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Any decentralized system is fundamentally limited in its scalability. This also applies to blockchains and is rooted in the fact that security is achieved through massive global replication of transactions. The more decentralized the system is, the more time and other resources are used up to process transactions. This is also often called the blockchain trilemma, where decentralization, security and scalability counter-act each other.

Even though Cardano uses a very efficient consensus algorithm, the fact that it's distributed globally between thousands of block-producing nodes (with quite a low bar in system requirements) will have it create a block on average every 20 seconds.

These limitations ultimately mean that any state can only change in discrete steps of this duration. Besides, given peak hours on the blockchain when there is a transaction queue, the time required to settle and confirm a transaction might also be higher, further increasing the effective settlement time. This is because your transaction might not be added to the next block, but the second or even third one coming.

Vertical and horizontal scaling

In general, there are two ways of scaling systems: vertical and horizontal. Both try to increase resources available to the system to achieve better overall performance.

For vertical scaling, the performance of the system is increased by adding resources available to the already existing instances of the system. For Cardano, this practically means increasing the block size or reducing the block time. This is a great way to initially scale the system, but is ultimately limited by network latency and processing power of block-producing nodes. To ensure the security of the system, each block has roughly 5 seconds to propagate through the network, which includes relaying and validating it through multiple hops. At some point, driving the system requirements up will also reduce the level of decentralization, as less individuals will be able to run such a node.

Scaling a system horizontally, means to increase performance of the overall system by adding more individual instances alongside each other. Practically, this could mean that besides the main chain, multiple side chains are spun up that do the same thing, each "x" seconds all instances create a block. Unlike vertical scaling, horizontal scaling does not have a direct limit, there can be many side chains that are connected to the layer one. A major downside to this way of scaling is that any state of the system is split into multiple pieces. Each instance is blind to what is happening on the other instances and moving state between instances results requires additional work (the state is sharded).

Horizontal & Vertical scaling

State channels

The Hydra Head protocol is a form of state channel and can be mostly classified as a horizontal scaling solution. While multiple instances of them can be deployed to off-load and increase the scalability of the overall system, it provides for a flexible way to decide on the level of decentralization of each instance and provides a mostly frictionless way to transfer state between the mainchain and the individual Hydra heads (through it isomorphic nature).

State Channel

State channels allow to take parts of the state from the layer one blockchain and validate its progress elsewhere between only those parties who are concerned about this state. Then, after this computation is done, the parties return the final state on which all parties agree back to layer one. This construction means that the 20 second block time limit no longer applies and state can be evolved as fast as only the involved parties approve.

In conclusion, Hydra Head will allow operators to strike the fundamental trade-off between decentralization, security and scalability different than the underlying blockchain to serve the needs of individual applications.