Cover photo

Smooth Liminal

Exploring the Cosmos Interchain is as Easy as IBC

Article by trewkat

I’m not a Trekkie, but I’ve watched a bit of Star Trek in my time. The saying “Beam me up Scotty” is burned into my consciousness. They made it look so easy — each person’s atoms would disassemble and then safely reassemble on the surface of whichever planet the crew was ‘exploring’ that week.

Sometimes I think about crypto tokens as being similar to those disassembled atoms, in that many crypto holders move tokens around between various chains, depending on where they’re needed or can most benefit the holder. My experience to date has largely been confined to the Ethereum ecosystem, which is — naturally — dominated by the Ethereum Layer 1 blockchain. While there are plenty of options for holding tokens away from the L1, they are all secondary in form and function to the Ethereum settlement layer, and they all require the use of bridges to move tokens back and forth.

Recently, I’ve learned more about the Cosmos ecosystem and its use of the Inter-Blockchain Communication Protocol (IBC) to facilitate data transfer throughout this ‘network of networks’. It’s a very different direction to that taken by Ethereum, where users’ actions are enabled by smart contracts which all run on the Ethereum Virtual Machine. In contrast, Cosmos is designed for applications to operate on an independent blockchain, connected to a web of blockchains by IBC.

Getting Inter the Zones

It had never really sunk in for me that Cosmos itself is not a blockchain. Rather, it’s known as the “Interchain” because it is a system of interoperable but independent Layer 1 blockchains. Each of these chains is focused on a specific function such as staking or data availability, and each functions with its own validators and consensus mechanism. 

These blockchains are known as “zones”, and many, but not all, are built using the Cosmos SDK which is “an open-source framework for building multi-asset public Proof-of-Stake (PoS) blockchains”; in other words it provides the components developers need to create the blockchain they want. According to the Map of Zones, a Cosmos network explorer, there are 87 zones (82 active in the last 30 days) at the time of writing.

Source: Map of Zones

IBC Bridges the Gap

In the Cosmos ecosystem, the Cosmos Hub is the main blockchain that connects and facilitates communication between the different zones. The facilitated communication between all the zones is what I find so interesting about Cosmos — and it’s achieved using the Inter-Blockchain Communication Protocol (IBC). It’s the IBC that allows users to ‘beam’ tokens effortlessly between chains, and it’s an impressive user experience compared to using Ethereum. You could say I’ve been ‘struck by the ‘smooth liminal'.

Mintscan provides a real-time 3D visualization of IBC activities between Interchain networks.

Here’s the analogy: whereas an Ethereum-based Star Trek crew have to find and move to a different ‘bridging’ ship, trust an unknown, fallible, or potentially malicious crew, and hope they arrive at their single destination 30 minutes or more later, a Cosmos-based crew can have transported to and from all sorts of places in that time, for less cost and without reliance on a third-party provider. That’s the power of the IBC.

“… unlike most bridging solutions, IBC uses no trusted third parties. This means that if you trust two particular chains to use the functions they provide (and by default their consensus mechanisms), then there is no additional trust assumption required while using IBC to interact between said chains.

IBC is also more than just a bridge that facilitates token transfers. It is a general-purpose message passing protocol. This means that any form of data can be communicated over IBC.”

The quote above is from a very easy-to-read explanation of IBC, which is a good start if you’re interested in a little more technical detail. There’s also a ton of technical information in the tutorials on the Cosmos Developer Portal.

Source: DeFi Made Here on X

Two Layers, One Standard

So how does it work? According to the IBC developer documentation, the protocol is modelled on the TCP/IP specification, which is the communication standard which underpins the internet. Standards are the foundation of technical interoperability; machines are oblivious to communication that they do not recognise.

Explaining the intricacies of how disparate blockchains communicate with one another is beyond my understanding, so I’ll keep it very basic. There are two layers within the IBC technical stack: a transport layer and an application layer.

The transport layer is purely for moving data packets around. It does not interpret transaction data, only ensuring it is relayed securely, remains intact, and can be verified. Any form of encoded data can be communicated via IBC. While fungible token transfers are an obvious use case, it’s also possible to send NFTs and oracle data.

The data is interpreted and actioned on the application layer; this is where users interact with the protocol — initiating and approving transactions or executing smart contracts. Applications (end-user products) are built using composable code modules which can be tailored to specific use cases relevant to the particular chain’s purpose.

The diagram below provides a simple overview of how IBC works, but there is a comprehensive explanation in this blog post, titled Getting Started with IBC: What are the IBC transport and application layers?

The Inter-Blockchain Communication Protocol connects heterogenous blockchains.
Source: IBC Blog: How IBC is Trust-Minimized: Understanding Trust Assumptions in Interoperability

Is This the Future?

IBC is not restricted to Cosmos blockchains. According to this IBC FAQ, it’s technically possible to use IBC to connect to blockchain ecosystems like Polkadot and Ethereum, with more than 100 blockchains currently IBC-enabled.

This blog post by Toki, which is “the first IBC bridge to connect Ethereum, BSC, and Cosmos”, provides some good examples of how other blockchains are beginning to use the IBC standard:

Source: Why EVM Chains Pay Attention to IBC

I mentioned atoms earlier in the context of Star Trek teleportation, but of course ATOM is also the primary token of the Cosmos Hub, through which holders contribute to security and governance of the chain. 

In this Just Crypto interview, which includes an informative overview of initiatives happening now in the Cosmos Interchain, researcher Carter Woetzel of ATOM Accelerator DAO suggests that the development of ATOM as ‘interchain money’ is a key direction for the Cosmos ecosystem, enabled by IBC:

“... the reason I think “ATOM is interchain money” is the story that makes the most sense is because IBC and people spinning up new Cosmos chains — that is the thing that's going to be exponential 10 years from now; that's the thing that's about to just absolutely grow and grow and grow …”

Join the Crescendo

The IBC underpins smooth data transfer between blockchains and I am here for it. That feeling you have when bridging funds back from an Ethereum L2 — which is akin to the desperate refrain of “Annie, are you OK?” — is eased by the elegance of IBC.

It’s not difficult to join with the many passionate developers and users of the Cosmos Interchain. You can set up a wallet or interact via MetaMask Snaps very easily, and from there it’s as easy as IBC.

Author and Designer Bio

trewkat is a writer, editor, and designer interested in learning about web3, with a particular focus communicating this knowledge to others via IndyPen CryptoMedia.

Editor Bio

Hiro Kennelly is a writer and cofounder of IndyPen CryptoMedia. He loves people, Moloch, and degenerative cryptoeconomics.

This post does not contain financial advice, only educational information. By reading this article, you agree and affirm the above, as well as that you are not being solicited to make a financial decision, and that you in no way are receiving any fiduciary projection, promise, or tacit inference of your ability to achieve financial gains.

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