Cosmos 2020, a look back

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This is a personal, subjective retrospective on Cosmos in 2020. The views expressed here do not represent the views of the Interchain Foundation, All in Bits, Inc (dba Tendermint Inc.) or any other entity within the Cosmos ecosystem.

Puberty. That’s sort of how I felt 2020 has been for Cosmos.

If Cosmos was reading Dr. Seuss and singing Baby Shark in 2019, this year (which started with a bang) it started to browse sappy Tumblr blogs listening to My Chemical Romance thinking, “Why can’t the world understand I.N.T.E.R.O.P.E.R.A.B.I.L.I.T.Y?”.

That being said, puberty is sort of when humans grow–both physically and mentally. This was the case for Cosmos as well. While we may have kicked off 2020 with a lot of uncertainty and fear, both within Cosmos and in the world, when I look back at 2020, the memories of growth that Cosmos ecosystem achieved significantly outnumbers the difficult times.

Let’s talk about some of them.

Antifragility through diversity

2020 not only brought about some the biggest changes to the Cosmos SDK and Tendermint codebase but also in how the software was developed.

The uncertainties that existed at the beginning of the year around the organizational restructuring within the Cosmos ecosystem was gradually answered as the year progressed. The outcome was a more vibrant and decentralized open-source blockchain development ecosystem that few in the blockchain space can match. The philosophy of Cosmos has always been about ‘many sovereign zones, one interoperable ecosystem’. Intentional, or not, it still feels apt that the development process now reflects that exact philosophy of Cosmos.

One evidence of that was seeing how Cosmos architectural decisions were proposed, discussed, and developed in the open. There was a total of 18 Cosmos SDK ADRs proposed this year, and 8 of them accepted. Many of the proposals came from users of Cosmos SDK, signaling a healthy feedback loop of open source development. Much of the key architectural decisions for Stargate, which needs to be emphasized that it was the biggest set of changes that Cosmos SDK has seen since launch, was made through this open ADR process.

Fragmentation of codebase across many Cosmos-related organizations’ repositories was streamlined to one ‘Cosmos’ Github, which the Interchain Foundation stewards. Many entities were broken down into Cosmos ‘teams’ where they maintain the specific product they are working on within the ecosystem.

The value of blockchain systems that’s more important than the vague metric of ‘decentralization’ is antifragility. 2020 was reassuring in that even if one part of the system fails, there are sufficient safety nets that have been constructed throughout the growth of the ecosystem that the failure of one will not result in a catastrophic failure of the entire ecosystem.

Now, even the process of building a byzantine fault-tolerant software has become byzantine fault-tolerant. And this is a massive feat that few get to boast about.

Usability. For both developers and users

Users are how the product finds meaning, and this is no different for Cosmos.

At large, a ‘blockchain user’ can be categorized into two categories: the builder and the end-user. One of the biggest tell-tales of a mature blockchain ecosystem is the infrastructure available for those who are building and those who are using it. Cosmos in 2020 made tremendous strides in making building and using blockchains easier.

For the builders, Starport allowed you to scaffold, code, launch a Cosmos SDK blockchain (alongside a beautiful web interface) within minutes. It abstracted away much of the configuration work that was necessary when building with Cosmos in 2019, and allowed users to simply start coding and begin launching. It completely changes the notion that blockchain development is difficult.

Atlas, a Cosmos SDK module registry, allows builders to quickly find and add new modules into their blockchain. If building a Cosmos blockchain is piecing together many lego blocks, Atlas saves developers the time it takes sifting through the lego bin looking for ‘that’ lego block you need. Think of it as the NPM for Cosmos SDK development.

Other notable improvements in developer usability were transaction signing and key management. CosmJS and Keplr, both released in 2020 significantly lowered the barrier to entry in creating a blockchain web interface. CosmJS provides a secure, flexible, and modular JavaScript/TypeScript signing interface which can work with nearly all types of Cosmos SDK based chains. Paired with Keplr, which now boasts nearly 4,000 users since its launch this year, allows instant access to an interchain user pool which simply wasn’t possible before. Furthermore, having the option to automatically add new Cosmos chains to Keplr allows a streamlined, unified experience for zones big and small.

Development flexibility

Two extremely high-value virtual machines have come to finalize this year: CosmWasm and Ethermint. While the standard Tendermint + SDK framework of building application-specific blockchains is a double-edged sword. The sovereign chain narrative that a native staking token and validator set provide can be beneficial, but it’s also a difficult hurdle for smaller applications that simply lack the resources. This is the exact problem that smart contract modules on Cosmos solve. It allows applications to be launched quickly and safely, providing a solid migration path to scaling and independence.

The Confio’s team’s progress in 2020 has been immense in building out the most widely used smart contracting platform in Cosmos. Currently deployed on Terra and Secret Network, with plans for many more zones to adopt it, it sped up the development to launch cycle within the Cosmos ecosystem. Its architecture takes into account many lessons learned from Solidity–and creates a novel and efficient way to deploy applications written in Rust.

On the other hand, Ethermint. Solidity is so widely used that, despite its imperfections, it has one of the biggest development resources in the blockchain space. There are so many template smart contracts built by projects, that many new DeFi projects only really have to focus on one or two core smart contract logic and reuse many contracts that are already widely available. That being said, resource constraints and gas prices are truly becoming a concern. It should be noted that the value proposition of Ethermint isn’t so much as to ‘replace’ what exists on Ethereum, but rather to complement some of the drawbacks of Ethereum by providing a cheap, gas-efficient layer-2 solution (and the interoperability is a huge bonus).

Chainsafe made significant progress this year in making Ethermint production-ready. Not only are existing smart contracts on Ethereum able to be deployed on Ethermint, but also much of the Web3 libraries will be compatible with Ethermint. A public testnet is running smoothly, and a public mainnet will soon follow.

Progress on interoperability

IBC 1.0 is complete. And without a doubt, it provides the world’s most flexible and modular protocol of communicating between heterogeneous blockchains.

The development process of IBC was another one area where the multi-entity structure truly shined. A cooperative development process between Interchain GmbH, Informal Systems and others increased the usability and robustness of the IBC protocol. Extensive testing and internal code audits took place over the course of the year. Informal Systems continues to extend IBC and relayer in Rust, a language that is quickly being adopted across the blockchain space–which in turn broadens the markets reachable by IBC.

Since Althea has taken the lead on Peggy this year, the optimizations and improvements for the upcoming Ethereum-Cosmos bridge have been immense. Cosmos Peggy will be the most decentralized Ethereum bridge where the safety of the bridge is guaranteed by a 100+ slashable validator set, and not a set of administrators. The Althea team was able to optimize gas costs of an ERC20 to Cosmos transfer down to 500,000 gas (or $2 @ 20gwei), with the ability to batch transactions which would break down the walls that exist between the two blockchains.

The work to broaden the horizon of Cosmos kicked off the effort in building a Cosmos-Substrate IBC bridge, as well as a Cosmos-Celo bridge.

Community-led discussions on Hub value proposition

Another sign of Cosmos maturing was seen in the community questions that were raised in regards to the value proposition of the Cosmos Hub and its token, the Atom. As early efforts were spent in getting all the essentials technology up and running, this question was largely in the back of people’s minds in 2019. However, with the changing crypto landscape of on-chain application success (mostly DeFi) and the many more Cosmos SDK zones launching this fundamental question was revisited this year.

The growth philosophy for Cosmos has always been to create the best in class tools for developers to turn their ideas into blockchains, which in turn would create an active, interconnected network of high-value blockchains using IBC. Now, how the Hub will monetize that has been a critical ongoing discussion throughout this year.

With active discussions in starting in the UnifiDAO channel throughout the year, a community-led funding round for accelerating the pace of development and deployment of Peggy was completed as part of the ATOM2021 initiative. Furthermore, Tendermint funded the work in building an automated market maker to be deployed onto the Hub–a value proposition of the Hub that most in the community seems to agree with.

Ultimately, it’s for Hub governance to decide the direction it’s headed to. What this year provided was the bootstrapping of an active community-led coordination ground.

So what’s next?

2020 was the year things got built. 2021 is when these things will shine.

When the cumulation of building in 2020 meets its final catalyst, IBC deployment, there will be a new wave of products and zones launched at a pace never imagined before. The truth of the matter is, Cosmos in 2020 wasn’t slow. It was just that Cosmos refused to cut corners–and this will pay off, I guarantee.

I must emphasize though, how all of this gets executed mostly depends on you. The beauty of Cosmos really is a decentralized ecosystem, which means that you, as the delegator, is the one calling the shots. My biggest wish for 2021 is to see a greater role of Cosmos Hub governance in leading the agenda for the Cosmos ecosystem at-large.

That being said, there wasn’t a day in Cosmos where I was less excited for what is in store tomorrow than what I am aware of today. Our shared commitment to unapologetic honesty and transparency is one I will always take pride in. The talent, growth and sheer passion that bring us together in spite of the diversity of opinion foreshadows the massive sovereign, interoperable ecosystem of tomorrow we are building, today.

Thank you each and every one of you, the stakeholders of Cosmos at-large for doing exactly what you do.

Here’s to a cosmic 2021🥂

Cosmos 2020, a look back was originally published in Cosmos Blog on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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