Byzantine Generals and Nakamoto Consensus

You can recognize truth by its beauty and simplicity.

– Richard Feynman (attributed)

In one of his early emails on the Cryptography mailing list, Satoshi claimed that the proof-of-work chain is a solution to the Byzantine Generals Problem (BGP). He describes this via an example where a bunch of generals – Byzantine ones, of course – collude to break a king’s wifi.

It’s interesting to look at this a little closer in the language of the originally-stated BGP itself. One doesn’t need to be too formal to glean useful intuition here.

What, more precisely, did Satoshi claim?

The Decentralized Timestamp Server

Satoshi’s problem is that of a decentralized timestamp server (DTS). Namely, he posits that any number of nodes, following some protocol, can together act as a timestamping server – producing some consistent ordering on what we’ll consider to be abstract ‘blocks’.

The decentralized timestamp server reduces to an instance of the Byzantine Generals Problem as follows. There are a bunch of nodes, who could each be honest or dishonest. All honest nodes want to agree on some ordering – a history – of blocks, and a small number of dishonest nodes should not easily be able to compromise that history – say, by convincing the honest nodes to adopt some alternate one of their choosing.

(N.b. it’s unimportant here to be concerned about the contents of blocks. Since the decentralized timestamp server problem is only concerned about block orderings, we don’t need to consider the case of invalid transactions within blocks or what have you, and can safely assume that any history must be internally consistent. We only need to assume that child blocks depend utterly on their parents, so that rewriting a history by altering some parent block also necessitates rewriting its children, and that honest nodes are constantly trying to append blocks.)

As demonstrated in the introduction to the original paper, the Byzantine Generals Problem can be reduced to the problem of how any given node communicates its information to others. In our context, it reduces to the following:

Byzantine Generals Problem (DTS)

A node must broadcast a history of blocks to its peers, such that:

  • (IC1) All honest peers agree on the history.
  • (IC2) If the node is honest, then all honest peers agree with the history it broadcasts.

To produce consensus, every node will communicate its history to others by using a solution to the Byzantine Generals Problem.

Longest Proof-of-Work Chain

Satoshi’s proposed solution to the BGP has since come to be known as ‘Nakamoto Consensus’. It is the following protocol:

Nakamoto Consensus

  • Always use the longest history.
  • Appending a block to any history requires a proof that a certain amount of work – proportional in expectation to the total ‘capability’ of the network – has been completed.

To examine how it works, consider an abstract network and communication medium. We can assume that messages are communicated instantly (it suffices that communication is dwarfed in time by actually producing a proof of work) and that the network is static and fixed, so that only active or ‘live’ nodes actually contribute to consensus.

The crux of Nakamoto consensus is that nodes must always use the longest available history – the one that provably has the largest amount of work invested in it – and appending to any history requires a nontrivial amount of work in of itself. Consider a set of nodes, each having some (not necessarily shared) history. Whenever any node broadcasts a one-block longer history, all honest nodes will immediately agree on it, and conditions (IC1) and (IC2) are thus automatically satisfied whether or not the broadcasting node is honest. Nakamoto Consensus trivially solves the BGP in this most important case; we can examine other cases by examining how they reduce to this one.

If two or more nodes broadcast longer histories at approximately the same time, then honest nodes may not agree on a single history for as long as it takes a longer history to be produced and broadcast. As soon as this occurs (which, in all probability, is only a matter of time), we reduce to the previous case in which all honest nodes agree with each other again, and the BGP is resolved.

The ‘bad’ outcome we’re primarily concerned about is that of dishonest nodes rewriting history in their favour, i.e. by replacing some history by another one that somehow benefits them. The idea here is that some dishonest node (or nodes) intends to use block as some sort of commitment, but later wants to renege. To do so, the node needs to rewrite not only , but all other blocks that depend on (here , etc.), ultimately producing a longer history than is currently agreed upon by honest peers.

Moreover, it needs to do this faster than honest nodes are able to produce longer histories on their own. Catching up to and exceeding the honest nodes becomes exponentially unlikely in the number of blocks to be rewritten, and so a measure of confidence can be ascribed to agreement on the state of any sub-history that has been ‘buried’ by a certain number of blocks (see the penultimate section of Satoshi’s paper for details).

Dishonest nodes that seek to replace some well-established, agreed-upon history with another will thus find it effectively impossible (i.e. the probability is negligible) unless they control a majority of the network’s capability – at which point they no longer constitute a small number of peers.

Summary

So in the language of the originally-stated BGP: Satoshi claimed that the decentralized timestamp server is an instance of the Byzantine Generals Problem, and that Nakamoto Consensus (as it came to be known) is a solution to the Byzantine Generals Problem. Because Nakamoto Consensus solves the BGP, honest nodes that always use the longest proof-of-work history in the decentralized timestamp network will eventually come to consensus on the ordering of blocks.