Overview of Dfinity

Dfinity Foundation

Dfinity is a non-profit organization dedicated to reshaping the Internet into a computer with ultra-high capabilities and security. The Internet Computer “ICP” led by Dfinity adopts WASM and other new technologies and new architectures. It is tamper-proof, of high performance, and is able to reach billions of users around the world. At the same time, it supports the independent construction of software, which is expected to reverse the monopoly of the Internet by technology giants.

Internet Computer ICP

ICP is a Layer1 blockchain project led by the Dfinity Foundation, dedicated to building a public blockchain network. ICP provides an unlimited operating network for smart contracts, which can run at a speed close to a normal centralized network. With the help of ICP, any applications and services can be built, such as DeFi, social media sites running on blockchain, and other DApps.

Overview of ICP

Key features: easy deployment, decentralization, recovery and backup

ICP expands the capabilities of the Internet, enabling itself to host back-end software, transforming the entire ICP network into a global computing platform.

Using ICP, developers can create applications and services by quickly deploying code directly on the ICP network, without the need for tedious server computer deployment and commercial cloud service purchases.

In short, ICP solves the deployment, architecture, and expansion issues of software development. What all application developers have to do is to write code.

1. Product positioning

  • Against Serverless
    ICP does not always specifically claim that it is a public chain similar to Ethereum, but that it is an Internet computer. The positioning of ICP is similar to the serverless (no server) on the blockchain version of centralized cloud platforms (such as Amazon’s AWS, Microsoft’s Azure, or Heroku, which is almost purely Serverless (its parent company is Salesforce)).
    Serverless means “don’t worry about the server”. As the name suggests, when developers deploy an application, they don’t have to worry about server configuration issues, but simply upload the code directly to complete the deployment. Serverless has several features besides not having to worry about servers and fast delivery. One is automatic flexibility. For example, during Black Friday, Amazon needs to increase the number of servers and bandwidth significantly. If Serverless is adopted, there is no need to adjust servers manually. The cloud platform will automatically expand application resources. Additionally, the fee is based on the actual use of resources. Traditional servers are rented on a monthly or annual basis. Serverless service is charged based on the number of function calls. The same is true for ICP. Therefore, it is cost-effective and will not waste idle servers’ resources.
    Serverless’s most significant advantage and selling point are that it is convenient and quick to be adopted, and the overall cost-effectiveness is high. What the cloud platform is doing now is to continuously support more programming languages (for example, supporting Nodejs, attracting Nodejs developers to use Serverless services and gradually making the Nodejs ecosystem more prosperous) and simplifying the steps for software developers to use Serverless. The ecosystem of ICP is somewhat less prosperous than the ecosystem of the traditional cloud platform Serverless. Serverless natively supports almost all popular programming languages, while ICP uses WASM (WASM will be analyzed in-depth later) and a self-developed programming language. Although its functions are very rich for this self-developed programming language, its ecosystem is bound to be less popular than languages such as Java and Nodejs. The WASM ecosystem is also a very new thing. It is still too early to be applied in some cases. In the main field of WASM, browser, the API has not yet been finalized. Therefore, more development is needed at this stage, and there is a lot to be done after each ecological progress in the future.
    Serverless is absolutely the future trend. According to a survey by AWS, 40% of organizations are using Serverless. As per Alibaba, Serverless has reduced Alibaba’s labor costs by 48%, and the demand for Serverless will increase in the future. On the big track of Serverless, ICP’s opponents include giants such as AWS and Microsoft Azure. But now, Serverless is still in a situation where there is no unified standard, so ICP still has the opportunity to seize market share through high performance and high security.
  • Against Cloud platform
    The ICP’s statement that “the cloud platform is too centralized” may not be entirely correct. For a single cloud platform, centralization is inevitable. Still, many open source projects such as Terraform (https://github.com/hashicorp/terraform) or various libraries and plug-ins such as Serverless Framework can be utilized for partially connecting to cloud platforms to achieve unified operation and maintenance and deployment. By using multiple cloud platforms simultaneously, the problem of excessive centralization of cloud platforms can be partially solved. But when you choose to use a specific cloud platform service, it will indeed cause difficulties in switching the platform. ICP also has this problem, and it may be more serious due to ecological closure. The decentralization emphasized by ICP is actually still the consensus in the characteristics of the blockchain and the decentralization of nodes.
  • Against Ethereum
    To the development process, there is essentially no significant difference between developing on ICP and developing on Ethereum. It can sometimes even be more difficult (the documentation and community support are relatively minor). As new developers, developers need more reasons to persuade themselves to choose ICP. Since the audience on Ethereum is larger and developers can find more help from the community, are the advantages of development and publishing to ICP and even other public chains greater? This is a question that every “Ethereum Killer” public chain should think about. However, ICP wisely chose to avoid competing with Ethereum head-on, instead of competing with Serverless on the cloud platform.

2. Programming languages

  1. WASM:
    Motoko recommended by ICP can be compiled into WebAssembly (WASM). During the lifecycle of ICP, the WASM container is used to store data and execute code. WASM is a binary instruction format for stack-based virtual machines. It supports the deployment of client and server applications on the Web. WASM containers are similar to Ethereum’s EVM. Compared with EVM, WASM places more emphasis on execution efficiency and performance. In Ethereum 2.0, Ethereum also has plans to migrate from EVM to WASM.
    The advantages of WASM are strong performance, security (runs in a memory-safe sandbox and implements browser security policies), and ecological expansion (can be directly embedded into the Web, but the browser does not fully support it for the time being).
  2. Motoko:
    Dfinity’s programming language. It is similar to Ethereum’s Solidity. Motoko has many application-specific optimizations (in-depth analysis will be done later in this passage).
  3. Rust:
    ICP provides SDK for Rust. It is more efficient for running in a WASM container.
  4. Since other languages do not have SDK and official development documents, Motoko or Rust may still be needed as glue to realize the part of direct interaction with ICP, so the development can only choose Motoko or Rust.

3. Ecosystem

In terms of ecosystem and developer experience, the sample app source code, technical documentation, and development tools (VSCode plug-in, NPM library, DFX scaffolding) provided by Dfinity are all comprehensive.

Consensus protocol

Key features

PoS speeds up and solves computational redundancy, random number beacons guarantee decentralization, staking guarantees safety, and periodic final confirmation guarantees lightweight.

Consensus process

Unlike Ethereum’s DApp, which only invokes contracts at some time, the software envisaged by ICP relies entirely on smart contracts to drive services 24/7. In summary, ICP requires very high computational performance and needs to reduce computational redundancy. Therefore, ICP must be sufficiently secure while ensuring the decentralization of the blockchain network. Therefore, this imposes harsh demands on its consensus algorithm.

Node preparation before starting

  1. The node creates a private key and a public key to establish an anonymous permanent identity.
  2. Nodes joining the network need to mortgage a fixed token as staking.
  3. Nodes randomly form a threshold group with other nodes (completely random, a node can exist in multiple threshold groups)
  4. In the threshold group, running distributed key agreement (DKG), each node obtains the group’s “verification signature” key (different from the personal key, a group of private keys is mathematically split).
  5. The system still generates the standard public key of the threshold group according to the DKG and registers the threshold group.
  6. Start waiting for participation in consensus.

Consensus happens:

  1. Choose this round of committee groups *1 *4
  2. Proposal committee packs out blocks
  3. The Notary Committee continues to receive and verify blocks
  4. The random number beacon collects signatures; waits for the threshold, and produces notarization and random numbers *2
  5. R+1 step0 Synchronize the correct block, start R+1 round, go back to step1 *3
  • *1
    The key is non-interactive.
    First, a block group of 400 clients is selected publicly by random numbers to package transactions and generate blocks. Each client will generate a block, and there is a set of chosen verifiers by random numbers simultaneously. They will accept the block and run a protocol that judges the weight of the block based on the random number. The verifier only signs the node with the highest weight. No interaction, no Byzantine consensus to send signature data to each other. It is mainly to constantly search for the block with the highest weight in a fixed block time. After a block has received signatures from more than 50% of the verifiers (signed separately, not jointly signed together), the system will automatically aggregate the signatures on the block and confirm that the block is unique. Once the client observes When the aggregated signature is reached, it will enter the next round of consensus.
    It can be seen that the Byzantine agreement was not carried out in the whole process, but the three principles were followed: The client signs the block in accordance with the principle of the highest authority. The higher the weight, the more the chain will be confirmed. The system follows the principle of generating random number beacons with more than 50% signature. Everyone follows the principle of entering the next round of consensus as soon as they see the new random number beacon. The three principles eliminate redundant invalid blocks and obtain a unique block, thus reaching a consensus (the approximate reason is that there may be two notarized blocks at the same time). The entire communication process is almost zero. In a network that broadcasts the gossip protocol, a network with 400 nodes only needs to forward about 20KB of communication data to generate a threshold signature. The generation of the distributed signature key of a group is distributed when the group is created, and it does not need to be generated during the consensus phase. It is generated once and used multiple times.
    An analogy is Algorand, which is very similar but interacts with two rounds of Byzantine consensus. Algo’s random number lottery process is secretive, which means that a node only knows whether it is selected or not, but it does not know how many nodes in the entire network have been selected. Therefore, before the Algo consensus, it is necessary to traverse all the networks and perform Byzantium once to know all the selected verification groups, so the delay time and bandwidth usage here are very high. Coupled with the aforementioned problem of the Byzantine communication rounds and signature data of the super large verification group (2000 to 4000), bandwidth usage under the Algo consensus is very critical, and such people do not have the ability to participate.
  • *2
    The key is the random number algorithm with high performance and security.
    The random number algorithm used by Dfinity is VRF. VRF involves a lot of mathematical calculations, we can think of it as a black box, one section is the input and the other section is the output. The input is a set of client signatures, and the output is an accurate random number. Only after obtaining enough client signatures can the black box output random numbers. Before this, no client can know or predict its output. The threshold for “enough” signatures is 50%, so this VRF process is also called “threshold signature”.
    This VRF has three characteristics: Verifiable: Once the random number is output, everyone can verify it with the client’s signature. The V of VRF is reflected here. Unique certainty: Once more than 50% of the clients have sent a signature, the black box will receive a unique definite random number after receiving it. This is because the private key signature algorithm used is unique, that is, the results of multiple signatures of the unified data with the unified key are different, and only one can be legally verified. Non-interactive: In the process of generating random numbers, although the black box needs to collect everyone’s signatures, there is no need to communicate between clients, and there is no way to interfere with the generation of random numbers. Among the known cryptographic algorithms, only the BLS algorithm can do the above three points, and one of the proponents of the BLS algorithm “L” Lynn is a senior engineer of DFINITY. Other random number schemes are either extremely difficult to verify (continuous hashing), or uniqueness cannot be guaranteed, or there is no threshold design and must be interacted. The existence of the “last participant” can indirectly affect the random number deviation (Ethereum’s RANDAO and VDF).
    Of course, this VRF is still a problem. If more than 50% of the selected group of consensus participants are controlled by the attacker, then he can indirectly interfere with the generation of random numbers. Of course, it is basically impossible to predict random numbers, and there is no way to directly control them. The attacker can also stop the random number generation process without sending the signature, thereby bringing the entire system down. (In fact, no consensus agreement can withstand this)
  • *3
    The key is ultra-fast final confirmation.
    DFINITY’s consensus is carried out in rounds. The beginning and end of each round of consensus are marked by the observation of the random number beacon to generate a new random number, and this random number is updated at the same time as the system aggregates the signature to generate the notarization. Therefore, the block height of DFINITY must be consistent with the round. The blocks produced in each round must quote the notarized signature of the previous round, otherwise, it will be considered illegal. At the same time, the fair group will only sign the blocks generated in this round, and will not sign the blocks in the previous round.
    Summarized as two key parts: Only the blocks released in this round can be notarized; Only quoting the block of the current round that was notarized in the previous round is legal. This ensures that the two processes of block production and notarization cannot be maliciously detained. Therefore, the attacker cannot secretly prepare a shadow chain longer than the main chain to perform a double-spending attack, because the first shadow chain Blocks are not legal.
    Because there is the above-mentioned notarization process of “signature by the verifier group individually, and the system aggregates the signatures to generate the notarization”, it is basically possible to make a unique confirmation after each round. However, there may be cases where two or more blocks past the notarization at the same time, so the final confirmation cannot be achieved after the end of the round, and then it is necessary to continue the judgment in the next round. At this time, wait for the block production process to complete, because the block producer may choose to continue production after the block that was notarized at the same time in the previous round, so there are several forks at the same time.
    The verifier will calculate the weight to determine the unique block, and the chain with the higher weight will be the only confirmation chain, and then the verifier will sign him. Therefore, when a new random number appears in this round, it means that the fork has been pruned, and the blocks in the previous round, including the transactions in it, have been finally confirmed.
    Quick confirmation not only improves performance, but also cuts off forks, reduces the redundancy of the system, and allows the client to not store all the historical block data, any newly added block, as long as the most recently confirmed block starts That’s it.
  • *4
    The key is flexible expansion performance.
    Excellent random numbers bring almost unlimited expansion possibilities to the DFINITY network, because the entire random number output, including block generation and notarization, is executed by a fixed number of committee groups, and the addition of new nodes on the client-side is not possible. DFINITY randomly generates multiple threshold groups, so multiple groups run in parallel to achieve fragmentation, which is quite easy. The sharding method of Ethereum 2.0 is also very similar. However, Dfinity’s storage and network scalability also need to be expanded. In this regard, the transmission between nodes and nodes and storage is also lossy. Bandwidth may not be enough. If this aspect cannot be expanded, it may just be an unneeded enhancement.

Computation and architecture

Application architecture

Starting from the bottom: P2P layer (collecting and distributing data) → consensus layer (organizing messages, writing to blocks after verification) → message routing layer (transmitting information to the destination) → application execution layer (computing through the WASM security sandbox environment)

During the development phase, Dfinity’s developer tools will abstract all levels and copy them to a local version to facilitate development.

How ICP application works

The code is compiled into a WASM module and deployed to the ICP Canister container (the container includes the program itself, status, and user interaction records).



Similar to the smart contract in Ethereum, there is essentially no other big difference except that the running environment is a sandbox of WASM. As mentioned before, a very important feature is that ICP is a serverless-like service provider. Compared with Ethereum applications, the above applications need to have higher real-time performance, such as the ICP version of Tik Tok, so Canister needs to do more interactions, but also to ensure that there is no downtime, no jams


The application state of the ICP is stored in the memory, and is managed and confirmed, and modified through the consensus phase.

A phrase often mentioned on Dfinity’s blog is orthogonal persistence. It still refers to the characteristics of Serverless. Developers don’t have to worry about data loss or where the data is located. This shows that ICP and centralized cloud platforms are similar, and there are operations such as disaster recovery and backup.

We can look at the hardware requirements of the node server provided by Dfinity.

We can see that the node server requires 16 32GB memory and a 3.2TB SSD. Compared with the 4GB RAM and 290GB SSD (https://nimbus.guide/hardware.html) hardware requirements of the Ethereum verification node, it is quite overwhelming. Of course, for storage, the more striking is Filecoin, which requires 1TB memory and 16TB SSD configuration (https://zhuanlan.zhihu.com/p/337597732).

The calculation and state storage of ICP basically run on memory (similar to, for example, the HANA of the centralized cloud platform SAP). The hard disk may only function as mirror storage, so the memory requirements are relatively high. This is similar to the relationship between a game server and a web server. The game server (similar to ICP and traditional centralized applications) needs to handle countless applications (chat, equipment, damage, blood volume, etc.); web servers (similar to Ethereum Application) In contrast, it is relatively stateless, and it may be more often that you read different data every time you visit the website. Compared with Filecoin, ICP is not focused on storage, but Serverless. The stored data may be regular application data, application status, and application code itself, so there is no need for such excessive storage requirements.

On-chain application implementation

The on-chain app structure is very similar to Ethereum.

  • Front end: frameworks such as React or Vue on the Web, React Native, or Flutter on the mobile
  • Backend: Motoko (a programming language developed by Dfinity) or any other language that can be packaged and compiled into WASM (such as Rust)
  • Data structure: Canister (Dfinity developed a JSON-like interface description language Candid for this)

1. Cancan (basically a Tik Tok on ICP)

source code: https://github.com/dfinity/cancan

Cancan is similar to Tik Tok on the ICP platform. Cancan’s front-end uses the Web client React framework, and the back-end uses Dfinity’s Motoko language. Motoko also uses advanced features such as Motoko Package Manager Vessel. In addition, some APIs of the OS is used, including testing and continuous integration, and the comments are also very detailed. Cancan can be said to have implemented a very standardized ICP full-stack application in a small amount of code, which is worth learning for ICP developers.

The state of the entire application uses Canister containers and ICP to replace servers, CDNs, databases, etc.

  • Front end: The resources of the React framework are all in a separate Canister (https://github.com/dfinity/cancan/tree/main/src/utils/canister).
  • Backend and database: Video data and others are all defined in Canister’s type (https://github.com/dfinity/cancan/blob/main/backend/State.mo). At the same time to deal with millions of user-level access, Cancan uses an advanced data type in Motoko: distributed hash table. Because it is a Serverless-like architecture, Cancan does not need to operate traditional front-end and back-end interactions but is similar to the get and post methods that can be directly performed on the database (similar to Google’s Firebase).

In short, from Cancan’s example, after learning Motoko and being proficient in this language, development on ICP will be extremely efficient and there is no need to worry about the most annoying deployment and other issues.

2. Portal (video streaming platform)

source code: https://ja7sy-daaaa-aaaai-qaguq-cai.raw.ic0.app

Portal is a relatively unique live streaming platform on ICP that allows you to earn while watching and broadcasting. It is currently undergoing Alpha Test. The source code of Portal is temporarily unavailable, but it can be seen that the front-end uses the React framework. After communicating with developers, we get to know that the user or token data of Portal is all on the ICP, and the storage and distribution of data such as video streaming media use the Livepeer protocol.

  • Front-end: React framework, the client is relatively rudimentary at present.
  • Database: The data that is not that complicated is on the ICP, and the most complicated data such as streaming video is not on the ICP. For the difficult part, Livepeer is used. Livepeer claims to be a live video streaming platform based on Ethereum. It is essentially a video streaming solution provider with distributed nodes, but the economic system is based on Ethereum. Portal’s use of Livepeer is like using the Filecoin platform for cold storage, and it does not reflect a particularly large technological innovation.

All in all, Portal is a live broadcast platform, and the most critical and complicated video distribution and storage are Livepeer, which has nothing to do with ICP. The relationship between Portal and ICP is only part of simple data storage and database interaction using ICP. This is actually that Portal wants to be carried by ICP. While promoting its ecosystem, it can also label itself as the first live broadcast website of the ICP platform.

Is ICP really that good?

From the user’s POV

Abstractly speaking, ICP is already “fast” enough that users cannot perceive that it is a blockchain in the backend. It can be said that there is no difference in the use of ICP and other cloud platforms. The deployment of smart contract applications on traditional blockchains, such as Ethereum, will make the user experience very poor, due to the payment of fees for various confirmation transactions and the slow network confirmation. But on ICP, due to its POS + random number consensus protocol, TPS is high, and there are various optimizations of data structure, which can support a smooth user experience. Therefore, there are ICP versions for various applications, such as LinkedUp and Distrikt.

From the developer’s POV

  • Reading data: It is generally below 250ms at present. This speed is basically the length of time a person presses and releases the mouse, which is basically not experienced by people.
  • Writing data: Because it needs to reach a consensus, it takes more time than reading. Currently, it is usually 2–5 seconds. Compared with BTC or ETH, this is much faster. Compared with centralized cloud platforms, this may seem slow, but in fact, this speed is acceptable.
  • Canister is currently single-threaded. If Canister is upgraded to multi-thread, the speed of reading and writing can also be greatly improved. From the perspective of application development, this speed is not fast, but it is definitely sufficient for making an ordinary WebApp.

As a blockchain

The architecture design of ICP is similar to a cloud platform. More nodes mean that the physical distance between nodes and users may be shorter, and the network will be faster. It can achieve “more nodes=more subnets=bigger network with higher capacity = application of higher performance”. For specific technical implementation, please refer to this detailed blog: (https://medium.com/dfinity/a-technical-overview-of-the-internet-computer-f57c62abc20f).

Shortage of ICP


Canister optimization

Currently, Canister can send update requests to other Canisters. If there are three Canisters of A, B, and C, and A wants to interact with C through B, then (A needs to send an update request to B) → (B to send an update request to C) → (C to receive the request). But the problem is that such a response time takes about 4 seconds, which is very slow for the user experience. It may be slower if it is across different subnets. If there are 10 Canisters that need to interact, it would be terrifying that a request takes 20 seconds. There are query requests in ICP, and the performance is very fast. It only takes 200 microseconds at a time, but there is no native support for cross-canister chain requests. Therefore, in order to avoid performance problems of cross-application requests in the future, ICP needs to be updated to provide native high-performance APIs.

Another point is that the current Canister execution is single-threaded. Although Canister can “package” some instructions to execute, it will greatly improve performance if it supports multi-threading. However, these updates are closely related to other parts of the ecosystem. For example, the Rust SDK supported by ICP is also closely related to the ecosystem development of the language itself, so technically it may require multiple efforts to improve it.

Custom domain name

The domain name of the APP currently deployed on ICP is Canister’s id plus ic0.app, such as (https://ja7sy-daaaa-aaaai-qaguq-cai.raw.ic0.app). Although developers can purchase other domain names to redirect to Canister’s long domain name, in the process of use, the long domain name will still have a great impact on the user experience. At the same time, the developers in the Dfinity Forum and their customers also have opinions on this issue, which they think is a huge obstacle in the development process. This may be a small flaw, but it can also show that Dfinity still needs to work hard to improve these details. In addition, after communicating with the developers of Dfinity, I learned that there will be two accounts when creating an account on the ICP, which is counter-intuitive for users of blockchain applications, so application developers are usually alone Create another account. This is where Dfinity can improve the user experience.

No killer apps


From Dfinity’s repo, it can be seen that Dfinity’s ecosystem is still not so prosperous, and there is no killer application that is familiar. Although ICP’s technology is very strong, there are no super popular products appearing on this platform. The incomplete ecosystem is actually related to the fact that some standards have not been promoted, such as the token standard mentioned in the next point.

Token Standard

ICP currently does not have fungible tokens and non-fungible token standards, which is a terrible thing. As a public chain network, the most attractive application on the chain is the economic system of its tokens, but there is no standardized proposal for ICP. For a developer, no standardization proposal means that the developer’s application may be abandoned by the ecosystem in the future because it does not meet the standard. So this has also caused most developers to wait. They may rather build an application in TRON and embrace the TRON ecosystem than in ICP.


Dfinity’s ICP is a high-performance blockchain network with a cloud platform Serverless positioning. Through excellent consensus algorithm and architecture design, and self-developed programming language polished after various optimizations, ICP can ensure the security and high performance of applications on the network. Although ICP still needs to be built slightly in terms of application ecosystem and standard formulation, ICP is currently a mature blockchain network focusing on serverless functions, which can help DApp developers build higher-performance applications faster.

Source: Forsight Venture

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