In this episode of Blockchain Innovators, Conor Svensson - founder and CEO of Web3 Labs, talks to Eugene Aseev, Co-founder and CTO of Chainstack.
Prior to Chainstack, Eugene worked in cyber security for a number of leading firms including Acronis and Kaspersky Labs.
In this episode, Eugene explains the origins of Chainstack and how it came to be. He also talks about how their products and services have evolved over the years and the biggest challenges that they have faced as an organisation.
Eugene's chat provides inspirational information and is a must listen for any aspiring blockchain innovator!
You can also watch this video on our YouTube channel here.
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It's Conor Svensson here, founder and CEO of Web3 Labs. This is a conversation I had with Eugene Aseev. Eugene is the co-founder and CTF of Chainstack, one of the leading managed blockchain services providers. They support the major public as well as enterprise protocols including Ethereum, Bitcoin multi-chain Fabric encoder and more recently have also added support for Binance Smart Chain and Polygon. In this conversation we start by discussing the origin of Chainstack and how it came to be. We also touch on how their products and services have evolved over the years and some of the biggest engineering challenges they've faced as an organization. Prior to Chainstack, Eugene worked in cyber security where he worked for a number of leading firms including Acronis and Kaspersky Labs. Eugene Aseev, great to have you here. Hi Conor, pleasure to be here. So you're the CTO of Chainstack. Chainstack is one of the leading platforms providing managed blockchains. I'd love to learn more about how Chainstack started and kind of the whole origin story there because you've been around for a long time now. You support a lot of different protocols but it's no doubt been a journey to get to where you are right? I'll be happy to share the history. So, it started around three years ago and the reason we started Chainstack was because me and my co-founder, we were actually building an Ethereum based solution in a company called Coronis, which is a cyber security company. At that time, we tried to apply blockchain on data protection so we basically were building a solution that was doing trusted time stamping on different blockchains. We started with Bitcoin, then moved to Ethereum and optimized the load so that let's say, each time you time stamp a file and metadata file, you don't create a transaction because they got expensive or that time already and. During the time we were building the solution, we experienced a lot of issues with the blockchain nodes so we actually ran our own nodes. We ran Geth, we ran Parity and at that time it was not really stable so we had to switch between different clients all the time. Once Geth was not available, we switched to Parity and vice versa and it was it was basically a pain in the ass at that point of time. So we decided to start a new project and this new project was basically to solve this blockchain infrastructure problem for developers. So we thought okay, the blockchain market will be huge and there will be a lot of people developing stuff on different protocols so let's build a platform for these guys. They can use Chainstack in the same way they use AWS for web 2 development or any other cloud provider for web 2 development. I should say that what's cool about Chainstack in particular, we started it a few years ago but we already were like multi-chain, multi-cloud back then and what we see now is unfolding beautifully especially in the Ethereum ecosystem, that we have multiple chains already. If you want to be a provider of any kind of services in the space, you have to be multi chain, because there are networks currently like Ethereum and Polygon and Optimism and many others launching, that basically provide different value propositions for the second system. They're all, let's say, EVM compatible in this context and hence if you want to provide any service you have to provide services for all these blockchain networks. That's what we envisioned like three years ago, which I'm basically very proud of. That's what we are currently executing in the same way that we did a few years ago. And do you think in that time, it's actually got any easier for people to work with spinning up networks and so on or is it just as hard as it ever was? I think it's now to some extent, it's simpler because the clients are more mature, they are more stable. So for instance, if you're running Geth today, you would not experience the issues that you would have like three years ago. It has much more stability, much more performance improvements, much more features focused on the let's say faster synch etc. But, at the same time, the ecosystem grew that big that first of all you don't only run a node, you have to run different components as part of the solution. So you have databases like the Graph for instance, database solutions that provide you index data and many, many others to debug your applications or to develop your applications as well, so the second system became really, really complicated so managing all these for developers is not an easy task today. So on one hand, it became much nicer since then because of these improvements in the software in general but on the other hand the whole ecosystem is much broader now, much more sophisticated. So in order to figure out - let's see how to build applications on all these different networks and all these different protocols by applying all these different tools - it's much more challenging now for developers. And then, this is something that you guys, I mean of course, at one level you provide the automation to help people spin up this infrastructure but then another part of that is also providing the guidance to help them know what platforms they should be working with. So, presumably this is an area that you you guys have invested a lot of time into as well just to ensure people are selecting the right platforms for the right opportunities? Yeah that's what we are really passionate about because we want to provide access to all leading, and not only leading today protocols, but also the most promising protocols that might be leading in some time in three, six, eight months. So we try to be like early adopters of all these protocols. So, for instance, when we started working with the protocols like Corda, we were the first managed service provider for Corda when we started working with Ethereum. It was already kind of late-ish in this ecosystem because it started quite early. Obviously when we supported Bitcoin, it was already a few years in the making and we also have this enterprise blockchain report which we issue now every year starting from last year where we basically try to follow the trends of development of each enterprise protocol to see what's the trend like for each protocol going forward. So we try to predict a little bit - what would be the ecosystem size? What would be the adoption of each protocol? Because we are providing services for all of them so we obviously, as a company, we also manage our resources in a way that we try to put as much effort and as much resources as we can to support the protocols that need support today and they will need support like in three, six months from now. So that's why having said, we are multi-chain we also do all this balancing all the time between putting more effort on the let's say enterprise blockchain so putting more effort on the public blockchain. We always try to keep the balance and hear what market needs and what people are building today at large. And for you as a company, do you feel that, as you said earlier, there's been an explosion of the number of different platforms, but do you think it's getting easier now to get people on the right track because platforms you've supported for a long time like Bitcoin, Multi-chain, Corda, Fabric and Ethereum variants they've got a degree of maturity there or do you think it's actually getting harder because all of a sudden there's these newer entrants? Recently you added support for Binance Smart Chain and also Polygon, both public Ethereum scaling solutions so to speak but it'd be interesting to hear what you think. Yeah, obviously the more protocols you have, the harder it is to navigate right ? If you think about, I don't know, some traditional software and developers choosing software for their applications, let's say you have databases, if only we had only one database flavor right - we had MySQL and you could just use MySQL, everybody would be just using MySQL. But today, we have MySQL and not only MySQL, but PostgreSQL, which is kind of the same flavor of relational databases but there are plenty of differences and you have non-relational databases etc. So for developers, each time they basically build a solution they need to go through this path of choosing the right stack and choosing the right tools right? So in the same way, it's developing I think in the blockchain space. So we have different tools for different needs and they have different value propositions. In the same way as you have like relational databases and non-relational databases, they have totally different very proposition they are focused on totally different things, in the same way, I think all these protocols work in a way. So obviously, it became more complicated for developers to decide. I think for users, it's a bit more straightforward. Users basically follow the value, they follow the apps or they follow the money or they follow the trading volume, so for users it's a little bit more easier. I think for developers it's obviously more complicated because when previously we had just one Ethereum to build it was straightforward. Now you have like Ethereum and five side chains and then roll up solutions and you always need to catch up with this industry and you always need to know what's the difference like between different L2 solutions to choose - okay how do I build my next application? Or how do I scale my current application? So obviously, it became more complicated with this regard. And do you think that there's an end in sight for these kind of complications, that there'll be a consolidation phase soon or do you think that it's going to stay like this for a while still? I'm sure that as in any new industry, basically the strongest will survive and those protocols that could not get the adoption they would just eventually be out of the game. I'm not that familiar on the history of databases, but I'm sure when database as a concept was created, there was a lot of other different approaches to databases and they were like graph databases which still exist and there were many other databases which didn't survive until today. Now we have like maybe two or three flavors of databases that exist and that are being adopted and being used at scale. So I think pretty much the same will happen with blockchain protocols because for them it's even more important that they get adoption and that they have developer demand because if the protocol doesn't get a developer demand unlike software, it also has monetary incentives right? So if the protocol doesn't get enough attention from developers, from users, the monetary traction will also go down and eventually nobody will be interested in this protocol. So I think for protocols it's an even more sensitive topic rather than just software because they have different parameters not just like adoption as a software but also adoption as a let's say, as a token whether it's like a governance token or utility token. So I think yes, the history will repeat in this in this case I'm sure and will basically leave with still a number of protocols, it will be not one protocol, two protocols, it will be a number of protocols but it will be definitely limited and not will not be like 50 protocols that we're going to use on a daily basis. If we look back 12 months ago, it was kind of pre this big growth we've seen in crypto currencies, DeFi, NFTs and everything else, as an organization if you look back 12 months ago were you, I know historically you had supported public Ethereum technology, but it seems like more recently it's become much more prominent part of your public office anyway and no doubt strategy behind the scenes, looking back 12 months ago were you in a very different place in terms of your outlook in terms of more enterprise focus or did you have some inklings that there might be some more public chain type things that you'll need to get behind? Because obviously, a lot has changed in the last 12 months. Yeah, that's really cool question because there's a lot of going on. Maybe I can share some details on this inside Chainstack because we were historically open to all blockchains. So we were like okay let's just embrace this technology and let's see how we can help all these communities to build things right? So that was our mojo since we started and with my co-founder Laurent, we always had this sort of tension. So, I was more like on the public blockchain side and he was always more like an enterprise blockchain side because he's been in enterprise sales for 20 years and I've been working with the developers. So, I was like okay, I like these public blockchains because they are like open and decentralized, I still like enterprise blockchains because as an engineer, I totally understand the value that you can build in a let's say, secure permissioned environment so it definitely has a value. So, we always had this sort of like attention inside where I was pushing more like public blocks inside and Laurent was pushing more on the enterprise blockchain side. But we never wanted to choose one because we were in this sense again quite opportunistic, so we just wanted to support all the builders on all those platforms whenever they get adopted. So having said that, one year ago, I was definitely still very optimistic on the public blockchain side as I like it very much so I was always sure that, I mean of course it had waves, but maybe one year ago, I was already quite sure that it will grow. But I don't think I understood the volume of growth because I think what happened for last four months to six months is quite unprecedented and the number of let's say, new applications that emerged, the number of accounts that were created across all these chains, I think it's quite unprecedented so I think I always believed in it but I would never have thought that we are here today like in June 2021 and we see this rocket-fueled growth. Yeah, it is crazy what's happened there. And no doubt, I guess there's a lot of very hard engineering problems behind the scenes that you've had to solve given your role in the organization? Are there specific ones that come to mind in terms of what you're most proud of that your team has been able to achieve because it is still hard to get these things right when you're setting up for networks. There's a lot of low-level details that need to be correct in terms of firewall rules like network routes and so on and so forth, as well as the actual infrastructure and so the fact that you guys automate all this stuff, there must be some really big challenges that you've had to overcome there? Yeah, so I'd say there are two major challenges that we experience on a daily basis. One is automation, it's how to make things self-service. How to make things being accessed by people without any interaction required from the Chainstack team. So we try to make because again, we've seen explosive growth over last few months so we cannot allow things to be manual right? Because imagine you were working on AWS and each time somebody spins up a new virtual machine, you need to ask some engineer to go and spin up a virtual machine. It would be impossible right? So this is definitely a challenge all the time because we automate everything by default but still there are things here and there that are sort of in the backlog that still need to be automated. So that's like an ongoing challenge all the time. I cannot say that we, let's say we just like build it and it works, so we always need to monitor the infrastructure. We always need to change auto scaling rules etc. So we have a lot of operational load still and this is even considering that we have, I don't know 90 percent of our work automated, so we still have a lot of things to do on on the rest of the 10%. The second, I would say is reliability because that's what we provide right? That's our value proposition. It sounds extremely boring especially in the blockchain space, but that's exactly what people need and by talking to customers for the last three years, that's generally speaking the only thing that they, our customers expect from Chainstack. They want us to provide them 100% reliable services so that when they set up a websocket connection, it never breaks - when they set up a network, it never fails and so on and so forth. So, the reliability is like the cornerstone of our value proposition. Here again, it's very challenging to be reliable consistently and we invest a lot of time and efforts and resources in that with regards to the uptime, with regards to security, to backups etc. to load balancing of important things and so on and so forth. So we invest a lot of time in reliability because this is the major thing that our customers expect from us, not being like a fancy platform and not being like having a pink UI or something like that! The only thing that our customers expect from us is come to Chainstack, deploy what they want, get an API, insert it into the app and absolutely forget about Chainstack forever and just pay some like affordable amount of money to Chainstack so that it always works. So that's what our value proposition is and this is what we deliver and this is obviously a challenge all the time because we need to take care about all these things related to reliability. Of course, that's one of the central promises of blockchain is that it provides this kind of constantly available network. So yeah, I guess it adds additional pressure to yourselves in that regard? Exactly. With those customer conversations, have you found that you've started to get more and more interested in the public blockchain type activities? With your more recent offers, has that been driven from well, perhaps you're not able to say, but has it been driven, I'd be interested to know, if it's been driven more from institutional demand or it's more like you're getting smaller projects coming speaking to you who's pushing for it? So, I think that the last wave of growth that we've had with protocols like Polygon, Binance Smart Chain and Ethereum obviously, comes from two sources. Primarily the first source is those guys who were previously building on Ethereum right? So there were a lot of applications on Ethereum built during the last few years and now they are also looking for ways to scale to different networks to different layer 2 solutions and that's first source of growth for us. So these are the existing customers that we had and they were building with Ethereum with Chainstack or the apps that were not using Chainstack, but they need to scale into solutions like Polygon and like Chainstack is number one provider for Polygon nodes and API so they come to us. This is the first source of growth and second source of growth is definitely new projects that sort of build already on these layer two solutions. So there are younger projects and there are plenty of them because they also see the growth of the ecosystem. They are engaged, they want to build something as well, they want to build something unique or they just want to let's say, replicate the success of a certain application on another blockchain right? So I'd say these are two major sources of growth for us. So existing applications very well known that have been popular on Ethereum for a long time and now they move to other chains and they need support on other chains as well and that's where our multi-chain strategy and multi-chain mojo plays really well because we didn't do anything specific to support multiple chains. We were always like, okay guys we will support any chain that is used that you need and that's why naturally people come to us because they see okay why would I use three different platforms, I would rather use one which supports Ethereum and Polygon and Binance Smart Chain and Bitcoin. And they see that - okay since they support all of them today, whenever the new chain will emerge they will also support it - so that's also a promise that we kind of make without explicitly making it because it's sort of obvious from our statement and value proposition as well. And are there specific protocols that you have on your roadmap map that you're planning or at least seriously considering bringing on? I mean, obviously earlier on you mentioned Optimism in a passing comment. Yeah, we have a few but unfortunately I cannot disclose all the names today. Yeah. Maybe the only name that I can share today is the Graph because we've worked with the Graph for a long time. Actually one year ago, when the Graph testnet launched, one of the providers, the indexers on the Graph network were using to connect to Ethereum network, we had a really big spike last summer with the Graph community when they started using Chainstack for the indexer software. So recently, we had a grant from the Graph Foundation to basically develop the automation for the Graph deployment. That's what we're working now and that's what we're also gonna productize and we're gonna provide like Sub Graph as a Service. So this is something that I think it's quite public already so we can share it. As for the protocol plans, we have a couple of EVM based protocols in the pipeline and also a couple of non-EVM based which are even more interesting because that's what we can do since we started with the combination of absolutely different protocols. So for us, adding even a non-EVM protocol is possible because from day one, we supported EVM based protocols like Bitcoin-based protocols like Bitcoin and Ethereum and others like Corda and Fabric that have completely different architecture. So for us adding a non-EVM protocol is also not easy I would say, but our architecture allows this to do it without dramatic changes in the system architecture. So yeah, we have a couple of non-EVM protocols in the pipeline as well. And so, certainly with you mentioning the Graph, they provide data services on top of blockchain so to speak, do you think that you'll continue to kind of find partners to work with there or do you think that you might start investing further up the stack as a company yourself? Because no doubt, I'm sure customers are saying to you it's great that we've been able to deploy this network but we've still got to go through all this technical work of actually getting smart contracts written or getting these decentralized apps written, and could you simplify that and start that stuff for us? So do you envisage there might be changes down the line? Especially when you see things like the explosive growth of NFTs as well which is, from a technical perspective, they're quite straightforward to implement. Yeah, great question. For us it was always again a question whether we should grow let's say, in depth or we should grow more like horizontally. So we should either like support more features on a given protocol or we should support more protocols right? It was always a question and we refined the road map all the time and we always question ourselves whether we want to go in depth or we just spot more protocols. I can't say there's one clear answer to this question because we always decide, every time we plan our next milestones, we decide whether we go more with the application level or we go more infrastructure level. So far we've had enough work to do mostly on the infrastructure level and that's where we understand that we're experts and our expertise is very unique and what we do in depth. First of all, we have a Chainstack marketplace that has a lot of different tools and services that can be used together with Chainstack to also develop applications to achieve other goals like have better trading boards etc. because we have a lot of advanced customers who call us let's say have algorithmic trading software running on our nodes as well. So this is something that you can use out of the box. If you go to the Chainstack marketplace, you can use tools written by other companies whether they are open source or not and you can use them in conjunction with Chainstack for let's say, development services right? So you mentioned if a company approaches us and asks 'Okay can you guys help us to develop this smart contract for this?', we have our professional services team which is again, mostly focused on the infrastructure part and for the application part. We have a wide network of partners around the world who help us to deliver the projects end-to-end who are experts in building let's say, smart contracts, who are experts in building like front-end mobile apps and so on and so forth. We obviously quite frequently, have requests on 'Okay guys we have this idea of a project can you help us to build it?', so what we usually do in this case, we basically find a right partner for this particular application or use case and then we work together with this partner to deliver the end-to-end result. We are mostly responsible for the infrastructure part and our partner is responsible for the application step. So you've got that kind of coverage through your partnerships as well? Yeah, we try to focus on what we do the best and what we do the best is clearly infrastructure and we want to focus on it but having said, we're always adding like value-added things on top of infrastructure which might be not directly let's say application related, but they help to build applications, right? So for instance, what we do that is quite unique in this space for instance, we provide a GraphQL API on top of our public nodes which I think, no other provider does and this allows our customers to build applications in a more efficient fashion because you don't need to use like JSON or PC but you can use GraphQL which allows you to do more flexible queries etc. So, we provide evaluated service for developers but again with some sort of infrastructure flavor so we provide better APIs, different APIs, more options for APIs, more security options as well for the API. So, let's say you can use basic authentication raw endpoints or you can use token-based authentication, we always try to think about validated features. So far we tend to stick with something around the infrastructure, so not going directly into smart contract domain because we know that there are a lot of brilliant teams building there and we understand that they have this expertise and we rather work with them, we rather compliment them, integrate with them rather than we start building totally different let's say toolkit for building smart contracts. So, that's been our strategy. I think it will be pretty much the same moving forward. That sounds good and we look forward to you going from strength to strength. I'm interested to get your views in terms of we've seen the evolution of course, originally cryptocurrencies, tokens and more recently DeFi and NFTs have had their another resurgence. What do you think is next in terms of the the growth area for the technology- whether it's going to be like a new kind of exploitation of the technology or just that it's something else? I'd love to hear what you think. So, honestly speaking, I think that DeFi and NFTs, they haven't even started realizing themselves to be honest. So let's see why DeFi hasn't started, because I mean, I have a quite wide network of people of different interests and domains that I'm talking to and apart from my blockchain part of community, nobody else has any idea of the existence of some sort of decentralized finance that they can go and they can lend and they can borrow things and they can use their own PC to do that. So I'm sure it's just the tip of the iceberg so nothings happened yet in DeFi. Typically it's just I think, we have this idea like you and me, because we're in this space for such a long time and we see DeFi is like growing crazy but to be clear, if you go just outside and you start talking to people about DeFi, they will think that you are absolutely crazy! That you have some money in your computer and you transfer money somewhere and you can loan this money from the computers- it sounds absolutely crazy! So I think DeFi is just starting, and it's just very early beginnings the same for NFTs. These are a bit more let's say, they've received much more publicity recently so I think there are more people generally are talking about NFTs but again, I think the potential hasn't been realized even for one like one percent. So I think that's what we are heading. So I think there will be more or less mainstream adoption happening for the next 20 years gradually, the same with the internet, it was a very gradual process. I think it was never like one day, everybody's on the internet, it took I don't know, 20 to 30 years for most of the planet to be on the internet. I think it will be exactly the same for blockchain, it will not happen overnight. So one area that I'm pretty excited about which is very, very new is DAO. I think that DAOs have a lot of potential. I observe and I see how they work and I think it's a very interesting way of organizing the way people work together and they make decisions. I think this is something that is a very complicated area so it's not, I mean, there are no rules, there are probably no like best practices there yet but I think it has a lot of potential which is even further than like DeFi and NFTs because it has more consequences. Rather than - okay you just now basically buy a Gphone on the blockchain and then you sell Gphone from the blockchain but it has much bigger implications on our society, on people, on the ways companies work, on the ways companies work with individuals etc. So I think it's a very interesting area to look after and I think nothings happened there again. So I think it's just starting, we have just a few examples now, they are shaping up. Probably they will reshape the next like five years completely so we'll probably see completely different DAOs in five years that we see today but I personally think it's a very, very interesting area to look after. Yeah, I completely agree with you on DAOs, I feel that that there was obviously that high profile DAO hack all those years ago but the ability to recreate really any structure that has human relationships or you know capital in it, is phenomenally powerful. As long as you have those right protections in place, then I think that's going to be key for that. Absolutely, absolutely. So yeah, I know you've covered obviously that you've got some exciting things on the horizon at Chainstack, as well you've got some fantastic reports that you put out regularly too, but just in terms of wrapping things up here - if people want to keep up with what you're up to, what's the best way to follow you? Is it by social or is it keeping an eye on what Chainstack is up to? Yeah, so we have quite a growing social media channels which is largely Twitter and Linkedin. Feel free to subscribe to us. We publish all the new developments, all the reports, all our technical blogs - we publish quite a lot of. Also, once we figure out something interesting about like analyzing a transaction pool on Ethereum or again, how to have much more efficient queries on on GraphQL on blockchain nodes etc. We have quite a lot of technical content as well since we're working with developers a lot, we're getting a lot of feedback and information from that. We also recently launched our Discord and Telegram channels. We're probably late to the party because it was.... No, it's the other way around, you have a company! Yeah so, as a boring blockchain company, we just realized that okay because we used Gittar as our communication channel with developers and it clearly doesn't work. So, it worked for things like bootcamps pretty well because on bootcamps you have people who are more or less like 100% developers, if it's a developer bootcamp so they all have like Github, Github accounts so for them it's easy to join this kind of developer oriented platforms. But for non-developer kind of people, for those who are not committing things to Github every day, it's not very natural way to communicate through some developer oriented platforms. So that's why we're launching this. We launched this like a couple of months ago. So yeah, they're all on our website in the footer, so whenever you want to talk to us feel free to go there. We also have a pretty cool newsletter that we send at least once a month. We never spam people with frequent updates but whenever we have something interesting or something important to share we do this. We have quite a lot of subscribers there, it's probably more than 20 000 already and so yeah, that's probably the ultimate way to keep up with what we're building on a non like'paranoid fashion', which is more like social networks when you basically subscribe and you see all the latest news. Immediately is probably the newsletter because you get all the old updates on a regular basis but not too frequent. Awesome, well Eugene, it's been an absolute pleasure catching up and I look forward to seeing the new protocols coming on board and continuing to see you guys grow. Great, thank you Conor. It was amazing to talk.