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Ethereum is an open-source, public, blockchain-based distributed computing platform and operating system featuring smart contract (scripting) functionality. It supports a modified version of Nakamoto consensus via transaction based state transitions. In popular discourse, the term Ethereum is often used interchangeably with Ether to refer to the cryptocurrency that is generated on the Ethereum platform.
Vitalik Buterin picked the name Ethereum after browsing Wikipedia articles about elements and science fiction, when he found the name, noting, “I immediately realized that I liked it better than all of the other alternatives that I had seen; I suppose it was the fact that sounded nice and it had the word “ether”, referring to the hypothetical invisible medium that permeates the universe and allows light to travel.”
Ethereum was initially described in a white paper by Vitalik Buterin, a programmer involved with Bitcoin Magazine, in late 2013 with a goal of building decentralized applications. Buterin had argued that Bitcoin needed a scripting language for application development. Failing to gain agreement, he proposed development of a new platform with a more general scripting language.:88
At the time of public announcement in January 2014, the core Ethereum team was Vitalik Buterin, Mihai Alisie, Anthony Di Iorio, and Charles Hoskinson. Formal development of the Ethereum software project began in early 2014 through a Swiss company, Ethereum Switzerland GmbH (EthSuisse). Subsequently, a Swiss non-profit foundation, the Ethereum Foundation (Stiftung Ethereum), was created as well. Development was funded by an online public crowdsale during July–August 2014, with the participants buying the Ethereum value token (ether) with another digital currency, bitcoin. While there was early praise for the technical innovations of Ethereum, questions were also raised about its security and scalability.
Ether is a fundamental cryptocurrency for operation of Ethereum, which thereby provides a public distributed ledger for transactions. It is used to pay for gas, a unit of computation used in transactions and other state transitions. Mistakingly, this currency is also referred to as Ethereum. It is listed under the code ETH and traded on cryptocurrency exchanges, and the Greek uppercase Xi character (Ξ) is generally used for its currency symbol. It is also used to pay for transaction fees and computational services on the Ethereum network.
As with other cryptocurrencies, the validity of each ether is provided by a blockchain, which is a continuously growing list of records, called blocks, which are linked and secured using cryptography. By design, the blockchain is inherently resistant to modification of the data. It is an open, distributed ledger that records transactions between two parties efficiently and in a verifiable and permanent way. Unlike Bitcoin, Ethereum operates using accounts and balances in a manner called state transitions. This does not rely upon unspent transaction outputs (UTXOs). State denotes the current balances of all accounts and extra data. State is not stored on the blockchain, it is stored in a separate Merkle Patricia tree. A cryptocurrency wallet stores the public and private “keys” or “addresses” which can be used to receive or spend Ether. These can be generated through BIP 39 style mnemonics for a BIP 32 “HD Wallet”. In Ethereum, this is unnecessary as it does not operate in a UTXO scheme. With the private key, it is possible to write in the blockchain, effectively making an ether transaction. To send ether to an account, you need the public key of that account. Ether accounts are pseudonymous in that they are not linked to individual persons, but rather to one or more specific addresses. Owners can store these addresses in software, on paper and possibly in memory (“brain wallet”).
Ether is different from Bitcoin (the cryptocurrency with the largest market capitalization as of January 2018) in several aspects:
- Its block time is 14 to 15 seconds, compared with 10 minutes for bitcoin.
- Mining of ether generates new coins at a usually consistent rate, occasionally changing during hard forks, while for bitcoin the rate halves every 4 years.
- Transaction fees differ by computational complexity, bandwidth use and storage needs (in a system known as gas), while bitcoin transactions compete by means of transaction size, in bytes.
- Ethereum gas units each have a price that can be specified in a transaction. This is typically measured in Gwei. Bitcoin transactions usually have fees specified in satoshis per byte.
- Transaction fees are generally considerably lower for ether than for Bitcoin. In December 2017, the median transaction fee for ether corresponded to $0.33, while for bitcoin it corresponded to $23.
- Ethereum uses an account system where values in Wei are debited from accounts and credited to another, as opposed to Bitcoin’s UTXO system, which is more analogous to spending cash and receiving change in return. Both systems have their pros and cons; in terms of storage space, complexity, and security/anonymity.
- Ethereum is planned to transfer to full Proof-of-Stake, currently it is a hybrid between Proof-of-Work and Proof-of-Stake.
Smart contracts can be public, which opens up the possibility to prove functionality, e.g. self-contained provably fair casinos.
One issue related to using smart contracts on a public blockchain is that bugs, including security holes, are visible to all but cannot be fixed quickly. One example of this is the 17 June 2016 attack on The DAO, which could not be quickly stopped or reversed.
There is ongoing research on how to use formal verification to express and prove non-trivial properties. A Microsoft Research report noted that writing solid smart contracts can be extremely difficult in practice, using The DAO hack to illustrate this problem. The report discussed tools that Microsoft had developed for verifying contracts, and noted that a large-scale analysis of published contracts is likely to uncover widespread vulnerabilities. The report also stated that it is possible to verify the equivalence of a Solidity program and the EVM code.