Cross-chain is a primitive, Overlay networks are the era

Before overlay networks…

Before overlay networks, it was impossible to build the futuristic applications we know today on the world wide web. Gen X maxxed out at spreadsheets and email, cloud was impossible, we thought UX speeds were limited by certain physical constraints, and collaboration was synchronous.

Internet 1971 to crypto 2021. ARPANET, the precursor to the internet, is similar to native token bridges connecting Ethereum, Near, Polkadot, Cosmos, Avalanche etc.Source: “Casting the Net”, page 64; CCR, page 93

What are Overlays

An “overlay” (just overlay not overlay network) is a compression. It abstracts complexity away from a complicated underlay, freeing up an agent to focus their resources on what they want to do, rather than on defining and stabilising their environment.

The evolution of consciousness can be thought of as a series of overlays. Source: Integral City

Overlay Networks (on the Internet)

More specifically, “Overlay networks” unify and simplify unrelated networks to work together. They are greater than the sum of their parts (they grow non-linearly), and they smooth out short lived, localised failures.

Overlay networks on the internet. Source: Overlay Networks: An Akamai Perspective
I guess this would be like Ethereum going down.. (this article is pre-merge)

Overlays Networks in blockchains

We now have hundreds of public blockchain networks. They have been forced to remain isolated because internet messaging protocols don’t convey trust guarantees. This has driven the need for cross-chain protocols. First we had token bridges, but now, consensus innovations and cryptography have opened up generalised messaging channels between these networks.

Source: Twitter: @KerrieDoodles

The first shoots of overlays

I had heard Sergey, Co-Founder of Axelar describe Axelar as an overlay for a while and dismissed it as a rebrand of cross-chain, until I read that Akamai paper. Axelar has built a generalised cross-chain messaging protocol out of necessity where blockchains don’t support IBC, but its real secret is in its application-specific blockchain which will aggregate, reroute, validate and translate messages in a scalable, generalisable way.

Any other contenders?

There are very few cross-chain protocols which have hub & spoke architectures, and even fewer which have been built with overlays explicitly in mind. A special mention should go towards the Cosmos Hub — as always, they are visionaries in free market dynamics in distributed networks. The beacon chains in sharded blockchains like Polkadot, Ethereum etc have some overlay characteristics, but are not interoperable with the wider crypto community, so they currently can’t serve as generalised overlay networks.

The overlay era

We’ve had so much fun researching cross-chain designs and security, but only now have a concrete and extensible framework for thinking about what cross-chain enables. A look back to the overlay networks that emerged after the dot-com crash lights the path to the kinds of capabilities that will be needed for revolutionary applications to emerge. Overlay networks will shift cumbersome infrastructure management into the background and usher in an era where we can build applications easier than ever, and more powerful than we thought possible.



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Cross chain desperado loose in the wireld