Two Years of NEAR Mainnet: Reflections and What’s Next for the Protocol
On October 13, 2020, the NEAR community passed an on-chain vote to enable transfers on NEAR mainnet. This milestone marked the completion of a three-phased mainnet launch that started in April 2020, and was the culmination of more than two years of research and development. Mainnet was also just the beginning of the journey to make NEAR the most usable blockchain. Two years later, I want to reflect on what we’ve accomplished so far.
Post-mainnet Roadmap & Innovation
NEAR did not stop innovating after the mainnet launch. In the past two years, NEAR has successfully completed twenty protocol upgrades with zero downtime, a feat worth celebrating on its own. Among those twenty protocol upgrades were fixes of critical vulnerabilities, performance optimizations, introduction of new host functions, and most importantly, phase 0 and phase 1 of sharding, which increased network capacity and decentralization so the network can scale toward a billion users.
Before the mainnet launch, we devised a four-phase plan for building a fully sharded blockchain. But we decided to launch mainnet with only one shard to reduce complexity and bootstrap the ecosystem, so projects could start building.
Phase 0, which transforms mainnet from one shard to four parallel shards, launched in November 2021 and Phase 1, which introduces chunk-only producers and increases the number of validators on mainnet to up to 300, launched in September 2022.
We are innovating just as rapidly as when we started: phases 2 and 3 of sharding are going to be delivered in the next two years, together with a lot of other new features such as meta transactions, zero-knowledge light clients, and more.
Two Years in Growth and Performance
Relentless innovation fueled unprecedented growth. Two years ago, there were fewer than 10,000 accounts on mainnet. Today there are more than 20 million: this is 30x growth. Two years ago, there were barely any transactions on NEAR, while today it is not uncommon to see more than 500,000 transactions a day.
Two years ago, there were very few smart contracts deployed on NEAR, while today there are almost 5,000 unique smart contracts on mainnet. This extraordinary growth did not pose any stability issues to the protocol. In addition to having 100% uptime since the mainnet launch, NEAR is only utilized at 5% of overall capacity most of the time. The first two years of growth have been amazing, but the network can support orders of magnitude more.
What Comes Next in Usability, Scalability, and Decentralization
Despite what has already been achieved, NEAR as a layer one protocol is still in its early stages of development. Our vision for the protocol is to be the most reliable and welcoming foundation for the Open Web. Underpinning this vision are three main pillars of the protocol: usability, scalability, and decentralization.
Usability is the most important of the three. Without offering developers and end-users a great user experience, even the most performant blockchain in the world will fall short of achieving NEAR’s mission of supporting one billion active users. NEAR already has a lot of features geared towards usability such as human-readable account names, function call access keys, support for mainstream programming languages, and more.
But there is a lot more we can do to take the usability of NEAR to the next level. For dapp users, features such as meta transactions (where gas fees are automatically paid on behalf of the user) and cryptography support for transaction signing through smartphones would greatly reduce the barrier to entry to start using an app on NEAR. When end users no longer need to get NEAR tokens to start interacting with applications built on top of NEAR, then we will actually be providing a Web2-like experience for Web3.
For developers, supporting even more programming languages such as C++ or Kotlin and virtual machines as well as better tooling for writing cross-contract calls would make their lives easier.
Usability also extends beyond what is provided natively on NEAR. The performance and flexibility of the protocol have already made possible interoperability solutions such as Aurora, a compatibility layer between NEAR and Ethereum; Octopus, a Substrate-based app-chain network that runs its relay chain on NEAR; the Rainbow Bridge protocol; and many other cross-chain bridges. In a nutshell, NEAR provides the most welcoming foundation for the Open Web for developers and users alike.
Usability, however, does not exist in a vacuum. Scalability and decentralization are what make NEAR reliable and trustworthy. For scalability, NEAR has been executing on a four-phased plan to become a sharded blockchain that can achieve nearly-linear scaling by adding shards over time. Phase 0 and Phase 1 have already been delivered and phase 2 will be delivered in 2023. In addition to sharding, there are many single-shard performance enhancements on the roadmap such as storage read and write performance improvements, wasmer optimizations to improve contract execution speed, and parallel contract execution.
For decentralization, as the number of shards increases, NEAR will have more validators in the network––it’s already gone from 100 to 300 slots with Phase 1 of sharding. Decentralization, however, isn’t only measured by the number of validators. The ability to easily operate a full node with low hardware requirements, and introducing light clients that allow wallets to verify RPC results, are also important ways to improve decentralization.
To that end, features like zero-knowledge light clients and stateless full clients will immensely improve the decentralization of the entire NEAR ecosystem. Since NEAR is a permissionless, decentralized ecosystem, it doesn’t have to be the Pagoda protocol team developing these new clients! There are lots of opportunities for talented builders to innovate and contribute via the NEAR Enhancement Proposal (NEP) process.
It has been a fantastic two years since the mainnet launch in 2020, and everyone contributing to the NEAR Protocol should be proud of the shipping speed and the quality of the tech we have produced. But we’re still at the beginning of what I hope is a long, sometimes challenging journey towards a decentralized future where people have ownership of their data, money, and power of governance on a truly Open Web (Stay tuned in the coming weeks for a protocol roadmap and strategy update).
NEAR will keep constantly evolving to provide the best experience for developers and end-users alike, making the promise of the Open Web ready for mainstream adoption. The journey ahead is just as exciting as, if not more than, what we have achieved so far.