Rivalry among peers The love, hate, and complex relationships of ZK-EVMs

ZK-EVMs The Love, Hate, and Complex Relationships of Peer Rivalry

Author: TechFlow

Several projects working on zk-EVM all hope to expand the scalability track together while secretly competing with each other, hoping to be the only one.

In the world of encryption, claiming to solve a problem is often worth a fortune. And if you claim to solve Ethereum’s problems, you could be valued in the tens of billions of dollars.

Facing Ethereum’s current biggest problem – performance and scalability, zkEVM is indeed a feasible solution:

By migrating the Ethereum virtual machine to zk-Rollup, it achieves better scalability, lower gas fees, better privacy, and solves performance bottlenecks.

But how to solve it and who will solve it is still uncertain.

So we see zkEVM projects with high valuations but different technical routes, such as Polygon, ZKSync, Scroll, and Starknet.

It is precisely because there is no consensus that there is controversy.

Two weeks ago, Polygon Zero accused ZKSync of copying its open source code in a post, and the latter countered that it only made a small reference and marked it as a citation. At the same time, ZKSync also criticized the other party for lacking an open source spirit.

This incident became an instant hot topic, and for a while, netizens in the industry started making various memes. The media carefully listed and compared the details and right and wrong of the event, and even influential figures in the field made comments…

But currently, this incident itself has lost much of its heat, and it seems that the various zk-EVM projects have returned to a calm “Build” state. However, this is not the first time that zk-EVM projects have clashed on Twitter.

In March of this year, Brendan, the co-founder of Polygon Zero, publicly clashed with Alex, the co-founder of Matter Labs behind zkSync, over the efficiency issue of zksync. Alex stated that the efficiency of zksync would increase by 1000 times, and Brendan responded, “Talk is cheap, we generally speak with publicly available test indicators, please do the same”;

At the same time, Brendan also brought up a comment made by Toghrul Maharramov, a researcher at Scroll, in 2022, saying that Polygon’s rollup is “not zkEVM”.

It’s like saying, “I remember every bad thing you said about me.”

Meanwhile, Ye Zhang, the co-founder of Scroll, after quoting the debate thread, demonstrated the oriental philosophy of working in harmony: since we’re all doing zk-EVM, it’s better to progress together in harmony.

But don’t forget, when Polygon’s zk-EVM mainnet launch poster was released in February, Ye Zhang keenly pointed out the improper use of the term “Ethereum” in its promotional materials, believing that Polygon zkEVM does not possess this characteristic… If competitors use incorrect terminology, we must correct them.

Jumping out to watch the drama and publicly confront each other, in fact, it is not important to argue on the surface who is right or wrong. What is more important is to sort out the interests and the situation behind the debate:

Several projects that do zk-EVM are actually full of love and hate. They all hope to make progress together and expand the track of scalability, attracting more funds and attention; at the same time, they may secretly compete with each other, hoping to be the only one – the preferred zkEVM solution favored by Vitalik and the Ethereum community.

In the recent code plagiarism controversy, the original post of Polygon mentioned: “Cryptocurrencies operate on the basis of open source spirit. When a project does not follow it, the ecosystem will be affected.”

But let’s think about it the other way around. If Polygon’s zkEVM is already recognized as the preferred solution and widely adopted, it doesn’t matter even if you copy a few lines of code from ZKSync, or even need to post specifically to counterattack.

And precisely because the current situation among several parties is evenly matched, even a slight disturbance may become unbearable.

In addition, it needs to be emphasized that the attention of encrypted users and developers is very limited. Whoever establishes orthodoxy first will have an advantage. Even if the latter forks 100% of the code, it can only be called “imitating”.

Many things have nothing to do with the technical route’s superiority or inferiority, but with the competition for “uniqueness”, not to mention the competition for “who is the best optimization solution for Ethereum”.

Is it really good only if Vitalik says so?

Except for Starknet, zkSync, Polygon Hermez/zkEVM, and Scroll have all announced their zkEVM on the mainnet at ETH CC 2022 conference.

Announcing in groups, solving similar problems, how do users see it?

Believe me, most people actually don’t fully understand what SNARK, STARK, Rollup, circuit, equivalence, compatibility, and zero-knowledge mean.

The superiority or difference of technical solutions, or the topic that needs to be understood by a larger range of users, is not. However, the fact that the technical solution looks good can significantly affect the valuation, price, trading volume, and speculative expectations of a project;

At the same time, the fact that the technical solution looks good can also significantly affect the willingness of developers and project parties to adopt that technology.

So, for a technical solution like zkEVM, assuming there are solutions like Polygon, zkSync, Scroll, and Starknet on the market, how do you quickly identify which one is the “good-looking” one?

Due to the problem of technical barriers and knowledge composition, it is difficult for you to quickly figure out which one is better at low cost. But instead of spending a lot of money on research, there is obviously another more direct and effective way:

Vitalik Buterin said it’s good, so it’s good.

This is not idealism or hero worship, but rather a more cost-effective way to identify solutions in a situation where problem homogeneity and diverse technical solutions exist.

Since zkEVM is designed to solve Ethereum’s scalability issues and is related to the Ethereum Virtual Machine, it is natural that Vitalik Buterin, who understands the crux of the matter, has more say in whether the solution works well or not.

A single statement from a prominent figure in this relatively small market can often cause a huge stir. For example, “THE” by Vitalik Buterin and Elon Musk’s Doge. Of course, this is different from a meme, but the endorsement and recognition from influential figures are crucial for a project’s development.

Although not explicitly stated, this unspoken consensus is clearly understood by several project teams.

For example, as early as January 2018, during Starknet’s seed funding round, Vitalik Buterin was among the investors. Different projects related to zkEVM also independently categorize the framework division of zkEVM based on Vitalik Buterin’s classification:

As shown in the above figure, Vitalik Buterin previously classified zkEVM into four types in his blog. As the type number increases, the compatibility decreases, but the efficiency increases. The first type is called the fully Ethereum equivalent EVM, which includes the use of the same hash functions and state trees. However, these components are not zk-friendly and have very low efficiency in generating proofs.

At the same time, Vitalik Buterin also pointed out the positions of several commonly seen zkEVM projects, but did not express a strong preference, only indicating that we should be flexible in our outlook:

“In theory, Ethereum doesn’t need to standardize to a single ZK-EVM implementation for L1; different clients can use different proofs, so we continue to benefit from code redundancy.”

Obviously, in Vitalik Buterin’s view, diversity and variety are good.

It is precisely because different solutions are in different positions regarding compatibility and performance trade-offs that there is no absolute winner at the moment. This is probably the reason why Polygon and ZKSync can argue with each other – neighbors with similar identities are more likely to argue, while we seldom see emperors arguing with peasants.

Therefore, sometimes in a competitive landscape where projects are evenly matched, having a strong presence is important. When there is a back-and-forth argument, the truth behind it is that no one is really at a disadvantage.

The more noisy the marketplace, the better the business

When I saw the public disputes among the zkEVM projects due to code open source and plagiarism issues, it reminded me of a book I read before, “The Cathedral and the Bazaar.”

This book is hailed as the “Bible” of the open-source movement and is one of the most important works in contemporary software technology.

The point of the book is that the open source software ecosystem is like a marketplace, with noise and arguments being normal. This is similar to the hustle and bustle of a marketplace being necessary for its prosperity. At the same time, competition between open source projects also promotes technological progress. On the other hand, closed-source software is like a cathedral, quietly enclosed and seemingly having secret weapons, but there is also the risk of being trapped inside and not seeing the outside world.

“The cathedral builds high walls, with only the inner circle making decisions. This closedness restricts progress. The noise in the marketplace may seem chaotic, but it contains more voices.”

This is similar to the open-source ecosystem of zkEVM, where there are natural differences and competition in technical solutions among different open-source contributors, which also encourages constant optimization. When the core technical components of zkEVM are all open source, it gives users and developers more choices and promotes rapid progress in the entire field.

The so-called plagiarism, bickering, and mutual criticism are nothing more than the love and hatred between sellers in the marketplace. For the entire marketplace, the more noisy it is, the better the business.

It is also hoped that buyers in the marketplace can return with full load amidst the hustle and bustle.