Polkadot And Kusama: Game Of Thrones Edition

September 29, 2022

Introduction: The Kusama Climb: Chaos Is A Ladder  

Littlefinger once said that “chaos is a ladder” and if that is true, Kusama is poised to ascend to the highest rungs. But it has also been said that ‘chaos is the cradle of creation,’ reflecting the fact that innovation is often a messy process of iterating small improvements from repeated failures, until major breakthroughs occur. Though innovation is necessary for transformative change to occur, it often comes at the expense of an inefficient use of resources and reduced stability.

What if a network wants to ‘eat its cake and have it too’—providing an environment that both accelerates innovation while maintaining transactional efficiency and stability? Polkadot’s answer is simple: two cakes. This article covers the relationship between Polkadot and Kusama, particularly how Polkadot leverages Kusama to spur innovation.

A Song Of Value And Price: What is Kusama?

Kusama is a Layer 0 canary network with a parallel economic frontier to Polkadot. Kusama has its own kingdom, economic ports and innovation hubs for layer 1 blockchains called parachains. Identical to Polkadot other than in its velocity of operation (it runs about 4x faster than Polkadot), the parachains that operate on top of it are heterogeneous, use-case specific shards secured by a relay chain.

Kusama has many other roles and functions such as:

  • A playground/ battleground for innovators and experimenters
  • A experiment laboratory to ensure battle-hardened parathreads and parachains and stress-tested dApps that live upon them.
  • A parallel virtual kingdom with the near identical economic incentives and game theoretical constraints and considerations as Polkadot
  • A live canary network operating as a warning signal that shows major issues in an early production environment before Polkadot deployment: thus operating as a pre-Polkadot securing agent.
  • An early stage production environment for aspiring projects
  • A product pipeline for any Polkadot projects in an iterative development product cycle

Many people often confuse one of the  aforementioned roles or functions with being the main or only function of Kusama.

Qyburn’s Benevolent Twin: Testing Versus Experimenting—A Distinction With A Difference 

Despite often being called a testnet, Kusama isn’t one even while testing does occur within its ecosystem. Kusama provides a test-in-production environment for dApps, parachains, parathreads and even governance proposals to change the base chain. Kusama is as a result its own kingdom with its own economy, governance, community and projects.

Kusama also has its own token known as KSM. KSM tokens carry real world value and have real world utility, unlike testnet tokens. Kusama has a current market cap of $470,546,526 and at its peak, had a market cap of $5,391,747,892 on May 19th 2021, proving that Kusama brings and secures real economic value in ways that most other testnets could only dream of. Therefore, to characterize it as a tesnet is somewhat of a miss.

Moreover, a distinction between two major functions of Kusama must be made. Testing ensures features are relatively secure, scalable, robust etc., while experimentation  allows developers to create the optimal product and iterate new potential features by seeing how it reacts to use by the market itself.

Westeros And Essos: Similarities And Differences Between Kusama And Polkadot 

Kusama and Polkadot share nearly all the same features by design. They share the same architecture (sharding of heterogeneous app based chains), the same consensus mechanism (Nominated Proof of Stake) and countless other similarities. However the similarities don’t end there, both Polkadot and Kusama share the following:

  • Nominated Proof of Stake
  • The same network architecture
  • App-specific sharding design
  • Multi-chain
  • Cross-chain
  • Interoperable
  • Will use XCM for interoperability
  • Have parachain auctions with 100-slot capacity
  • Have shards devoted to parachains
  • Have parathreads
  • Share the same code base
  • Forkless on-chain upgrades
  • On chain governance
  • 6-second block time

As mentioned above, Kusama also has multiple key differences than Polkadot. Since Kusama allows faster iteration, experimentation and innovation than Polkadot, Kusama running at about 4x the speed of Polkadot.Polkadot prefers stability without wild and unprecedented swings and therefore takes a more conservative approach to governance and parachains. Introducing too drastic a change or changes or moving too quickly can create hard-to-anticipate ramifications. Kusama has less stability and security than Polkadot which is a trade-off for the speed, experimentation, and innovation environment that it facilitates for developers building on Kusama.

No Coups In King’s Landing: Governance And speed 

Kusama’s governance process also operates at four times the speed of Polkadot. Kusama has a 7-day voting period followed by an 8-day implementation period. In contrast, Polkadot is 28 days for both the voting period and implementation period. This confers a massive advantage in terms of speed to Kusama, but increased speed necessitates increased vigilance, and more chaos. As a result, Kusama will naturally evolve or devolve faster than Polkadot due to this speed.

Kusama’s other notable differences are as follows:

  • 7-day unbonding period, whereas Polkadot has 28-day unbonding period
  • The minimum nomination threshold is currently 0.1 KSM, Polkadot’s is currently 124.6426 DOT today (this changes due to Polkadot’s minimum nominated  threshold being dynamic- read here for more)
  • Different purposes: Polkadot is the highly secure, consumer-grade chain and Kusama the less secure, testing, experimentation canary chain
  • Lower bond requirements for parachains

WesterOS: Parallelized, Sandboxed, Virtual Operating Systems

So what is the relationship between Polkadot and Kusama?

The best way to describe the relationship between Layer 0’s like Kusama and Polkadot is that they function as decentralized, permissionless and censorship resistant operating systems.

Polkadot is more akin to a stable version of an operation such as the long term support (LTS) version of Ubuntu or the stable version of Debian and Kusama is more like the latest experimental version of the OS with newer software/apps at the bleeding edge, the latest kernel, technologies, repositories and applications—but more bugs, novel innovations and undergoing continual refinement at hyper-speed.

Night’s Watch: Observing Kusama To Divine Polkadot’s Future

Another way to think of Kusama is as a simulated virtual world/ machine in a sandboxed parallel universe with largely the same operating system (Polkadot) with a different, yet largely identical set of specific constraints, constants and parameters. Basically, a parallel universe with a few parameter tweaks from the other universe (Polkadot). In this parallel universe, a major difference is that the Kusama parallel universe moves slightly faster and is more chaos-prone and that these different variables will have second order effects that ripple into newer futures.

Polkadot can stand atop a great wall and operate with a level of foresight, watching events and activities unfold on Kusama in order to observe how Kusama’s experiments play within its high-velocity environment. This allows Polkadot to overcome hurdles, setbacks and problems which may be exported to Polkadot, well ahead of them arising.

Parachain Of Thrones: The Lifecycle Of A Typical Parachain 

Parachains are user-oriented, app-specific shards which all parallelized transactions. Parachains are built for security, scalability, and interoperability. Security is secured through the relay chain, scalability through the parallel transactions enabled by shards, and interoperability through the use of cross-consensus message format (XCM).

According to Polkadot’s documentation a common development cycle for parachains and projects has been to move from “Testnet -> Kusama -> Polkadot”. This is also evidenced by many other Kusama and Polkadot protocols such as Bifrost Kusama and Parallel Finance. Both these projects were on Polkadot’s Rococo or Westend testnet prior to having a Kusama parachain variant.

Furthermore, projects wishing to become parachains on Polkadot often engage in a parallel deployment strategy in which they deploy on Kusama first, simultaneously or even after under a different name but with the same or a similar technological instantiation. A prominent example of this is Moonriver bringing and enabling EVM-compatible Solidity smart contracts and tooling to Kusama. Polkadot’s counterpart, Moonbeam secured a parachain on Polkadot before it did on Kusama. Moonriver then secured the 3rd parachain slot on Kusama.

Another example are the DeFi twins Karura and Acala. Karura secured a parachain slot for Kusama on June 22, 2021 till May 14, 2022 whereas Acala secured a parachain slot on December 18, 2021 leased till October 23, 2023.

Other twins exist such as Statemine on Kusama which is a similar technological instantiation to Statemint on Polkadot, Shiden network (Kusama) and Astar (Polkadot), Picasso (Kusama) Composable Finance (Polkadot) etc. Currently, Kusama has 34 parachains and 19 parathreads, with more on the way.

A Three Eyed Canary: The Potential Futures Of Kusama 

It is possible that Polkadot and Kusama may share divergent futures for multiple reasons:

  • Communities will ultimately decide the future and evolutionary path each project takes.
  • Kusama is an independent network with its own governance and governance moves faster than Polkadot’s, this means although innovation can occur faster, setbacks can become enacted quicker.
  • Kusama and Polkadot relationship is unique in the sense that the future of Kusama shapes the future of Polkadot: whether this be through mimicry or avoidance of problems first observed on Kusama—thus Kusama has the gift of the three-eyed canary.

Irrespective of whether they diverge in long-term, it is highly likely in the future that some level of overlap will be retained as parachains, parathreads, and even runtime upgrades are trialed on Kusama. Although Kusama’s future evolutionary direction remains uncertain, what remains certain is that Kusama is a highly valuable layer 0 network which is essential in securing even more value on Polkadot.

Conclusion: The Iron Throne—The Battle For Blockchain Supremacy  

Right now in the web3 space, prominent layer 1s and layer 0s are competing for users, communities, developers, technologists and dApps. A battle for blockchain supremacy is underway with each network nation state factionalized on whether the larger web3 ecosystem will be dominated by a single chain, multi-chain or cross-chain.

Who will win the iron throne or will there be multiple thrones in the web3 world and will Kusama give Polkadot a decisive advantage allowing them to edge out other ecosystems in fields that matter like security, innovation, and interoperability? Only time will tell. But armed with Kusama, Polkadot is poised to do well in this battle.


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