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Jul 6, 2022

Is Solana Decentralized? Outages, VC Ties and More Worries

Most financial transactions occur based on a centralized model, where a third party has the authority to manage any issues. However, having one party in charge is a double-edged sword, because if that intermediary is compromised, then all client transactions can be impacted. Cryptocurrencies promise to decentralize control of a network so that there’s not one single point of failure. Does this mean that decentralized crypto is immune? And what qualifies as decentralized? On June 1 2022, the Solana network suffered another outage — the 12th this year. The blackout shut down the network for four hours and ten minutes, and stopped a potential 975 million transactions from occurring. In a tweet, Anatoly Yakovenko, Solana Labs co-founder, explained the downtime: “As a result of the long nonce instruction, part of the network considered the block invalid, and no consensus could be reached.”

Stability issues on the Solana network caused its value to dip this year, and raised serious questions about the network’s decentralization.

This article examines the issues surrounding the Solana blockchain, and the ways in which its decentralization (or lack thereof) affects the network’s performance.

What Is Blockchain Decentralization?

Blockchain decentralization is a governance system wherein decision-making rights are dispersed across the charge of shareholders or token holders in the majority. It’s designed to keep the network impartial, secure and accessible.

Blockchain decentralization transfers control, decision-making and supervision from a centralized entity, which could be an individual or a group, to a distributed network. The idea of decentralization is to reduce the need for trust among participants, and to lessen their capacity to influence one another to the detriment of the network’s functionality.

Decentralization, as it applies to computing systems, has its origin in the work of David Chaum. In 1979 he conceived the idea of a decentralized network of computers known as the Mix Network. However, Stuart Haber and W. Scott Stornetta were the first to conceptualize blockchain technology, which relies heavily on decentralized systems.

Decentralization is what makes the ”permissionless” and “censorship-resistant” qualities of blockchain networks possible. This means that networks can be accessed by all, and anyone can build on them without fear of undue influence or coercion. Decentralization also ensures the security and stability of the network.

The degree to which a blockchain network is decentralized is apparent in the number of distinct groups responsible for validating transactions, the number of developers building on it, and the distribution of the network’s token.

The Nakamoto Coefficient is a method of measuring the extent of decentralization of a blockchain. It considers the unique properties of blockchain networks to get a more accurate picture of how decentralized a subject network is.

Solana's Centralization Claims

Solana is an open-source Layer 1 blockchain built for speed and smart contract capabilities. It hosts a rapidly-growing range of decentralized applications (DApps) and non-fungible tokens (NFTs). The network is powered by its native token, SOL, which provides security for the network via staking and serves as a means of exchanging value.

Created in 2017 by Anatoly Yakovenko and Raj Gokal, Solana was designed to push past the throughput limitations of mainstream blockchains while keeping transaction costs low. It boasts a theoretical throughput of 710,000 transactions per second, an impressive speed achieved through the implementation of a unique hybrid proof of history (PoH) consensus mechanism that utilizes a proof of stake (PoS) synchronization engine.

However, for many industry watchers, the Solana network’s lightning-fast speed comes at a cost — namely, centralization. Despite counterclaims, detractors continue to pile up evidence that Solana lacks decent decentralization. This has caused many to wonder if Solana is truly decentralized. To answer this concern, let's examine some of the factors and unique characteristics of the Solana blockchain that lead to doubts about its degree of decentralization.

SOL Allocation

The initial SOL allocation has come under criticism after the blockchain research firm Messari published the breakdown. Almost 50% of SOL was allocated to Solana Labs, Venture Capital investors and developers. Such concentration of ownership by insiders scores the network low in terms of decentralization, and critics fear it could lead to abuse of power. 

In PoS networks, security relies on staked tokens which power transaction validation. Stakers are rewarded with transaction fees and voting power. Currently, about 77.7% of all SOL tokens in circulation are staked. Since the amount of SOL allocated to the public is comparatively small, the majority of these staked SOL will belong to insiders.

Invariably, this small group of insiders wields considerable network validation power, a situation that seems to make a case for the lack of decentralization of the Solana Blockchain. 

Validator Node Concentration

Critics have also pointed out that the Solana Foundation is the only entity developing core nodes on the blockchain, making them a central control point and reducing the network’s decentralization. Validator nodes are a key component of a blockchain network, and are primarily responsible for reaching consensus, verifying, and updating transactions.

To understand the impact of the validator node concentration on the Solana network, it’s important to consider the number of operational nodes and who owns them. Solana scored a relatively high Nakamato Coefficient of 19. Out of the current 1,161 validators, the top 19 validators control sufficient staked Solana (and therefore voting power) to launch a coordinated attack on the network — if they wanted to.

To be fair, this score is much higher than that of PoW-based blockchains like Bitcoin, which scored 3 and 5, respectively. Their low scores are due to mining pools controlling substantial portions of the network’s hash power. Fortunately, PoW chains have a more liquid hashrate, meaning that miners could quickly avert an attack by easily removing their hash power from the compromised pools.

Validation on the Solana blockchain has a higher barrier to entry, due to expensive hardware requirements for running a validator node. Since few people can afford the thousands of dollars these high-end computers cost, the Solana network inevitably tilts toward centralization.

The Solana network's decentralization is further reduced by the high amount of SOL a validator needs to break even. According to rough estimates, a validator will have to stake about $1 million worth of SOL just to break even. To ease this burden, the Solana Foundation has subsidized validators who meet specific criteria to the tune of 25,000 SOL. However, this further reduces the network’s decentralization, as it means they choose many of the validators, rather than validators choosing to operate nodes by themselves.

Venture Capitalist Ties

With a $314.2 million investment in Solana Labs (through his trading firm Alameda Research), FTX Chief Sam Bankman-Fried (SBF) and a few other VCs have a significant stake in the project. This has led to fears of Solana being a venture capitalist-funded project that sacrifices decentralization and security for transaction speed. In fact, the VCs control virtually half of the staked SOL, creating a single point of control that increases vulnerability and detracts from its claim of decentralization.

Constant Outages

As previously mentioned, the latest Solana outage was on June 1, 2022, when the network went down yet again due to a bug in the "durable nonce transaction feature," according to Solana Labs developers. Unfortunately, this isn’t an isolated event, as the network has been hit with a string of outages. This latest one, which lasted for four-and-a-half hours, was the fifth blackout in 2022 alone. 

Solana developers have always given a reason for each outage, ranging from attackers attempting to overload the network with excess transactions to bots running rampant and bugs in the network’s systems. 

But is there a link between Solana's perceived lack of decentralization and these outages? 

While the outages are likely due to unresolved bugs inherent in the network's novel hybrid consensus mechanism, the ease with which node validators restarted the network after the outages exposed an uncomfortable degree of centralization. 

Solend Whale Controversy

In circumstances similar to Solana’s network outages, another incident inadvertently exposed the soft, centralized underbelly of the Solana ecosystem. 

Solend, a DeFi lending protocol on the Solana blockchain, attempted to take over a wallet belonging to a whale (a single investor with an oversized account), a move which was met with instant, severe backlash from the startled crypto community. 

Trouble started when the whale risked auto-liquidating the 5.7 million SOL deposited as collateral for a $108 million stablecoin loan — in this case, a mix of USDC and Tether — if the slipping SOL price dropped to $22.30. The forced liquidation threatened to wipe out all of the SOL in the liquidity pool and trigger massive liquidations, potentially crashing the Solana network (again). 

Reacting hastily, the protocol unanimously proposed a solution dubbed “SLND1.” This fix sought to hijack the whale’s account, and strategically liquidate the collateral in an orderly manner, in order to avert another Solana meltdown.

However, the Solend team was forced to rescind the decision — in the face of a strident public outcry that questioned the validity of a vote suspiciously concluded within a mere 24 hours. A protocol that could make such a critical, game-changing move without adequate input from all users still has a lot of decentralizing to do. 

Solana Decentralization Comparison

Undoubtedly, the degree of decentralization among blockchain networks covers a continuum. Some blockchains are more decentralized than others. Below, we’ll take a look at Solana's decentralization compared with some other Layer 1 blockchains.

Solana vs. Ethereum

Solana is often referred to as the “Ethereum Killer.” Ethereum, however, is still a more popular blockchain than Solana, behind only Bitcoin.

By several indications, Ethereum proves to be more decentralized than Solana. The first is the percentage of Ethereum insiders who own assets, compared to that of Solana.

According to Messari, a mere 15% of Ethereum tokens are allocated to insiders, and the other 5% are for foundations and incentives. So, in total, 80% is available for public sale. Solana has essentially half of its tokens allocated to insiders.

Solana vs. Cardano

In March 2021, IOHK ceded all control of the block production process to its 2,200 staking pool operators, making block production 100% decentralized. In doing so, Cardano has reduced the chance of attacks by 51% and made it difficult for the network to fall into centralized hands.

However, just like Solana, Cardano also falls short of being decentralized in its governance. Both blockchains are still heavily influenced by their parent companies — Solana by Solana Labs, and Cardano by IOHK, a Hong Kong software development company. 

One point where Cardano seems to be more decentralized than Solana, however, is in its validation system. Cardano has over 852,000 delegators on its blockchain, while only about 1,811 validator nodes support Solana. Cardano seems to have made more of an effort to create transparency and decentralization.

Solana vs. Ripple

Despite the alleged claims of centralization made against Solana, it might still be more decentralized than Ripple, the company behind the blockchain network using the cryptocurrency XRP. Its network is managed and influenced by a private company which controls the infrastructure, supply and some of the validators.

Ripple is believed to be heavily centralized, as the project's creators hold the majority of XRP. This means they also have a significant amount of decision-making power. Ripple can easily make changes to its blockchain without a system consensus, as the company has complete access to nodes. Ripple also decides when to create new nodes.

Solana’s 1,811 validators number over twelve times the 150 validators on the Ripple blockchain network.

Is Solana Decentralized?

Currently, Solana has no road map on its website for 2022. However, an on-chain governance program and several Github projects have been proposed. The governance program could result in SOL holders wielding more power in the ecosystem, because they would obtain voting rights in Solana's development process.

Solana does have features of decentralization, though it appears to be more centralized than Ethereum, its biggest competitor.

How to Invest in Solana

Investing in SOL is easy. With Bybit, one of the fastest-growing crypto exchanges in the world, you can easily buy, sell, trade, stake and hold SOL. To buy Solana, follow these few easy steps:

  • Visit the SOL/USDT spot trading page on Bybit. If you don’t have an account already, click on Sign Up to register.
  • Choose your preferred order type and quantity.
  • To open a position, choose Open Long or Open Short, and an order confirmation window will pop up. Click on Confirm after cross-checking your order details.

The Bottom Line

Among all other cryptocurrencies tagged as "Ethereum Killers," Solana is one challenger that has vastly improved transaction processing times. However, the network has come under fire for being too centralized. Solana’s string of outages may create renewed motivation to continue improving their network.