This is the fourth part of my series of posts explaining the bitcoin Lightning Networks 0.5 draft paper.  See Part I, Part II and Part III.

The key revelation of the paper is that we can have a network of arbitrarily complicated transactions, such that they aren't on the blockchain (and thus are fast, cheap and extremely scalable), but at every point are ready to be dropped onto the blockchain for resolution if there's a problem.  This is genuinely revolutionary.

It also vindicates Satoshi's insistence on the generality of the Bitcoin scripting system.  And though it's long been suggested that bitcoin would become a clearing system on which genuine microtransactions would be layered, it was unclear that we were so close to having such a system in bitcoin already.

Note that the scheme requires some solution to malleability to allow chains of transactions to be built (this is a common theme, so likely to be mitigated in a future soft fork), but Gregory Maxwell points out that it also wants selective malleability, so transactions can be replaced without invalidating the HTLCs which are spending their outputs.  Thus it proposes new signature flags, which will require active debate, analysis and another soft fork.

There is much more to discover in the paper itself: recommendations for lightning network routing, the node charging model, a risk summary, the specifics of the softfork changes, and more.

I'll leave you with a brief list of requirements to make Lightning Networks a reality:

  1. A soft-fork is required, to protect against malleability and to allow new signature modes.
  2. A new peer-to-peer protocol needs to be designed for the lightning network, including routing.
  3. Blame and rating systems are needed for lightning network nodes.  You don't have to trust them, but it sucks if they go down as your money is probably stuck until the timeout.
  4. More refinements (eg. relative OP_CHECKLOCKTIMEVERIFY) to simplify and tighten timeout times.
  5. Wallets need to learn to use this, with UI handling of things like timeouts and fallbacks to the bitcoin network (sorry, your transaction failed, you'll get your money back in N days).
  6. You need to be online every 40 days to check that an old HTLC hasn't leaked, which will require some alternate solution for occasional users (shut down channel, have some third party, etc).
  7. A server implementation needs to be written.

That's a lot of work!  But it's all simply engineering from here, just as bitcoin was once the paper was released.  I look forward to seeing it happen (and I'm confident it will).