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Dec 10, 2023
Educational
Understanding Mainnet and Testnet: A Brief History and Practical Guide for Blockchain Development
by Orderly Network
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Embarking on a journey in the ever-evolving world of blockchain development involves comprehending two fundamental aspects: Mainnet and Testnet. As a developer venturing into Web3, a clear understanding of these critical components is not only important but also indispensable. Let’s demystify these terms and explore why they play pivotal roles in blockchain development.

Blockchain’s Backbone: Mainnet and Testnet

A testnet, or test network, serves as an alternate blockchain, mirroring the properties of the mainnet — the primary network. Its principal role is to facilitate testing and experimentation, providing a fail-safe environment that minimizes potential errors in the actual production environment — akin to a staging area in traditional web development.

Some testnets parallel the mainnet closely, utilizing the same foundational technologies and consensus mechanisms. Others, in contrast, might leverage different technologies based on specific development needs.

Before Ethereum’s groundbreaking Olympic testnet debuted publicly, the concept of a “testnet” was already integral to blockchain technology. Testnets provide a secure sandbox for developers to experiment without the risk of losing real funds.

While Ethereum was officially proposed in late 2013 and launched in 2015, the inception of testnets predates it. The pioneering cryptocurrency, Bitcoin, introduced its first testnet, known as Testnet1, in 2010.

Bitcoin paved the way for Testnet2 in 2012 due to the accumulation of “junk” on Testnet1 and further introduced Testnet3 in 2013, which remains in service for Bitcoin developers to date.

Although Ethereum’s Olympic testnet is a significant milestone in its timeline, it’s worth acknowledging that Bitcoin’s early testnet explorations paved the way for such advancements. In all likelihood, Bitcoin’s initial testnets should be credited for the inception of the first-ever blockchain testnets.

Journey Through Ethereum Testnets: Olympic, Morden, Ropsten, Kovan, Rinkeby, and Goerli Ethereum’s testnet history is rich and nuanced, beginning with the inaugural public Ethereum testnet, Olympic, in early 2015, and extending to the Goerli testnet in 2018. Each of these testnets was designed to cater to specific needs and challenges, contributing significantly to Ethereum’s development ecosystem.

Ethereum’s first testnet, Olympic, served as the final testing ground before the mainnet launch. The advent of the mainnet brought forth the need for a new public testnet, leading to Morden. However, it was phased out in 2016 due to an accumulation of junk and consensus issues exclusive to the testnet.

Ropsten, Ethereum’s third testnet and the only current testnet using the Proof-of-Work consensus mechanism encountered a significant Denial of Service attack in February 2017. However, the network rebounded the following month.

An unknown attacker inundated the Ropsten Ethereum Testnet with a massive volume of transactions in February 2017, effectively paralyzing it. This demonstrated the vulnerabilities of testnets and served as a reminder that security considerations are paramount even in a test environment. The incident led to the creation of more controlled testnets, such as Rinkeby and Kovan, implementing the Proof-of-Authority (PoA) consensus mechanism to mitigate such attacks. The PoA consensus mechanism typically trades off decentralization for security by maintaining a trusted group of signers and validators on the network.

In the same vein, the Ethereum team developed the Rinkeby testnet which also uses PoA. Rinkeby was designed for long-term stability and is easier to integrate into any existing Ethereum client.

Ultimately, in 2018, the Goerli testnet was introduced as a next-gen PoA public test network, compatible with all major Ethereum clients.

Why Not Mainnet Exclusively?

While the mainnet is the hub for all live transactions, the testnet offers a conducive environment for making mistakes, corrections, and improvements. It provides an ideal platform for testing smart contracts and developing applications without risking real funds or affecting the mainnet.

Testnet Tokens:

Testnet tokens carry no real-world value, providing developers with a risk-free environment for experimentation. Interestingly, the Ethereum Goerli (GETH) testnet observed an unexpected development when LayerZero — a cross-chain bridge protocol — launched a testnet bridge, allowing users to swap mainnet ETH for Goerli ETH. This created a liquid market for GETH, leading to a surge in its value.

## From Testnet to Mainnet Once comprehensive testing is conducted on the testnet, it’s time to transition to the mainnet. Here, developers deploy their smart contracts or DApps using real-world assets, ensuring seamless and error-free operation for end-users. The shift is done with utmost caution, underscoring the significance of the testnet in the entire development journey.

Conclusion

The interplay between the mainnet and testnet is an integral part of the blockchain ecosystem. Their symbiotic relationship is at the heart of blockchain development — while the mainnet showcases the finished product, the testnet serves as a sandbox for trial and improvement. By understanding this dynamic, developers can effectively navigate the blockchain realm, nurturing an environment ripe for continuous innovation.

Although the design and operation of these two components reach beyond the scope of this article, this guide sets up the pace to embark on your development journey — one that is sure to involve frequent iterations, numerous testings, and timely refinements. In essence, a testnet is your experimental “playground”, and a mainnet delivers introduces your finalized product to the world.

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