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What is Ethereum Whisper? A Guide for Beginners

The distributed ledger system supporting blockchain technology has recently caught Wall Street’s interest.

The potential for disruption in the financial industry and beyond is becoming more evident every day. Blockchain has high potential, from cross-border payments to settlements and clearing over-the-counter derivatives.

As many know, one of the leading players in this industry is Ethereum. The goal of Ethereum is to establish a new protocol for building decentralized apps (or Dapps). These apps offer various features that are extremely useful for decentralized application division.

Today we will talk about Ethereum Whisper, one of the key protocols of Ethereum. To avoid overcomplicating the matter, we will first make sure to explain the concept of “blockchain protocol”. After that, we will develop the subject for our readers in more detail.

Understanding protocols in the blockchain industry

A protocol is a collection of rules or processes regulating data movement between two or more electronic devices in computer science.

This protocol establishes the exact information organization necessary for computers to communicate. Specifically, protocols dictate how each side sends and receive information.

The idea of “protocol” first appeared when blockchain technology was not even an abstract idea. To this date, for example, HTTPS is a popular internet protocol.

Concerning the blockchain sphere, protocols decide how all the system nodes communicate. We can see a protocol as a book containing the “blockchain game” rules.

What is Ethereum Whisper, and why does it matter?

The whole concept of the Ethereum Whisper communication protocol revolves around three objectives:

  • providing users with a flexible system
  • launching a secure communication channel on Ethereum
  • most importantly, guaranteeing the users’ anonymity online.

If you are familiar enough with how blockchain works, you will know how easy it is to track transactions in this system. You do not need to be one of the counterparties involved in the operation to get information on the movement.

Ethereum Whisper goes in a whole different direction. Whisper conceals the content of messages and the identities of senders and receivers from observers. The system relies on a double layer of data encryption:

  • Symmetric encryption allows transmitting one-to-many communications using a single encryption and decryption key. The recipients of a message can decrypt the messages sent to them.
  • Asymmetric encryption employs public keys for encryption and private keys for decryption. When communicating with another person, the system uses this type of encryption.

Of course, because of the tight connection with Ethereum, all participants already have public/private key pairs. This mechanism enables the use of the completely encrypted architecture we described above.

More details on Whisper

The RLPx transport protocol suite, handling communication between nodes in Ethereum, serves as the foundation of this system.

While the protocol’s aim is low latency, it is not an ideal solution for real-time communication. Whisper has bandwidth limits as a result of the fact that it is a broadcast protocol at its core.

The maximum size of a message cannot go beyond 64Kb, but most communications are far lighter than that. As in many popular IM apps, messages on Whisper have a time-to-live (or TTL). In other words, they self-destruct after a certain amount of time.

Additionally, whisper messages are assigned a time-to-live (TTL), which means they expire after a certain period.

The tricky aspect of Ethereum Whisper lies in its transmission process. The famous proof-of-work (PoW) mechanism is the one that still governs message distribution. As many know, PoW is a relatively expensive mechanism that new blockchains are trying to avoid.

Looking inside an Ethereum Whisper message

After a theoretical introduction, you may be curious to learn about the actual structure of a Whisper message. Each communication in this framework follows a rigid scheme:

  • Version: This is the protocol’s version number. The information allows the system to distinguish between different decryption formats that messages can use.
  • Data: The communication content is the only part of the message that goes through encryption.
  • TTL (time to live):  As we quickly explained, the TTL is the amount of time left to the message. Ethereum Whisper expresses this field in seconds.
  • Expiry: A UNIX timestamp indicating when a message has reached its expiration date.
  • Topic: A field we can use to indicate whether or not a message is “of interest” to the node receiving it.
  • EnvNonce: A number that helps the PoW method to determine whether the system has already approved the work.
  • AESNonce: The result of the combination between the symmetric encryption system and a key. The AESNonce is always a unique number, which improves the network’s security.

Our conclusions about Ethereum Whisper

The decentralized development of the World Wide Web (or Web 3.0) is the next big tech trend. The idea is to replace centralized online apps with decentralized applications. These tools run on a trusted peer-to-peer (P2P) network, the blockchain, that is changing our lives.

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In this context, Ethereum Whisper is nothing but one of the many pieces of a complex puzzle. This article provided information on this famous protocol without too many technical details.

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