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Alpha Chain

Behind the Nodes - 2020-12-21

The team at reputation.link respects data. We want to build a future to make data more powerful and better protected. We are concerned with all Chainlink data, whether it’s oracle, smart contract, protocol, or network related. However, the Chainlink ecosystem is not only populated by numbers and code. Behind the integers, trends, and graphs lie an ever-expanding number of teams that operate Chainlink nodes. These teams comprise diverse and experienced individuals, geographically dispersed yet united by the common narrative that is Chainlink.

But who are the teams operating the Chainlink nodes? Who are the people providing valuable data for smart contracts, securing the future of the Chainlink network, and guaranteeing network connectivity?

In a series of upcoming interviews, reputation.link hopes to acquaint you with the individuals that sculpt the future of smart contracts and the decentralised oracles that power them. The interviews provide an array of personal insights into what it takes to run a Chainlink node including tips, highs and lows, and the future of the oracle space.

So, without further ado, let us introduce the first node operator team. Welcome Alpha Chain.

  • Oracle Name: Alpha Chain.
  • Verified: December 1, 2019.
  • Home: Boston, MA USA.
  • Overview: We provide blockchain services and customised data solutions and APIs. Birthed from the Y-Combinator Alpha Vantage.
  • First Chainlink Job Run Details: November 16, 2019 - see Tweet.
  • Recent Read: The Pragmatic Programmer.

Alpha Chain is run by Patrick Collins, a Chainlink Developer Advocate and a Software Engineer. Patrick hosts a Youtube series Chainlink Developer Workshops. He’s a household name within the Chainlink community, known for educating and encouraging Chainlink developers.

The Alpha Chain node was launched on Ethereum Mainnet 16 Nov, 2019 and currently supports over 60 Chainlink price feeds. At present, Alpha Chain is a one-man operation—however Patrick plans to expand in the near future.

We kicked off the interview by asking Patrick how he got started in crypto:

Patrick: “I worked on a hedge fund for a couple of years and data is incredibly expensive, and it's also surprisingly difficult to get right. I worked on the infrastructure side and my job was to monitor a $30 billion dollar process, so I needed to make sure everything ran correctly. Often what would happen is the old standards for getting quantitative data would break down. They would not have the data; it would be delayed; it would be wrong; and our entire business would be screwed. This was very frustrating.

It soon became really clear that the newer and easier way to get your data was by using APIs. So, when I left the hedge fund, I became a developer advocate and engineer for a data API. I ended up saying I want to do some of this crypto stuff myself and so I branched out and started Alpha Chain and it’s been a blast ever since.”

Patrick went onto discuss how meetings with Daniel Kochis (Global Head of Business Development at Chainlink Labs) and Johann Eid (Product Manager at Chainlink) propelled him deeper into the world of smart contracts and ultimately Chainlink:

Patrick: “I built more Chainlink infrastructure and I just got deeper and deeper into the space and I was like holy shit, smart contracts are just so cool. They are this world changing technology. With my background [hedge funds] and the experiences I’ve had in life, I realised that smart contracts have the potential to do so much good and change so much of what we are already doing. I wanted to get more and more into it. I wrote an article about Synthetix, saying—this is the future of stock exchanges, this is the future.

I went to ETH Denver, I met the Chainlink team. Just a phenomenal team. I loved all my interactions, and you know, I didn’t even know what a smart contract was a year ago. That is insane.”

We then asked Patrick what initially got him involved in the oracle space:

Patrick: “Chainlink was my first introduction into smart contracts. First though, I had to actually understand smart contracts before I could even understand Chainlink. Before that, blockchain was just another asset that I could buy and sell. That was really all cryptocurrencies were to me. I had written a couple of algorithmic traders, but up until that point, the traditional financial world had always said ‘fuck cryptocurrencies, don’t do them, it’s a waste of time,’ and that was kind of where I was mentally.

I really hadn’t taken the time to dive into it [Chainlink] so when I dove in, and when I started realising the value add that Chainlink had, then I was like holy shit; this is groundbreaking, next-gen revolutionary stuff.”

So, what does Patrick think it takes to become a successful node operator?

Patrick: “To be a successful node operator you have to have a lot of experience in DevOps. I know, DevOps is such a generalised term nowadays but DevOps and system admin skills are important. Once you have this in place, the actual running of it [the node] is fairly light on time commitments, but it is really heavy on the responsibility.

For example, before we even started this call, I got a text message on my phone (I have it to emergency bypass), and the text tells me there is something wrong, go check it out. So, I’m on 24/7.

There have been times when I’m hanging out with my friends and I have to jump... 99% of the time it is fine, but if there is something wrong then I need to be there to fix it.

We [Chainlink node operators] are securing something like $4 billion at this point in DeFi. We are not at the $30 billion I was helping monitor at the hedge fund, but we are getting there.

On the technical side, you definitely need to have DevOps know-how. On the responsibility side, you need to have someone on support 24/7, but then there is also the business side which I’ve talked about a lot. This isn’t super pertinent to running the node, but it is pertinent to being successful. You need to have some value-add to the system that essentially says: ‘Here is why my node is secure, here is why my node is good. I have unique data, I have good up-time.’ There has to be a compelling reason for engineers to want to use your Chainlink node.

So, I would say those are the three big parts. The first is strong DevOps for sysadmin know-how, and obviously with that knowledge you set up that node. Number two is the responsiveness, the monitoring, the alerting, the reaction time. You need to be thinking that if your node is down you are potentially ruining DeFi. Granted, the reason Chainlink is so fantastic is that it is decentralised, if one node goes down the system proceeds. But you need to act like if it goes down you have ruined all of DeFi. That is how you need to act. That is how you need to think. The third part is being business and marketing savvy. There has to be a reason why engineers want to use your node and add your node to their oracle network.”

Next, we asked what had been the single most nerve-racking moment Patrick has experienced while working as a Chainlink node operator? As it turned out, there had been more than one:

Patrick: “I started Alpha Chain in mid-June 2019. Starting your own company is a big step in itself. I was pouring a lot of my own capital in to make it all work and around July and August, gas prices started skyrocketing. Then, I think it was right around SmartCon when an attacker went after the Chainlink network.

DeFi stayed secured, but they spent a ton of Eth trying to take it down. As a result, Chainlink is stronger because of it, but all of the node operators ended up losing a lot of gas and I was already starting to struggle capital wise… I got online at midnight. When stuff happens you just have to stay on until it is fixed. It is 24/7, you just have to be there.

The second most nerve-racking point was early on when I was first getting the node set up. I didn’t realise that I didn’t have any monitoring on the memory of my VM box and it ended up filling up. I had to quickly jump on, expand the box, make it bigger, but it took me a few minutes to figure out what was wrong and my phone kept blowing up notifying me that there was an issue. We ended up figuring it out and it was all good.

The third-most stressful occasion was probably Black Thursday. I was up at 6am which - at the time - was way too early for me. I was on for 6 hours trying to figure out what was happening and how to fix it. And you know what, the system is way more robust because of those incidents. But, with every one of these pain points, it's cool to see how the community and I evolve and grow stronger. Every time something bad happens, it's an opportunity to improve your system and make it more robust.”

What does Patrick think the biggest challenge for Alpha Chain will be in the next 12 months?

Patrick: “I think the biggest challenge—and this is why I joined the Chainlink team—is educating people as to why using centralised oracles is going to wreck you. I feel like at this point it should be obvious. This month alone we’ve seen $130 million worth of DeFi attacks and half of that value was lost because of centralised oracle usage.

Chainlink is going to keep building, and the community is going to keep building and pushing the project to the next phase. But for me, some of the biggest challenges are going to be driving education and adoption. There is a reason Aave isn’t getting hacked, there is a reason Synthetix isn’t getting hacked, it is because they are using Chainlink pricing oracles, they are using decentralised pricing feeds. MakerDao; Compound; some of these big names are getting attacked because they are using centralised pricing feeds.”

If that’s the short-run, where does Patrick see the oracle space in one year? Five years? Ten years?

Patrick: “One year: What I would like to see for the oracle space is all DeFi products, and all decentralised products in general, using decentralised oracles. I think that is definitely achievable, especially given the pace that these attacks are happening. I hope to see everyone using Chainlink nodes, so their products are secure, they are reliable and they have this definitive truth.

Also, I think in one year I would like to start seeing more use cases. We’ve seen a lot of projects do stuff like what Alex and I did, where we sent Tweets based on smart contract interactions. I would love to see more of that. At the Chainlink hackathon, we saw the winning Tesla project, renting out a Tesla using a smart contract, or the library project, with library cards using Chainlink oracles, or decentralised insurance. I would love to see more of these unique use cases.”

So, Patrick is envisaging two things in the following year: more projects using the Chainlink decentralised network to secure their smart contracts, and more interesting data. Where does he see the oracle space in five years?

Patrick: “Five years? This space moves so fast, I don’t even know… Five years… I see oracles being used to help interoperability a lot like with reserves and token bridges. I can see oracles being used to power all of these next gen applications like insurance. Insurance is something we talk about a lot. And we’re seeing this with Arbol. I want to see a heap of insanely powerful use cases like insurance being secured by decentralised oracles.

And finally, what does the oracle space look like in ten years, from Patrick’s perspective?

Patrick: “Ten years… I would love to see a wipe of the current financial industry. I would love to see them using smart contracts and obviously have decentralised Chainlink oracles backing the entire thing. Let’s go bankless, use DEX’s, use borrowing and lending protocols all backed by decentralised oracles.”

Then we asked Patrick what data types he would most like his node to supply?

Patrick: “Anything, everything. Put it all on my node.

I would like to see more stock data flow through, because I’m familiar with that world. I would love to see weather data. I’ve written a couple of weather external adaptors. I would love to see proof of reserve. I think that has a lot of really powerful applications, including these awesome token bridges. Also, and this isn’t data per se, but I would love more blockchains to work with my node. I’ve done an Avalanche Chainlink node, a Polkadot Chainlink node. It’s just that there’s not a lot of use cases at the moment, so I’d love to see more use cases around the multi-chain world.”

Patrick then expanded on the role of smart contracts within the world of finance and stocks:

Patrick: “I think that we are going to reach a point where people realise that smart contracts are just better than the traditional financial world. Part of my job when I worked at the hedge fund was settling trades. When you make a trade, they don’t go through right away. You have to wait, and the settlement period can change from exchange to exchange. Sometimes it will be three days. The fact that I have to wait three days for a couple of numbers to change in the 21st century is insane. If I want to send money from BankA to BankB and it takes seven days for a wire to go through, I’m like ‘Are you kidding me? It’s just flipping numbers’.

I think Synthetix is doing such an insanely awesome thing and I think they are super undervalued at this point, because they are trying to take all these stocks—all these real world assets—tokenise them, and put them on-chain so you can trade them. And it’s so much faster and so much more efficient. I think there will eventually be a point where people stop trading on markets that use big banks or big hedge funds. There will still be hedge funds, but it will all be decentralised. Instead of a trader calling up their broker and being like ‘Give me five million shares of this random thing, and have it settle in four days’, we’ll just click a button and it’s all done through smart contacts. I see the entire Fintech world, that entire industry, the entire stock market eventually going to smart contracts. When will that be, I’m not sure, but it seems inevitable.”

Patrick then discussed the pitfalls of obtaining stock pricing data:

Patrick: “So that’s a trickier question because exchanges like NASDAQ will come after you if you use their data, because it's proprietary data. Navigating the legality of data distribution will actually be an interesting challenge. For crypto prices it’s not really a big deal because everything is on-chain and you can see exactly what people swap things for. It's all public data. But stock data is a little trickier. There are a lot of places where you can get stock data for free and there are no legal ramifications there. But if you want data from the NYSE, London Stock Exchange, or Hong Kong, that is more regulated. Where will that go? I’m not sure. Currently the way you do it, is you basically get a commercial license to re-distribute and I think nodes may have to go that way.”

What use case of Chainlink oracles is Patrick particularly excited about, but feels doesn't get discussed enough?

Patrick: “There are a ton. I think gaming on-chain is insane and oracles make it so much better. I feel like random numbers, the fact that people are building all these gaming applications and they are just not getting the attention they deserve. I think oracles can make them a lot better. I think insurance is a huge one. I think people do talk about insurance but in comparison to DeFi… DeFi is the hot topic right now but insurance and gaming! I think those are my top two at the moment.”

One future Chainlink advancement Patrick is looking forward to is Off-Chain Reporting (OCR):

Patrick: “I’m really excited for OCR and for threshold signatures. That is going to drastically reduce the gas costs for the nodes, it will allow for more de-centrality, more nodes to come online and to come online easier.

We then asked Patrick what advice he would give to any aspiring Chainlink node operators:

Patrick: “I’ve started changing my tune a little bit. I feel sometimes I get really serious, because I take my job very seriously. There are outages; there are times I will wake up at two in the morning when I get a text message and I have to make sure everything is good. Sometimes I feel I might scare people off with how intense I can be, but I think the thing I really should say for anyone who wants to be a node operator is simply join the community. Join the hackathon. Jump on the Discord. Try to help people get spun up with stuff. I know there are jobs that my node runs simply because I helped a team build an external adaptor. Or I helped a team do something. Just join the community. That is how people are going to get to know you and your value add. Being a node operator is one of the quickest ways to learn about oracles, to learn about smart contracts and what makes them important.”

On a final note, we asked Patrick for three words that described his time as a Chainlink node operator to date:

Patrick: “Exhilarating, Fortunate, Purposeful.”

Patrick Collins is Alpha Chain.

Alpha Chain’s reputation is displayed on reputation.link through metrics including the node’s uptime, average response time, and job completion ratio. Visit Alpha Chain’s profile on reputation.link to view the real-time and historic performance of the oracle since it was verified on December 1, 2019.

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