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The Evolution of ICP: DFINITY’s Internet Computer Protocol

DFINITY launched the long-awaited Internet Computer Protocol in 2021, seeking to replace the traditional IT stack and disintermediate cloud services.

By Cryptopedia Staff

Updated March 8, 20224 min read

The Evolution of ICP- DFINITY’s Internet ComputerProtocol-100

Summary

The DFINITY ecosystem was designed to operate upon its serverless cloud computing infrastructure, the Internet Computer Protocol (ICP). After years of development, DFINITY launched the ICP on May 7th, 2021. DFINITY, like many existing blockchain solutions, aims to improve upon the data security, privacy, application development, network speed, and storage capacity of traditional internet architecture. The mainnet launch of the Internet Computer Protocol represents a substantial stride in DFINITY’s journey to achieving its goals.

What Is ICP?

DFINITY is the blockchain organization that is building the Internet Computer Protocol (ICP), a public blockchain network designed to replace the traditional IT stack and disintermediate commercial cloud services. According to DFINITY, the Internet Computer Protocol will be the first scalable, cloud-like blockchain platform able to host internet services, websites, and financial systems built exclusively utilizing smart contracts (and with no external complimentary private systems). The Internet Computer is designed to store data, facilitate application development, and enable network interoperability.

For an explainer on the basics of the Internet Computer Protocol’s structure and use cases, we recommend our introductory article on the ICP. Here, we’ll take a deep dive into the events leading up to the release of the Internet Computer Protocol’s mainnet launch — known as Mercury — in 2021.

Internet Computer Protocol’s Release History

DFINITY released several components of the Internet Computer Protocol between 2019 and 2020 before officially launching its Mercury mainnet iteration in 2021. The timeline was as follows:

Copper (Q4 2019): The launch of Copper actualized the initial public version of the DFINITY Canister Software Development Kit (SDK). This innovative SDK introduced specialized smart contracts called canisters, as well as the Motoko software development language. Motoko is a custom computer language inspired by WebAssembly (WASM). DFINITY synthesized Motoko in order to help produce highly tamper-resistant software and services for the Internet Computer.

Bronze (Q1 2020): The Bronze demo network enabled the ICP crypto protocol’s transition from a terminal-based stage to a platform capable of desktop web application development, expanding the capabilities of canisters to self-store their state, frontend, and backend logic.

Tungsten (Q2 2020): The Tungsten release marked the opening of the ICP to third-party developers, so that they could build applications and enterprise systems on the protocol. Tungsten also introduced mobile development capabilities for the Internet Computer, on top of the desktop web application development capabilities of previous releases.

Sodium (Q4 2020): The Sodium release introduced the Network Nervous System (NNS), DFINITY’s specialized autonomous master subnetwork responsible for the economics of the protocol as well as the hosting and governance of all subnetworks (subnets) within the system. Sodium also introduced the concept of “cycles,” established their interactions with software canisters, and formulated a system of “neurons” that support governance and staking via ICP coin.

ICP’s Mercury Mainnet

DFINITY launched its Mercury mainnet on May 7, 2021, marking the network’s transition to full public availability. The company aims for the ICP to accomplish an extensive list of goals, including:

Public network growth: For a technology platform to grow exponentially, the utility and the number of people using the platform must generally undergo dramatic increases via network effects. The Internet Computer is designed to facilitate such effects by providing interoperability between diverse code bases and blockchain systems at low cost through specialized smart contracts (canisters) in a similar way to how traditional software systems integrate functionality from software libraries.

Security and privacy-focused systems: Traditional IT makes use of proprietary and closed cloud computing services, databases, web servers, middleware, and backup systems. These systems are usually combined with software and software stack frameworks. The Internet Computer seeks to improve upon security and privacy weaknesses of traditional systems by leveraging immutable cryptography and chain key technology for in-network interactions in order to help the Network Nervous System communicate with in-network subnets.

Reimagined smart contracts: Some of the Information Technology industry’s greatest expenses include both building and maintaining network systems. DFINITY aims to reduce the difficulty of information system maintenance and development by means of ICP’s version of smart contracts (software canisters), which are designed to limit scalability and complexity issues around smart-contract development and usability.

Eliminating centralized intermediaries: Most blockchain protocols rely on intermediaries that allow users to interact with systems and services built using Ethereum smart contracts that are typically hosted through websites on large cloud providers such as Amazon Web Services (AWS). In other words, most web and mobile applications (including many popular blockchain-based applications) are hosted on traditional (and relatively centralized) cloud service providers. Such providers are a third-party system that might be vulnerable to potentially malicious code, security breaches, poor privacy, and other inefficiencies — and which in turn might lead to similar issues for the hosted applications themselves. The Internet Computer seeks to address such problems by hosting smart contracts that directly serve content into the web browsers of end users, allowing developers to create systems and services with end-to-end security architecture that in many cases can markedly reduce the possibility of going offline or being censored and corrupted.

Improving usability: The Internet Computer aims to improve upon the user interfaces (UIs) of other, earlier crypto services, in that it allows users to directly interact with hosted online services. In other words, its UIs are served by smart contracts that directly engage with web browsers — without users needing to hold tokens or coins to pay for transaction fees. Further, instead of signing up for accounts and completing Know-Your-Customer procedures, users can identify themselves by using an autonomous cryptographic key via WebAuth authentication technology — in many cases just by scanning their fingerprint on their laptop or smartphone.

Criticism of DFINITY and the ICP Crypto Network

Though DFINITY envisions ICP crypto technology as a force for democratizing blockchain development, disintermediating the internet, demonopolizing cloud service ecosystems, and enabling decentralized governance, some critics argue that the ICP ecosystem is not sufficiently decentralized and that the DFINITY Foundation exercises a disproportionate amount of control. For example, skeptics have taken issue with the requirement that ICP coin holders must lock their ICP crypto assets inside the protocol in order to participate in governance. ICP coin holders can lock in their coins for between six months and eight years, with the most power allocated to the parties who lock their ICP for the longest amount of time. The DFINITY Foundation holds the majority of these coins (up to 40% of them).

Likewise, critics have argued that the ICP crypto governance system, the NNS, might function as a central point of failure because it could, for example, stop working, act maliciously by rejecting data center host applicants, or vote to shut down undesirable applications created on the platform. Despite such concerns, DFINITY’s ICP remains an active and popular player in the overall ecosystem of blockchain-enabled internet and cloud infrastructure services.

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