Lightning: The Bitcoin Scaling Tech You Really Should Know

“What is bitcoin? Can I buy, like, pizza with it?”

Asked by sports blogger Dave Portnoy in his inaugural video as a bitcoin investor, the comment cuts to the core of a truism about the network: while it’s been billed as a “digital currency,” it’s actually not all the useful for payments today. In short, you’re very unlikely to stumble on a bodega that accepts it (should you even want to spend it).

But that’s not to say that engineers aren’t working on addressing the issue.

That’s why one of the most talked about technologies currently in development for bitcoin is the Lightning Network.

Rather than updating bitcoin’s underlying software (which has proven to be a messy process), Lightning essentially adds an extra layer to the tech, one where transactions can be made more cheaply and quickly, but with, hypothetically, the same security backing of the blockchain.

Proposed as far back as 2015, Lightning has progressed gradually over the years, migrating from white paper, to prototype, to more advanced prototype.

It’s the most recent test, however, that has some looking forward to a not-so-distant future when users can at last transact via Lightning, putting to the test long-held assumptions and criticisms.

As Jack Mallers, developer of Lightning desktop app Zapp, put it:

“It’s fairly close to working to the point where the public can test with real money, but not necessarily at the point where people can operate a business on it quite yet.”

Step one, the technology

What steps are left before Lightning is usable? Lightning engineers have some ideas.

Though Lightning took a big step early this week, the engineers still need to release software with which real users can make real Lightning transactions. So, the first and most obvious step is to let Lightning out of the cage and to watch and see if users have any issues during this initial stage.

“In the near future most problems will be about getting Lightning to work in practice,” Swiss university ETH Zürich researcher Conrad Burchert told CoinDesk.

And, once Lightning’s up and running, engineers foresee other subtle technical challenges, such as getting the “network structure” right, Burchert said. Bad actors might be able to halt transactions, for example, or users might want more control over where their transactions are going.

“Whenever you’re building a new financial protocol, you want to ensure it’s secure as possible, so we’re working on various security-related efforts,” said Elizabeth Stark, co-founder and CEO of Lightning Labs, one of a handful of startups dedicated solely to the technology.

Mallers agreed that these technical hurdles need to be solved before Lightning can reach the mainstream.

“All of that will need to get ironed out before I would advise a company to start to rely on the Lightning Network for business or money that they can’t afford to lose,” Mallers said, adding:

“The only thing that could speed it up is more engineers.”

Stark concurred, adding that despite the promise of the technology, there are astoundingly few developers working on it right now.

“We need more hours in the day. … There are 10 or fewer full-time developers working across all implementations of Lightning. Getting more contributors and people building out the protocol would certainly help move things along,” she told CoinDesk…

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