Project review: Ontology

Introduction

Back in November of 2017, Onchain announced a new project called Ontology at a blockchain event in Shanghai, China. This raised many eyebrows considering Onchain’s deep ties with the Neo project. Alongside NEO founders Da Hongfei and Erik Zhang, Jun Li joined them to found Ontology.

What problem is Ontology solving?

Ontology’s mission is to bring the business sector onto the blockchain. It sounds familiar to Neo’s mantra of the “Smart Economy”. It should sound familiar since the people behind the Neo project are also behind Ontology. Bringing enterprises onto the blockchain requires infrastructure in which they can adapt to their needs. Without having to develop their own blockchain or distributed network from scratch, Ontology will enable a multi-chain platform to work with.

Several projects are tackling the problem of bringing big business onchain. Ethereum was the first to create platform grade censorship resistance, enabling apps to be run on the blockchain. Since then, new innovations have taken hold. Loom Network and Aelf are using interoperable multi-chains to fit specific industry solutions on their own chain. Ark is trying to create blockchains at the touch of a button. The lessons of Neo have surely informed the design and development behind Ontology.

Ontology wants to make decentralized systems accessible to all industries. Its plan is to identify prominent sectors to work with and offer a wide range of customizable services and development tools. In order to do this, it will need to create distributed authentication frameworks and data exchange protocols. These tools aim to bring standalone corporate networks onto Ontology. In my opinion, to execute this vision Ontology will need to heavily partner with existing industries to understand what they need (requirements) as well as understanding regional compliance issues. As a former technology consultant, I could see Ontology creating generic frameworks in which consulting partners could build layered solutions atop Ontology’s framework.

Richest airdrop in crypto history

I was at Neo Dev Con in San Francisco back in January. While there, Jun Li announced each attendee would receive 500 ONT tokens (Ontology’s native token). The project did not have an ICO nor did it have a private sale. Instead, the company decided to airdrop Ontology tokens (ONT) to the community through a number of channels. It rewarded Dev Con attendees (500 ONT each) and Ontology newsletter subscribers (1,000 each). Later on, the NEO Global Council airdropped 0.2 ONT per 1 NEO.

Token use case

Metrics

  • Total Supply: 1 billion
  • Indivisible, similar to NEO
  • Dividends: ONG (Ontology Gas) tokens – not yet in production

Benefits

  • ONT used in governance decision making
  • ONG used for smart contracts fees (on Neo blockchain it currently costs 500 GAS to deploy a smart contract)

Ontology Modules and Protocols

To make it easier for different industries to bridge onto the Ontology network, there are a number of features, modules, and protocols developers will be able to leverage.

Some of the services and features being developed by Ontology Network include:

  • Distributed Identity Framework (Ontology DID): identity verification and
    multi-factor authentication for individuals, organizations and physical objects
  • Entity registration and authorization: built with Ontology’s customizable smart
    contracts or by using a third-party authentication system
  • Distributed data exchange, attestation, transmission and storage
  • Copyright protection of data
  • Blockchain-based search engine
  • Ontology Oracle: supports access to third party trusted data for blockchain systems
  • Ontology Crypto Package (OCP): encrypted data transfer, key sharing protocols,
    multi-party key management, ring signature modules.
  • HydraDAO: contains Ontology’s Distributed Autonomous Organization (DAO) and
    cross-chain data interaction features.

Ontology code base is incomplete

(but what is there is very familiar)

Here is an excellent read from Andre Cronje reviewing Ontology’s technology progress. Blockchain projects are notorious for its open source nature. Due to that, we expect projects not to reinvent the wheel but innovate on top of established working projects. Please read the article linked earlier, but for brevity I provide the highlights:

  • tanZiWen provided much of the code for Distributed Networks Architecture Blockchain (DNA), which forked into New Kind of Network (NKN). Elastos (ELA) also uses the same code base. Ontology uses the core code base that started with DNA.
  • Ontology is built with Go. Neo is built with C#.
  • Multiple consensus models (discussed below)
    • VBFT – not available yet. VBFT is a VRF (verifiable random function) based BFT consensus algorithm, and use PoS for its governance. Also check out Dfinity and NKN as they have a similar, if not the very same, schema designed.
    • SBFT – structs are available but code base is empty
    • DBFT (same as Neo) – available (GitHub repo here)
  • Wagon used for WASM: It is meant to enable executing code nearly as fast as running native machine code.
  • Several areas still to be built out:
    • Cross-chain capability
    • Horizontal scalability
    • VBFT and SBFT consensus algorithsm

Consensus Model

Ontology’s consensus model will be DBFT, same as Neo, and the nodes will be controlled by the team. Over time, VBFT (VRF based) will take over as the consensus algorithm. This model (using a VRF in consensus) seems extremely similar to Dfinity upcoming project in which their consensus model, called Threshold Relay, will randomly select the next node to verify a block. Ontology public multi-chain system design will support several blockchains with their own different consensus models and governance systems. This is not new, projects such as Aelf and Loom Network built their networks around these features.

Thought I’d spend a bit of time explaining VRF based consensus since many other writings on Ontology have not dived into the topic. Using a VRF consensus is interesting because it is a potential game changer to PoW. Securing a PoW based blockchain requires miners to invest enormous amounts of hashing power to securing the network. In PoW, miners compete to solve an algorithm. The first to successfully validate a block gets the reward. But all along the way, you have each miner doing the same thing. That’s a lot of redundancy and wasted resources.

So how will VRF reduce power consumption? When a block is mined, the next validator is randomly selected. The miner(s) who validated the previous block will not know which node will be chosen next. Nor will the miner that is selected. In Dfinity’s solution, they’ve opted to choose a group of nodes and a randomly selected threshold level. For example, when a block is mined, let’s say the next group is comprised of 100 miners. The threshold that is randomly chosen is 51. When those 100 miners start their calculations, the block is successfully mined when 51 of those randomly chosen miners reach consensus. This is a much harder configuration to cheat. The previous miners are blind, so are the chosen miners. Not only that, but threshold that must be met will also be randomized. VRF will enable extremely fast validation and finality in two blocks. In Dfinity’s case finality is provided in two seconds. Compare that to Bitcoin’s “finality” in 60 minutes*.

Update: 4/12/2018. Just scoped out NKN’s GitHub repo and their VRF module is fully coded.

Additional reading: Jackson Kelley, The Dfinity Consensus White Paper
Threshold relay discussed at 14:45 mark of this Unchained podcast episode
*I put finality in quotations because there is no true finality in Bitcoin, but probabilistically finality (see my previous post on this topic)

Two peas in a pod: Ontology and NEO

Both Ontology and Neo are baselayer/infrastructure blockchains. Neo is built in C# and allows for developers to use languages they already know (Java, Python) to build smart contracts on their network. Ontology is built on Go. The primary difference between the two projects, in my view, is that Ontology is designed as a multi-chain solution. Of which, Neo is just one of many chains to interoperate with Ontology. Similar to other projects (Aelf, Lisk, Stratis), Ontology will feature sidechains (“multi-chains”, let’s use these interchangeably) purposefully built for specific situations. Each solution may need their own governance model and hence why you see multiple governance models in their repository. Blockchain layers appear to be competing for the same features and, in a multi-protocol world, are starting to show signs of commoditization.

Recent Partnerships

Ontology announced several partnerships recently.

  • Onchain – we covered this above
  • Tembusu Partners – Singaporean based PE firm. I am not familiar with their projects but maybe this is one of their first forays into cryptocurrency
  • Hashed – formerly Blockchain Partners Korea (BPK), is a blockchain focused fund, incubator and community builder with offices in Seoul and San Francisco. Notable logos on their site (either investor or consultant): Icon, Qtum, Ethereum, EOS, KyberCosmos, Aelf.
  • Accomplice – Seed round fund, based out of SF. Notable logos on their site: AngelList, DraftKings, CoinList

ontology_partners.jpeg

My perspective

Ontology Network will do well due to the people behind it. They’re clearly leaning on the examples of the last few years from DNA, NKN, and NEO to build Ontology. All of those battle scars and lessons learned applied into their latest project. Blockchains are competing at new layers. Previous blockchains such as Bitcoin and Ethereum have already proven they can withstand sovereign and platform censorship resistance respectively. Ethereum enabled blockchains to house computing functionality onchain. Neo followed suit and opted for scalability (speed) through a tightly controlled node structure (for the time being) and DBFT consensus model. The blockchains of today (Ontology, Dfinity, Zilliaqa, Loom, Aelf) are adding new layers of functionality: sidechains rooted to mainchains, sidechain-to-sidechain messaging, dual token mechanisms, sharding, and built-in DAO governance. Ontology still has tons of work in front of them. They need to complete their stated roadmap and have their mainnet battle tested. I’ve said this many times but I’ll reiterate it. Short term price movements in cryptocurrencies do not reflect intrinsic value. Cryptocurrencies, as an asset, have yet to fully prove their value. These technologies are nascent and are undergoing heavy research – we, as retail investors, get to invest in them. With that said, Ontology’s price has jumped significantly and it has received so much attention. I’m holding onto my airdrop tokens because they have a team that has successfully deployed a live blockchain. That says a lot in an era of vaporware. I’ll follow up with where Ontology is at in a quarter from now. Hope you enjoyed the read.

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