Navigating the Chain Abstraction Landscape: A Multi-Faceted Analysis

Navigating the Chain Abstraction Landscape: A Multi-Faceted Analysis

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As Web3 scales faster and faster within a rich L2/rollup panorama, the need for a unified user experience across chains grows exponentially.

This makes chain abstraction –infrastructure unifying multi-chain asset and account management, solving the current fragmentation across ecosystems– a top priority in today’s landscape. The development of this technology, however, is not without its challenges: from finding solutions to coordinate accounts, to strategically transitioning to a consolidated Web3 paradigm, the problem is complex and multi-faceted.

This article showcases the diverse approaches different projects take to comprehensively enable chain abstraction. It will provide a high-level view of their different design choices to attain this goal, and analyze how these solutions impact or benefit their products’ User and Developer Experience. 

To provide a wider view of the ecosystem, we will also briefly touch upon other solutions that, although less comprehensive and user-facing, can serve as critical infrastructure for chain abstraction.

Comprehensive approaches to chain abstraction

As a meta-solution for Web3’s UX, chain abstraction refers to an overall goal, rather than the specific steps to achieving it. As such, it encompasses the attempt to solve multiple challenges (such as cross-chain communication, gas abstraction, etc.), or several of them at once. 

Various solutions within this vertical aim to present a comprehensive implementation, tackling several challenges via multiple approaches. The projects fitting this description that will be analyzed in this article and their respective strategies are:

  • NEAR (currently live) focuses on allowing users to generate multiple accounts (i.e. EOAs) to manage accounts for various chains within its “Blockchain Operating System.” These accounts, owned by a single NEAR account, can then initiate transactions on any other chain. NEAR’s solution relies on MPC (Multi-Party Computation with Threshold Signature Schemes), turning NEAR nodes into participants in signature computation. Nodes collectively compute signatures for EVM and non-EVM accounts. The NEAR account that owns these can then use them to generate and execute transactions on other chains.
  • Polygon’s AggLayer (in Testnet development) aims to provide a Unified Bridge for L2s built using Polygon’s CDK (Cross-Chain Development Kit), addressing the lack of assets and liquidity for newly launched CDK L2 solutions. This solution aggregates zk-proofs from L2s built on the CDK and uniformly submits them to the Ethereum Mainnet for settlement.

    NOTE: Polygon has publicly stated its goal to eventually incorporate all categories of chains into the AggLayer. However, given that attaining this requires active participation from other chains (which cannot be assumed with certainty), this article will exclusively focus its analysis of the AggLayer on the default coverage of CDK chains, rather than the broader scope it seeks to attain eventually.
  • Optimism’s Superchain (concept stage), similar to the AggLayer in principle, aims to build a unified network of blockchains built using the OP Stack, allowing for collective sharing of security, communication, and bridging, thereby addressing the lack of assets and liquidity for newly launched OP Stack L2 solutions. By assembling a network of chains that share security and communication, all OP Stack chains can then operate interchangeably or within an application-specific domain from both a developer and user perspective.
  • Particle Network (in Testnet development) acts as a universal settlement layer coordinating interactions across chains. It features a Universal Account protocol that synchronizes Smart Accounts across the ecosystem, unifying the UX across all chains and allowing users to have the same account address and balance on all of them. Universal Accounts leverage Particle's Universal Liquidity protocol, allowing users to access any chain with a single account via the automatic execution of cross-chain transactions and swaps. This shared liquidity, in turn, enables them to use any token to pay for gas, ultimately settling on Particle’s Cosmos SDK L1. 

From the above, we can already observe different strategic approaches: Solutions like Polygon and Optimism’s focus on unifying the chains using their respective stacks, aiming to strengthen their ecosystem via a proprietary standard. Particle Network and NEAR, on the other hand, take a broader approach; although, as we’ll explore below, informed by different contextual choices that influence architectural decisions, resulting in different strategies in practice. 

Summary of different projects’ approaches to chain abstraction.

Context and influences for different approaches

Before discussing the underlying technical differences between the solutions presented above, it’s key to showcase the context from which they originate. 

Firstly, Polygon and Optimism’s motivations and interests are primarily aligned with fostering their ecosystems. Each of them adapts this to their particular context –with Polygon focusing on ZK-proof aggregation and Optimism on scaling its underlying ability to handle an increasing computational load. Both’s primary aim is to create a rich ecosystem of developers building on top of their existing solutions. It could be considered, then, that they pursue chain abstraction as the next step in a roadmap toward maximizing scalability while enabling aggregated liquidity and fostering diverse use cases, like application-exclusive blockchains.

NEAR, on the other hand, arrives at chain abstraction from a different angle: Rather than being an Ethereum scalability solution like Polygon or Optimism, it started as a high-throughput L1, embracing sharding as a core technology. As such, it has cultivated an ecosystem of dApps and users, and aims to take a step in a new direction to improve its offering and position its chain as a central account-based coordination solution. This presents a new benefit for existing users, and aims to compel new ones to utilize the chain.

Particle Network departs from a less conventional place in this regard. Starting as a SaaS company focused on developer-facing products, it has grown to become the largest AA (Account Abstraction) provider, securing assets worth over $2B. Furthermore, with BTC Connect, the first account abstraction protocol for Bitcoin leveraged by the most important Bitcoin L2s, Particle has generated a significant number of Smart Accounts in Bitcoin L2s. Particle aims to transition these into Universal Accounts as it rolls out its modular L1, bootstrapping the L1's user base and instantly unlocking cross-chain capabilities for applications integrating its tooling.

Cross-chain and liquidity solutions

To solve the problem of UX fragmentation across different chains and unify the experience of using assets across all of them, projects need to guarantee seamless cross-chain swaps and transactions. For this, they need to find a way to satisfy the underlying liquidity needs of such a system, along with the logistics of relaying these assets across chains.

Our four examined protocols take a different approach to this problem:

  • NEAR relies on nodes to reach consensus on messages and then directly generates signatures on external accounts assigned by the users. These tokens are then exchanged on the NEAR blockchain. The NEAR token captures value by being used directly as a gas unit.
  • Polygon’s AggLayer benefits from a validating/sequencing system that processes state ZK-proofs from different chains before relaying them to the Ethereum Mainnet in a compressed ZKP. After settlement, the AggLayer facilitates transactions via an underlying liquidity system that uses ETH as an intermediate token. The chain does not necessarily capture value from this added benefit.
  • Optimism’s Superchain also uses ETH as an exchange medium token, achieving low-latency L2-to-L2 message-passing using the OP Stack's modular proof system. This system mixes proving mechanisms such as fault proofs and ZKP validity proofs to settle on Optimism’s L2. The chain does not necessarily capture value from this added benefit.
  • Particle Network features a Universal Liquidity design enabled by a Decentralized Bundler (that packages UserOperations for automated execution on the Target and Source chains) and a Decentralized Messaging Network (monitoring the execution of the necessary cross-chain transactions.) Particle’s DMN is built on top of the Hyperlane messaging protocol. In early stages, the liquidity for these swaps will come from Liquidity Providers for the most popular currencies (to be paired with any token), and execution via leading DEXs and aggregators on the Target and Source Chain. A Solver network will eventually replace this system. The chain captures value by settling all transactions using its token while allowing for gas payments on any token. 
Particle Network’s design for atomic cross-chain execution.

At this stage, it’s possible to see how different solutions’ context and motivations influence their design. While Polygon and Optimism’s solutions intend to enable chains within their existing stack to communicate and share liquidity (resulting in highly specialized solutions), NEAR and Particle attempt to serve the ecosystem at large, but with considerably different approaches. While NEAR aims to centralize the control of different accounts within its chain via integrating this signature functionality, Particle focuses on users accessing its solutions as an underlying technology, resulting in a different experience, as we’ll see below.

Resulting User and Developer Experience

To finalize this analysis, we may project how the above design choices impact user and developer experience, particularly compared to the current fragmented UX paradigm. 

In Polygon and Optimism’s case, both solutions present a similar DevX. Thanks to them, existing developers can access new chains, and newcomers are attracted by the unified cross-chain experience offered by the AggLayer and Superchain. However, it’s still not clear whether the design of these solutions may result in a high cost for users. Nonetheless, both approaches should facilitate a positive experience for users and developers of chains within their respective stacks. 

In NEAR’s case, with the functionalities described above, the proposed design may be attractive for developers within the chain's ecosystem, as it extends the functionalities of their applications. Developers on NEAR will certainly enjoy the fact that, besides users being able to sign transactions on multiple chains, NEAR smart contracts also can. However, NEAR's underlying cross-chain signature design may also result in a more consuming experience for builders. It’s also worth pointing out that, while users can manage accounts on different chains via NEAR (using only the NEAR token for gas), they still need to fund these independently. In conjunction with the above, this might result in a UX only slightly more convenient than using each target chain separately.

Particle Network offers a developer-centered solution. With its Universal SDK, new developers can integrate Universal Accounts into their dApps. Furthermore, all of Particle’s existing users and developers are immediately transitioned into its chain abstraction paradigm. Universal Accounts, as an improved Smart Account design, allow developers to package their transactions into UserOperations spanning across chains. This results in a considerably improved UX, enabling users to pay for gas in any token and immediately control Smart Accounts on all chains with a constant account and balance –with only minimal increased time delays and gas costs for cross-chain transactions. Furthermore, as Particle’s design embraces heterogeneous chains like Bitcoin and Solana, users can assign any wallet as the controller of a Universal Account.

Comparing different approaches at an economic, integration, and procedural level.

Non-comprehensive chain abstraction infrastructure

Since the chain abstraction vertical characterizes itself by a shared goal rather than by shared methods, it’s also important to highlight solutions that offer a less comprehensive approach.

The solutions described above aim to provide comprehensive chain abstraction infrastructure  –infrastructure that tackles the different problems standing between users and a unified experience, including the strategic issue of bootstrapping a chain abstraction-friendly ecosystem.

Next, we'll describe two categories of solutions that progressively address less general, but nonetheless vital aspects of chain abstraction: Orchestration solutions, enabling developers to build seamless cross-chain applications by coordinating the management and execution of operations across chains, and foundational tools, addressing individual, more granular problems such as cross-chain messages.

Categorizing chain abstraction solutions.

Mid-level chain abstraction infrastructure: Orchestration

An emerging subcategory of solutions providing developers with tools to experience on-chain, Web2-like flexibility is orchestration. These tools allow developers to express operations across chains through limited user-level signatures. Such services, including the ones we'll describe below, allow developers to easily "orchestrate" the movement of funds, reading of data, etc. with added flexibility via timers, event-based execution, etc. This typically occurs at a developer-facing/application level, which leads to it being used alongside comprehensive solutions to synergistically achieve chain abstraction.

Orchestration solutions exist at a different part of the chain abstraction stack relative to comprehensive solutions. They could be considered an intermediate step between such solutions and specialized ones and can either be incorporated into comprehensive tools or used independently by dApp developers.

 Some projects that fit into this category are:

  • Agoric: Agoric provides an L1 blockchain for building cross-chain smart contracts in JavaScript, enabling developers to orchestrate liquidity and services across the multi-chain universe. Some of the orchestration services Agoric offers are async smart contracts with the capacity to span multiple blocks and respond to cross-chain events, execute operations using on-chain timers, and other advanced functionalities for applications to dynamically connect and interact within an interchain ecosystem.
  • Socket:  Socket leverages modular order flow auctions (MOFA) to allow developers to compose with any app, user, and asset across rollups and chains. It features an open marketplace for execution agents (transmitters) and off-chain user requests (signed authorizations of user intents). Transmitters compete to settle user requests on-chain, enabling developers to build applications that express and execute intents spanning any chain, removing the complexity of multi-chain from end-users. Socket powers Bungee, a framework for seamless cross-chain asset transfers, aggregating liquidity across chains.
  • Skip: Skip has released multiple products, including an API aggregating multiple cross-chain messaging solutions and enabling the orchestration of optimized asset movements across the ecosystem. This product allows developers to easily build applications encompassing transactions and asset movements across any chain. The Skip API, through the usage of non-comprehensive solutions such as Hyperlane, Axelar, and IBC, provides developers with a collection of endpoints enabling advanced cross-chain operations, such as composite bridging, swaps, and workflow tracking. 

Specific implementations of orchestration

The following examples showcase how a few practical standalone (not alongside comprehensive solutions) applications, only made possible by orchestration, can look like:

  • Stablecoin yield aggregators that, with only one signature, automatically discover, pledge funds, and rebalance across the best sources of yield across chains; seamlessly coordinating the required state transitions between chains for end-users. A similar solution can be introduced for asset staking across platforms. This, in particular, can take advantage of Agoric’s timer contracts feature, briefly explained above.
  • Multi-purpose applications in which a user has a balance on one chain and executes transactions on another, with the underlying cross-chain transactions required to move assets between them executing automatically. This can be used, e.g., to find the best possible rates on lending platforms, use assets on one chain to buy NFTs on another, etc.

As mentioned, orchestration solutions typically handle both the execution and management of transactions across chains. This makes them an ideal fit for user-friendly applications that want to automate or abstract away a complex series of events from the user experience –like those detailed above. 

Foundational chain abstraction infrastructure 

Lastly, there is a category of solutions that may be considered within the chain abstraction vertical while specializing in a single problem. 

Some infrastructure providers within this field focus on providing infrastructure to facilitate cross-chain experiences, while others may focus on creating platforms for applications to simultaneously deploy on and access different chains –bootstrapping the Developer Experience of interacting with a multi-chain ecosystem.

As a brief recap of this category, we can highlight:

  • LayerZero: An interoperability protocol providing communication solutions for blockchains and protocols. Based on lightweight cross-chain information exchange, the LayerZero protocol focuses on information messaging rather than verification, which allows it to empower developers with robust messaging and modular verification infrastructure. This allows them to build omnichain applications and tokens.
  • Hyperlane: Similar to LayerZero, Hyperlane is also an interoperability protocol focused on modular cross-chain messaging. Its primary goal is to enable blockchains to communicate among themselves, allowing developers to build Interchain Applications –apps that span and communicate with multiple blockchains. 
  • Axelar: A uniform cross-chain communication layer. Its key differentiator is that it provides routing and application-level protocols for platform builders and application developers. Developers can use Axelar to drive user interaction across any application, asset, or chain through secure and fast cross-chain communication. Axelar, as a Cosmos chain, also features a PoS security model. 
  • ZetaChain: A public smart contract blockchain that enables message passing and value transfer between itself and other blockchains. ZetaChain’s main product is Omnichain Smart Contracts, which can read/write to various connected chains simultaneously, allowing for programmability even in non-smart contract chains. As such, this solution could be considered a comprehensive approach to chain abstraction, depending on the criteria utilized –although its low-level nature, requiring developers to take a more active role in integrating omnichain features, results in us classifying it as a more granular project. 

Overall, message-passing solutions stand out in this list as the most relevant cross-communication method. Meanwhile, platforms like ZetaChain –and in some capacity Axelar– that offer an alternative way for developers to build applications spanning different chains are emerging and gaining notoriety. It’s important to note that the above list is not exhaustive and that the environment for cross-communication solutions is at its highest point of competitiveness, which may result in a positive gain for chain abstraction as a whole as more comprehensive solutions embrace and utilize these primitives.

As a final note, in the case of ZetaChain, and other similar solutions not mentioned here for brevity, we suggest interested readers take a deeper look to form their own criteria about what solutions should/should not be considered comprehensive.

Conclusion

As a new narrative only made possible by Web3’s latest developments, chain abstraction is still emerging into the spotlight. It’s clear, however, that due to its importance in increasing the quality of products in this space (and as such to the overall growth and consumer-readiness of Web3), it will continue to be present as an industry priority through this and possibly the following cycles.

This article has showcased the contextual motivations and design choices of different organizations working on chain abstraction from different perspectives. There is still much exploration to take place as comprehensive solutions launch into the market and cross-chain infrastructure adoption grows. However, with the combination of both comprehensive and non-comprehensive solutions, it’s safe to state that we may be on the verge of a sudden explosion of products leveraging chain abstraction, getting Web3 closer to its goal of mass adoption.


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About Particle Network

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Particle Network is a Layer-1 blockchain built with the Cosmos SDK, equipped with a high-performance EVM execution environment. It serves as chain abstraction infrastructure for the multi-chain ecosystem, featuring Universal Accounts, Universal Gas, and Universal Liquidity. Through these core functionalities, Particle Network addresses the fragmentation of users and liquidity caused by a growing number of blockchains, coordinating operations across networks and empowering all other chains with enhanced interoperability.

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About the author(s)

Carlos Maximiliano Cano

Carlos Maximiliano Cano

Particle's Content Manager. He's been in Web3 since 2017, collaborating with technical and marketing teams in crowdfunding, research, DeFi, privacy, and zero-knowledge proofs.
Ethan Francis

Ethan Francis

Denver, Colorado
Developer Relations at Particle Network, accelerating Web3 adoption through an intent-centric, modular access layer of Web3