It’s finally here (kind of.) Ethereum 2.0, which has been in development since Barack Obama lived in the White House, has nailed its most important milestone to date: completion of phase 0 and the launch of the Beacon Chain. (If these words are all gobbledygook, CoinDesk’s William Foxley provides a good timeline of ETH 2.0’s journey.)
And who’s actually doing the work of making this happen? By analogy, NASA’s race to put a man on the moon was not won by a single leader – such as President John F. Kennedy or Neil Armstrong – but an army of engineers, project managers and teams of men and women who quietly toiled away. Same with Ethereum. Vitalik Buterin is the community’s most prominent voice, but much of the nuts and bolts get figured out by the Ethereum Foundation’s (EF) sprawling team.
This post is part of CoinDesk’s Year in Review 2020 – a collection of op-eds, essays and interviews about the year in crypto and beyond.
Enter Danny Ryan. A former software developer, Ryan was hired by the Ethereum Foundation in 2018 and he has since become one of its most prominent (if not the flashiest) leaders, helping to translate theoretical concepts into the brass tacks of implementation. Ryan bristles at titles and formalities. He’s “the guy behind the guy behind the guy” (to quote from the film “Swingers”) who’s rarely in the spotlight, but a crucial link – perhaps the crucial link – between Big Ideas and Getting Stuff Done.
We spoke by Zoom on something of a momentous day, Nov. 30, literally hours before the launch of the Beacon Chain. Ryan looks relaxed. He has long hair, wears glasses and is surprisingly chill given how the next few hours would mark the culmination of years – literally years – of the Ethereum Foundation’s work, and you can argue that there are billions of dollars on the line. (If something gets botched, what would happen to the price of ETH?)
Ryan pulls back the curtain to reveal the EF’s inner workings, shares what it’s been like to launch ETH 2.0, gives a realistic take of why it matters (even if the average user won’t tell the difference) and offers his predictions for Ethereum in 2021 and beyond.
I know the blockchain space rolls its eyes at “titles,” and it’s not exactly an org-chart-y kind of place. That said, what exactly is your title these days, and what’s the best way to describe your role?
Ryan: I usually just say “EF research.”
Nice. It’s hard to get more generic than that!
Ryan: If I were on a talk, or introducing myself, I’d probably say, “I work at EF on the research team. I work on research, specification writing and coordination. I pretty much do anything I can to help the ETH2 project move forward.” [Chuckles.] So take it for what you will.
You should go into politics. Nicely done. [Both laugh.] But can you expand on your role and what it means to ETH 2.0 on a day-to-day basis?
Ryan: In terms of getting out some of these major upgrades to mainnet, the production goes from ideas and research into specifications and proof of concepts … then into full-blown production, then developments in engineering and testing and finally vetting and doing what we’re doing tomorrow [Dec. 1]. And I’m pretty involved in each of those phases.
You know, the research of this stuff has been ongoing since 2014. The basic idea of “Can we move to a more sustainable, more secure consensus mechanism, or proof-of-stake?”, people have been asking that question and trying to figure out the solutions to the problems for well over five years.
In mid-2018, that began to materialize into actual, concrete specs. I’ve spent a lot of my time on that border between research and specification, refining what are more academic ideas into concrete implementations.
Ryan: My immediate team is probably about 10 people. But that doesn’t really capture the size and complexity of what’s going on with ETH2. There are five client teams that we regularly engage with, some of them are EF grantees, some of them are not. There are also other R&D teams at the EF.
For example, the robust incentives group is kind of an economic analysis group. They analyze and test various things. The eWASM team at the EF is like the virtual machine and optimized execution group, and we engage with them on all sorts of stuff. There are well over 100 regular contributors …
I should do a count, because I was saying that  a year and a half ago, and I think it’s probably far more than that.
That’s a lot of moving parts. How do all of you communicate? What platforms do you use?
Ryan: It’s all over the place. I engage daily, sometimes hourly, with my immediate team on Telegram. Outside of that, we engage across every chat medium. Something that’s been really incredible over the past year is that we created this ETH R&D Discord. This was a more public place for us to have striated conversations on different topics where we can all engage on proof-of-stake, engage on economic analysis, engage on this or that. And that was incredible.
But then the real magic happened when everyone that works on what we call ETH1 actually joined the channel, too. They came into this Discord and created a bunch of channels, and it’s been an incredible cross-pollination of two somewhat distinct groups of researchers and engineers.
How do you think about who’s shaping the Ethereum “narrative,” if that makes any sense? Vitalik Buterin is obviously the most widely known voice. But how else do you think about who’s driving the narrative, and what Vitalik’s role is?
Ryan: Vitalik is a very important contributor to research, first and foremost. But he also does have a disproportionately powerful voice in those efforts and kind of sculpting the narrative. And I think because of that, you’ve actually seen him over the past three-plus years speak much less about those types of things, as compared to five years ago.
And you do see some important stuff from Vitalik. For example, there was a post called A Rollup-centric Ethereum Roadmap. It was on the ETH Magicians forum. And this is definitely less about R&D and more about where we’re going, how can we go somewhere, what’s the path. You do see that kind of stuff come out from him. And when you do, it usually makes a pretty solid impact.
How about others who are shaping the ETH narrative?
Ryan: There are many voices, both in the EF and outside, that write about ETH2 regularly, think about ETH2 regularly and do have an impact on that narrative, an impact on where we’re going.
For example, Ben Edgington, a contributor at ConsenSys, writes what we need to do every week or two. And he not only gives you an update but also gives you his thoughts and opinions.
Similarly, the ETH Hub guys put out a weekly podcast on some different things they write about, and they talk about ETH2 every week. They have a huge following. (Each of them probably has 10 times as many followers than me on Twitter, and engages with ETH2 content over and over again.) I think for these far-reaching, multi-year R&D projects, they do have a voice and a seat at the table, absolutely.
Got it. What are some of the most under-appreciated developments of ETH2?
Ryan: First and foremost is the use of signature aggregation. And this is a little technical, but essentially it’s a cryptographic breakthrough that has allowed far more participants in the consensus protocol.
The amount of decentralization in this protocol is massively more than most – if not all – of the protocols that are getting proof-of-stake. We have hundreds of thousands of consensus participants, and they can participate efficiently because of this cryptographic technique, ELS aggregation.
What are some ways that an end user, or maybe those following Ethereum less closely, would see the difference?
Ryan: Well, I mean, for one, consensus is hard. But that’s what we’re launching tomorrow [Dec. 1]. That is what phase 0 is. It’s consensus and people will say, “It doesn’t do much.” And they’re right. In terms of the end user, it doesn’t.
But it comes to consensus with itself, and it comes to consensus with itself with many, many, many participants. And once you can come to consensus on the state of yourself, you can come to consensus on other things. So you might say it doesn’t do much, but it’s an incredibly complex sophisticated backbone for what is to come.
Fair enough. So one thing that is more visible to the casual crypto follower is the explosive boom in decentralized finance (DeFi). How did that impact you and your team?
Ryan: It’s funny. In some of our more casual chats, we’ll talk about some of the stuff that we see, because it’s interesting and it’s loud enough on the internet that we see it. But a lot of those that are deeply engaged on the ETH2 project aren’t that deeply engaged with DeFi. You know, I’m aware of what’s going on. I’m very excited about what’s going on … and apprehensive sometimes. But the amount with which I’m deeply engaged with that application layer is pretty minimal.
What were some of the DeFi concerns?
Ryan: There [are] these crazy high yields and crazy high deals, depending on the day. And there was a little bit of a narrative that the DeFi deals are so good that no one’s gonna want to stake. You saw that pop up here and there – this FUD going around that proof-of-stake is competing with DeFi. And to a certain extent, maybe it is. I think any way you can allocate your capital with a certain risk profile, a certain perceived potential yield, is competing with any other. But I also think that the layer 1 proof-of-stake yields and risk is a way different risk profile than DeFi.
So, yes, there will be some balance between the two, but as we’ve seen when we hit the minimum threshold, clearly there’s enough appetite to get in on staking, at least for the foreseeable future. That was one way they interacted.
Beyond that, it’s very exciting to see Ethereum being used. It’s exciting to see things done with Ethereum that could not be done in a traditional context, and to see not only the specific application grow but to just kind of continually enhance and reinforce the ecosystem, the technology, the tools, the languages and everything that makes Ethereum very exciting. So it’s been fun to watch from the sidelines. But I can’t say I’ve been deep in it.
What has it been like for you, personally, these last few days as we approach the launch?
Ryan: Just like the rest of everyone else, I didn’t know if and when the minimum threshold would be met. A few weeks ago, when the deposit contract was launched and the version 1 specifications were out, there was a little bit of a spike and then it was very quiet. There wasn’t a lot of movement. Last week, just like everyone else on the internet who follows Ethereum, I was excitedly refreshing my phone, refreshing my computer.
Ryan: At a certain point, multiple times a minute. We started really hitting that threshold and seeing this spike of deposits. And so, that’s definitely part of what I was doing last week – just enjoying the excitement, seeing this come to reality.
This is probably an obnoxious question because you’re so hyper-focused on this critical moment, but what’s your team focused on, specifically, in 2021?
Ryan: Oh yeah, we’re already focused on that. [Laughs.] So there [are] two major things that we want to do. What we’re launching tomorrow is we’re bootstrapping a proof-of-stake consensus. There are two major things that we want to do with that proof-of-stake consensus. One is for it to be the home – the new home – for Ethereum. Right now, that home is a proof-of-work consensus. We want to hot-swap that proof-of-work consensus for what we’re bootstrapping tomorrow. We call that the merge; sometimes we call it phase 1.5. We’re actively working on specifications and prototypes. I’m pretty confident, actually, that we’re going to have something of a functional merge testnet relatively soon.
Ryan: We want to use sophisticated data … to come to consensus on a ton of data, to enhance the role of the ecosystem and to enhance other applications that kind of scale with the amount of layer 1 data.
Those are the two major, major projects for next year: refining both of those into concrete specs, doing prototypes and having engineering teams build them out. And really, there’s a ton that will happen next year, and you never quite know – new research and new developments in the Ethereum ecosystem can mean pivots and changes and shifts in priorities, but those are the two major things we want to accomplish.
What’s your timeline on that?
Ryan: I’m not sure of the ship schedule, but certainly by the end of next year , these will be much more than specs and ideas and prototypes.
Awesome. I get that in the immediate future – such as tomorrow, at the launch – the average user won’t really notice a difference. But let’s say a year from now, or two years from now, how will the end user have a different experience with Ethereum?
Ryan: First and foremost, for these series of infrastructure upgrades, the end user ideally won’t feel them very much. At the end of the day, we hope for there to be a more scalable, safe, sustainable environment for Ethereum to exist on. So that translates into additional capacity and thus if the demand stays the same, lower fees. Obviously, with supply and demand, we can try to affect the supply but we don’t know how that will affect the demand. That’s the major one.
How about other impacts, maybe more nuanced?
Ryan: Proof-of-stake does do a few other things like consistency in block time. So rather than having a stochastic process, where you have short and then maybe really long block times, you have way more … kind of like “clock tick” block times. And economic finality, I think, is a bit underrated.
Ryan: In proof-of-work, you essentially have this probabilistic finality. The deeper that a block is in the chain, the less likely it’s going to reorg, and the harder it is to attack. But we’ve seen in Ethereum Classic, they rely on this proof-of-work probabilistic finality, they’ve been attacked and they have incredibly deep reorgs.
Whereas in proof-of-stake, we do have this notion of economic finality, where something at a certain block type is final. There’s no reversion. So there are some cases – especially in the tail-risk scenarios – that maybe the average user won’t really understand, but in some of these tail-risk scenarios there are maybe more beneficial properties in proof-of-stake.
Anything else you want to say about ETH 2.0?
Ryan: Turn on your nodes and happy staking.