Research

From Theory, To Practice

September 20, 2021
Steven McCormack
2 mins

The ideas are elegant. The ambition is impressive. But how exactly does Bitcoin work in practice? Well folks, that's what I've been figuring out for the past month. Armed with my understanding of the network, I embarked on a journey to become a full node operator (i.e. a validator of transactions and blocks). Admittedly, I wasn't quite sure I could pull it off. Even with all my prior research, this felt like a tricky technical challenge. And yet here I am, running a Bitcoin (and Lightning!) node with little fuss. How so?

Building The Bank

As ever, I started with lots of aimless online exploration. Eventually I found a few startups who offer full node solutions for the Bitcoin network, such as myNode and RaspiBlitz. In the end I opted with Umbrel, mainly due to their pretty website (with lots of nice colours) and their super basic instructions. Umbrel's node software is free to download. However, unlike the other solutions, you have to buy and assemble the computing components yourself. So I shopped around (mainly relying on local Aussie suppliers) and then waited for my new Meccano set to arrive.

Now I shall not bore you with a line by line description of assembly. Instead, you can watch this delightful video put together by a fellow Full Noder, Hitomi Moriyama (see below). However, let me muse a little on the key piece, the Raspberry Pi single-board computer. I used to see them fitted around Sky TV's studios in London, and scratched my head in wonder. But now this plucky British innovation is quietly becoming the backbone of the Bitcoin revolution. It allows computing simpletons (i.e. me) to become intimately familiar with the technology that enables modern life. It is a deeply empowering experience, and one that only strengthens my conviction in digital assets.

Running the Bank

The assembly process took roughly 30 minutes. I placed my precious Pi in a protective case, connected it with a 1TB storage device, and then plugged into power and internet. Simples. From there I was able to access the Umbrel software (via any device connected to the same wifi network) and watch the magic happen. To begin, Bitcoin Core (the full node software) downloaded the entire transaction history of the Bitcoin blockchain. This took about 3 days with our 50 year old copper infrastructure. And upon completion, I became the proud operator of a full node, with new blocks being verified in real time. I was doing my part to secure the network, and boy did it feel good.

Some observations. I'm amazed at the current size of the blockchain (416GB and counting). For 13 years of transactions, that's actually pretty small. It means that my node storage capacity should be good for at least another decade. I'm surprised at how quiet the whole operation is, largely due to the modest computing requirements and fanless Pi case. My antiquated Aussie internet is also taking the strain of block verification, and doesn't interfere with day-to-day streaming, browsing etc. In short, our monetary revolution is now available to almost anyone, much like the early internet could be accessed via a dialup modem.

Watch This Space

But that's not all, folks. Umbrel have created a pleasant home for other Bitcoin-based innovation (with apps available for private messaging, file storage etc.). The main full node enables my own self-hosted bitcoin wallet, for greater privacy and security. Importantly, I now also operate a Lightning node, which permits high speed, micro transactions with other network users. It opens up a world that previously felt out of grasp, and presents me with opportunities to help support layer 2 scaling solutions. On that note, watch this space (quite literally).

So I'm settled on the theory. In practice, I now have access to my own bank vault, wire transfer facility and dispute resoluter. The full node may sit silently next to my modem and television, but it represents a tsunami of financial decentralisation. And we are only just beginning to yield its power.

Update (1st October 2021); The revolution never sleeps. The Bitcoin Machines have just released a 'plug and play' version of the Umbrel node, making the network even more accessible.

Signing out, Steven.

Photo by NASA on Unsplash

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