protocols

Substrate ecosystem update 007


Our seventh edition of the most important developments in the Substrate Ecosystem curated by Elias Simos, Protocol Specialist at Bison Trails.

Substrate ecosystem update 007

By Elias Simos · May 21 2021

Welcome to the seventh edition of the Substrate Ecosystem Update, a compilation of ecosystem insights and expert analysis from Elias Simos and our Protocol Ops team.

JOB POSTING: If you are a back-end or infrastructure engineer interested in Substrate, and want to get deeper into the workings of it all, our all-star team is hiring! Check out the listing here.


A historic week for the Substrate ecosystem

The long awaited launch of parachains is almost here! The latest Kusama runtime upgrade to v.0.9.0 (Referendum #107) included core parachain logic and was ushered in on 5/14/2021.

Shortly after the Shell parachain was deployed via Proposition #110 and now the first parachain to ever be deployed on the Kusama Mainnet has started producing blocks. The Shell parachain is just that—a "shell." All it does is produce blocks and listen for messages from the Relay Chain. Effectively, this is a production–grade test of the new code logic. This means that the Shell parachain performs the basic pre–consensus functions a parachain will be required to perform, establishing communication with the Relay Chain and its validators.

Absent any performance hiccups, the Shell will be upgraded to Statemine, the sister common good parachain to Polkadot’s Statemint, within 24 hours of the Shell’s deployment. Statemine will be serving the token issuance use case.

The next step to full parachain launch on Kusama is the announcement of parachain auctions. This will happen once the Kusama Mainnet proves that parachains with transactions and consensus work as expected in a production grade environment.



Kusama has committed to five auctions, each seven days apart. Polkadot parachains are slated to launch after this first cohort of five auctions is complete on Kusama, which would put a launch date for Polkadot parachain auctions in early Q3 2021. As far as the actual deployment of parachains goes, we expect those to take place ~2 weeks after a slot is secured.

The native Kusama prediction market platform ZeitgeistPM launched its first prediction market on which parachain will win the first auction. Karura (Acala’s sister parachain on Kusama) was voted first by a large margin, with the prediction for the second slot a close one between Moonbeam (Moonriver) and Phala (Shiden).




Slashings abound

The runtime upgrade that enabled parachain logic did not come without mishaps. As the new runtime came to effect, 115 validators, the majority of which were operated by P2P, Stakefish, Staked.us and Zug Capital, were slashed for a collective sum of ~2k KSM (1M USD). The slashings took place in era 2249, which maps to the evening GMT hours of 5/14/2021.

Only nodes deemed offline were slashed—and slashings only come into effect when >10% of validators in the active set are offline in the same session (approx. 1 hour). The reasons why the slashings took place center around the fact that operators either did not have the --wasm-execution=Compiled flag enabled, or were running nodes that were under–provisioned in CPU capacity. Runtime v0.9.0 introduced additional burden to set–ups that were previously provisioned within a relatively secure resource bandwidth.

It’s worth noting that nodes that were running on the latest v0.9.1 client were not compromised. Also worth noting that v0.9.1 was released a day before the incident (5/13/2021) with "Low upgrade priority."

No Bison Trails operated nodes were affected during the incident.

The Kusama council pushed a rapid Motion (#295), on 5/17/2021, to roll back the slashing penalties. The Motion description reads:

v9010 runtime upgrade introduced some changes to elections to ensure redundancy in the case that a solution did not get submitted to the chain. Validators running with Interpreted wasm execution, slower hardware, and / or older client releases were not able to process election solutions within a bounded time window, and thus continually would try and process election solutions.

This resulted in Off Chain Workers being not available to submit heartbeats, making validators that did not produce any blocks in the session offline. Enough validators were not running with proper performance (wasm execution parameters, lower end hardware, or older client versions), and as a result, exceeded the threshold for liveness slashing.

In order to bring the active set back to 900 validators, and to maintain the level of security and network stability assumed before the parachain logic was embedded on Mainnet, the Kusama council’s options were to either (i) increase the number of validators by 100 every era, so that the active set would rise to 900 within 36 hours (Proposal 47), or to (ii) roll back the slashing penalties and reactivate the slashed validators.

While we think that maintaining network stability during this historic time in the network’s development is important, we are also concerned with the precedent set here.

It’s worth remembering that this is not the first time that slashings have been rolled back in the Substrate ecosystem; in September of 2020, Web3Italy’s validator was slashed and exited on Polkadot Mainnet, and the COSMOON validator on Kusama in February 2021, only to be later reimbursed.

The difference this time around is the rapid pace at which the roll–back was proposed and then executed. Indicatively, the block time that elapsed between those motions being put forward and then being executed, has panned out as follows:

  • Web3Italy (Polkadot), September 2020: 57,278 blocks {4 days}
  • COSMOON (Kusama), February 2021: 13,738 blocks {1 day}
  • Kusama, May 2021: 1,107 blocks {2 hours}

At its core, the most valuable service governance offers to protocols is not necessarily granting agency to any and all participants. It is injecting time buffers into the process of change so that all participants—regardless of the degree of agency they have—can have enough time to digest and adapt to change. That time was not granted to the community in this case.

Is this a special case? It certainly is. On the one end, this is one of the most important upgrades on Kusama to date—so there’s a lot at stake (no pun intended). On the other end, the rapid pace at which the runtime upgrades were pushed was surely strenuous for Kusama validator operators.

But, at the same time, the majority of Kusama validators (785 out of 900 in the active set) were not slashed—which should imply that they were better provisioned than those that were (think some combination of CPU bandwidth and operational readiness). Note I am using "should" not "would" respecting the complexity of issues such as the one we saw here.

That said, my sense is that if forgiving slashable offences is to become the rule and not the exception, decisions like the one we just observed implicitly punish all the operators that were not slashed, as the expected value of their investment in ensuring the robustness of their setup will become ever lower. In effect, the cost of rolling back a slashing (there is a cost to it) is socialized among all operators that weren’t slashed.

Replayed multiple times—at least in theory, it will lead to a progressive degradation of the quality of the active set of validators on Kusama and Polkadot.


For an extensive list of the various projects building on Polkadot, you can refer here. Please do let us know if you have any feedback or suggestions on this update. We’d love to hear from you!

—Elias Simos, Protocol Specialist


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