eltoo paper cover after reading

Thoughts about eltoo: Another protocol for payment channel management in the lightning network

In this article I will give an overview about the proposed lightning network extension eltoo. There has been quite some buzz about the eltoo paper proposed by Christian Decker, Rusty Russell and Olaoluwa Osuntokun in May 2018. Bitcoin magazines and blogs have been making promising statements, that lightning will become even faster than it currently is. According to them them eltoo allows for payment channels to interact less with bitcoins blockchain (which I will state already is just plain wrong. Actually in eltoo we have to hit the blockchain more frequently than in the current implementation of the lightning network)

Having read Christian Deckers main publication for his dissertation in which the authors suggest the use of invalidation trees to invalidate old states of an payment channel I was confident that eltoo would be a really nice improvement for the lightning network protocol. However following the “Don’t trust. Verify!” philosophy of the Bitcoin community I obviously had to study the eltoo protocol proposal myself. In particular I did not believe those bullish news from the magazines since from a technical perspective I do not see how the speed of the lightning network can significantly be increased. The speed of the lightning network at its current state is basically bound by the speed of TCP/IP sockets at the payment channel level and during routing by the time locks of the HTLCs. Since eltoo is only looking at channel management we can obviously omit the later case. As I am starting to work on the splicing part of the BOLT 1.1 specification which is a protocol extension of payment channel management obviously I need to understand eltoo anyway.

Yesterday after holding an openly licensed German language lecture on the basics of the lightning network technology  (not to be confused with BOLT the Lightning network RFC) I had a 5 hour train ride home from the event and finally found the time to carefully study the eltoo paper. Even though the paper is very well structured and written and I thought it might be helpful if I share my understanding of the proposed protocol back with the community. However my main reason is that I hope by writing down and explaining the paper I get an even clearer understanding myself. In case I misunderstood something about the eltoo paper please let me know so that I can update this article. Also there are some rather technical questions I still have (for example this one which I have already posted on bitcoin stack exchange)

So let us analyze eltoo by understanding the motivation for yet another payment channel protocol by reviewing some of the well known facts about the current payment channel management.

Unpublished commitment Transactions encode the balance (or more technically spoken state) of a payment channel in the lightning network.

For the current version of the lightning network payment channel protocol we need to store information about all the old states of a channel. With state of a channel we mean the current distribution of the channels capacity (aka the balance) among the channel partners. At the core the current payment channel (and also the solution proposed in eltoo) a payment channel is just a 2-2 multi signature wallet. Currently the balance of a payment channel is encoded by two unpublished transactions that would spend the channels capacity according to the balance sheet with the channel partners as receipients. Actually we call those transactions commitment transactions. These transactions are both signed by both channel partners and each of them has one of them stored on his lightning node. This creates some kind of information asymmetry and a risk of funds being stolen should the information leak to the channel partner.

Funds within the channel are being maintained by creating a new commitment transaction (kind of a double spend) that spends the funds of the multi signature wallet (the channels capacity) in a different way. In order for both parties to be able to trust in the newly agreed upon channel balance we obviously have the problem of invalidating the old commitment transactions. In a trustless setting (which we wish to achieve) channel partners cannot rely on their counterparts to delete the old commitment transaction once they agree on a new channel balance. The reason is that those commitment transaction are valid bitcoin transactions signed by both channel partners and both partners own a copy and could have theoretically made more copies in between time.

All currently known protocols for maintaining a full duplex payment channel have in common that old channel states need to be invalidated. 

The current implementation of the lightning network achieves the goal of invalidating old channel states by including the hash of a revocation key within the output script of a commitment transaction. The revocation key itself can only be known by the channel partner that does not control a signed copy of that transaction. (Again this is where the information asymmetry kicks in) The output script of the commitment transaction will eventually spend the funds according to the channel balance that was agreed upon for this particular commitment transaction. However it allows to spend the output of a published commitment transaction directly to send the entire capacity of the channel to ones own bitcoin address once one can present the signature from the secrete revocation key. If channel partners wish to update to a news channel state they will collaboratively compute the revocation resulting in the hash that is stored in the most current commitment transaction. The important requirement of the protocol design is that neither partner can compute the revocation key without the help of the other partner. Owning the revocation key prevents the channel partner to publish an old commitment transaction (aka state) since the publishing side would be punished by the other side releasing the revocation key and spending the outputs of the commitment transaction directly. Note that releasing the revocation key itself is not dangerous since it can only be useful in the output script of the transaction which includes the hash of the revocation key. As you would imagine each new state / commitment transaction includes the hash of a new revocation key. Therefor it is really the old transaction that needs to be kept secrete or even better destroyed. Obviously with such a setup both sides need to store all old revocation keys in order to be able to protect oneself from the other side publishing an old channel state (which for example could be a state in which all the funds belonged to the side that tries to publish this state)

Eltoo suggest a different protocol for channel management such that either side does not need to store all old state but just the current state. This is supposed to simplify implementing lightning nodes and also running them. According to Christian Decker this will also simplify implementing features like splicing. (On a side note I have not thought the splicing operation completely through for eltoo but it seems obvious to me that the chain of update transactions in eltoo can easily be extended by at least splice out operations.)

The initial setup of a payment channel within the Eltoo protocol is in my opinion exactly the same as in the current specification of the lightning network.
A payment channel is created by funding a 2-2 multi signature wallet. The state of the channel is again encoded within a transaction that is just not published yet. Only the process of invalidating old state differs. Both channel parties create two sets of public and private keys. The first set is called the update keys and the second set is called the settlement keys. Actually the settlement keys should be derived from a deterministic hierarchical wallet so that settlement transactions can only be bound to one specific update transaction (but I guess that is a minor detail).

A chain of update and settlement transactions allows for encoding channel state.

The state of the channel is encoded as the most recent element of a sequence of settlement transactions in which the current settlement transaction is encoding the current channel state. All the old settlement transactions are not needed and can safely be thrown away. Though not being the same as commitment transactions in the current lightning network implementations the settlement transactions can probably be considered to be the analogous counterpart. Each settlement transaction spends an – so called – update transaction.  The update transactions are formed as a “linked list” starting from the funding transaction (which could already be interpreted as an update transaction). The update transactions spend the output of the funding transaction (or the previous update transaction(s!) ). The output of the new update transaction is a two path multisignature script where in the first path the output can be directly spent with the pair of update keys. In the second path the output can be spent with the settlement keys as long as a timelock is achieved. This will always give priority to successfully double spend an old settlement transaction with a newer update transaction. In case the newest settlement transaction is being broadcast there exist no newer update transaction which is why the double spend of another update transaction cannot be achieved by a single entity in the channel. Therefor after the timelock is over the channel is closed.

This setup is bad however since the current channel balance encoded in an settlement transaction which is the child of the latest update transaction which is the child of the previous update transaction and so on. Therefor in order to close the channel one would need to broadcast the complete chain of update transactions. This would be bad as it would not take any load from the blockchain in comparison to directly transfer bitcoins every time one wold want to update a payment channel and we would also need to store all old update transactions not really decreasing the overhead. However with the current version of the bitcoin protcol there is nothing we can do about this and eltoo is nothing but a nice thought and completely impractical. However a minor update to bitcoin (which was actually already talked about in the current lightning network paper) is finally proposed as BIP 118 and would also make eltoo useful.

Eltoo achieves the simplification by introducing the idea of floating transactions which are realized by introducing a new OP CODE SIGHASH_NOINPUT.

With SIGHASH_NOINPUT the transaction that is being created to spend some output will ignore the input script in the calculation of its signature.This allows to change the output that is being spent as long as the output script matches the input script. Since the output scripts of the updadting transactions are all the same (at least for the path that spends to output again to the update keys of the 2-2 multisig wallet) one can bind a later update transaction to the parents or grandparents or great grandparents or … of the most recent output transaction. (I don’t see the point of summarizing all the technical details here since they are very well described in the paper and I don’t see how I would formulate them differently or shorter) What this does however is that instead of the need to publish all previous funding transactions the current one can just be bound to the funding transaction and can be broadcasted together with its settlement transaction.

That being said the current channel state is defined by the already mined funding transaction as well as the most recent update transaction and its child the settlement transaction. In case channel partner Mallory would want to publish and older state (encoded within some settlement transaction) she would first need to publish the update transaction that is parent of this very settlement transaction. She can do so as she can also bind that corresponding update transaction to the funding transaction. However if she now spends the settlement transaction there is the path in the output script of the update transaction that allows for direct spending of a newer update transaction (which can be the newest update transaction -known by the other side – being bound to that particular update transaction). This will prevent old state from entering the blockchain.

There are some minor details about including a trigger transaction which I will omit here. However it seems important to mention that this mechanism also requires for the other side to be online or having a watchtower mechanism being included. Also with this mechanism in the uncollaborative closing case, the collaborative one and the case where one party tries to steal funds the blockchain will need to have at least three transactions being broadcasted to the blockchain (the trigger transaction, the most recent update transaction and the settlement transaction) In that sense I understand eltoo as a tradeoff between convenience for channel management in comparison to minimal blockchain involvement. As I mentioned during the autopilot discussion at the lightning hackday the blockchain will still need about 10 years to have one payment channel open for every internet user in the world. Therefor I am a little sceptical about the protocol overhead of eltoo. On the other side it seems to have many advantages over the current protocol for payment channel management.

Advantages of eltoo:

  • Biggest pro seems to be that it is easily compatible with the current lightning network. It does not matter of the network uses various protocols for payment channel management.
  • As fraudulent behavior can also exist by accident (e.g. a bug in the implementation) it is nice that with eltoo the punishment of fraudulent behavior is not achieved by giving all bitcoins to the honest side but rather by forcing a channel close and distributing the funds according to the last agreed upon channel balance
  • Way less protocol overhead on the implementation side (only true if we eventually only support eltoo channels and don’t have to support both payment channels)
  • (Although I did not explain the details here) Fees for settling (closing) the channel do not need to be decided for while creating the payment channel but can be chosen a posteriori.
  • Possibility to easily create multi user payment channels (though all parties have to be online in order to update the channel balance which is said because otherwise we could easily create payment caves in wich thousands of participants would share the balance increasing liquidity in the network) also the transaction size increases (but still stays smaller than having several 2 party channels created among the participants)
  • Since honest nodes can safely forget old channel state we should never run in memory issues while maintaining one channel.

disadvantages of eltoo:

  • It might incentivize people to try behave in a fraudulent way since there is only the risk of loosing fees involved.
  • a new OP_CODE for bitcoin script has to be implemented in future bitcoin versions. Though the authors claim the protocol is backward compatible with bitcoin for the lightning network this seems like a typical IT mess. Probably it will take time for bitcoin and lightning network nodes to update. Obviously a routing network can be created with various channel management protcols as long as they support HTLCs and the internal API for routing. However it seems quite cumbersome to implement future features to support both eltoo and the classical lightning payment channels. One strategy could be to just implement splicing on top of eltoo or to implement it with a higher abstraction of channel management (not sure yet if that is possible)
  • As far as I understand the current proposal (I could be wrong here) an attempt of fraudulent behavior would enforce another blockchain transaction. Where in the current lightning network we have one transaction for opening a channel and another transaction for closing (mutual, fraudulent, forceful) in the case of eltoo we seem to have three transactions for settling the case after fraudulent behavior.
  • In general I understand eltoo as a protocol in which the channel close scenario needs to write to the blockchain more frequently than with the current lightning network protocols. (In particular since the trigger transaction is needed.)

Open Questions:

  • What happens if we have an Integer overflow in the sequence number?

If you are more interested in technical write ups about the technology of the lightning network you can follow me on twitter. If you are also an enthusiast of the lightning network you could connect to my lightning node via: 036f464b54416ea583dcfae3872d28516dbe85414ed838513b1c34fb3a4aee4e7a@144.76.235.20:9735 and help to grow the lightning network.

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