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Plutus: what you need to know

Developers are now preparing for the arrival of Cardano smart contracts, enabled by Plutus and the Alonzo protocol upgrade

13 April 2021 Lars Brünjes 9 mins read

Plutus: what you need to know

In our previous blog post, we discussed Alonzo ‒ our name given to the protocol upgrade that will introduce smart contract support on Cardano. Alonzo will establish the infrastructure and add tools for functional smart contract development using Plutus.

The Plutus platform provides a native smart contract language for the Cardano blockchain. To understand and become proficient in Plutus, one has to understand three concepts:

  • The Extended UTXO model (EUTXO)
  • Plutus Core ‒ the ‘on-chain’ part of Plutus
  • The Plutus Application Framework (PAF) ‒ the ‘off-chain’ part of Plutus that enables interaction with smart contracts.

Plutus contracts consist of parts that run on the blockchain (on-chain code) and parts that run on a user’s machine (off-chain or client code). Both the on-chain and off-chain code are written in Haskell, and Plutus smart contracts are effectively Haskell programs. Off-chain code can be written using PAF and this code is then compiled by the GHC (Glasgow Haskell Compiler), whereas on-chain code (written using the Plutus Core) is compiled by the Plutus compiler.

It is crucial to understand the relationship between these Plutus concepts and native tokens functionality to see how their interaction turns the latter into a more useful and powerful feature.

The Extended UTXO model

Cardano (like Bitcoin) uses the unspent (U) transaction (TX) output (O) accounting model. In the UTXO model, a transaction has inputs and outputs, where the inputs are unspent outputs from previous transactions. As soon as an output is used as input in a transaction, it becomes spent and can never be used again. The output is specified by an address (a public key or public key hash) and a value (consisting of an ada amount and optional, additional native token amounts). An output’s address determines which transactions are allowed to ‘unlock’ the output and use it as an input. A transaction must be signed by the owner of the private key corresponding to the address. Think of an address as a ‘lock’ that can only be ‘unlocked’ by the right ‘key’ ‒ the correct signature.

The EUTXO model extends this model in two directions:

  1. It generalizes the concept of ‘address’ by using the lock-and-key analogy. Instead of restricting locks to public keys and keys to signatures, addresses in the EUTXO model can contain arbitrary logic in the form of scripts. For example, when a node validates a transaction, the node determines whether or not the transaction is allowed to use a certain output as an input. The transaction will look up the script provided by the output's address and will execute the script if the transaction can use the output as an input.
  2. The second difference between UTXO and EUTXO is that outputs can carry (almost) arbitrary data in addition to an address and value. This makes scripts much more powerful by allowing them to carry state.

When validating an address, the script will access the data being carried by the output, the transaction being validated, and some additional pieces of data called redeemers, which the transaction provides for every input. By looking up all this information, the script has enough context to give a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer in what can be highly complex situations and use cases.

To summarize, EUTXO extends the UTXO model by allowing output addresses to contain complex logic to decide which transactions can unlock them, and by adding custom data to all outputs.

The EUTXO model offers unique advantages over other accounting models. The success or failure of transaction validation depends only on the transaction itself and its inputs, and not on anything else on the blockchain. As a consequence, the validity of a transaction can be checked off-chain, before the transaction is sent to the blockchain. A transaction can still fail if some other transaction concurrently consumes an input that the transaction is expecting, but if all inputs are still present, the transaction is guaranteed to succeed.

This contrasts with an account-based model (as used by Ethereum), where a transaction can fail in mid-script execution. This can never happen in EUTXO. Also, transaction execution costs can be determined off-chain before transmission – another feature impossible on Ethereum.

Finally, because of the ‘local’ nature of transaction validation, a high degree of parallelism is possible: a node could, in principle, validate transactions in parallel, if those transactions do not try to consume the same input. This is great both for efficiency and for reasoning, simplifying the analysis of possible outcomes, and proving that ‘nothing bad’ can happen. You can dive deeper into the EUTXO model in the previous blog post.

Plutus Core

To implement the EUTXO model, it is necessary to clearly define the terms script and data. Scripts require a definite, well-specified scripting language, and it is also important to define the type of data that is attached to outputs and used as redeemers.

This is where Plutus Core comes in. Plutus Core is the scripting language used by Cardano. It is a simple functional language similar to Haskell, and a large subset of Haskell can be used to write Plutus Core scripts. As a contract author you don’t write any Plutus Core. All Plutus Core programs are generated by a Haskell compiler plugin.

These scripts will be executed by nodes during transaction validation ‘live’ on the chain. They will either lock UTXOs in the form of validator scripts or as minting policies, which control the minting and burning of native tokens (see below).

Redeemer data is a simple (algebraic) data type that can be defined easily in Haskell, which is another reason why Haskell is a good option for writing Plutus Core scripts. In practice, a smart contract developer will write validator scripts in Haskell, which will then be automatically compiled into Plutus Core.

Appropriate Haskell libraries simplify writing such validation logic by providing core data types for the inspection of transactions during validation, and by offering many helper functions and higher level abstractions, allowing contract authors to concentrate on the business logic and not have to worry about too many low-level details.

The Plutus Application Framework (PAF)

The on-chain state of validator scripts can only be modified by transactions that spend and produce script output. When writing a Plutus application, we need to consider not only the on-chain part of the application (the Plutus Core scripts) but also the off-chain part that builds and submits transactions.

The off-chain code is written in Haskell, just like the on-chain code. That way we only need to write the business logic once. Then we can use it in the validator script and in the code that builds the transactions that run the validator script.

Many applications need to watch the UTXO set for changes to particular addresses, so if we write our contract as a state machine, we need to track the unspent output that represents the current state of the machine and update our local state when the on-chain state changes. Likewise, many apps need to communicate with the wallet backend to access the crypto currency that they are using for transactions.

The PAF provides easy access to services that are commonly used by Plutus applications. Applications deployed using the framework’s libraries can be run on the Plutus application backend, which provides runtime support for access to the blockchain and other concerns such as persistence, logging, and monitoring. Applications written on top of the PAF automatically provide an HTTP and WebSocket interface that can be used to interact with the application from the web browser.

Native tokens

Native tokens became available on Cardano with February’s Mary hard fork. Any user can create their own tokens, and tokens can be sent and received freely, just like ada. Each native token comes with its own minting policy, which determines the conditions under which tokens can be minted and burnt.

At the moment, these minting policies consist of combinations of simple rules specifying signatures and timelocks. For example, a policy can state that only transactions that are signed by two out of five possible signatures are allowed to mint or burn tokens. Another policy can allow minting only before or after a specific time slot.

Powerful as these basic building blocks are, they do not cover every conceivable use. It is, for example, possible, but awkward, to model non-fungible tokens (NFTs) using such simple policies. This could be done using a timelock to mint an NFT, by limiting the minting operation to a specific time point. If only one token is minted before that time point is reached, the token is technically non-fungible (because there is only one). But to check this, it is not enough to simply check the minting policy. We’d need to look at the minting history of the token to ensure it had, indeed, only been minted once.

With the deployment of Plutus, users will be able to write minting policies using Plutus core. During minting or burning, the Plutus Core policy script will be executed in the context of the minting or burning transaction, and the script will have to approve or forbid the action. This will further accelerate the growth of NFTs on Cardano by enabling the creation of much more complex minting policies, and allowing the creation of NFTs in a trustless manner.

Alonzo is being gradually deployed to the mainnet via several testnets, so our partners and Plutus pioneers will be able to test Plutus Core by writing applications on Cardano throughout May and June prior to a code freeze. This will also be the period of quality assurance and user acceptance testing by exchanges to ensure that the platform is fully ready at the time of the Alonzo mainnet upgrade. If you are a developer and want to learn more about Plutus, consider joining a future pioneer cohort. Alternatively, take a look at Plutus GitHub repositories, and engage in the discussions about Plutus at Cardano Forum.

I’d like to acknowledge Jann Müller for additional input and contribution to this blog post.

Iterating for growth with IOHK research

Building key values into the Cardano ecosystem

25 June 2020 Lars Brünjes 11 mins read

Iterating for growth with IOHK research

Setting solid parameter values – while maintaining flexibility for the future – will be key to the growth and ongoing decentralization of Cardano. After consulting with the community, and working closely with my colleagues Kevin Hammond and Alex Appledoorn, we believe we’ve identified a good place to start.

The behavior of Cardano Shelley is controlled by around 20 parameters, and values have to be set for all of those before we launch the mainnet. Most of these parameters are technical in nature, so while setting them correctly is important to guarantee the safety and optimize performance of the system, their particular values do not have a significant influence on user experience.

Some parameters are different, though. They determine the level of centralization and sustainability of the Cardano ecosystem. They also drive the economics of delegation and of operating a stake pool. Choosing good values for these is exceedingly complicated, because we have to carefully balance a number of important considerations; security, performance, stability, sustainability, decentralization, fairness and economic viability.

With all parameters on the Cardano blockchain, we have three distinct goals to keep in mind:

  • We want to be truly decentralized, so that no one party can threaten the integrity of the chain
  • We want the stake pool operators to be incentivized to keep supporting our chain
  • We do not want these incentives to significantly change at any singular point in time in a way that might negatively affect the stability of the operators’ income

We want to give equal opportunity to everyone who wants to participate in Cardano and run a stake pool. However, parameter values that might seem fair and reasonable for smaller pools can become challenging for larger pools and vice versa. For example, large pools could find it easy to put down a higher pledge than small pools can afford. Small pools, on the other hand, might be able to operate with far lower costs than larger pools.

We also consider it imprudent to change parameters too frequently, because this might negatively affect the stability and predictability of the operators’ income. Taking all of this under consideration we came up with some recommendations for initial choices of parameter values which we will outline here.

However, we do not want to stop there. With decentralization comes democracy. Our community must have a say in how the chain is governed. For this reason, we will run with these numbers initially and issue a Cardano improvement proposal, where the community can vote on optimal chain parameters. In the end, the governance of Cardano will be in the hands of the Cardano community, who we feel confident are the best people to advise us.

Desired number of stake pools

The desired number of stake pools k is an important parameter. Cardano incentives have been designed to encourage an equilibrium with k fully saturated pools, which means that rewards will be optimal for everybody when all stake is delegated uniformly to the k most attractive pools.

The higher k chosen, the more decentralized the system becomes. But a higher k also leads to a less efficient system (higher costs, more energy consumption) and lower rewards for both delegators and stake pool owners. Based on what we have learned from both the Incentivized Testnet (ITN) and the Haskell Shelley testnet, we know that our community is highly motivated to set up pools and support the chain with hundreds within a matter of weeks.

This tells us that some measure of decentralization can – and will – happen relatively quickly. But decentralization alone is not enough. Cardano needs a long term commitment from its operators, and conversely, operators need to be sufficiently incentivized to keep supporting the system.

To strike a balance between decentralization and these incentives for stake pool operators, we are proposing an initial k=150 and then to gradually increase that value. We believe this will ensure that the system is stable and efficient in the beginning, and can gradually grow over time to become more decentralized (and even more secure) later on:

The number of 150 stake pools of roughly equal size makes Cardano an order of magnitude more decentralized than any other blockchain. And this is only the beginning. There is no reason why there could not be thousands of stake pools in the future.

Monetary expansion

Staking rewards for both delegators and stake pool operators are taken from two sources; transaction fees and monetary expansion. Specifically, every epoch, all the transaction fees from every transaction from all blocks produced during that epoch are put into a virtual 'pot'. Additionally, a fixed percentage, ρ, of the remaining ada reserves is added to that pot. Then a certain percentage, τ, of the pot is sent to the treasury, the rest is used as epoch rewards.

This mechanism ensures that in the beginning, when the number of transactions is still relatively low, because users are just starting to build their business on Cardano, the portion of rewards taken from the reserves is high. This provides a great incentive for early adopters to move quickly and benefit from the high initial rewards. Over time, as transaction volume increases, the additional fees compensate for dwindling reserves.

This mechanism also ensures that available rewards are predictable and change gradually. There will be no sudden 'jumps' comparable to bitcoin halving events every four years. Instead, the fixed percentage taken from remaining reserves every epoch guarantees a smooth exponential decline.

So what value should ρ have? And how much should go to the treasury? This is again a trade off: higher values of ρ mean higher rewards for everybody initially and a treasury that fills faster. But higher values of ρ also mean faster reserve depletion. It is certainly important, especially in the beginning, to pay high rewards and incentivize early adopters. But it is also important to provide a long term perspective for all stakeholders.

As explained above, Cardano will never run out of reserves; look instead at an exponential decay. To get a feeling for the impact of a specific value of ρ, one can calculate the 'reserve half life', the time it takes for half of the reserve to have been used up.

After much deliberation, we arrived at a suggestion of 0.22% for ρ. When you crunch the numbers, you get around four to five years as 'reserve half life' for this. In other words, every four to five years, half of the remaining reserve will be used. This is close to the 'bitcoin half life' of circa four years, so Cardano reserves will deplete at about the same rate as bitcoin reserves.

It is worth noting here that it took Bitcoin around eight years to reach its peak of maximum adoption and price. We therefore feel that it makes sense to expect Cardano transaction volume and exchange rate to increase sufficiently over the next eight years to more than make up for the decrease of monetary expansion during that time.

From reserves to treasury

We also propose an initial value of 5% for τ, the percentage of rewards automatically going to the treasury every epoch. This means that at least 380,000,000 ada will be sent from the reserves to the treasury over the next 5 years.

However, the real amount going to the treasury will be significantly higher. First of all – again taking learnings from the ITN, but also predicting the use of ada in the future – it’s unreasonable to assume that all ada will be delegated. Some of it will be locked-up in exchanges, be transacted and used in various smart contracts. The ada that is not being delegated will produce unclaimed awards. Those 'unclaimed rewards' also go to the treasury, which will bump the amount to around 1,900,000,000 ada.

Secondly, we do not expect the pledge of most pools to be particularly high, just high enough to make it unattractive to launch a Sybil attack. The difference between potential pool rewards with a very high pledge and pools with the more realistic pledge level we expect goes to the treasury as well and will add an additional 1,000,000,000 ada over the first five years. The sum of all the ada flowing to the treasury means that there will be sufficient funds to pay for new exciting features and extensions for the foreseeable future.

Pledge influence factor & minimum operational cost settings

Ada that is pledged by pool owners provides essential protection against 'Sybil' attacks by ensuring that delegated stake is not excessively attracted to pools whose owners try to attack the system by creating a large number of pools without themselves owning a lot of stake. Myself, Kevin Hammond and Duncan Coutts covered this in some detail recently on the Cardano Effect show.

The pledge influence factor directly affects the rewards that a pool earns: the higher the influence factor, the more of a difference a higher pledge makes on rewards. A higher influence factor increases the level of Sybil protection and makes the system safer and more secure, but it also gives an advantage to stake pool owners that can afford a higher pledge.

Higher pledge can be used to compensate for higher operational costs, meaning that a pool with relatively high costs can maintain suitable rewards and remain attractive to delegators by increasing its pledge. We have tested a variety of pledge influence factors under various real world conditions (about a million simulations in all). The influence factor can range between 0 and infinity. Our chosen initial setting of 0.3 is designed to balance the level of Sybil protection against the required pledge.

There is no minimal pledge, though. Pool operators can set the pledge as low or as high as they like. Rewards are influenced by their choice, but there is no 'hard' rule forcing them to pledge a specific amount. This means that ultimately, pool pledges will be as high as pool owners are willing to make them, and it will be up to our community to find a sweet spot between protection against attacks, economic considerations and the desire for fairness and equal opportunity.

The minimum operational cost setting ensures that the pledge influence factor is effective, by avoiding a 'race to the bottom' where pool owners claim excessively low operating costs in order to gain a competitive advantage. While this might benefit ada stakeholders in the short term, the long-term effect would be to risk the health of the Cardano network by disincentivizing professional pool operation.

Distribution of Typical Pool Operating Costs per pool per year, obtained from a survey of experienced pool operators in May 2020.

Genuine low cost operators can greatly benefit from the minimum operational cost, because the difference between the minimal cost and their actual cost provides them with additional income on top of their margin and their staking rewards. Our research shows that typical operating costs are expected to be in the $2,000-$15,000 range per pool per year, as shown in the diagram above. We have therefore chosen a setting of $2,000 for the minimum operational cost.

Estimated Range of Average Return on Investment (ROI) for Stake Pools assuming a Monetary Expansion Rate of 0.22% per epoch.

Finally, we calculated the expected returns for stake pools under a range of different real world scenarios (about 150,000 pools in total). We used the settings for the influence factor, monetary expansion and minimum cost that were given above and varied the targeted number of pools between 150 and 500. Our results show that given the distribution of costs that we showed in the diagram above, stake pools will achieve sustainable ROIs of between 6%-6.5% on average, using today’s ada to dollar conversion rate. The ROIs would, of course, be even better if the value of Ada were to appreciate.


Choosing good values for all Cardano Shelley parameters is a hard and complicated endeavor, because a lot of concerns have to be balanced – security, efficiency and stability of the system on the one hand versus economic viability for stake pool operators and delegators and long-term sustainability of the ecosystem on the other hand.

No other blockchain has ever done what we are going to do, we are charting new territory with every step and move at the cutting edge of science and technology, so we can’t rely on existing data and statistics or past experience, but have to use educated guesses and mathematical models, which can never be perfect, more often than not.

We did our best to come up with a reasonable proposal, but we know it will have to be improved upon over time. The values proposed here are just a start, and we will closely work with our Community to refine and adjust them over the coming months and years.

How pledging will keep Cardano healthy

Warding off attacks on the decentralized blockchain is just one benefit of the process

12 May 2020 Lars Brünjes 5 mins read

How pledging will keep Cardano healthy

As we approach Shelley on the Cardano mainnet, decentralization has, inevitably, become a topic of debate. Regardless of any initial founding intent, proof-of-work cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin and Ethereum have become more centralized over time. The early days of Bitcoin enthusiasts mining blocks at the weekend are long gone and today we see a small group of specialized, professional mining operations dominating their respective chains.

In itself, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing – but if it happened to Cardano, it would run contrary to the vision of a decentralized, proof-of-stake protocol.

Cardano has been designed from the ground up with decentralization at its core and, in particular, in its stake delegation and reward mechanisms. On the Cardano network, pools above a certain size will not be competitive, and delegation rewards for everyone are optimal when there are many medium-sized pools. Every ecosystem benefits from diversity. Similarly, we believe that this approach offers the best balance between encouraging grass-roots involvement from skilled members of the community through to supporting those aiming to establish commercial stake pool businesses.

Pledging, and how it works

During pool registration, a pool operator can choose to pledge some personal stake to their pool to make the pool more attractive. The pledged amount can be changed on an epoch-by-epoch basis and will be returned when the pool is closed.

Everybody can operate a pool on the Cardano blockchain. No minimum pledge is required. Pool operators can optionally pledge some or all of their stake (or the stake of their friends and partners) to their pool to make their pool more attractive. The higher the amount of ada pledged, the more rewards the pool will receive, which will attract more delegation.

It is important to remember that there is also no maximum pledge, so a pool operator with a lot of ada to stake can maximize their own rewards by saturating the pool with the pledge and not attracting any delegation. This will of course only be possible for very few operators; most operators will try to attract delegation with a combination of pledge, low costs, low margin and good performance.

How attractive a pool is to delegators depends on four interacting elements:

  • operating costs (the lower, the better);
  • operator margin (the lower, the better);
  • performance (the higher, the better);
  • level of pledge (the higher, the better).

By pledging more, the pool operator can ask for a higher operator margin while still being attractive to delegators.

Why is pledging necessary?

Pledging provides a mechanism to encourage a healthy commercial ecosystem on the Cardano blockchain. The pledging mechanism is also necessary to protect the system against Sybil attacks. As I've discussed before, in a Sybil attack, someone with very little personal stake creates hundreds of pools with low margins and tries to attract the majority of stake to their pools. If this succeeds, they can control consensus and engage in double-spending attacks, create forks, censor blocks, and damage or even destroy the system.

By making pools with higher pledges more attractive, such attacks are prevented, because an attacker now needs to split their stake between many pools, making those pools less attractive and increasing the inherent cost of attempting a Sybil attack.

How influential will pledging be?

We face a classic trade-off here: we want the system to be as decentralized as possible and we want to give as many people as possible the chance to operate a stake pool, so pledging should not have a big effect on rewards.

On the other hand, we need to protect the system from Sybil attacks, and the higher the influence of pledging is, the more ada an attacker requires to succeed in such an attack.

The goal is clear: we want to set the influence of pledging as low as possible, while still being able to guarantee security.

How do we determine the influence of pledging?

The parameter that determines the influence of pledging will need to be set before the rollout of Shelley on the Cardano mainnet. However, the parameter has been designed to be flexible and adjustable over time. The Shelley Haskell testnet will provide an ideal opportunity to tune this parameter and test which values work and which do not. We’re also developing a calculator to help pool operators model different pledge amounts and work out how this might affect delegation and thus their rewards and revenues.

Reasonable values depend on many factors: How much stake does a typical pool operator own? How expensive is it to operate a node? How many people are interested in operating a pool? We gathered a lot of data during the Incentivized Testnet, and we will gain even more from the next testnet in close collaboration with our users.

We believe in our scientific approach and are confident that our design will lead to a decentralized, stable, and secure system – but science and mathematics only get you so far. You always have to make modeling assumptions, and no model can ever be as complex and colorful as the real world and the real people who make up the Cardano community.

We have already seen some very positive contributions and debate on the topic, including on Reddit and a recent Cardano Effect show. The Shelley Haskell testnets will be the perfect training ground for us to continue to debate, assess and iterate, collaborating with stake pool operators to see what is optimal for everyone. Just as we saw with the success of the Incentivized Testnet and the recently launched Daedalus Flight user testing, it’s again the time to draw upon the community’s help to put our research into practice.

Training blockchain developers in Africa

Women from Ethiopia and Uganda get to grips with Haskell

4 April 2019 Lars Brünjes 10 mins read

When I got off the plane at Bole airport in Addis Ababa on the evening of January 4, I did not know what to expect. It was my first time in Ethiopia, and all I knew was that my Canadian colleague Dr Polina Vinogradova, an IOHK formal methods expert, and I were supposed to teach a three-month-long Haskell course to a class of young Ethiopian and Ugandan women. When our students graduated three months later on March 22, it was the highlight of my professional life. Words fail to describe how very proud I am of these courageous young women who sacrificed so much to attend the class, who worked tirelessly and hard, eager to start tackling some of the most pressing problems their countries face.

I stand humbled, not only by their fierce intelligence and passion, but also by their gentleness and kindness.

The course had been organized by John O'Connor, IOHK's director of African operations, in co-operation with the Ethiopian Ministry of Innovation and Technology, and the Ugandan government. We had 22 students, 18 from Ethiopia and four from Uganda. All the attendees had studied an IT-related subject at university, some were just graduating, others had worked for several years in software development or lecturing at university.

Most of the Ethiopian students were from Addis Ababa, but some were from far away and had to leave their family and friends behind to attend the course. The four Ugandan students lived in a hostel, spending three months in a country strange and foreign to them, not speaking the language and unfamiliar with local customs.

The four students from Uganda were a long way from home
The four students from Uganda were a long way from home.

Teaching students with such diverse backgrounds sounds challenging, but the fact that none of them had any experience with functional programming in general or Haskell in particular made it easier: knowing other programming languages does not really help much when learning Haskell, and can even be counterproductive.

Haskell is the most important programming language used by IOHK. It is a functional language, whereas most well-known languages are imperative and object-oriented. Haskell is high-level, mathematical, extremely flexible and expressive, not really mainstream; an ideal language for setting out our complicated protocols and cryptographic algorithms efficiently and in a provably correct way.

Bethelhem Teka with her family
Bethelhem Teka with her family

Haskell is difficult to teach and to learn — not because it is intrinsically more complicated than other languages, but because it forces the programmer to learn a new way of thinking, to approach problems in a way unfamiliar to developers used to Java, Python or JavaScript. Learning Haskell is a mind-opening (and mind-blowing!) experience. After learning it, even if you never use Haskell again, you have a much broader perspective and have learnt to see problems in a different light. You will be a better developer, no matter what.

This is what one of our Ethiopian students, Bethelhem Teka, says about Haskell and the course:

Despite coding on imperative programming languages for more than six years, I was a stranger to the functional programming basis of Haskell. Initially it was exciting to internalize its promises of being functional, lazy, pure, no side-effects, and so on.

There are object-oriented concepts used in Haskell, but they are implemented differently, and it was weird to hear some facts like, no inheritance and no objects.

Obviously, there were many tough times on the course, especially when interpreting concepts into code. Being a crucial element of the language, understanding and implementing monad to achieve purity functionality was even harder.

There were many silly questions that came into my mind at different points, like wondering how Haskell kept its purity and avoided side-effects before discovery of monad, but these were soon answered by Lars or Polina or friends.

There are also other points that I need to take into my own assignments and dig further into for the future.

Finally, I feel lucky to have learnt the functional programming language paradigm as a whole and I find all its notions amazing and promising.

I cannot say that I have understood each and every concept covered in the course, but it has given me the confidence to start working on it and read more.

Being 2,500m above sea level keeps Addis cool
Being 2,500m above sea level keeps Addis cool

Circumstances were less than ideal, and we were facing problems all the time. The traffic was horrific and some of the students spent three hours every morning getting to class.

The internet was unreliable, and most of our students did not have access at home, which forced them to stay late after class to work on their assignments. Even in the classroom, we suffered many an internet failure and were forced to distribute material on USB sticks from laptop to laptop.

One evening, I got frantic messages on Telegram from those students who had stayed late to work on their assignments: they had been locked in! A security guard had decided it was time for his dinner, locked them in and left. It took some frantic phone calls, picking up a ministry employee with keys and driving to the building to free the students. They kept their good spirits, though!

Free at last! The students had worked late and been locked in the building
Free at last! The students had worked late and been locked in the building.

Some of our students had problems with their laptops — insufficient memory, intolerably slow processors or faulty keyboards. After a slow and painful start, IOHK eventually provided better machines.

The Ugandan students neither liked the cool climate, nor were they happy with the unfamiliar Ethiopian food. Addis is 2,500m above sea level and the second-highest capital in the world, so the climate is cooler than one would expect from an African city. Polina and I felt so sorry for the four of them during the first weeks, they always looked so miserable!

Ethiopian food: unfamiliar to the IOHK team and the Ugandan students
Ethiopian food: unfamiliar to the IOHK team and the Ugandan students.

Another problem, at least in the beginning, was the fact that the students were used to an education system where asking ‘stupid’ questions was frowned upon and where teachers were often unapproachable. It took patience and encouragement to convince the students to open up, to show them that it was okay to ask questions and to interrupt us when there was something they did not understand.

The students also seemed to be used to a style of teaching and learning that focuses on theory. In the beginning, they followed our lectures well enough, but did quite poorly when it came to practical exercises and to applying what they had learned to actual code.

Once we realized this, we provided more examples and exercises, and had them write code as often as possible. Repeat the Haskell workflow over and over again. Write some code. Compile. Fix errors. Test. Repeat.

Lunch with the students
Lunch with the students.

It is a challenging course and goes far beyond a mere introduction into Haskell. Many advanced topics and concepts are covered, and a lot of material is squeezed in. This puts pressure on the students and requires them to work hard. But it is worth it! After completing the course, the students can be proud of a solid understanding of Haskell and are prepared to work on real problems.

For one project, the students had to implement a peer-to-peer protocol, and they were really excited to see how the abstract concepts they had learnt could be applied. In Bethelhem's words:

Working on assignments was the most favorite task among any of the activities in the course.

I was trying to understand and work on every question. Even though it was group work, each assignment had something to do with practical points and It gave me discomfort to miss one.

Therefore, if I didn’t code it, at least I discussed with the group to visualize it algorithmically. Working in a team was fun! It helped to know each other, and I do appreciate well organized and clean lecture slides. The screen recordings also helped a lot.

Philip Wadler in his Lambdaman costume with Charles Hoskinson next to him
Philip Wadler in his Lambdaman costume with Charles Hoskinson next to him.

One novelty in this course was a two-week section about Plutus, taught by Professor Philip Wadler, one of the creators of Haskell. Plutus is the smart contract language developed by IOHK for use on the Cardano blockchain; it has been implemented in Haskell and is very similar to Haskell, so our students were in an ideal position to learn about it.

Another student, Bethel Tadesse, had suggestions for the course and the Plutus part:

About the course I really like it and it is very interesting and useful for me, also inspiring me to work more and more. It's really optimal that we can bring this relevant and efficient technology to our developing country Ethiopia and also Africa. I also proudly say that I am lucky to learn this, a life-changing and solution-making infrastructure.

It lets me see the brightest future. It is really helpful and well organized, except the time shortens and makes it stressful and more effort is needed from us. And in the smart contract session, honestly speaking, we take in only the basics not the details and in my conclusion we need a bit more clarification to work more on it further. And in the basics I found it really interesting and powerful in securing different areas which need to be handled by this technology.

As a suggestion, I want to say that it might be better with the smart contract session if we get more time to internalize and see it more in advance how it works with the powerful language Haskell than dealing with it apart from the Haskell.

After almost three months of hard work, many struggles, countless internet and power failures, after learning esoteric concepts like monads and equational reasoning and down-to-earth applications with web servers and databases, after disappointments about poor test results and elation about steady improvements and ‘aha!’ moments, after learning and studying and working and eating and having coffee together, after medical emergencies, family tragedies and sicknesses, after many little and larger triumphs, much laughter and much joy, after being scared of ghosts on rooftops in the night (no kidding...) and avoiding countless shoeshine boys, it finally culminated with a beautiful graduation ceremony at the Sapphire Hotel in Addis Ababa.

Lars surrounded by the graduates
Lars surrounded by the graduates.

Watched by proud family and friends, diplomats and industry experts, and journalists and philanthropists, the students were awarded their certificates by Dr Getahun Mekuria Kuma, minister of innovation and technology, and Charles Hoskinson, chief executive and co-founder of IOHK.

Lars, Polina, and Getahun Mekuria Kuma, the technology minister
Lars, Polina, and Getahun Mekuria Kuma, the technology minister.

Nobody was more proud, though, than me. The women were all wearing Ethiopian dresses, they were shining with excitement and joy; they looked so beautiful, I had to fight back the tears. According to my wife, ‘They had always been beautiful, but success made them gorgeous.’

Read Polina Vinogradova's blog - In at the deep end in Addis

Preventing Sybil attacks

29 October 2018 Lars Brünjes 8 mins read

Preventing Sybil attacks

Building on last week’s post by Professor Aggelos Kiayias, IOHK’s chief scientist, I want to use this post to discuss another choice we made when designing Cardano’s reward mechanism. The mechanism is designed to give an incentive to stakeholders to ‘do the right thing’ and participate in the protocol in a way that ensures its smooth, efficient and secure operation. As was explained last week, to ensure fairness and decentralization, the rewards mechanism follows three principles:

  • Total rewards for a stake pool should be proportional to the size of the pool until the pool reaches saturation.
  • Rewards inside a pool should be proportional to a pool member’s stake.
  • Pool operators should get higher rewards for their efforts.

One necessary modification deals with pool performance. If a pool operator neglects his ‘duties’ and does not create the blocks he is supposed to create, the pool rewards will decrease accordingly.

Take the example of Alice and Bob who run pools of equal sizes. They are both elected as slot leaders with 100 slots each. Alice dutifully creates all 100 blocks in the 100 slots she leads, whereas Bob misses 20 slots and only creates 80 blocks. In this case, Alice’s pool will get full rewards, whereas Bob’s pool will get less. How much less exactly is controlled by a parameter.

The challenge

In this post, I want to concentrate on another potential challenge to the Cardano principles and explain how we decided to overcome it. The challenge was mentioned at the end of last week’s post: How do we prevent one person from creating dozens or even hundreds of small pools?

Note that for very large stakeholders it is perfectly legitimate to split their stake into several pools to get a fair share of the rewards.

An example of a Sybil attack

Let’s assume that we are aiming for 100 pools and therefore cap rewards at 1%. Let us further assume that Alice holds a 3.6% stake. If Alice does not split her stake, she will only get 1% of total rewards. If, however, Alice splits her stake, putting 0.9% into four different pools, her reward from each pool will not be capped.

The challenge arises if a small but devious stakeholder is allowed to create a large number of pools (possibly under assumed identities). If he manages to attract people to these pools (for example by lying about his costs and promising high rewards to pool members), he might end up controlling a majority stake with very little personal stake in the system. How could this happen?

Let’s imagine that there are about 100 legitimate, honest pools. If we didn’t guard against it, a malicious player could relatively cheaply create 100, 200 or even 500 pools under false names and claim low operational costs and a low profit margin. Many honest stakeholders would then be tempted to stop delegating to one of the 100 honest pools and instead delegate their stake to one of themalicious pools, which might outnumber the honest pools. As a consequence, the operator of those malicious pools would be selected slot leader for a majority of blocks and so gain control over the blockchain, opening it up to all kinds of mischief and criminal activities, such as double-spending attacks! He would, of course, have to pay for the operation of hundreds of nodes, but that cost pales in comparison with the cost of acquiring a majority stake by buying the majority of all the Ada in existence, which would be in the range of hundreds of millions to billions of dollars.

This would be disastrous because the security of a proof-of-stake system like Cardano relies on the idea that people with a lot of influence over the system should hold a lot of stake and therefore have every reason to help the system run smoothly.

Our solution

This type of attack, where the attacker assumes many identities, is called a Sybil attack, named after the 1973 novel Sybil by Flora Rheta Schreiber about a woman suffering from multiple personality disorder.

How can we prevent Sybil attacks?

One idea might be to make pool registration very expensive. But to prevent attacks, such fees would need to be extremely high and would prevent honest people from creating legitimate pools. Such a hurdle would be bad for decentralization; we want to encourage members of our community to start their own pools and not hinder their entry! There does have to be a modest fee for the simple reason that each registration certificate has to be stored on the blockchain and will consume resources, which have to be paid for.

Our game theoretical analysis led us to a different solution, one that won’t bar ‘small’ stakeholders from starting their own pools by burdening them with prohibitively high fees and a high financial risk.

When registering a pool, the pool operator can decide to ‘pledge’ some of his personal stake to the pool. Pledging more will slightly increase the potential rewards of his pool.

This means that pools whose operators have pledged a lot of stake will be a little bit more attractive. So, if an attacker wants to create dozens of pools, he will have to split his personal stake into many parts, making all of his many pools less attractive, thereby causing people to delegate to pools run by honest stakeholders instead.

In other words, an attacker who creates a large number of pools will have to spread himself too thinly. He can’t make all of his many pools attractive, because he has to split his stake into too many parts. Honest pool operators will bundle all their personal stake into their one pool, thus having a much better chance of attracting members.

The degree of influence a pool operator’s pledged stake has on pool rewards can be fine-tuned by a configurable parameter. Being a bunch of mathematicians with little imagination, we called this parameter ‘a0’. (A colleague suggested the Greek letter phi because it sounds like part of the nasty giant’s chant in Jack and the Beanstalk – ‘Fee-fo-fi-fum’ – and we’re trying to ward off harmful stake pool giants, but we’d be grateful to any member of the community who can come up with a good name!).

Setting a0 to zero would mean: ‘Pool rewards do not depend on the operator’s pledged stake.’ Picking a high value for a0 would result in a strong advantage for pool operators who pledge a lot of stake to their pools.

We have a classical trade-off here, between fairness and an even playing field on the one hand (a0 = 0) and security and Sybil-attack protection on the other hand (a0 is large).

To demonstrate the effect of a0, let’s look at the three graphs in Figure 1.

Figure 1. How a pool operator’s pledged stake affects pool rewards.

In the graphs, we are aiming for ten pools, so rewards will be capped at 10%. The size of the pool stake is plotted on the horizontal axis and the vertical axis shows pool rewards. Each graph depicts three hypothetical pools, where the operators have pledged 0%, 5% and 8% respectively to their pools (the pledged amount is called s in the graphs).

The first graph uses a0 = 0, so the pledged stake has no influence on pool rewards, and the three pools behave in the same way: rewards keep climbing as the pool size grows until they are capped when the pool controls 10% of the stake.

In the second graph, we see the effect of a0 = 0.1. The three pools are still similar, especially for small sizes, but they are capped at slightly different values. Pools with more pledged stake enjoy slightly higher rewards when they grow bigger.

Finally, the third graph shows the effect of a0 = 0.5. It is similar to the second graph, but the differences between the three pools are more pronounced. We still have to choose a “good” value for a0. This choice will depend on quantities such as expected operational pool costs, total rewards and – most importantly – the desired level of security.

We will want to keep a0 as small as possible, while still guaranteeing high levels of security against Sybil attacks.

In any case, it is important to keep in mind that the introduction of a0 does not prevent ‘small’ stakeholders from running successful pools because somebody with a great idea can always reach out to the community, convince others and invite them to work together and pool resources to pledge to the pool. In the end, running a solid, reliable pool and working closely with the community will be more important than just owning a lot of stake.

We have also started thinking about replacing the dependency of rewards on the pool leader’s stake with a reputation system. This would allow people with little stake to make their pools more attractive by running their pools reliably and efficiently over a long period of time. This won’t be implemented in the first iteration, but is on the table for future versions of Cardano.

You might also like to read the IOHK technical report ‘Design Specification for Delegation and Incentives in Cardano’ for a broader, more detailed description of the system.

On Monday, 5 November, IOHK will hold an AMA (Ask Me Anything) on staking in Cardano, where anyone will have the opportunity to put questions to the IOHK team. Details of the AMA will be announced soon.

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Mike Beeple