security because the consensus needed to effectively manage growth and implement new defensive protocols becomes more challenging to achieve.

Meanwhile, strong security mechanisms tend to slow transaction speed, which is exacerbated as the environment scales.

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Layer 1 and Layer 2 Cooperation

As blockchain architectures become more complex, however, a number of workarounds start to emerge — although none of them so far have completely solved the trilemma. The development of Layer 2 blockchains, for instance, allows transaction processing to be offloaded from the Layer 1 network on which initial blockchain architectures were built.

This at least minimizes, but does not eliminate, the effects of scale on both security and decentralization, both of which are managed on Layer 1.

READ MORE: Best Layer 1 Protocols to Watch in 2024 

Dependencies between Layers 1 and 2 still remain, however, so transaction processing can never be completely isolated.

Multi-layered blockchains also require greater resource consumption, which can become a cost factor as the environments scale, and they can provide a more challenging interoperability environment.

Finding a Consensus

Other potential areas of development are the consensus mechanisms used to validate transactions and make changes to governance and other aspects of the chain. The various proofs (Proof of Work, Proof of History) used in blockchains are constantly being refined to allow the greatest flexibility with the lowest hit to performance and efficacy.

Proof of Work protocols, for example, have long been the primary means of validating transactions, but they tend to be slow and energy-intensive. New generations of Proof of Stake protocols, however, are much more efficient and more amenable to scale.

READ MORE: The New Generation of Proof of Stake Coins

At the same time, artificial intelligence (AI) tools are upping the speed and reliability of blockchains and providing a more thorough but less intrusive means of security.

Some developers are also experimenting with sharding, a technique in which consensus and other functions are only required among certain members or on certain nodes in the network.

The idea is to tweak decentralized operations to enhance performance at scale, but this must be done carefully so as not to introduce security vulnerabilities between and among the different shards.

The Delicate Balance

Again, though, none of these solutions brings benefits to security, scale, and decentralization all at once, so unless a truly remarkable breakthrough occurs, all blockchains will have to stress one attribute over the others for the time being. This is not necessarily a bad thing, however, considering the wide variety of use cases that have arisen in the industry to date.

READ MORE: 

Most chains, after all, are centered on Bitcoin mining, which requires immense scale and solid security. But depending on the community’s needs, users might be OK with some centralization.

Many private blockchains, meanwhile, stress security but might not need much in the way of scale or decentralization. Still, others might need varying degrees of all three attributes without having to overemphasize any one to a significant degree.

The Bottom Line

While the blockchain trilemma of security, scale, and decentralization are all crucial components of any chain, there is one attribute that trumps them all: trust. Regardless of whether it is a security breach, a transaction problem, or an issue with validation or control, once trust is gone, it is all but impossible to recover.

Blockchain communities would be wise to architect their environments in ways that optimize all facets of performance according to their needs, but care must be taken to ensure that overall balance is maintained. Like a stool, all of a blockchain’s legs need sufficient length so the occupant doesn’t tip over.

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Arthur Cole

Arthur Cole is a freelance technology journalist who has been covering IT and enterprise developments for more than 20 years. He contributes to a wide variety of leading technology web sites, including IT Business Edge, Enterprise Networking Planet, Point B and Beyond and multiple vendor services.