Towards a Design Philosophy for Interoperable Blockchain Systems

05/15/2018 ∙ by Thomas Hardjono, et al. ∙ 0

In this paper we discuss a design philosophy for interoperable blockchain systems, using the design philosophy of the Internet architecture as the basis to identify key design principles. Several interoperability challenges are discussed in the context of cross-domain transactions. We illustrate how these principles are informing the interoperability architecture of the MIT Tradecoin system.



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1 Introduction

The goal of this paper is to bring to the forefront the notion of interoperability for blockchain systems, using lessons learned from the three decades of the development of the Internet. Our overall goal is to develop a design philosophy for an interoperable blockchain architecture, and to identify some design principles that that promote interoperability.

Currently there is considerable interest (real and hype) in blockchain systems as a promising technology for the future infrastructure for a global value-exchange nextwork – or what some refer to as the “Internet of value”. The original blockchain idea of Haber and Stornetta [1, 2] is now a fundamental construct within most blockchain systems, starting with the Bitcoin system which first adopted the idea and deployed it in a digital currency context.

Many parallels have been made between blockchain systems and the Internet. However, many comparisons often fail to understand the fundamental goals of the Internet architecture as promoted and lead by DARPA. There was a pressing need in the Cold War period of the 1960s and 1970s to develop a new communications network architecture that did not previously exist, one that would allow communications to survive in the face of attacks. In Section 2 we review and discuss these goals.

Today, the motivations are similar but driven by different historical events. The global financial crisis of 2008 has forced several central banks around the world to rethink the way they conduct monetary policy. We argue that if blockchain technology seeks to be a fundamental component of the future global distributed network of commerce and value, then its architecture must also satisfy the same fundamental goals of the Internet architecture. In Section 3 we discuss a design philosophy for blockchain systems. This is followed by Section 4 in which we discuss the interoperability design aspects of the MIT Tradecoin project, mapping much of the Internet’s constructs to that of the blockchain architecture.

2 The Design Philosophy of the Internet

In considering the future direction for blockchain systems generally, it is useful to recall and understand goals of the Internet architecture as defined in the early 1980s as a project funded by DARPA. The definition of the Internet as view in the late 1980s is the following: it is “a packet switched communications facility in which a number of distinguishable networks are connected together using packet switched communications processors called gateways which implement a store and forward packet-forwarding algorithm” [3, 4].

2.1 Fundamental Goals

It is important to remember that the design of the ARPANET and the Internet favored military values (e.g. survivability, flexibility, and high performance) over commercial goals (e.g. low cost, simplicity, or consumer appeal) [5], which in turn has affected how the Internet has evolved and has been used. This emphasis was understandable given the Cold War backdrop to the packet-switching discourse throughout the 1960s and 1970s.

The DARPA view at the time was that there are seven (7) goals of the Internet architecture, with the first three being fundamental to the design, and the remaining four being second level goals. The following are the fundamental goals of the Internet in the order of importance [3, 4]:

  1. Survivability: Internet communications must continue despite loss of networks or gateways.

    This is the most important goal of the Internet, especially if it was to be the blueprint for military packet switched communications facilities. This meant that if two entities are communicating over the Internet, and some failure causes the Internet to be temporarily disrupted and reconfigured to reconstitute the service, then the entities communicating should be able to continue without having to reestablish or reset the high level state of their conversation. Therefore to achieve this goal, the state information which describes the on-going conversation must be protected. But more importantly, in practice this explicitly meant that it is acceptable to lose the state information associated with an entity if, at the same time, the entity itself is lost. This notion of state of conversation is related to the end-to-end principle discussed below.

  2. Variety of service types: The Internet must support multiple types of communications service.

    What was meant by “multiple types” is that at the transport level the Internet architecture should support different types of services distinguished by differing requirements for speed, latency and reliability. Indeed it was this goal that resulted in the separation into two layers of the TCP layer and IP layer, and the use of bytes (not packets) at the TCP layer for flow control and acknowledgement.

  3. Variety of networks: The Internet must accommodate a variety of networks.

    The Internet architecture must be able to incorporate and utilize a wide variety of network technologies, including military and commercial facilities.

The remaining four goals of the Internet architecture are: (4) distributed management of resources, (5) cost effectiveness, (6) ease of attaching hosts, and (7) accountability in resource usage. Over the ensuing three decades these second level goals have been addressed in different ways. For example, accountability in resource usage evolved from the use of rudimentary management information bases (MIB) [6, 7] into the current sophisticated traffic management protocols and tools. Cost effectiveness was always an important aspect of the business model for consumer ISPs and corporate networks.

2.2 The End-to-End Principle

One of the critical debates throughout the development of the Internet architecture in the 1980s was in regards to the placement of functions that dealt with reliability of message delivery (e.g. duplicate message detection, message sequencing, guaranteed message delivery, encryption). In essence the argument revolved around the amount of effort put into reliability measures within the data communication system, and was seen as an engineering trade-off based on performance. That is, how much low-level function (for reliability) needed to be implemented by the networks versus implementation by the applications at the endpoints.

The line of reasoning against low-level function implementation in the network became known as the end-to-end argument or principle. The basic argument is as follows: a lower level subsystem that supports a distributed application may be wasting its effort in providing a function that must be implemented at the application level anyway [8]. Thus, for example, for duplicate message suppression the task must be accomplished by the application itself seeing that the application is most knowledgeable as to how to detect its own duplicate messages.

Another case in point relates to data encryption. If encryption/decryption was to be performed by the network, then the network and its data tranmission systems must be trusted to securely manage the required encryption keys. Also, when data enters the network (to be encrypted there) the data will be in plaintext and therefore susceptible to theft and attacks. Finally, the recipient application of the encrypted messaged will still need to verify the source-authenticity of the message. The application will still need to perform key management. As such, the best place to perform data encryption/decryption is the application endpoints – there is no need for the communication subsystem to provide for automatic encryption of all traffic. That is, encryption is an end-to-end function.

The end-to-end principle was a fundamental design principle of the security architecture of the Internet. Among others, it influenced the direction of the subsequent security features of the Internet, including the the development of the IP-security sublayer [9] and its attendant key management function [10, 11]. Today the entire Virtual Private Network (VPN) subsegment of the networking industry started based on this end-to-end principle. (The global VPN market alone is forecasted to reach 70 billion dollars in the next few years). The current day-to-day usage of the Secure Sockets Layer (TLS) [12] to protect HTTP web-traffic (i.e. browsers) is also built on the premise that client-server data encryption is an end-to-end function performed by the browser (client) and by the HTTP server.

2.3 The Autonomous Systems Paradigm

A key concept in the development of the Internet is that of autonomous systems (or routing domains) as a connectivity unit that provide scale-up capabilities. The notion of autonomous systems provides a way to hierarchically aggregate routing information, such the distribution of routing information itself becomes a manageable task. This division into domains provides independence from each domain owner/operator to employ the routing mechanisms of its own choice. IP packet routing inside an autonomous system is therefore referred to as intra-domain routing, while routing between (across) autonomous systems is referred to as inter-domain routing. The common goal of many providers of routing services (consumer ISPs, backbone ISPs and participating corporations) is that of supporting different types of services (in the sense of speed, latency and reliability).

In the case of routing the aim is to share best-route information among routers using an intra-domain routing protocol (e.g. distance vector such as RIP 

[13], or link-state such as OSPF [14]). The routing protocol of choice must address numerous issues, including possible loops and imbalances in traffic distribution. Today routers are typically owned and operated by the legal owner of the autonomous system (e.g. ISP or corporation). These owners enter into peering agreements with each other in order to achieve end-to-end reachability of destinations across multiple hops of domains. The primary revenue model in the ISP industry revolves around different tiers of services appropriate to different groups of customers.

Figure 1: Autonomous Systems as a set of networks and gateways (after [4])

There are several important points regarding autonomous systems and the positive impact this paradigm has had on the development of the Internet for the past several decades:

  • Autonomous systems paradigm leads to scale and reach
    The autonomous system paradigm, the connectionless routing model and the distributed network topology of the Internet allows each unit (the AS) to solve performance issues locally. This in turn promotes service scale in the sense of throughput (end-to-end) and reach (the large numbers of connected endpoints). As such, it is important to see the global Internet today a connected set of “islands” of autonomous system, stitched together through peering agreements.

  • Domain-level control with distributed topology:  
    Each autonomous system typically possesses multiple routers operating the same intra-domain routing protocol. The availability of multiple routers implies availability of multiple routing paths through the domain. Despite this distributed network topology, these routers are centrally controlled (e.g. by the network administrator of the domain). The autonomous system as a control-unit provides manageability, visibility and peering capabilities centrally administered by the owner of the domain.

  • Each entity is uniquely identifiable in its domain
    All routers (and other devices, such as bridges and switches) in an autonomous system are uniquely identifiable and visible to the network operator. This is a precondition of routing. The identifiability and visibility of devices in a domain is usually limited to that domain. Entities outside the domain may not even be aware of the existence individual routers in the domain.

  • Autonomous system reachability: Autonomous systems interact with each other through special kinds of routers (called “Gateways”) that are designed and configured for cross domain packet routing. These operate specific kinds of protocols (such as an exterior Border Gateway Protocol [15, 16]), which provides transfer packets across domains. For various reasons (including privacy and security) these exterior-facing gateway protocols advertise only reachability status information regarding routers and hosts in the domain. They do not make the routing conditions in the domain and other domain throughput information visible to external entities (i.e. other autonomous systems). This limited visibility prevents external domains from performing traffic shaping that may adversely impact a given autonomous system (e.g. driving too much traffic to a given domain).

  • Autonomous systems are owned and operated by legal entities
    All routing autonomous systems (routing domains) today are owned, operated and controlled by known entities. Internet Service Providers (ISPs) provide their Autonomous System Numbers (ASNs) and routing prefixes to Internet Routing Registries (IRRs). IRRs can be used by ISPs to develop routing plans. An example of an IRR is the American Registry for Internet Numbers (ARIN) [17], which is one of several IRRs around the world.

It is worthwhile pointing out that the pioneers of the Internet understood the importance of identity, and certainly did not forget it – as is claimed by some today. Indeed several groups in the IETF discussed the various issues around identity, digital certificates and PKI (e.g. SPKI [18], X.509 [19], PGP [20]) on-going for several years. It was clear even in the mid-1990s that user (human) identity was a function to be provided at layers above the IP routing layer and was a construct extraneous to routing packets.

3 Interoperable Blockchains: Towards a Design Philosophy

In this section we use the fundamental goals of the Internet architecture in the context of interoperable blockchain systems. In the 1980s there was a clear realization that it was necessary to incorporate the then existing network architectures if Internet was to be useful in a practical sense. These networks represent administrative boundaries of control [3]. Today we are seeing a similar situation, in which multiple blockchain designs are being proposed, each having different degrees of technological maturity.

Different organizations and consortiums (e.g. R3/Corda [21], EEA [22]) are developing different blockchain technologies. Additionally, several dozen digital currencies are operating today, and several digital currency exchanges have emerged. A critical aspect of these proposals is their need to address the fundamental question of privacy of transacting parties. Some designs (e.g. Hyperledger Fabric [23]) recognize the primacy of privacy and security, and address these question through a permissioned design. Others are pursuing a permissionless model, using advances cryptographic techniques (e.g. homomorphic encryption; multi-party computation) as a “layer” atop the public permissionless blockchain.

We believe the issue of survivability to be as important as that of privacy and security. As such, we believe that interoperability across blockchain systems will be a core requirement – both at the mechanical level and the value level – if blockchain systems and technologies are to become fundamental infrastructure components of future global commerce.

In this section we identify and discuss some of the challenges to blockchain interoperability, using the Internet architecture as a guide and using the fundamental goals as the basis for developing a design philosophy for interoperable blockchains. We offer the following definition of an “interoperable blockchain architecture” using the NIST definition of “blockchain” (p.50 of [24]):

An interoperable blockchain architecture is a composition of distinguishable blockchain systems, each representing a distributed data ledger, where transaction execution may span multiple blockchain systems, and where data recorded in one blockchain is reachable and verifiable by another possibly foreign transaction in a semantically compatible manner.

Figure 2: Example of the reliability of a simple transaction

3.1 Survivability

The idea that a blockchain system can withstand a concerted attack simply because it consists of physically distributed nodes is an untested and unproven proposition. The possible types of attacks to a blockchain system has been discussed elsewhere, and consists of a broad spectrum. These range from classic network-level attacks (e.g. network partitions; denial of services; etc.) to more sophisticated attacks targeting the particular constructs (eg. consensus implementation [25, 26, 27]), to targeting specific implementations of mining nodes (e.g. code vulnerabilities; viruses).

For blockchain systems we re-interpret the term “survivability” in the sense of the completion of an application-level transaction. Completion here means from its transmission by an end-user application (or by a smart contract on an origin blockchain) to its confirmation on a single blockchain system or multiple systems. The application-level transaction may be composed of multiple ledger-level transactions (sub-transaction) and which may be intended for multiple distinct blockchain systems (e.g. sub-transaction for asset transfer, simultaneously with sub-transaction for payments and sub-transaction for taxes). Thus the notion of packets routing through multiple domains being opaque to the communications application (e.g. email application, browser) is re-cast to the notion of sub-transactions confirmed on a spread of blockchain systems being opaque to the user application.

In the blockchain case reliability and “best effort delivery” becomes the challenge of ensuring that an application-level transaction is completed within reasonable time, possibly independent of the actual blockchains where different ledger-level sub-transactions are completed and confirmed. Thus, the notion of “ connectionless” here means that in a two party application-level engagement both parties should not care which specific blockchain systems confirmed their sub-transaction, so long as all confirmed sub-transactions add up to a confirmed application-level transaction.

To illustrate the challenges of survivability, we start with the simplest case in which an application sends the “data” (signed hash value) to a blockchain for the purpose of recording it on the ledger of the blockchain. We ignore for the moment the dichotomy of permissionless and permissioned blockchains and ignore the specific logic syntax of the blockchain. Here the application does not care

which blockchain records the data so long as once it is recorded the application (and other entities) can later find the transaction/block and verify the data has been recorded. Some form of confirmation must be made available by the blockchain to the transmitting application (e.g. it shows up on a confirmed block).

Figure 2 illustrates the scenario. The application transmits data-bytes (hash) to a blockchain system No. 1, and waits for confirmation (of the successful recording to the ledger) to become available. After waiting for some predetermined time unsuccessfully (i.e. timeout), the application transmits the same data-bytes to a different blockchain system No. 2. The application continues this process until it is able to obtain the desired confirmation. Thus for the application “survivability” means that the simple transaction has been successfully confirmed on some blockchain (i.e. on all nodes of that ledger), even if soon after the blockchain ceases being able to process future transactions due to attacks. The side effect maybe that the same transaction is confirmed independently on multiple blockchain systems, but the application does not care about this possible side effect so long as “the transaction got through”.

Although Figure 2 may appear overly simplistic, it brings forth a number of questions which echo those posed in the early days of the Internet architecture development:

  • Application degree of awareness: To what degree must an application be aware of the internal constructs of a blockchain system in order to interact with it and make use of the blockchain.

    As a point of comparison, an email client application today is not aware of constructs of packets, MPDUs, routing and so on. It interacts with mail-server according to a high-level protocol (e.g. POP3, IMAP, SMTP) and a well-defined API.

  • Placement of functions dealing with reliability: What is the correct notion of “reliability” in the context of interoperable blockchain systems and where should the function of reliability be placed. That is, should the function of re-transmitting the same data-bytes (transaction) be part of the application, part of the blockchain system or part of a yet to be defined “middle layer”.

    In the case of the Internet architecture, reliability of transmission is provided by the TCP protocol, which has a number of flow control features that “hides” reliability issues from the higher level applications.

  • Semantic type of blockchain: What mechanism is needed to communicate to an external application the semantic type of the ledger-level transaction supported by a given blockchain system. For example, a blockchain system for payments is different from one for recording assets, and furthermore different payments blockchains around the world may be implemented differently. Merely publishing an application-level API does not guarantee interoperability at the blockchain level.

  • Distinguishability of blockchain systems: For an interoperable blockchain architecture, how does an application distinguish among blockchain systems (even if they have compatible semantics) and at what level should an application be aware.

    Assuming the existence of multiple blockchain systems that can serve the need of the application in Figure 2, how does the application distinguish between these blockchain systems. Furthermore, should the application even need know the actual blockchain system that successfully completed the request.

  • Objective benchmarks for speed and throughput: How do external entities obtain information about the current performance of a blockchain system and what measure can be used to compare across systems.

One of the key considerations in the design of the Internet architecture is the real possibility in the case of emergencies for private networks to be temporarily placed under government control for the purposes of government/military communications. The interoperability of networks was therefore crucial in answering this need. Similarly, today the question applies to blockchain systems. In the case of emergencies could independent and/or private blockchain systems be temporarily placed under government control such that relevant transactions (e.g. central bank transactions) can continue to flow. The interoperability of blockchain systems is crucial in answering this future need.

3.2 Variety of service types

The second goal of the Internet architecture was the support for different types of services, distinguished by different speeds, latency and reliability. The bi-directional reliable data delivery model was suitable for a variety of “applications” on the Internet but each application required different speeds and bandwidth consumptions (e.g. remote login; file transfer, etc). This understanding led to the realization early in the design of the Internet that more than one transport service would be needed and that the architecture must support simultaneously transports wishing to tailor reliability, delay or bandwidth usage. This resulted in the separation of TCP (that provided reliable sequenced data stream) from the IP protocol that provided “best effort” delivery using the common building block of the datagram. The User Datagram Protocol (UDP) [28] was created to address the need for certain applications that wished to trade reliability for direct access to the datagram construct.

For interoperable blockchain systems, we re-interpret the goal of supporting a variety of services to supporting the following variety of transaction aspects: (i) speed and achieved-majority of confirmation of a given system; (ii) the directionality of transactions; (iii) the strength of consensus:

  • Speed and achieved majority: The speed (or “throughput”) of a blockchain system refers to the confirmation speed, based on the population size of the participating nodes and other factors.

  • Directionality of ledger-transactions: The directionality refers to whether the transmitting application is acting alone or in a request-response mode of engagement with a second party (or a group).

    • Uni-directional transactions: A transaction is uni-directional if the transmitting application does not intend it for any specific entity and no response from a peer application is expected. An example wold be a simple asset registry blockchain which records a hash of the digital scan of certificates (e.g. shares; land deeds; etc).

    • Bi-directional transactions: A transaction is bi-directional if the transmitting application intends that transaction for a peer application and expects a response-transaction from that peer.

  • Strength of consensus: An important consideration for users and applications seeking to refer to (and therefore rely on) data recorded on a ledger within a blockchain system is the size of the population of nodes (i.e. entities contributing to the consensus) at any given moment and whether this information is obtainable. Obtaining this information maybe challenging in systems where nodes are either anonymous, or perhaps unobtainable by external entities in the case of permissioned systems.

    In the case of smart contracts, there is also the question regarding the provenance and source-authenticy of the (externally-sourced) data being used by a smart contract to compute an outcome.

Figure 3: Example of peer applications using different variety of blockchains systems

3.3 Variety of blockchain systems

The third fundamental goal of the Internet architecture was to support a variety of networks, which included networks employing different transmission technologies (e.g. X.25, SNA, etc.), local networks and long-haul networks, and networks operated/owned by different legal entities. The minimum assumption of the Internet architecture – which is core to the success of the Internet as an interoperable system of networks – was that each network must be able to transport a datagram or packet as the lowest unit common denominator. Furthermore, this was to be performed “best effort” – namely with reasonable reliability, but not perfect reliability.

From a blockchain interoperability perspective, one possible re-interpretation of this original problem is as follows: how can multiple types of blockchain systems support the completion of a bi-directional transaction between two applications, involving computational resources across blockchain systems where some maybe operated (or owned) by different entities. Figure 3 illustrates a simplistic example.

In Figure 3 applications X and Y are each employing different blockchain systems relating to currency/payments and asset ownership. Each blockchain system implements a different semantic logic and each operates under a different permissioning regime. When application X seeks to interact with foreign application Y, each may not have sufficient privileges to read from the permissioned blockchain where their previous transactions have been confirmed. Thus, when application X wishes to transfer (to Y) asset “ownership” (e.g. land deed) currently in blockchain system No. 1 (permissioned), application Y has no way to validate the ownership of the asset. This is because the foreign application Y does not have authorization to read from the ledger in blockchain system No. 1. This problem is further compounded in the case of smart contracts that incorporate parts of the business logic of the applications.

As such, this dilemma raises several questions, including one pertaining to the minimum assumption for interoperable blockchain systems:

  • Minimal assumption: What is the minimal assumption for interoperable blockchain systems with regards to the notion of transaction units. In other words, what is the “datagram” equivalent of transactions – namely the transaction unit that is semantically understandable (processable) by multiple different blockchain systems.

  • Degrees of permissionability: Currently the permissionless/permissioned distinction refers to the degree to which users can participate in the system [24]. Interoperability across permissioned blockchains poses additional questions with regards to how data recorded on the ledger can be referenced (referred to or “pointed to”) by transactions in a foreign domain (i.e. another blockchain system).

  • Degrees of anonymity: There are at least two (2) degrees of anonymity that is relevant to blockchain systems. The first pertains to the anonymity (i.e. identity-anonymity [29, 30]) of the users and the second to that of the nodes participating in processing transactions (e.g. nodes participating in a given consensus instance).

    Combinations are possible, such as where a permissioned system may require all consensus nodes to be strongly authenticated and identified, but allows for end-users to remain permissionless (and even unidentified/unauthenticated).

3.4 Reachability

Peering agreements between autonomous systems allows a patchwork of islands of autonomous systems to collectively provide routability of packets from its ingress point to its destination. Gateway routers (entities labelled in Figure 1) do not export full routing information or paths to entities external to the autonomous system. Instead, gateway devices only provide reachability information regarding local hosts or other autonomous systems accessible through its domain. This model is partly driven by business survivability, where competing ISPs (under a peering agreement) may purposely “push” (offload) traffic towards competitor ISPs, using traffic shaping tools and algorithms.

A model akin to this gateway approach may be suitable for the interoperability of blockchain systems. Using the example in Figure 3, the gateways in blockchain system No. 2 (permissioned) can act as a proxy for the permissioned blockchain. When a non-permissioned application Y seeks to obtain information regarding confirmed transactions in blockchain No. 2, it must present a delegated authorization from application X who has access privileges to blockchain No. 2. We discuss delegation in Section 4.2.

3.5 Interconnecting Values

The architecture of the Internet was a messaging delivery architecture that separated the mechanical transmission of packets from the value of the information contained in the packets. The notion of priority packets was supported, but it was primarily intended for control data versus content payload data. As such, the notion of value was external to the Internet. Today this model remains also true for the majority blockchain systems. For example, the Bitcoin system [31] does not bind the BTC currency denomination to any real-word asset, and a such the notion of value is an external one (“in the eye of the beholder”).

For specific families of applications, such as currency and financial applications, the ability to transfer value from one system to another is paramount and indeed the sole purpose of those applications and systems. Thus for a semantically homogenous or near-homogenous network of blockchain systems (e.g. payments) the challenges of value-transferral becomes more manageable.

A promising direction in this respect is the Inter-Ledger Protocol (ILP) proposal [32] which puts forward a packet format and per-hop transferal protocol to transmit value (payments) from a sender to a receiver over a network of currecy blockchain systems. The end-to-end behavior of ILP is reminiscent of the Resource Reservation Protocol (RSVP) [33] in which a bi-directional path is “reserved” from the origin to destination, and where the path needs to exist for a short duration of time. To do this the RSVP protocol reserves in/out interfaces (and other computational resources) at each router per-hop from the origin to destination.

In the ILP model the sender and receiver of the payment are assumed to be on distinct blockchain systems. The ILP architecture employs a value connector at the application level between two blockchain segments. Thus at each hop through the path from sender to receiver there may be a per-hop connector deployed. The function of the connector entity is to perform value-conversion from one currency to another. The connector behaves very similarly to a currency-exchange, and therefore a connector entity must have sufficient reserves of “foreign” currencies (for each currency it supports) in order to participate in the path being formed from the sender to the receiver. The connector model also mimics the behavior of routers and gateways in dealing with overload to their interfaces. In the case of ILP a connector becomes overloaded when most or all of its pair-wise denominations have been used or “reserved” in one or more payment paths through that connector. In this case an overloaded connector can simply reject new requests until some of its open paths have been closed and its resources (denominations) have become freed-up (settled).

It is important to note that the connector in ILP represents the value-points which are external to the blockchain systems involved. That is, the notion of value remains separated from the transaction mechanics of the underlying blockchain systems.

3.6 Moveable Smart Contracts for Survivability

For many observers and user of blockchain technology, the potentially revolutionizing aspect of blockchain technology is not so much the immutability of the ledger but instead the notion of smart contracts, which are invokable executable-code present on P2P nodes of the blockchain system [34]. The concept of smart contracts resembles ‘stored procedures” (in classic database systems), but in the case of smart contracts they would reside on many or all nodes of the blockchain. However, in the case of unreachable blockchain systems (e.g. one under attack and therefore has a degraded throughput), the resident smart contracts may not be invokable or may not be able to complete/terminate due to severe resource shortages.

The following are some challenges related to survivability of the smart contract feature when a blockchain is under attack:

  • Is there a minimal common syntax for smart contracts that allow a smart contract to be copied (“moved”) from nodes in one blockchain to nodes at a different blockchain system, where execution in the new blockchain yields identical or semantically-equivalent output (both technically and legally).

  • Should the physical location of execution (i.e. which blockchain system) of smart contracts be opaque to applications.

  • How can an application waiting too long (timing-out) for a smart contract in one blockchain trigger or initiate the moving (copying) of the smart contract to a new blockchain system.

3.7 Cryptographic Survivability

An important consideration with regards to blockchain-based proposals is the complexity of the “cryptographic schemes” underlying some proposed blockchain systems. Many cryptographic schemes are composed of multiple cryptographic building blocks. In each scheme some components maybe well understood, field deployed and even standardized. However, other components may represent a new idea that have never been field tested or withstand theoretical or practical attacks. The point here is that the development of cryptographic technology is a Darwinian evolutionary process, in which a successful attack one day becomes lessons learned for improvements for the next design.

A good case in point is the evolutionary process undergone by symmetric ciphers (block ciphers) for the past three decades (e.g. DES, DES3, AES, etc.). Symmetric ciphers are a crucial component not only of national defense infrastructures, but also of the global commercial banking industry. Similarly, weaknesses found in some asymmetric ciphers (e.g. RSA) often results in recommended key lengths being extended (e.g. NIST SP 800-175B).

Today some commercial blockchain systems are proposing to use complex schemes (e.g. Zero-Knowledge Proofs (ZKP), homomorphic encryption, etc.), many of which are still at research stage at best. It remains to be seen how attacks on these schemes impact the blockchain systems which employ them.

4 Interoperability Design in Tradecoin

The MIT Tradecoin project [35] has a number of objectives, one core goal being the development of a “blueprint” model for interoperable blockchain systems which can be applied to multiple use-cases. Some uses cases which have been identified are: (i) a reserve digital currency shared by a number of geopolitically diverse small countries, as a means to provide local financial stability [36]; (ii) a digital currency operating for a narrow-bank that can provide relative stability during financially volatile periods [37]; (iii) farmers with crop assets that wish to combine their assets to achieve better market presence; (iv) logistics chains with many cooperating companies holding assets that will be combined into a final product or service. As a blue-print, the Tradecoin interoperability model should be independent of any specific blockchain implementation.

In this section we discuss various aspects of the Tradecoin interoperability model, following the notion of autonomous systems as developed in the Internet architecture. Attention is given specifically to cross-domain transactions and the role of “gateways” (special nodes or computers) that support interoperability across blockchain autonomous systems.

Although this section focuses on the technical aspects of gateways, it is generally understood that interoperability needs to occur both at the technical (mechanical) level and at the “value” level:

  • Mechanical level interoperability: This layer encompasses the computer and network systems (hardware and software) that implement the technical blockchain constructs as well as the communications constructs. This layer contains protocols, cryptography, encryption, signing, identities (identifiers), operational governance rules, consensus algorithms, transactions, probes and so on.

  • Value level interoperability: This layer is external to the blockchain system and encompasses constructs that accord value as perceived in the human world. Humans, societies, real assets, fiat currencies, liquidity, legal regimes and regulations all contribute to form the notion of “value” as attached to (bound to) the constructs (e.g. coins, tokens) that circulate in the blockchain system, and which are in-turn implemented by systems and subsystems at the mechanical layer. Included also is the notion of legal governance rules which support humans in making decisions regarding the operations of a given blockchain as an autonomous system.

We believe this general two-level view is consistent with the end-to-end principle of the Internet architecture because it places the human semantics (value) and social interactions at the ends of (i.e. outside) the mechanical systems. Interoperability at the mechanical level is necessary for interoperability at the value level but does not guarantee it. Human agreements (i.e. legal contracts) must be used at the value level to provide semantically compatible meanings to the constructs (e.g. coins, tokens) that circulate in the blockchain system. Thus, semantic interoperability is required not only at the value level but also at the mechanical level.

The mechanical level plays a crucial role in providing technological solutions that can help humans in quantifying risk through the use of a more measurable technical trust [38]. In most cases technical-trust is obtained through a combination of demonstrably strong cryptographic algorithms, proper key management, tamper-resistant hardware (to a specific measure of cost) and roots of trust that combine trustworthy computing principles with legal trust (e.g. contract that binds the root of trust with legal enforceable obligations and warranties).

Legal trust is the bridge between the mechanical level and the value level. That is, technical-trust and legal-trust support business trust (at the value level) by supporting real-world participants in quantifying and managing risks associated with transactions occurring at the mechanical level. Standardization of technologies that implement technical trust promotes the standardization of legal contracts – also known as legal trust frameworks – which in turn reduces the overall business cost of operating autonomous systems.

Figure 4: Tradecoin model: (a) Blockchain as Autonomous System, and (b) Gateways

4.1 The Tradecoin Autonomous System

The Tradecoin model views each blockchain system as being a fully fledged autonomous system in the sense of the Internet architecture. The basic Tradecoin system is shown in Figure 4(a). The blockchain autonomous system consists of entities which operate intra-domain (e.g. P2P nodes) and entities that operate inter-domain.

  • Intra-domain entities: The entities dealing with intra-domain transactions are the peer-to-peer nodes (). This includes nodes that participate in consensus computations (e.g. full mining nodes in Bitcoin [31]), nodes that “orchestrate” consensus computations (e.g. Orderers and Endorsers in Fabric [23]), and nodes which perform validations only (e.g. Validators in Ripple [39]). In the Tradecoin interoperability model, an autonomous system may contain multiple blockchain systems.

  • Inter-domain entities: The entities dealing specifically with inter-domain transactions are denoted as Gateways and shown as in in Figure 4(b). Depending on implementation, gateways may operate collectively as a group or they may operate loosely-coupled.

In the Tradecoin interoperability model, the boundary (perimeter) of the autonomous system is largely determined by (i) the degree of identity-anonymity and authentication of the intra-domain entities such as nodes (i.e. to each other in the same domain); and (ii) degree of permissionability of the blockchain autonomous system as seen by foreign entities (see Section 3.3). Thus, unlike classical corporate network topologies which define a clear (defensive) physical network perimeter, in blockchain autonomous systems the “perimeter” is defined by the participation of the entities in an intra-domain arrangement. These intra-domain entities need not be located in the same physical proximity, but in some cases may be required to enter into a legal agreement (e.g. system rules of operation). Depending on the use-case, these entities may be owned by a single organization (e.g. private corporation), or be jointly-owned by a multiple organizations (e.g. consortium).

In defining permissionability the Tradecoin interoperability model uses a number of permissioning configurations. The first two pertain to the P2P nodes of the blockchain system, while the remaining two pertain to the end-users and applications:

  • Node-permissioned: In this permissioning configuration, nodes must be permissioned to participate in one or more aspects of the operation of the blockchain system. Using the Hyperledger Fabric [23] as an example, an instance of a Fabric blockchain may require all the Orderers and Endorsers nodes to be authenticated and authorized to operate.

  • Consensus-permissioned: In this permissioning configuration only the nodes that participate directly in consensus algorithm computations need to be authenticated and authorized.

  • User write-permissioned: This permissioning configuration pertains to the end-users and their applications. In a write-permissioned configuration, the user/application must be authenticated and authorized to transmit a ledger-modifying transaction to the blockchain.

  • User read-permissioned: In a read-permissioned configuration, the user/application must be authenticated and authorized to read the contents of the ledger of the blockchain system.

Figure 5: Set of Gateways for Reachability and Transaction Mediation

4.2 The Role of Gateways

The set of gateways collectively provides at least three (3) types of functional support to the entities in the Tradecoin autonomous system:

  • Value stability: For implementations of Tradecoin that exchange value-carrying constructs (e.g. digital coins, assets), the gateways collectively act to provide stability at the value level.

    Thus, for example, in the case of a Narrow Bank scenario [37] which distinguishes asset-contributing entities (called “sponsors”) from users, each sponsor may own and operate equal numbers of nodes and gateways within the shared blockchain system. The gateways may collectively implement an asset-tracking blockchain, while the remaining intra-domain nodes implement the local digital currency of the Narrow Bank. The value-translation between the coins circulating in the currency blockchain (intra-domain) against other foreign denominations is performed by the gateways, which may hold a basket of real-world assets (e.g. basket of oil, gold, commodities, greenback, etc) to back the intra-domain digital currency.

  • Reachability: The gateways collectively support reachability to data intra-domain on ledger of the blockchain. They support cross-domain lookup mechanisms from foreign entities (e.g. nodes in other blockchains) seeking to locate data pertaining to transactions confirmed on the local ledger. That is, the gateways provide reachability so that internal confirmed transaction can be meaningfully referenced outside the blockchain system.

  • Transaction mediation: The gateways provide a mediation function for cross-domain transactions involving two or more (permissioned) blockchain systems, where transaction data in ledgers may be considered as private and sensitive information.

4.3 Reachability

An interoperable architecture for blockchain systems must allow not only for entities to be uniquely identifiable and authenticated, but also for transactions on the ledger to be uniquely referenceable across domains regardless of permissioning configurations:

  • Endpoint identifier resolutions: Gateways provide a perimeter/boundary for permissioned blockchain systems for the purposes of naming/identifier resolution. Thus when a transaction-identifier is externally referenced and resolved to a ledger-entry inside a permissioned blockchain system, the gateways “intercept” that resolution request and act as (defensive) end-points for these external requests.

  • Identifier masking for data privacy: Gateways provide “masking” (re-naming) of transaction identifiers in local ledgers inside the blockchain autonomous system. This may involve mapping different identifiers for the same transaction data, where one identifier is used for intra-domain referencing and another is used for cross-domain referencing. The gateways also play a role in filtering information leaving the boundary of a blockchain system, limiting privacy leakage.

    Note that this mapping idea itself is not new and is deployed today at a global scale in Internet addressing (e.g. IPv4/IPv6 address mapping, NAT address traversal [40]).

  • Identifier referencing and de-referencing service: Gateways may collectively implement a transaction-identifier resolution service, in similar sense to the hierarchical arrangement of the Domain Name Service (DNS and DNS-SEC) [41, 42].

With regards to addressability, one promising approach is that of the Inter-Ledger Protocol [32] (v1.0.0) which proposes the use of an addressing scheme that allows ledgers and nested-ledgers to be identified, and which proposes a global allocation scheme for these addresses.

4.4 Inter-Domain Transaction Mediation

Gateways in a blockchain autonomous system may collectively provide a mechanism to proactively mediate cross-domain transactions involving two blockchain systems as distinct autonomous systems. The gateways in the respective systems must interact facilitate the atomic and correct recording of cross-ledger transactions.

Figure 5 illustrates the simple use-case discussed earlier. Here, a user with Application X has his or her asset-ownership (e.g. land title deed) recorded on the ledger inside blockchain BC1. The user wishes to transfer legal ownership of the asset to a different user running Application Y and have the asset recoded authoritatively on the ledger inside blockchain BC2. Both blockchain BC1 and BC2 are permissioned/private blockchain systems. Thus, none of the gateways in BC1 can read/write to BC2, and none of the gateways in BC2 can read/write to BC1.

The term “authoritative” here means that (i) henceforth any external de-referencing of the asset identifier must resolve to blockchain BC2; and (ii) the ledger in BC1 must be “marked” for that asset such that it henceforth points to BC2 for any local look-ups for that asset transaction data.

The Tradecoin interoperability model proposes the use of the classical cross-domain delegation paradigm that is well-established in several sectors of industry (e.g. cross-domain directory services [43, 44]). Without going into details, in Figure 5 the set of gateways in BC1 and BC2 respectively act as delegates to the users/applications involved. Thus, the entities intra-domain within BC1 and BC2 must trust their gateways to create a temporary bridge that allows their gateways to be synchronized temporarily until both ledgers (in BC1 and BC2 respectively) have completed recording the asset-transfer transaction.

Since blockchains BC1 and BC2 are permissioned and one side cannot see the ledger at the other side, the gateways of each blockchain must “vouch” that the transaction have been confirmed on the respective ledgers. That is, the gateways must issue a legally-binding signed assertions that makes them liable for misreporting (intentionally or otherwise). The signature can be issued by one gateway only, or it can be a collective group signature of all gateways in the blockchain system. Various cryptographic schemes have been proposed over the past two decades around group-oriented signatures [45]. Each of these gateway signatures must also be recorded on the respective ledgers.

There are several desirable features of the gateway-mediated approach outline above:

  • Verifiability of local confirmations: Both the transmitter and recipient applications must be able to independently verify that the transaction was confirmed on their respective blockchains, with sufficient data to allow post-event auditing.

  • Legally binding signatures of gateways: Delegated gateways must have signatures that are binding, independent of how the gateway(s) was chosen to be the delegate for the given cross-domain transaction. Numerous proposals exist for leader-elections, group voting, consensus and so on.

  • Equivalent reliability: There must be multiple reliable “paths” (i.e. set of respective gateways) between blockchains BC1 and BC2. Thus, looking at Figure 5 there must be multiple paths from BC1 and BC2, and from BC2 to BC1. Any gateway in BC1 must be able to “pair” with any gateway in BC2.

    The gateways themselves must never become a hindrance to completing the a cross-domain transaction. Attacking gateways must not yield better results (to the attacker) compared to attacking the P2P nodes intra-domain in the blockchain system.

  • Global resolution to the correct authoritative blockchain: Any external entities seeking to lookup/resolve an identifier (e.g. linked to the asset) must always resolve to the correct authoritative blockchain system. In order words, in Figure 5 after the cross-domain transaction has completed, subsequent lookups of the asset must resolve to BC2 (or the gateways of BC2).

  • Identifiability and authenticity of gateways: In order for gateways to act as a delegate for the user/application, they must be identifiable (i.e. non-anonymous) both internally (intra-domain) and externally (inter-domain). Gateways must be able to mutually authenticate each other without any ambiguity as to their identity, legal ownership or the “home” blockchain autonomous system which they exclusively represent.

4.5 Peering Agreements for Blockchain Systems

A key aspect in the Internet architecture that promotes and expands the interconnectivity of the autonomous systems is the peering agreements between these systems. In the context of IP routing, peering is voluntary and occurs typically between Internet Service Providers (ISPs). The peering agreements are contracts that define the various interconnection mechanical aspects (e.g. traffic bandwidth, protocols, etc) as well as fees (“settlements”) and possible penalties. Peering is made possible by the standardization of cross-domain routing protocols (e.g. BGP [15])

Historically, a peering arrangement can be considered “public” in the sense that there is a “group contract” among a group of ISPs that allow any group-member to transit traffic through another member. Peering agreements can also be “private” in that it is entered into by two ISPs, providing mutually better service levels to both parties. Peering agreements provides the ISPs with the correct incentive structure for them to operate their autonomous system as a business.

For the interoperability of blockchain systems, a notion similar to peering and peering-agreements must be developed that: (i) define the semantic compatibility required for two blockchains to exchange cross-domain transactions; (ii) specifies the cross-domain protocols required; (iii) specifies the delegation and technical-trust mechanisms to be used; and (iv) define the legal agreements (e.g. service levels, fees, penalties, liabilities, warranties) for peering.

It is important to note that in the Tradecoin interoperability model, the gateways of a blockchain system represents the peering-points of the blockchain. The peering agreement can be established either with another blockchain system (private bilateral), with a group of blockchain systems (private multi-lateral), or with an open “exchange” system (public peering).

5 Discussion: Survivable Digital Currency and CBDC

Several governments in the world have recently indicated their interest in using digital currency technology as the basis for a future reserve currency, also referred to as Central Bank Digital Currency (CBDC) or Sovereign Money [46]. Some examples include Switzerland [47], China [48] and Russia [49].

Although digital currencies may enhance economic strengths of certain nations, the move to a digital currency comes with its own set of challenges. As nations increasingly rely on digital infrastructures, those infrastructures – if not designed and operated correctly – may bring a different set of liabilities.

In this section we pose a number of questions concerning the survivability of digital currencies and CBDCs, particularly in the face future sophisticated cyber-attacks on the monetary electronic infrastructure. Instead of focusing on the survival of one blockchain system, we discuss communities of blockchain autonomous systems as the basic unit of concern, recognizing that there will be many communities with varying sizes, technical capabilities and varying instruments of value.

  • Independence of communities of blockchain systems: Assuming that blockchain systems deployments evolve organically in a similar manner to the Internet, what would be the most useful composition of “communities” of blockchain autonomous systems from the point of view of currency survivability? A key aspect is the ability of a community to continue functioning economically while the monetary flows into (out of) that community are temporarily disrupted.

    Today the Internet operates not only at the level of local ISPs, but also across long-haul physical networks coast to coast, and overseas. Connectivity of the Internet within the US and Canada will most likely continue to operate even if overseas connectivity was lost. Similarly, loss of coast to coast IP connectivity will still allow local ISPs to offer services to its local physically connected communities. Multiple reliable IP traffic paths coast to coast ensures that disruptions from attacks have minimal effects.

  • Survivable peering models: What kinds of peering agreements need to be developed for blockchain autonomous systems within a community to enhance the operational survival chances of that community. Furthermore, should super-peering agreements be developed for cross-community engagements that come into effect in emergency situations.

  • Self-protecting blockchain autonomous systems

    : How can advanced artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) technologies be used to enhance the protection of communities of blockchain autonomous systems? Distributed AI/ML tools can be used to analyze community behaviors on the transactional level and provide insight into anomalies that may indicate unauthorized attempts to alter or influence monetary flows within a given community. The predictive capabilities of these tools could be used to support the enhanced shaping of monetary-flows in anticipation of emergent attacks.

  • Cross-community recovery from attacks: How can communities of blockchain autonomous systems re-establish transactional connectivity automatically and organically (at the mechanical-level and value-level) after they have experienced “isolation” due to successful attacks? Furthermore, how can “old infrastructure” (e.g. transactional systems, interbank networks, paper cash, etc) be used to boot-up communities into a stable state (preferably into the same pre-attack state).

6 Conclusions

The fundamental goals underlying the Internet architecture has played a key role in determining the interoperability of the various networks and service types, which together compose the Internet as we know it today. A number of design principles emerged from the evolution of internet routing in the 1970s and 1980s, which ensured the scalable operation of the Internet over the last three decades.

We believe that a similar design philosophy is needed for interoperable blockchain systems.

The recognition that a blockchain system is an autonomous system is an important starting point that allows notions such as reachability, referencing of transaction data in ledgers, scalability and other aspects to be understood more meaningfully – beyond the current notion of throughput (“scale”), which is often the sole measure of performance stated with regards to some blockchain system.

Furthermore, interoperability forces a deeper re-thinking into how permissioned and permissionless blockchain systems can interoperate without a third party (such as an exchange). A key aspect is the semantic interoperability at the value level and at the mechanical level. Interoperability at the mechanical level is necessary for interoperability at the value level but does not guarantee it. The mechanical level plays a crucial role in providing technological solutions that can help humans in quantifying risk through the use of a more measurable notion of technical-trust. Human agreements (i.e. legal contracts) must be used at the value level to provide semantically compatible meanings to the constructs (e.g. coins, tokens) that circulate in the blockchain system.


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