WTF is up with bitcoin?

Since I wrote about Bitcoin a couple of years ago, I’ve had a few people ask me what’s going on with Bitcoin this week. There’s been some pretty hysterical-sounding pieces in the press about bitcoin’s nightmare scenario, and folks want to know what’s going on, and whether it’s real, or just a hyped up press thing.

It looks real to me. The technical problem is definitely solvable, but there’s a bunch of social/political stuff piled on top that’s making it hard for the technical solution to actually get implemented.

To understand what’s going on, we need a quick refresher on how bitcoin works.

The basic idea of bitcoin is pretty simple. There’s a thing called a ledger, which consists of a list of transactions. Each transaction is just a triple, (X, Y, Z), which means “X gave Y bitcoins to Z”. When you use a bitcoin to buy something, what’s really happening is that you’re adding a new entry to the ledger.

To make it all work, there’s a bunch of distributed computing going on to maintain the ledger. Every 10 minutes or so, a batch of transactions is added to the ledger by performing a very expensive computation. The set of transactions is called a block. The entire ledger is just a list of blocks – called the blockchain. In the current bitcoin protocol, a ledger block can only hold 1 MB of information.

That block size of 1MB is the problem. There are enough bitcoin transactions going on right now that at peak times, the amount of data needed to represent all of the transactions in a ten minute period is larger than 1MB.

That means that transactions start to back up. Imagine that there’s 1.5M of transactions occuring every 10 minutes. In the first period, you get 1M of them wrapped in a block, and the remaining 0.5MB gets delayed to the next period. The next period, you process the remaining half meg from the previous period, plus just 1/2MB from the current – leaving 1M to roll over to the next. That next period, you’re going to spend the entire block on transactions left from the previous time period – and the full 1.5MB gets deferred to later. Things have backed up to the point where on average, a new transaction doesn’t get added to a block for 45 minutes. There are confirmed reports of transactions taking 7 or 8 hours before they get added to the blockchain.

This is a problem on many levels. If you’re a store trying to sell things, and people want to pay with Bitcoin, this is a massive problem. Up until a transactions is confirmed by being part of a block accepted into the blockchain, the transaction can be rescinded. So you can’t give your customers their merchandise until you’re sure the transaction is in the blockchain. That was awkward when you had to wait 10 minutes. That’s completely unacceptable when you have no idea how long it might take.

Looking at this, you might think that the solution is just to say that you should create blocks more frequently. If there’s 1.5M of transactions every 10 minutes, why not just create a block every five minutes? The answer is: because it takes an average of around 10 minutes to perform the computation needed to add one block to the chain. So you can’t reduce the amount of time per block.

Alternatively, you could just increase the size of the block. In theory, that’s a great answer. Jump a block to 2M, and you’ve got enough space to handle the current volume. Jump it to 10M, and you’ve got enough buffer space to cover a couple of years.

But that’s where the social/political thing comes in. The work of performing the computation needed to add blocks to the chain (called mining) has become concentrated in the hands of a small group of people. And they don’t want to change the mining software that they’re running.

I don’t follow bitcoin closely, so I don’t know the details of the fights over the software. But as an outsider, it looks like a pretty typical thing: people prefer to stick with known profits today even if it kills the business tomorrow, rather than take a risk of losing todays profits. Changing the protocol might undermine their dominant mining position – so they’d rather see Bitcoin fall apart than risk losing todays profits.

To quickly address one stupid “answer” to this problem: I’ve seen lots of people say that you can make your transaction get added to the chain faster. There’s an option in the protocol to allow a transaction to say “I’ll pay X bitcoins to whoever adds this transaction to the chain”. Miners will grab those transactions and process them first, so all you need to do is be willing to pay.

That’s a partial solution, but it’s probably not a long term answer.

Think of it this way. There’s a range of different transactions performed with bitcoin. You can put them into buckets based on how time critical they are. At one end, you’ve got people walking into a store and buying something. The store needs to have that transaction processed while the customer waits – so it needs to be fast. You’ve got other transactions – like, say, paying your mortgage. If it takes 12 hours to go through, big deal! For simplicity, let’s just consider those two cases: there’s time critical transactions (fast), and non-time-critical ones (slow).

For slow transactions, you don’t need to increase the transaction fees. Just let the transaction get added to the blockchain whenever there’s room. For the fast ones, you need to pay.

The problem is, 1MB really isn’t that much space. Even if just 1/3 of the transactions are fast, you’re going to wind up with times when you can’t do all of the pending fast transactions in one block. So fast transactions need to increase their fees. But that can only go on for so long before the cost of using bitcoin starts to become a significant issue in the cost of doing business.

The ultimate problem is that bitcoin is being to successful as a medium of exchange for the current protocol. The blockchain can’t keep up with transactions. What adding transaction fees does is increase the cost of using bitcoin for fast transactions until it reaches the point where enough fast-transactors drop out of using bitcoin that all of the remaining fast-transactors no longer exceed the blocksize. In other words, transaction fees as a “solution” to the block-size problem only work by driving businesses away from accepting bitcoin. Which isn’t exactly in the best interest of people who want to use bitcoins. This is why I think that online wallets like paypal to western union are going to continue to be the mainstay.

Realistically, if you want to use bitcoin as a currency, you can’t solve its capacity problems without increasing its capacity. If there are more than 1MB of transactions happening every 10 minutes, then you need to do something to increase the number of transactions that can be part of a block. If not, then you can’t support the number of transactions that people want to make. If that’s the case, then you can’t rely on being able to use bitcoin to make a purchase – and that means that you don’t have a usable currency.

4 thoughts on “WTF is up with bitcoin?”

  1. There is one thing I don’t understand: If it takes around 10 minutes to add a block of 1M, how can you be sure that using larger blocks will solve the problems? Isn’t it possible that larger blocks will need more time to process?

    1. The algorithm that Bitcoin uses to validate a block is adjustable. 10 minutes is what the community settled on as the target, so the proof-of-work continually adjusted to keep it at 10 minutes. If the blocksize were increased, you could easily adjust the proof-of-work to keep it at 10 minutes.

      In theory, you could also adjust the problem size to reduce the time per block. But that requires exactly the same kind of political change that’s preventing the adoption of larger block sizes.

      In particular, as the problem size gets reduced for current block sizes, it becomes easier to solve, and that means that it’s easier compete with the people who currently dominate mining. They really don’t want that to happen. So they won’t support a problem-space reduction.

  2. You say that “There’s an option in the protocol to allow a transaction to say “I’ll pay X bitcoins to whoever adds this transaction to the chain”.”

    Maybe I’m missing something, but what do the miners do with these payments? If they keep them as bitcoins, they’re as stuck as everyone else. But if they cash them out outside the system, then the number of bitcoins in the world is decreasing and the system will eventually evaporate!

    1. The miners get bitcoins which they’re allowed to do whatever they want with: they can spend them, they can sell them, they can give them away, or they can hold them.

      That’s the business model behind most of the bitcoin based businesses. They earn bitcoins for their services. As long as there are people willing to either buy bitcoins, or to accept bitcoins as payment, it’s worth doing for the miners.

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