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Breakpoint 2023: Modular vs Integrated: Theory and Practice

Kyle Samani of Multicoin Capital discusses the comparative performance and implications of modular vs integrated blockchain systems.

The notes below are AI generated and may not be 100% accurate. Watch the video to be sure!


In a thought-provoking discussion at Breakpoint 2023, Kyle Samani, the managing partner of Multicoin Capital, presents an in-depth analysis of modular versus integrated blockchain systems. With a focus on their application in theory and practice, Samani addresses the primary functions of blockchains as asset ledgers, crucial for trading and payments. He highlights that effective trading and payment systems must be fast and inexpensive. Samani warns about the "anti-network effects" caused by demand spikes in gas costs, which can limit overall blockchain system growth. By championing parallel processing and tight integration of networking and execution layers, Samani explains the advantages of integrated systems over modular ones. He presents practical examples, including on-chain order books and Visa's USDC settlement pilot, to underscore how integration supports efficiency and scalability. The presentation is a compelling case for integrated systems in meeting the demands of burgeoning blockchain networks.

Key Points:

Modular vs Integrated Blockchain Systems

Kyle Samani delves into the debate of modular versus integrated systems in the blockchain universe. By breaking down the primary roles of blockchains, such as asset ledger maintenance, and the objectives behind trading and payments, he positions these systems as the backbone of a new financial infrastructure. He argues that the ideal properties for these systems are low latency and consistently low transaction costs. However, due to demand volatility in blockchain networks, gas costs can become unstable, introducing what Multicoin Capital has identified as "anti-network effects" that threaten the scalability and usability of blockchain systems.

Parallelism and System Scalability

A significant part of the presentation is dedicated to explaining how parallel computing can mitigate the limitations of blockchain systems. Samani compares the single-threaded processing approach of the Ethereum Virtual Machine (EVM) to the parallel approach of the Solana Virtual Machine (SVM). These contrasting approaches hint at why integrated systems with built-in parallelism may outperform modular systems with sequential transaction processing. He suggests that integrated systems, like Apple's integration of hardware and software, are more efficient and provide steadier, low-cost operations.

Trading and Payments on Blockchain

The talk addresses trading and payments specifically — highlighting how high-performance integrated blockchains can support on-chain order books with liquidity and efficient market making. Samani presents data comparing the spreads and market maker profitability of a decentralized exchange like Uniswap to Solana's Mango Markets, showing that better performance for both market makers and takers is achieved with an integrated system. Moreover, he touches on Visa's adoption of crypto payment rails, recognizing Solana's low gas fees and latency as reasons for choosing this blockchain for USDC settlements.

Facts + Figures

  • Blockchains act as asset ledgers tracking ownership of assets.
  • The desired properties of trading and payment systems include fast transactions and low costs.
  • Spiky and dynamic demand results in fluctuating gas prices, which leads to anti-network effects.
  • In comparison to modular systems, integrated systems can perform transactions in parallel, resulting in more scalability and efficiency.
  • Future network upgrades to Ethereum, such as EIP-4844, aim to improve the system's overall data throughput to about one megabyte per second.
  • Solana utilizes parallel processing and prioritizes the integration of networking and execution layers.
  • Apple and NVIDIA were cited as successful examples of integration in technology, with Apple integrating hardware and software, and NVIDIA integrating for AI processing requirements.
  • Kyle Samani showed through various figures that integrated systems can offer better pricing and profitability for trading.
  • Visa is using Solana for settlement of transactions with USDC, aiming for faster and potentially real-time settlement.

Top quotes

  • "Blockchains are asset ledgers. They keep track of who owns what."
  • "Anti-network effects create a very firm ceiling on overall system growth and utilization."
  • "The only way you're going to scale computation is to leverage parallelism."
  • "Integrated systems generally outperform modular ones."
  • "The heterogeneous standards end up producing a net-worse financial system."
  • "On-chain order books are only feasible on a high-performance integrated blockchain."
  • "Crypto finally provides the rails for [faster payments] to happen."

Questions Answered

What do blockchains do?

Blockchains serve as immutable digital ledgers for tracking ownership of assets. They document various transactions, detailing who owns what, which could range from cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin or ETH to NFTs and derivatives. This foundational aspect of blockchain technology is crucial for the creation of transparent and secure financial ecosystems.

Why are anti-network effects a concern in blockchain systems?

Anti-network effects in blockchains emerge when surging transaction demand leads to exorbitant gas fees, rendering the system unusable for the average user. This effectively caps the system's scalability and undermines the fundamental network effects that otherwise would contribute to the system's growth and use.

How do integrated systems improve blockchain performance?

Integrated systems optimize performance by processing transactions in parallel, rather than sequentially. They tightly couple networking and execution layers to handle high-volume workloads efficiently. This design approach, as demonstrated by companies like Apple and NVIDIA, results in more stable and scalable systems that maintain consistently low operational costs.

What's the significance of Visa’s adoption of blockchain for settlements?

Visa's use of blockchain technology, particularly with Solana, for settling transactions marks a significant step towards modernizing the payment infrastructure. By utilizing USDC, Visa aims to shorten the current net settlement period, which can take up to 28 days, to potentially real-time settlements. This pilot project signals blockchain's growing relevance in traditional financial operations, offering merchants faster access to funds and more efficient payment processes.

Do integrated blockchain systems offer better trading conditions than modular systems?

In theory and practice, integrated blockchain systems can provide superior trading conditions. They offer tighter spreads, which benefits takers, and more sustainable profitability for market makers. This is possible due to the integrated system’s ability to handle large volumes of transactions simultaneously and efficiently.