Consensus Protections Against Attacks and Failure Modes

The XRP Ledger Consensus Protocol is a byzantine fault tolerant consensus mechanism, which means it's designed to operate even if all kinds of things can go wrong: participants depend on an unreliable open network to communicate, and malicious actors may be attempting to control or interrupt the system at any given time. On top of that, the set of participants in the XRP Ledger Consensus Protocol isn't known in advance and can change over time.

Confirming transactions in a timely manner while maintaining the desired properties of the network is a complex challenge, and it's impossible to build a perfect system. The XRP Ledger Consensus Protocol is designed to work as well as it can in most situations, and to fail as gracefully as possible in the situations where it can't.

This page describes some of the types of challenges that the XRP Ledger Consensus Protocol faces and how it handles them.

Individual Validators Misbehaving

Validators are servers that actively contribute to the process of deciding each new ledger version. Validators only have an influence over servers configured to trust them (including indirectly). Consensus can continue even if some validators are misbehaving, including a large variety of failure cases, such as:

  • Being unavailable or overloaded.
  • Being partially disconnected from the network, so their messages reach only a subset of participants without delay.
  • Intentionally behaving with intent to defraud others or halt the network.
  • Behaving maliciously as a result of pressure from outside factors, such as threats from an oppressive government.
  • Accidentally sending confusing or malformed messages due to a bug or outdated software.

In general, consensus can continue without problems as long as only a small percentage (less than about 20%) of trusted validators are misbehaving at a given time. (For the exact percentages and the math behind them, see the latest Consensus Research.)

If more than about 20% of validators are unreachable or not behaving properly, the network fails to reach a consensus. During this time, new transactions can be tentatively processed, but new ledger versions cannot be validated, so those transactions' final outcomes are not certain. In this situation, it would become immediately obvious that the XRP Ledger is unhealthy, prompting intervention from human participants who can decide whether to wait, or reconfigure their set of trusted validators.

The only way to confirm an invalid transaction would be to get at least 80% of trusted validators to approve of the transaction and agree on its exact outcome. (Invalid transactions include those spending money that has already been spent, or otherwise breaking the rules of the network.) In other words, a large majority of trusted validators would have to collude. With dozens of trusted validators run by different people and businesses in different parts of the world, this would be very difficult to achieve intentionally.

Software Vulnerabilities

As with any software system, bugs (or intentionally malicious code) in the implementation of the XRP Ledger Consensus Protocol, commonly deployed software packages, or their dependencies, are a problem to be taken seriously. Even bugs that simply cause a server to crash when it sees carefully crafted inputs can be abused to disrupt the progress of the network. Ripple has a number of precautions in place to address this threat, including:

  • An open-source code base, so any member of the public can review, compile, and independently test the relevant software.
  • A thorough and robust code review process for all changes to the official XRP Ledger repositories.
  • Digital signatures from Ripple employees on all releases and official software packages.
  • Regularly-commissioned professional reviews for security vulnerabilities and insecurities.
  • A bug bounty program that rewards security researchers who responsibly disclose vulnerabilities.

Sybil Attacks

A Sybil attack is an attempt to take control of a network using a large number of fake identities. In the XRP Ledger, a Sybil attack would take the form of running a large number of validators, then convincing others to trust those validators. This sort of attack is theoretically possible, but would be very difficult to accomplish because human intervention is necessary for validators to become trusted.

No matter how many validating servers a would-be attacker runs, those servers have no say on what the existing participants consider validated unless those participants choose to trust the attacker's validators. Other servers only listen to the validators they are configured to trust, either through a validator list or explicit configuration. (See validator overlap requirements for a summary of how the default validator list works.)

This trust does not happen automatically, so performing a successful Sybil attack would involve the difficult work of convincing targeted humans and businesses to reconfigure their XRP Ledger servers to trust the attacker's validators. Even in the case that one individual entity was fooled into doing so, this would have a minimal impact on others who do not change their configurations.

51% Attack

A "51% attack" is an attack on a blockchain system where one party controls more than 50% of all mining or voting power. (Technically, the attack is slightly misnamed because any amount over 50% is enough.) The XRP Ledger is not vulnerable to a 51% attack because it does not use mining in its consensus mechanism. The next closest analogue for the XRP Ledger is a Sybil attack, which would also be difficult to accomplish.

Validator Overlap Requirements

For all participants in the XRP Ledger to agree on what they consider validated, they must start by choosing a set of trusted validators that are fairly similar to the sets chosen by everyone else. In the worst case, less than about 90% overlap could cause some participants to diverge from each other. For that reason, Ripple publishes a signed list of recommended validators, including trustworthy and well-maintained servers run by the company, industry, and community.

By default, XRP Ledger servers are configured to use a validator list site run by Ripple. The site provides a list of recommended validators (also known as a recommended Unique Node List, or UNL), which Ripple updates periodically. Servers configured this way trust all validators in the latest version of the list, which ensures 100% overlap with others also using the same list. The default configuration includes a public key that verifies the authenticity of the site's contents. In case the site goes down, servers in the XRP Ledger's peer-to-peer network can directly relay the signed updates to the list among themselves.

Technically, if you run a server, you can configure your own list site or explicitly choose validators to trust on an individual basis, but Ripple does not recommended doing so. If your chosen set of validators does not have enough overlap with others, your server may diverge from the rest of the network, and you could lose money by taking action based on your server's divergent state.

Research is ongoing to design an improved consensus protocol that allows more heterogeneous validator lists. For more information, see the Consensus Research page.

See Also