On paper, the RChain project has been one of the most promising blockchain platform development efforts in the space when it started in late 2017. It is aiming to introduced breakthrough innovations such as a decentralized acyclic graph block structure instead of a chain, its own version of Casper proof-of-stake (PoS) protocol ahead of Ethereum, on-chain scaling through sharding, on-chain storage and, most importantly, at least according to its developers and supporters, a fundamentally novel approach to computation that differs from all the existing and currently developed smart contract platforms.
The latter derives from the work of the project’s founder and RChain Cooperative’s president Greg Meredith who built on the relatively well-known in the computer science pi calculus to create the so-called rho-calculus (reflective higher order calculus). According to Meredith, this computation paradigm that manifests itself in the rholang smart contract language specifically created for RChain allows processes to run in a truly concurrent (instead of fundamentally sequential) fashion which is essential for public blockchains like RChain, Ethereum, EOS, etc. It also purportedly simplifies sharding and boosts the security of smart contracts.
The key idea behind rholang and RChain seems to be that computation processes (like smart contracts) do not need to be ordered in their execution but, instead, only do something when they receive messages from other processes. They can only receive such messages on channels that that they share with sending processes, and those channels are communicated via cryptographically protected names. If a process has not received a message, a computer or a blockchain virtual machine does not need to worry about it. Processes that do not share channels can be easily executed in parallel because there is no risk of them colliding. It is also allegedly possible to prevent the risk of exploits like the Etheum DAO’s one.
Furthermore, blockchain addresses in this approach are also channels. Smart contracts that are made available to a set of addresses (called a namespace; more details here) may not by default be used by other addresses, and this, naturally creates a clearly defined group of smart contracts, the RChain’s analogue of a shard. Hence, according to Meredith, the sharding architecture naturally arises from the basic computational model without the need to impose it from above, and both the transactions and the state of the virtual computer are sharded from the start, unlike in Ethereum or Zilliqa that only start with the former.
Those who would like to get a taste of what programming in this paradigm looks like and who have at least basic familiarity with traditional programming may want to consult this surprisingly accessible rholang tutorial.
A string of troubles
However, starting from late last year, the project has been mired into financial trouble and controversy. The deadline for mainnet release was missed, part of the team left RChain to found a competing project called Casper Labs and the price of the project’s token RHOC has dramatically collapsed. A detailed overview of the project’s troubles and potential financial mismanagement can be found in this excellent in-depth coverage by GeekWire.
Perhaps, the most controversial step taken by the cooperative was to purchase a codec license from Immersion Networks for the RSong music streaming application. Immersive Network’s technology allegedly enables listening to music in an immersive mode, especially when special listening equipment is used, providing users with an unprecedented experience. The prototype of the RSong app is available for download on Android’s Play Store. The app allows users to listen to four records in both the traditional and immersive mode. We tried it out without specialized equipment, and while the immersive mode does sound better, in our subjective judgment, we are not qualified to assess its transformative potential. In past community debriefs, Meredith claimed that artists in the music industry had told him in private conversations that they could only be enticed to switch to a blockchain-driven streaming app (versions of which, such as Ujo Music, are also being developed on other platforms) with an additional incentive like the immersive mode.
RSong was supposed to be a flagship DApp to drive the adoption of the platform and has been also defended by Meredith on several occasions as a useful tool to develop and test the maturing RChain software against, as well as a potential vehicle for raising equity funding. Finally, the RSong architecture is claimed to be easily reusable for other applications involving on-chain storage and distribution of significant pieces of data such as Arteriel that was reportedly considering collaborating with RChain.
However, the critics have claimed that there was no solid reason for the cooperative to spend $23 million on the codec licence because its value is unproven, and that this expense jeopardized the successful development of the underlying platform, putting the cart before the horse, in a sense. During community debriefs, Meredith countered this claim by saying that, given the proliferation of Ethereum-style blockchain efforts, RChain needed a flagship app with a mass use promise from the get-go to have a chance to compete.
Whether Meredith or his critics were right about the fundamental promise of RSong, the current situation that the RChain Cooperative faces can at least be considered a serious crisis. Today The Block has reported that, according to the financial statements published by the RChain Cooperative today, the organization is functionally insolvent. This, naturally, raises the question whether the RChain platform has any chances of being finished in the foreseeable future.
RChain’s latest community debrief whose video recording is available on Youtube seems to suggest that the development effort will continue, even if the cooperative has to be dissolved. The participants discussed the various stages of development from the first iteration of the public testnet to the mainnet launch without ever implying that those could be frozen if the current corporate structure is removed.
During the debrief, Meredith also mentioned that there were negotiations underway with various counterparties to obtain the necessary funding to keep the cooperative afloat. He also implied that the biggest risk arising from the potential dissolution of the cooperative consisted in the Immersion licence for RSong reverting back to Immersion Networks. Finally, he suggested that the license could instead be transferred to RSong that is in the process of being spun off as a separate company.
There are probably, indeed, reasons to believe that the RChain platform can ultimately be launched in some form even if the cooperative structure is dissolved. The code developed so far appears to be at a rather advanced stage and is open-source, so RChain developers can continue improving it in an informal manner. Even if RHOC investors bring lawsuits against Meredith, for instance, this cannot realistically prevent him and other developers from working on the platform. Potentially, a court could order the cooperative to freeze the RHOC tokens that have not yet been distributed to investors but it may not take away those that are already in circulation as they are held on Ethereum addresses not controlled by the cooperative.
At the same time, it unclear how the developers would be paid in such a scenario and whether they are prepared to work on an unpaid basis, perhaps relying on the future increase in the RHOC price if they have holdings and hope that the platform launch will significantly boost its price.
Whatever the fate of the RChain Cooperative, those who are interested in the most dynamic competition of ideas should probably hope that Meredith and others will be able to finish their job and let users have the final say, whatever mismanagement they may potentially be guilty of.
It should, of course, be noted, in fairness, that not all the blockchain thought leaders familiar with the RChain’s proposed model of computation agree that it gives RChain a fundamental advantage. Despite Greg Meredith’s long-standing close collaboration with the Ethereum Casper research team, the latter (except for Vlad Zamfir in his recorded remarks here starting from 03:35) did not consider rho calculus worthy of incorporating into the future version of Ethereum. The team of developers that left the RChain Cooperative to launch the CasperLabs project, like the Ethereum community, chose to use the Web Assembly instead, and in the interview we recently published with Pyrofex’s CEO Nash Foster, he concurred with the latter:
We’re not building an apps-enabling blockchain, but if we did then we would not use the Rho-calculus. I think Ethereum and CasperLabs both have got the right end of the stick in planning to use WASM for their VM. We would almost certainly do the same thing, in large part because WASM is being used very successfully elsewhere. E.g., CloudFlare has some very interesting products based on WASM. Moreover, WASM is directly supported by the LLVM toolkit whereas the Rho-calculus model is not.
Nonetheless, perhaps, only practical implementation of the various projects we mentioned may demonstrate whether Medredith and his supporters are justified in their unwavering belief in the superiority of rho calculus over the other available approaches to blockchain computation.
Disclosure: The author used to be an RHOC investor but does not hold any at the time of writing.