How can networks nurture decentralization?
The bull cycle of 2021/2022 was largely defined by decentralized application platforms that provide an alternative to Ethereum experiencing adoption and growth within their ecosystems. All these platforms have one thing in common: they need operators commonly called validators actually running the underlying infrastructure to enable the applications built on them to be usable.
Most importantly, there should be enough independent operators for such a network to be considered sufficiently (politically) decentralized, to avoid a subset of parties being able to shut down applications, censor transactions, or in other ways impede the credible neutrality of the platform.
The Growing Demand for Validators
A core belief within Chorus One is that the increasing adoption of decentralized applications will lead to further networks springing up; a directional trend that can be observed looking at the growth of application-specific chains, e.g. in Cosmos, the pioneering and leading ecosystem of this approach (via the Cosmos SDK and IBC), which is also being pursued by similar initiatives in other ecosystems (e.g. Avalanche subnets, Polygon supernets, Substrate chains on Polkadot). Notably, in recent months, some of the most used applications including decentralized derivatives trading platform dYdX confirmed and NFT juggernaut Yuga Labs hinted at plans to launch their own application-specific blockchain.
Given these forces on the network supply side, the demand and competition for professional operators are growing and protocol designers need to think about how to incentivize validators to join their ecosystems — as opposed to a “build it and they will come” mentality.
The following post aims to provide an insight into existing strategies and criteria for network foundations to foster decentralization and create a healthy validator set via stake delegation programs.
Bootstrapping your Validator Set with a Stake Delegation Program
As mentioned, a key tool in the toolbox of network foundations, who generally are endowed with a decent portion of the underlying protocol’s staking token and the mandate to grow the ecosystem, is the ability to distribute the stake to independent validators. Crucially, here we are not talking about giving tokens directly to validators through e.g. validator-specific investment rounds or incentivized testnets, which are other viable strategies to create alignment. Rather, we talk about delegating foundation tokens to validators based on some sort of evaluation. This mechanism can be used to continuously reward operators that add value enabling them to build a stake in the network via commission rewards. This cannot be underestimated as both a bootstrapping mechanism for validators to join your network and as a mechanism to reward valuable contributions, as well as continued participation and performance.
Criteria for Stake Delegation Strategies
In the following table, we aim to highlight some of the different criteria choices providing examples of existing foundation delegation strategies that can be taken into consideration. We also look at two exemplary liquid staking protocols, another interesting party with similar goals to a protocol foundation that has been innovating on establishing methods of how stake is distributed among their validator sets.
Stake Delegation Program Criteria
We can group criteria into 3 major categories:
- Performance & Participation: Criteria in this category look at on-chain metrics and objectively provable factors such as achieved uptime, participation in governance votes, participation on testnets, or running the most up-to-date validation software version.
- Ecosystem Contributions: This category looks at some of the more subjective factors including whether the team behind the operator is building useful tools for the wider ecosystem, e.g. writing content and engaging in other activities that contribute value or increase the chance of successful adoption of the underlying network.
- Security & Decentralization: This category of criteria looks at the actual setup of the operating team. Most of the factors will be off-chain and can be gathered e.g. via the application process or some other form of due diligence, which can then be evaluated by the foundation or some other governance committee. They include e.g. evaluation of the setup, key management and security practice of operator teams, evaluating the on-call rotation and team backgrounds, but also things like data centre concentration, client diversity (on Ethereum) and operational jurisdiction. Good examples that take into account these factors are Lido’s application process and Celo’s due diligence framework.
Furthermore, most programs also institute a maximum fee that validators are allowed to charge. Notably, it can be observed that some liquid staking protocols actively try to minimize validator fees as their main product is the APY of their liquid staking token.
Finally, it is also interesting to note which programs are carried out in an automated fashion on-chain, which is spearheaded e.g. by Solana stake pools and Polkadot’s 1,000 validator program (see links below).
Communication and Application Process
Once aligned on the desired criteria, you’ll need to decide on the frequency and how to communicate the criteria, how people can take part, and how decisions will be communicated. We recommend using a mailing list for upgrade communication and Discord or Telegram for active discussion. We have collected some critical resources from other delegation programs at the end of this post for inspiration.
An alternative to delegation programs that some networks opt for is to run foundation nodes themselves, a practice that we would largely discourage or at least try to limit for early phases of the network in which some additional control of the foundation might be necessary or in some minor fashion to ensure the network’s validator software and surrounding process are useable. At scale, this practice takes away the chance for validators to truly become a part of the network and will ultimately result in a centralized, and thus pointless, network.
Well-designed stake delegation strategies are a powerful bootstrapping mechanism to get independent operators interested in your decentralized network. In addition, they can serve as a mechanism to continuously reward valuable contributions such as community engagement and open-source tooling.
In this post, we touched upon why delegation programs are needed, the underlying goals, and what criteria can be used to conduct them. There is a lot of work to be done evaluating the effectiveness and improving and innovating on delegation strategies we have introduced here.
Chorus One is an experienced staking provider active on over 30 networks actively investing in the ecosystem and helping networks from conception to launch and beyond. We have also written about other tools, including incentivized testnets. We encourage builders launching their application-specific blockchains and researchers interested in this space to get in touch with us through ventures(at)chorus.one