When most people hear the words interoperability and blockchain, their eyes begin to glaze over. But stay with me.
Put simply, interoperability is the ability for blockchains to interact with each other. Blockchains are great at exchanging value (like cryptocurrency) within their own architectures, but it’s challenging to exchange value across and between different blockchains. This is an impediment to scaling web3’s use cases — if people are limited to one blockchain and can’t exchange information seamlessly between them, it makes the user experience cumbersome and makes it hard for developers to build apps on top of blockchains.
In this blog, we’ll attempt to demystify these seemingly esoteric concepts based on a conversation with Jon Kol, co-founder of Hyperlane. Hyperlane enables interoperability between blockchains and wants to power the future of what it calls interchain singularity—that moment when true interoperability arrives.
In this blog, we’ll cover:
- The blockchain interoperability problem
- Common blockchain definitions
- Trust & security on blockchain
- How Hyperlane works
Why blockchain interoperability is hard to solve
Let’s say you wanted to transfer tokens from the Solana blockchain network to Ethereum. It’s not as seamless as sending or receiving Venmo requests from friends. There’s a barrier to entry to learn the different, often manual methods for exchanging different tokens.
“It feels like you go through a ton of infrastructure interactions just to get to the application end of it,” says Jon.
What the Hyperlane team envisions for the blockchain is a built infrastructure not unlike the infrastructures behind every smartphone and every app. “No other semi-mature technology looks like this [blockchain]. Apps are surfaced to users…I don’t know how it works, it just works.”
It’s also not clear how secure the exchange will be between different blockchains. If you can only trust information within your chain, how can you ensure that the consensus mechanism for another chain is trustworthy?
Blockchains don’t have a native mechanism for blocking untrustworthy chains, Jon says.
Definition: Smart contracts from IBM
Consensus is the process by which a group of peers – or nodes – on a network determine which blockchain transactions are valid and which are not. Consensus mechanisms like proof-of-work and proof-of-stake are the methodologies used to achieve this agreement. It’s these sets of rules that help to protect networks from malicious behaviour and hacking attacks.
“The relaying of information, transferring information between blockchains becomes very fraught. First because, should you even trust it in the first place? And second, can you trust the delivery – can you trust the messenger?” says Jon. “So we need ways to add security to this process and in our case, how do we make sure that the messenger is as secure as possible? Securing that process right now, there’s a trade-off… the faster it happens, the less time you have to inspect it to make sure that everything happening is kosher – there is nothing malicious happening.”
In an ideal world, the burden of interoperability is on the blockchain and not on the user to figure it out themselves. In this world, people can interact with blockchains directly. With trustworthy interoperability solutions, they can work more cost-effectively on blockchains if they can route computation to cheaper blockchains more securely.
How Hyperlane is tackling the interoperability problem
Hyperlane’s idea is best introduced through the concept of APIs, which specify how software components should interact and communicate between different systems (for example, when you’re buying something online and see a “Pay with PayPal” button, that website is relying on an API to connect to PayPal directly). APIs are responsible for the seamless way every app on your phone just works, without asking anything of you.
“The way Hyperlane works is we wanted to create this very accessible system… with smart contracts that can act as these open and permissionless APIs. Once you have a very easy contract to interface with, it functions…as an on-chain API,” says Jon.
“That’s where we got the name Hyperlane. We’re trying to create this thing that navigates between spaces.”
Combining security & speed in interoperability
In building interoperability infrastructure, two essential goals come into conflict: trust (security) and speed (convenience).
Hyperlane tries to bridge trust and speed by using contextual security — giving the power to choose over to the user. Hyperlane’s Sovereign Consensus allows developers to set their own parameters for the balance between speed and security based on their own particular contexts. Essentially, Hyperlane allows developers to customize their app’s interchain security model and shield against malicious interchain transactions.
The Hyperlane team’s approach is informed by pushing the blockchain towards the convergence of speed and trust, convenience and security.
“The most convenient thing you can do, oftentimes, is not the most secure, but we think the context matters,” says Jon. “Application developers should have control over these decisions. When should I have Fort Knox level of security, or mall cop level of security? When should I opt for somewhere in between or somewhere different? The freedom of choice is useful.”
Definition: Smart contracts from IBM
Smart contracts are programs on a blockchain that execute once certain conditions are met, and are normally used to execute an agreement between blockchain participants automatically. Since this action is automated, there’s no paperwork to process — making it easier for two people to work together on a network — and participans trust that the interaction is secure because encrypted, tamper-proof records of the transactions are shared between participants.
Definition: Permission vs. Permissionless from Gemini.com
Permissioned and permissionless are common words used to describe how different blockchains work.
Permissioned blockchains, also known as private blockchains, are controlled by a group or entity that decides who can actually use and govern the network. Hyperledger Fabric is an example of a permissioned blockchain.
Meanwhile, permissionless blockchains allow anyone to freely join and participate in a blockchain network. Ethereum and Bitcoin are permissionless blockchain networks.
But the question of trust and the blockchain goes much deeper — while blockchain has often been described as trustless, there are many people who are rightfully skeptical about using it.
“We always talk about trustlessness in our industry, and we forget that trust is such a big part of every human relationship. And despite dealing with smart contracts and blockchains, humans are at the core of it,” says Jon.
For Jon, part of the way to build trust in the blockchain is giving users ownership and control over their information and assets, and showing the potentially positive use cases that can come from web3. It’s something that many people working in web3 advocate for — showing the potential of a world where people truly own and control the value that comes from the data they’ve generated, rather than having their data controlled and monetized by the platforms they use, like YouTube or Instagram.
Interoperability is the blockchain’s moonshot, and just like getting the moon, it is going to take several attempts and iterations to make it work.
“We have to make those systems accessible, and we have to talk to people at eye level instead of trying to talk down to them about what they’re using and how they’re using it,” says Jon. “The usability of everything a modern person can access on their smartphone, it has to get to that level. People are not going to suffer any material degradation and the usability of these systems.”