WTF is… the Scalability Trilemma?

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Estimated reading time: 2 minutes, 20 seconds

In this episode of WTF is, we cover what is known as the Scalability Trilemma. Sparked by the discussion over scalability, the trilemma describes the challenges each blockchain faces when they are put to the test by higher volume. Decentralization, speed, and security? Can blockchains have all three?

First lets talk a little bit about scalability

Blockchains are a fairly new innovation, with the first one, Bitcoin, debuting under a decade ago. The goal for early blockchains was clear. They were trying to prove themselves as secure, decentralized monetary system. Bitcoin became a store of value. But by the design of having blocks created every 10 minutes, it’s not exactly a fast solution.

Most blockchains work fine when they aren’t being tested. But as soon as more people use the network, backlogs and bottlenecks are a very real possibility. To use the network at scale, some changes have to be made.

Scalability trilemma

So the second generation blockchains looked to solve this scalability issue. However, most came to find they had to sacrifice either security or decentralization in order to explore scalability.

This sacrifice is called the scalability trilemma, and it’s something that’s on the mind of blockchains developers.

The ideal blockchain would have all three of the characteristics:

  • Security,
  • Decentralization, and
  • Speed.

But as we demonstrated above, having all three of these characteristics at scale, with many people using the network, is the true test. It is becoming increasingly clear that without innovation, this “utopian chain” cannot be achieved.

Attempted solutions

But luckily their are innovators working on solutions as we speak. Whether it be the lightning network, sharding, state channels, universal blocks. This scalability issue is facing every blockchain, and each is trying to come up with their own solutions.

Will these solutions will bring us closer to achieving all the desirable aspects of a blockchain? Will these solutions bring blockchains to this place, the blockchain promised land so to speak? It will likely get us closer, but even with these solutions implemented it is unlikely that all three criteria could be completely satisfied. Only time will tell.


WTF IS is our series where we explore some of the most frequently asked questions about blockchains, cryptocurrencies, and the technology surrounding these fields. Looking to get acquainted with blockchain? Then WTF IS is the perfect series for you!

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