On September 15, Ethereum successfully completed its highly anticipated transition to using a Proof-of-Stake consensus mechanism.
With this network upgrade – known as The Merge (read more here) – in the rear-view mirror, what comes next for the Ethereum network? The Ethereum Foundation describes The Merge as the first of five key stages of development. The next four stages have equally unusual and opaque names: The Surge, The Verge, The Purge, and The Splurge. Let’s unpack Ethereum’s Post-Merge roadmap. If you want a visual to follow along with, click here.
What is the importance of Ethereum’s roadmap?
Vitalik Buterin, co-founder of Ethereum, coined the term “Blockchain Trilemma” to describe the three, often-competing elements of blockchains: decentralization, security, and scalability. Each of the three elements provide unique benefits to crypto participants, but often come at a cost to another element. It’s with this Blockchain Trilemma in mind that Ethereum developers have put forth this plan, the so-called “Endgame,” they believe will mature the Ethereum ecosystem without ultimately sacrificing one of the three pillars of decentralization, security, and scalability. However, the road to the Endgame is long and comes with many calculated changes and trade-offs that will significantly alter the entire Ethereum ecosystem.
The Merge laid the foundation for the next phases of Ethereum network development, but it’s important to understand that development is not occurring linearly from one stage to the next. In fact, there is already significant progress being made across the Ethereum roadmap outlined below. It’s also worth noting that there are a few longer-term components of The Merge phase have yet to be finalized and released. One important future feature will be single secret leader elections. These elections will randomly assign validators as the block proposer for each block, making it much more difficult for malicious actors to disrupt the network with a DDoS attack on the creator of a block.
The key focus of the The Surge is to gradually enable a version of sharding built for use by Layer 2 rollups with the intention of enabling faster transactions, faster confirmations, and spreading out the networks workload. Ethereum can currently support about 15-20 TPS (transactions per second) and developers estimate the network will be able to process 10,000 – 100,000 TPS once The Surge is fully complete. In the past, the concept of sharding was to splinter a blockchain’s data into numerous pieces so that clients could verify only part of the chain. However, the maturation of a robust ecosystem of Layer 2 networks such as Optimism, Arbitrum, ZK Sync, Polygon, Starknet, and Immutable X motivated the Ethereum development team to prioritize sharding for Layer 2s with Ethereum mainnet transitioning to a base/settlement layer. The benefit of this direction is that Ethereum’s security is not compromised by a splintering of clients, while the Ethereum ecosystem is still able to scale. This version of sharding for Layer 2s is named “Danksharding” after Ethereum researcher Dankrad Feist and will introduce a new transaction type known as a “blob-carrying transaction” created to increase the data availability for rollups. While The Surge has the potential to realize Ethereum’s dream of being the global settlement layer, we won’t feel the effects of sharding all at once. The first step, known as “proto-danksharding,” is to introduce a trimmed down version of the blob-carrying transaction sometime in 2023. One thing is for sure though, Ethereum developers truly have a talent for nomenclature.
The Verge gets its name from Verkle Trees, a new method for organizing large data structures, based on the more well-known Merkle Tree. Currently, Ethereum and most blockchains organize their data with Merkle trees to form parent-child relationships in the data connected by cryptographic hashes and form a proof of an entire data set so that the data set can be verified authentic and accurate. As blockchains age, the complexity of organizing and storing data using Merkle Trees becomes more and more cumbersome. The increasing difficulty of validating a blockchain built with Merkle Trees is an existential risk to decentralization because it requires validators to keep up with ever increasing demands on memory and storage. So with these considerations in mind, Ethereum developers have opted to adopt Verkle Trees (read more about Verkle Trees here) which use Vector Commitments rather than cryptographic hash functions. The effect of such a move for Ethereum will essentially be a flattening of the blockchain that will make it possible to validate only active sections of data and enable segments of the network to be responsible for only part of the entire Ethereum data set. This more efficient system will lower the barrier of entry for validators which the Ethereum team hopes will spur greater decentralization.
Next up is The Purge, named for the 2013 Thriller/Horror movie. This development stage is all about what you might expect: deleting old data that no longer serves a purpose on chain. Ultimately, the goal is for Ethereum and its nodes/validators to get out of the business of storing the 100s of gigabytes of data representing the entire history of the blockchain and to increase the speed it takes to sync a node. Similar to the previous stage, The Purge is geared toward reducing the barrier to entry for node operators and validators in a bid for efficiency that they hope will increase the decentralization of the network. This doesn’t mean historical data is lost forever, Ethereum developers just want to outsource the storage to ecosystem participants like Etherscan. Among the specific directives of The Purge are: requiring clients only store data up to one year old and banning the SELFDESTRUCT smart contract function that can have a wide-ranging, inefficient impact across the chain. The upgrades detailed in The Surge paired with The Purge could mean that someday it would be possible for anyone to run an Ethereum client efficiently and effectively from their smartphone.
And finally, there is The Splurge which, unlike the other stages of development, does not have a specific focus. It’s the miscellaneous, catch-all category. The wide-ranging to-dos include account abstraction (or allowing special privileges for some protocol-owned smart contract wallets), Proposer Builder Separation (often shortened to PBS, it splits a block’s proposer and builder into separate roles), additional protections against front-running (or MEV) attacks, and securing Ethereum from a new generation of quantum computers with the latest and greatest quantum-resistant cryptography. Some of these items may require many years of research and development before they see their production launch day on the Ethereum network.
Ethereum’s roadmap is quite ambitious and will surely lead to an eventful few years for the network. Vitalik Buterin, Ethereum’s co-founder, says that with the completion of The Merge, Ethereum is now 55% complete. This roadmap will take Ethereum close to 100% by his estimate. Vitalik views this period in Ethereum’s development as the most active with the most rapid change it will ever see – see his full presentation at this year’s ETHCC 5 conference. As he explains in that presentation, he wants to see the pace of change slow down; the display of network upgrades traded in for predictability and a focus on the longer-term security of the network. To that end, The Surge, The Verge, The Purge, and The Splurge are intended to progress Ethereum to a secure and dependable Layer 1 while providing its Layer 2s with the tools they need to rapidly iterate and bring future innovation to the Ethereum ecosystem.