As ICON builds out blockchain interoperability connections through its groundbreaking Blockchain Transmission Protocol (BTP) technology, it is useful for Iconists to become familiar with compatible blockchains. This article is the ninth part of a ‘BTP series’ in which we take an introductory look at all the blockchain networks that will be joining the ICON community. Be sure to also check out the other articles in the series:

Although development of BTP has not yet been finalized, a “lite” version of the technology called ICON Bridge will soon be launched, finally opening the doors to interoperability between ICON and other BTP-compatible blockchains. In addition to the blockchain projects linked to above, ICON will also be bridging to Polkadot and its canary network, Kusama.

Let’s take a look at Polkadot and Kusama and get to know what they’re all about.

What is Polkadot and why is it great for BTP developers?

Earlier in this series of BTP-focused articles, we made many mentions of Polkadot parachains that ICON is building bridges to — Moonbeam, Acala and Astar Network are all parachains on the Polkadot network, and Edgeware is moving toward becoming one soon. But what is a parachain, exactly, and what is its relationship to Polkadot?

Blockchains are built in layers. Polkadot is what is known as a layer-0 blockchain, meaning it has the crucial infrastructure upon which other blockchains can be built, and the security capabilities to keep the network safe. However, it is not possible to build a Dapp on a layer-0 blockchain — the required supporting infrastructure is lacking.

Moonbeam, Acala, etc. are specialized layer-1 blockchains built on the Polkadot network as parallelizable chains, or “parachains” for short. A layer-1 blockchain has the necessary infrastructure such as smart contracts with which decentralized applications can be built. (ICON is also a layer-1 blockchain, although ICON is a standalone blockchain that maintains its own layer-0.)

In this way, Polkadot is a very barebones blockchain, built specifically to offer a strong and secure backbone upon which to build parachains. By contrast, many of the parachains on the Polkadot network are hyper-specialized — for example, Acala is built specifically for DeFi, with a DEX built right into the blockchain. This high level of specialization is made possible with Substrate, a framework developed by Polkadot that allows for custom functionalities to be added to parachains via plug-and-play modules.

ICON is bridging to Polkadot to take advantage of Substrate and open up the possibility of creating new parachains. In fact, ICON’s sister blockchain ICE is being built on Substrate, and is aiming to launch on Polkadot as a parachain. 

What is Kusama?

Kusama is Polkadot’s canary network.

A “canary network” is similar to a blockchain’s testnet, in that new features can be tested there before being added to the mainnet. However, canary networks have one major difference from testnets: a canary network has its own token and is a full-fledged blockchain in and of itself, whereas testnets use disposable, valueless tokens that can be replenished at will. Canary networks let developers test features that require real value in order to evaluate the full effects of the code. As there is also a monetary incentive to keep the canary network well-maintained, it can also be a much more exacting testing ground than a testnet.

Kusama will be very useful for BTP developers looking to build on Substrate. Before ICE launches on Polkadot, they will launch the SNOW canary network on Kusama.

Team and Tokens

In 2015, two former Ethereum executive team members, Dr. Gavin Wood and Jutta Steiner, co-founded Parity Technologies, the company that went on to build Substrate and most of Polkadot’s technologies. Wood published the Polkadot whitepaper in 2016, and the blockchain’s first codebase was released in 2019 as Kusama. Polkadot was finally launched in 2020 and its first parachain launched in 2021. Polkadot started auctioning off parachain slots for major projects at the end of 2021, and the process is still ongoing. Polkadot is headquartered in Switzerland, although its team is decentralized all over the world.

Polkadot’s token is called $DOT, and is a top-15 coin traded on all major exchanges. Kusama’s token is called $KSM, and is a top-100 coin that actually tends to trade at much higher prices than DOT does.
For more information about Polkadot, please visit their website or follow them on Twitter. Kusama also has its own website and Twitter channel, although you’ll often find information about Kusama in Polkadot’s communications too.