During the latest Ethereum core developers call on March 17, Vitalik Buterin mentioned that the recent Ether price increase has affected Ethereum’s impending Ice Age. The Ethereum Ice Age refers to the exponential slowing of the network as the difficulty bomb begins to make mining harder. This is all about the eventual switch to a Proof-of-Stake consensus algorithm, slated to slowly roll out until the Metropolis release intentionally (beneficially) hard forks the network away from mining. What’s interesting is how an increase in mining power pushes the Ice Age further back.
Vitalik ran calculations based on the blockchain’s current statistics during the meeting. He concluded that “by the end of June, the block time is only going to be around 19.5 seconds; by the end of August it’s only going to be about 28.5 seconds.” Those are lower than previous estimates, which saw block times reaching over 32 seconds by the end of August. While only a difference of a few seconds, the deviation is significant and was brought about by the recent run-up in the price of Ether. Buterin is heard saying during the call that “in general, the difficulty of a blockchain is a kind of very lagging, moving average of the price.”
Because of the math behind the difficulty bomb, as the network’s mining power increases, the time when the difficulty bomb’s effects become apparent is pushed back. As the price of Ether climbs, more miners join the network, since their effort reaps that much more reward. To compensate for the increased hashrate across the network, mining difficulty adjusts upwards, increasing difficulty. This variable difficulty rate is affecting how quickly the difficulty bomb is implementing itself. So, Buterin and the core developers have been thinking about adjusting timelines for Ethereum’s Metropolis release. Buterin said:
“Basically, if we get it out before the end of June it’s even better, and if we get it out before the end of August that’s still, like, less bad. My recommendation is probably still end of June as a … normal case target and end of August as a worst case deadline.” He went on to say, “It basically looks like the practical thing to do, I think, is to just like keep our heads down and see if we can finish this by the end of June.”
It looks like the closest we have to an ETA for Metropolis is mid-late summer. Obviously, that date range isn’t set in stone, so the core dev team is staying flexible. The one certain component to all of this is the difficulty bomb. It is real – and it is running even now. Due to its exponential nature, we’re not feeling its effects quite yet but that doesn’t mean it isn’t silently working in the background, drawing the Ice Age ever closer. Thankfully, the core Ethereum developers are working to stay ahead of the situation.