A parachain is an application-specific data structure that is globally coherent and validatable by the validators of the Polkadot Relay Chain. Most commonly a parachain will take the form of a blockchain, but there is no specific need for them to be actual blockchains. They take their name from the concept of parallelized chains that run parallel to the Relay Chain. Due to their parallel nature, they are able to parallelize transaction processing and achieve scalability of the Polkadot system. They share in the security of the entire Polkadot network and can communicate with other parachains through XCMP.
Parachains are maintained by a network maintainer known as a collator. The role of the collator node is to maintain a full-node of the parachain, retain all necessary information of the parachain, and produce new block candidates to pass to the Relay Chain validators for verification and inclusion in the shared state of Polkadot. The incentivization of a collator node is an implementation detail of the parachain. They are not required to be staked on the Relay Chain or own DOT tokens unless stipulated to do so by the parachain implementation.
The Polkadot Host (PH) requires that the state transitions performed on parachains to be specified as a Wasm executable. Proofs of new state transitions that occur on a parachain must be validated against the registered state transition function (STF) that is stored on the Relay Chain by the validators before Polkadot acknowledges a state transition has occurred on a parachain. The only constraint to the logic that a parachain is allowed to implement is that it must be verifiable by the Relay Chain validators. Verification most commonly takes the form of a bundled proof of a state transition known as a Proof-of-Verification (PoV) block, which is submitted to the validators from one or more of the parachain collators to be checked.
Parachains may have their own economies with their own native tokens. Schemes such as Proof-of-Stake are usually used to select the validator set in order to handle validation and finalization; parachains will not be required to do either of those things. However, since Polkadot is general over what the parachain can implement, it may be the choice of the parachain to implement a staking token, but it's not generally necessary.
Collators may be incentivized through inflation of a native parachain token. There may be other ways to incentivize the collator nodes that do not involve inflating the native parachain token.
Transaction fees in a native parachain token can also be an implementation choice of parachains. Polkadot makes no hard and fast rules for how the parachains decide on original validity of transactions. For example, a parachain may be implemented so that transactions must pay a minimum fee to collators to be valid. The Relay Chain will enforce this validity. Similarly, a parachain could not include that in their implementation and Polkadot would still enforce its validity.
Parachains are not required to have their own token. If they do, is up to the parachain to make the economic case for their token, not Polkadot.
Parachain Slot Acquisition
Polkadot supports a limited number of parachains, currently estimated to be about 100. As the number of slots is limited, Polkadot has several ways to allocate the slots:
- Polkadot governance granted parachains, or "common good" parachains
- Auction granted parachains
"Common Good" parachains are allocated by Polkadot's on-chain governance system, and are deemed as a "common good" for the network, such as bridges to other networks or chains. They are usually considered system level chains or public utility chains. These typically do not have an economic model of their own and help remove transactions from the Relay Chain, allowing for more efficient parachain processing.
Parathreads have the same API as parachains, but are scheduled for execution on a pay-as-you-go basis with an auction for each block.
When a parachain wins an auction, the DOT that it bid gets reserved until the end of the lease. Reserved balances are non-transferrable and cannot be used for staking. At the end of the lease, the DOT is unreserved. Parachains that have not secured a new lease to extend their slot will automatically become parathreads.
Common Good Parachains
"Common Good" parachains are parachain slots reserved for functionality that benefits the the Polkadot ecosystem as a whole. By allocating a subset of parachain slots to common good chains, the entire network can realize the benefit of valuable parachains that would otherwise be underfunded due to the free-rider problem. They are not allocated via the parachain auction process, but by Polkadot's on-chain governance system.
The purpose of these parachains will probably fall into one of two categories: system level chains or public utility chains.
System Level Chains
System level chains move functionality from the Relay Chain into parachains, minimizing the administrative use of the Relay Chain. For example, a governance parachain could move all the Polkadot governance processes from the Relay Chain into a parachain. Adding a system level chain is generally uncontroversial, because they merely move functionality that the stakeholders already agreed was useful from one place (the Relay Chain) to another (a parachain).
Moving the logic from the Relay Chain to a parachain is an optimization that makes the entire network more efficient. All validators need to process all Relay Chain transactions, but split into small groups to validate parachains in parallel. By moving system level logic to a parachain, and allowing the processing to be done by a subgroup of validators instead of all, it frees capacity in the Relay Chain for its primary function: validating parachains. Adding a system level chain could make the network capable of processing several more parachains. Rather than taking a slice of a 100 parachain pie, a system level chain takes one slice and bakes a bigger pie.
Examples of potential system level chains include parachains for balances, elections (for both staking and Council), governance, and identity. Eventually, the Relay Chain could become transactionless, as in, it would only validate parachain state transitions and all of its current transactional functionality would exist within parachains.
The vast majority of common good chains will likely be the unopinionated system level chains.
Public Utility Chains
Public utility chains add functionality that doesn’t exist yet, but that the stakeholders believe will add value to the entire network. Because public utility chains add new functionality, there is a subjective component to their addition: the stakeholders of the network must believe that it is worth allocating a slot that would otherwise go to the winners of an auction, and thus would have an objective expression of conviction from its backers. Governance provides the means to internalize the value of the parachain slot and distribute it across all members of the network.
Public utility chains will always be fully aligned with their Relay Chain stakeholder base. This means that they will adopt the Relay Chain's native token (i.e. DOT or KSM) as their native token and respect any messages incoming from the Relay Chain and system level parachains at face value.
Some examples of potential public utility chains are bridges, DOT-denominated smart contract platforms, and generic asset chains. All of these could operate without a new token:
- A bridge could add its own native token to charge as a toll, but in many cases that would be arbitrary value capture, when it could just as well use DOT and/or the bridged chain’s assets in its fee mechanism.
- A DOT-denominated smart contract layer-one blockchain would allow Wasm smart contract execution using DOT as the native asset with which to pay gas.
- A generic assets chain would allow anyone to place a deposit in DOT to deploy their asset on-chain. Assets on this chain could be backed by physical goods like artwork, real estate, or gold; or by paper goods like shares in a company or fiat currency held by a trusted party, providing a stable, permanent launchpad for stablecoins and Central Bank Digital Currencies.
Public utility parachains would typically grant privileged business logic to Polkadot’s governance. Just as the Polkadot Relay Chain has several privileged functions like setting the validator count or allocating DOT from the Treasury, these parachains can have privileged functions like changing system parameters or registering an asset.
Because public utility chains add functionality beyond the scope of the Relay Chain, they will likely be approved by the network stakeholders only in rare scenarios.
Some examples of parachains:
- Encrypted Consortium Chains: These are possibly private chains that do not leak any information to the public, but still can be interacted with trustlessly due to the nature of the XCMP protocol.
- High Frequency Chains: These are chains that can compute many transactions in a short amount of time by taking certain trade-offs or making optimizations.
- Privacy Chains: These are chains that do not leak any information to the public through use of novel cryptography.
- Smart Contract Chains: These are chains that can have additional logic implemented on them through the deployment of code known as smart contracts.
What is "parachain consensus"?
"Parachain consensus" is special in that it will follow the Polkadot Relay Chain. Parachains cannot use other consensus algorithms that provide their own finality. Only sovereign chains (that must bridge to the Relay Chain via a parachain) can control their own consensus. Parachains have control over how blocks are authored and by whom.
How will parachain slots be distributed?
Parachain slots will be acquirable through auction, please see the parachain slots article. Additionally, some parachain slots will be set aside to run parathreads — chains that bid on a per-block basis to be included in the Relay Chain.
What happens to parachains when the number of validators drops below a certain threshold?
The minimal safe ratio of validator per parachain is 5:1. With a sufficiently large set of validators, the randomness of their distribution along with availability and validity will make sure security is on-par. However, should there be a big outage of a popular cloud provider or another network connectivity catastrophe, it is reasonable to expect that the number of validators per chain will drop.
Depending on how many validators went offline, the outcome differs.
If a few validators went offline, the parachains whose validator groups will be too small to validate a block will skip those blocks. Their block production speed will slow down to any increment of 6 seconds, until the situation is resolved and the optimal number of validators is in that parachain's validator group again.
If anywhere from 30% to 50% of the validators go offline, availability will suffer because we need two thirds of the validator set to back the parachain candidates. In other words, all parachains will stop until the situation is resolved. Finality will also stop, but low-value transactions on the relay chain should be safe enough to execute, despite common forks. Once the required number of validators is in the validator set again, parachains will resume block production.
Given that collators are full nodes of the relay chain and the parachain they are running, they will be able to recognize a disruption as soon as it occurs and should stop producing block candidates. Likewise, it should be easy for them to recongize when it's safe to restart block production - perhaps based on finality delay, validator set size, or some other factor that is yet to be decided within Cumulus.
Parachain Development Kits (PDKs)
Parachain Development Kits are a set of tools that enable developers to create their own applications as parachains. For more info see here.
Please see the Cumulus repository README for information on compiling and deploying a parachain.
- Polkadot: The Parachain - Blog post by Polkadot co-founder Rob Habermeier that introduced parachains in 2017 as "a simpler form of blockchain, which attaches to the security provided by a Relay Chain rather than providing its own. The Relay Chain provides security to attached parachains, but also provides a guarantee of secure message-passing between them."
- The Path of a Parachain Block - A technical walkthrough of how parachains interact with the Relay Chain.