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Messari|Radicle: Decentralizing the Code Collaboration Stack

Cointime Staff· 12 min read

Key Insights

  • Radicle is a decentralized code collaboration stack, composable with Web3 native financial incentivization tools.
  • Radicle Link extends Git version control over a peer-to-peer networking layer.
  • Adoption, DAO coordination, and value capture remain challenges to overcome should the project succeed at incentivizing its development.

A Brief History of Open-Source Code Collaboration

Free and open software dates back to the 1950s when academia was largely the driver of developing and disseminating code. To advance humanity into the digital age, academia’s approach to knowledge sharing laid the foundation of the free software movement; that people should be free to run, study, and redistribute both original and modified copies of code.

While the free software movement postulates that proprietary software is unethical, the open-sourcesoftware movement is more concerned with enabling open projects. Regardless of which camp you subscribe to, open-source software forms integral pieces of the digital infrastructure that we all use today.

Source: xkcd

To maintain and collaborate on open-source projects, contributors need solutions to store and disseminate code as well as a distributed version control system (DVCS) to suggest and commit new additions (i.e., Git, Mercurial). Furthermore, environments to debate possible changes (i.e., GitHub comments) and incentive structures to compensate developers (i.e., grants, employment) support the growth of the ecosystem.

Centralized forges such as GitHub are platforms that extend Git’s functionality and host user repositories in walled databases. These platforms have greatly contributed to the open-source movement by making code collaboration easy. However, being centralized intermediaries, censorship becomes an issue. GitHub has the ability to take down any use of its service it deems fit, like removing core Tornado Cash repositories and accounts of collaborators based on (arbitrary) government sanctions.

As many projects depend on open-source code for their operation, a wrongful takedown can have significant consequences for GitHub users and codebases. Enter Radicle: decentralized code collaboration to maintain and incentivize open software projects.

Radicle, in a Nutshell

Radicle was founded in 2018 to develop a censorship-resistant code collaboration stack. The initial implementation of the protocol was built on IPFS, but several technical complications limited its speed and functionality. In 2019, IPFS was replaced with Git’s version control system. Git, paired with a peer-to-peer networking layer run on Directed Acyclic Graphs (DAGs), forms Radicle Link, the protocol now underpinning the stack.

The Guts of a Peer-to-Peer Code Collaboration Stack

Radicle Link is accessible via multiple frontends including the Radicle Web Interface and Command Line Interface (CLI). “Peers” (users) select other peers and “projects” (Git repositories) to follow. In doing so, they keep local copies of the data associated with the peers and projects they are interested in and gossip (“replicate”) this data with their respective peers.

To help with data availability, seed nodes are always-on nodes that can track and disseminate projects. As the network progressively decentralizes, the project team-hosted seed nodes serve as entry points for new protocol users. Peers use a push-pull method for syncing data by selecting a seed node to upload and fetch changes from as opposed to leveraging the gossip replication layer. Anyone may run a seed node. However, there are no incentives for doing so other than hosting private repositories or connecting to the network and contributing to data availability.

From a usability standpoint, Radicle uses a “bazaar” model for collaboration and public-key cryptographyin place of user accounts. Code repositories are open source but there is no one singular view of each project, a user’s view is dependent on its trust relationships, or social graph. By using public-key cryptography for all artifacts (code, pull requests, etc.), developers can verify the authenticity of each artifact themselves, creating a significantly more secure workflow as compared to centralized alternatives.

Content moderation is handled by network users. Peers may choose to unfollow peers, removing the unfollowed peer’s data from their subjective view of a project. There are however canonical (main) views of projects based on project creators and assigned maintainers (“delegates”). A quorum of delegator public keys is required to sign on additions (“patches”) to a canonical branch. While the histories of each delegate may differ based on their respective social graphs, the canonical view will display all previously accepted changes.

Integrating with Ethereum

Decentralized code collaboration, as well as tools for financing public software projects, are key components of Radicle’s vision. In 2021, Radicle launched an opt-in Ethereum integration to facilitate code collaboration for decentralized organizations. With Radicle Orgs, teams can ensure project state immutability by anchoring canonical project metadata to Ethereum and coordinate on projects with a Gnosis Safe multi-sig. Furthermore, the integration introduces an incentivization layer for project collaborators via in-app payment streams.

Drippin n’ Tippin

Radicle Drips is a standalone protocol for streaming payments on Ethereum. Launched in January 2022, Drips forms the foundation of payment streaming on Radicle, yet it has more to offer as a standalone protocol. Creators can design NFT-gated “Memberships” where users receive benefits for one-time or recurring payments. Benefits may include project governance voting power and, in the future, access to privately encrypted Radicle repositories.  Further, the “Splits” feature automatically redistributes a percentage of funds received to an Ethereum address; think automatically distributing incoming grant payments among project collaborators.

The RAD Token

Radicle’s Ethereum integration introduced the ERC-20 RAD token along with an economic model for the collective governance and ownership of the protocol. RAD is primarily a governance token. Token holders may propose and vote on proposals that relate to Radicle’s Ethereum integration and the Radicle Treasury, where half of the total token supply was allocated upon launch.

The Treasury distributes tokens to support community initiatives funded through Radicle Grants and The Radicle Ecosystem Growth Fund (EGF). Radicle Grants support open-source technical projects of up to $500,000 that contribute to the development of Radicle Link as well as Web3 infrastructure that compliments the stack. On the other hand, the EGF funds up to $500,000 semi-annually for projects and events that attract network users. As of October 2022, the core team is largely responsible for selecting and funding these initiatives, but full power will transition to the DAO of RAD holders in 2023 as discussed in the Roadmap section below.

Other significant RAD allocations include 20% of the total token supply to private investors and 19% to the founding team. In February 2021, Radicle closed a private sale led by Galaxy and NFX with participation from Balaji Srinivasan and Meltem Demirors, among others. Each allocation vests over four years.

Concerning value accrual, the Ethereum integration’s contracts were designed to incur fees, paid in RAD, which would accumulate in the Treasury. RAD holders would benefit from discounted or waived fees. At launch, certain contracts incurred protocol fees, but this was later quashed in March 2022 to attract more users to the protocol. Currently, the protocol is not accruing value. Fee mechanisms may be applied in the future, as determined by governance.

Network Traction

The Radicle Network

The majority of Radicle network adoption has taken place in the last year. Before September 2021, 42 public projects were launched on Radicle since network inception in 2018. More than 400 public projects have launched between September 2021 and September 2022 alone. Furthermore, there was a sharp 215% MoM increase in August 2022. This increase likely coincides with the Tornado Cash sanctions and Github takedown, leading developers to seek censorship-resistant shelter on Radicle.

It's important to note that Radicle network users may choose to run their own seed nodes and self-host private repositories without connecting to the rest of the network. Hence, such projects are not represented in the public numbers. The number of private repositories is estimated to be in the thousands.

At the same time, developer activity on Radicle is growing at a near-exponential pace. The number of code commits across all repositories total just under 6,000 since network inception.

Radicle Drips

Since its launch in January 2022, Radicle Drips has shown relatively little adoption, likely as its codebase is still being audited. All in all, 86 unique users have actively interacted with the protocol. The most used feature is Splits with 58 unique senders. Notably, the Solidity core team is receiving drips from two other users and splitting funds amongst 10 contributors.

Additionally, 17 NFT-gated communities have launched on Radicle Drips. An example is Rad Radio, a partnership between Radicle and Livepeer. Users can subscribe with a one-time payment of 5 DAI to access a live online radio show featuring tipping via Drips and streaming via the Livepeer network.

The Drips audit is expected to be complete in the coming months and subsequently, the protocol is planned to be more deeply integrated with the rest of the stack. In turn, usage is expected to increase.

Governance Participation

Using token holder participation in governance as an estimate for traction, voter turnout was low for Radicle in its first year of decentralized governance. Repeat instances of failed proposals due to missing the vote threshold of 4% of the total token supply (4 million RAD) have led to re-evaluating the governance and delegation system. Furthermore, large holdings mostly represented by core team members have had an outsized effect on governance decisions. For instance, Co-Founder, project contributor, and Radicle Foundation Board Member Alexis Sellier (cloudhead)committed 2.5 million RADduring the first official governance vote. His contribution amounted to ~35% of the votes. Considering that the network is in the early stages of development, it is reasonable that active core contributors have a large say in its direction. However, this will need to be re-evaluated as the project scales and welcomes new participants.

Adoption Challenges

Radicle has the challenge of converting users from the convenience of Github to a decentralized, though not yet smooth alternative. While decentralizing the stack encompasses the ideals of open source, adjusting to code collaboration on Radicle has been difficult for early users. For instance, Radicle patches (like pull requests) do not yet have a review or commenting function to enable discussion on potential changes from within the protocol.

Further, since sunsetting the Radicle Upstream desktop app in July 2022, using most Ethereum integration features such as project contributor payment streams is not available within a graphical user interface (GUI) composed with the stack. While anyone can use the Radicle Drips GUI to stream and split payments, this key financial incentivization feature is not front and center for Radicle code contributors. Other areas of improvement for the Ethereum integration include reducing transaction touchpoints or possibly integrating with more cost-effective L2s.

Competitive Landscape

Code collaboration forges Github and Gitlab are Radicle’s largest, yet centralized competitors. Radicle’s approximately 450 public repositories pale in comparison to Github’s 39 million public repositories as of October 2022. Furthermore, GitHub is the clear winner for Web3 community code collaboration as the vast majority of decentralized organizations host their repositories thereon.

In terms of other community-driven competitors, solutions exist such as Secure Scuttlebutt and Phorge. Secure Scuttlebutt is a decentralized gossip protocol designed for social networking but leaves much to be desired when applied to code collaboration, including the lack of a maintainable canonical branch. Phorge is a set of open-source tools for using version control systems like Git, but it leverages the traditional Web2 client-server model and projects using Phorge operating in isolation. Neither are building DAO-based collaboration tools. So far, it appears that Radicle is in a category of its own, offering open and decentralized code collaboration as well as financial incentivization tools.

To gain market share, Radicle must attract believers of the decentralized web to the decentralized forge. While censorship resistance is a key protocol attractor, incentive mechanisms do not exist at the network level. Radicle’s incentivization model revolves around the Ethereum integration for enhanced code collaboration and in turn fee capture and grant funding initiatives for network development. Financial incentivization tools such as payment streams must be better integrated with the stack to offer a unique code collaboration experience, while fee mechanisms need to be switched on to promote value accrual and future network development.

Risks

Radicle embodies the free and open-source software movement, delivering tools for decentralized organizations to self-host, share, and collaborate on open-source projects. What remains to be seen for Radicle is increasing adoption, governance participation, and in turn value accrual to the token and network.

As of October 2022, there are approximately 450 public repositories launched on Radicle. Governance sees approximately 15 participants per vote with a large concentration of power still in the founding team’s hands. Furthermore, while Radicle’s Ethereum integration is designed to deliver fee revenue to the project’s treasury, these mechanisms have yet to be enabled as the project focuses on attracting new users. These challenges are interconnected and will be valuable to solve in order to incentivize and compensate DAO contributors for continuing to develop the protocol.

In recent months, core team operations have been relatively fragmented, leading to friction points when identifying and working on protocol upgrades efficiently. These friction points are worth a close look while considering further decentralization of the project.

Roadmap

The Radicle core team plans to fully decentralize by February 2023. All protocol development will be funded by the Treasury, via RAD token governance. Notably, the Radicle community is carefully constructing how this DAO-like structure should operate. Key topics include:

  • whether compensation should be role- or project-based
  • how core subgroups should coordinate
  • the distribution of ownership of RAD tokens to incentivize stakeholders that share in the network’s open-source ethos and culture

Furthermore, the first Radicle Improvement Proposal published in September 2022 discusses an upcoming major iteration of the Radicle storage and networking layer named “Heartwood.” In addition to a number of technical improvements, its launch will introduce gossip replication and data verification, the key to the network’s peer-to-peer nature and tamper-resistant offering. Heartwood development is actively underway, with code collaboration happening on Radicle.

Conclusion

Radicle is taking a modular approach by building tools for developers seeking censorship-resistant forges along with standalone payment protocols for Web3 native users. Thus far, no other code collaboration stack is optimizing for both sovereignty and crypto composability.

While Radicle’s offering is certainly unique, adoption, coordination, and value capture remain challenges to overcome should the project succeed at incentivizing its development. It remains to be seen how the core team’s transition to a DAO will affect the project’s future, but the project’s aligned incentives are visible as Radicle both embodies and develops decentralized code collaboration fundamentals.

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