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Blockchain Environments: Testnet, Devnet, and Mainnet

Blockchain Mainnet Technology and Web 3.0

The online ecosystem of Web 2.0 relies almost entirely on a client-server infrastructure. This network architecture makes information available through central servers that function as data depositories. For example, internet users access server data through “client” machines such as desktop computers, laptops, and alternative mobile devices. When a server receives a request, data is sent back to the client in a legible format — like the information on a web page. Although this infrastructure facilitates crucial online activity, many argue the centralized nature of Web 2.0 data structures has heightened potential to:

  1. Foster single points of failure (which, in the event of malfunctions, could threaten the health of the internet)
  2. Attract the attention of hackers by creating a single vector for compromising network security
  3. Reduce privacy due to surveillance from centralized systems
  4. Discourage open access to data due to the outsized control of centralized gatekeepers

In contrast, the blockchain mainnets of Web 3.0 are designed to operate through a distributed network of nodes: independent machines that must reach consensus to validate network activity. In this way, blockchain networks reduce reliance on central authorities and mitigate opportunities for a single source of failure. Despite the common association between digital assets and blockchain technology, many businesses are also working to develop decentralized networks that serve data-intensive industries like law, real estate, and healthcare. While the awareness of blockchain technology is clearly growing, the long-term enterprise viability of blockchain-based decentralized environments across such industries remains less clear.

Blockchain development stages can also differ between protocols — for example, building on Ethereum differs from deploying an application on EOSIO or Binance Smart Chain. Such platforms can feature markedly different system architectures, consensus mechanisms, and coding languages. Despite these differences, the blockchain industry is pushing for increased quality and quantity of interoperability standards and interchain system collaboration. Regardless, three phases effectively capture the blockchain development process: devnet, testnet, and mainnet.

What Is a Blockchain Mainnet?

Short for blockchain main network, the blockchain mainnet is the live, primary protocol. Transactions that occur on the mainnet utilize the network’s native cryptocurrency and are recorded on its distributed ledger. Open source blockchain protocols like Ethereum and Bitcoin are designed to be publicly verifiable and execute genuine transactions with actual economic value. On Proof-of-Work blockchain networks, miners validate these transactions and receive block rewards for their efforts. On Proof-of-Stake blockchain mainnets, stakers are chosen to validate transactions based on their network stake and collect the transaction fees paid by users.

Blockchain testnets and devnets respectively provide alternate environments that mimic the function of the mainnet to allow developers the opportunity to build and experiment with projects without the higher stakes of live cryptocurrencies, miners, and transactions. Unlike the coins in testnet and devnet environments, the coins in use on mainnets are “real” and can be exchanged for other digital assets or local currency.

What Is a Blockchain Testnet?

The blockchain test network — or testnet — represents nodes that have agreed to work collaboratively, independently of the main network or mainnet. For example, Ethereum has five testnets, each with unique purposes and programming parameters — Kovan, Rinkeby, Sokol, Görli, and Ropsten. Blockchain testnets operate as exact replicas of the original protocol, utilizing the same technology and software to deliver similar functionality.

However, in contrast to mainnet transactions, transactions on the testnet are only simulations — the cryptocurrency holds no “real” value outside of the testnet environment. This means that developers and testers can assess the viability of a system by executing transactions without the risk of losing real mainnet value. This dynamic provides the ideal environment to test smart contracts and decentralized applications (dApps). Further, the testnet simulation offers a sandbox environment to continually tweak and improve the live version of a project before launching on the mainnet.

Despite these benefits, the “worthless” nature of many testnet cryptocurrencies may subject users to security risks. Although decreasingly effective as blockchain networks become more sophisticated, a replay attack occurs when a valid transaction on one blockchain is maliciously or fraudulently repeated on another — for instance, double-spending between a testnet and mainnet. Further, some scams will try to sell testnet cryptocurrency disguised as the “real” mainnet version. As such, navigating the blockchain testnet environment is aided by a basic understanding of the system’s technical structure.

Although some Proof-of-Work blockchain protocols allow users to mine testnet cryptocurrency, many users turn to “faucets” to save time and money. These web-based services are usually individuals or organizations with excess testnet coins they’re willing to part with — often for free.

What Is a Devnet? Blockchain Development Network

Similar to the testnet, the development network or devnet operates independently of the mainnet. Although not every blockchain protocol utilizes both a devnet and a testnet, some differentiate these environments based on their intended use. For example, the Solana protocol asserts that the devnet functions as a “playground” for those looking to experience the protocol as a blockchain user, token holder, app developer, or network validator. In contrast, the Solana blockchain testnet serves as an environment where recent releases undergo a stress test that focuses on network performance, stability, and the behavior of network validators.

As is the case with most testnet environments, devnet cryptocurrency generally has no “real” value, and devnet transactions require less computational effort than their mainnet equivalents. For devnet blockchains, users can also mine cryptocurrency or access faucet services to obtain coins. Alternatively, some protocols conduct airdrops to encourage developer participation to accelerate stress-testing. However, just as there are risks associated with testnet environments, blockchain devnets are also potentially subject to similar security threats. As such, users should exercise caution to ensure they aren’t unintentionally purchasing “worthless” devnet assets when they intend to purchase mainnet assets.

Blockchain Environments

Although blockchain protocols utilize and refer to different environments or stages, the testnet, devnet, and mainnet descriptors effectively capture the major development stages of most protocols. Although the testnet and devnet are sometimes synonymous, slight variations in their intended applications can make them unique. Regardless, the blockchain mainnet is always the active, publicly available version of the broader network. Whether building decentralized applications (dApps), acting as a validator, testing smart contracts, or issuing new tokens, testnet and devnet networks provide significant value to the blockchain mainnets they serve.

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