Ethereum’s Altair upgrade on the Beacon Chain marks a significant step on its journey to Eth2 and a proof-of-stake consensus mechanism. The Altair upgrade comes 3 months after the Mainnet London upgrade and hard forks the pre-merge Beacon Chain in preparation for the merge with the Ethereum Mainnet.
The Ethereum Beacon Chain was launched in December 2020 and ran parallel to the Ethereum Mainnet. The plan was to have the two chains merge in 2022 so that the Beacon Chain’s proof-of-stake mechanism and the Mainnet’s ability to handle smart contracts would form Eth2.
Two major changes in the Altair upgrade are the introduction of support for light clients and what Ethereum developer Tim Beiko calls “inactivity+slashing penalties”. Light clients are nodes that are less cumbersome than full node software. Developers will now be able to introduce light client software to validate blocks on the Ethereum Beacon Chain.
Light clients also do not need to sync constantly with the full Ethereum blockchain, and are an attractive tool for validators who do not want to have to maintain a constant connection to the blockchain.
Slashing penalties will reduce rewards for inactive stakers on the network. At the launch of the Beacon Chain, penalties for inactive stakers (stakers who did not actively participate in validating transactions and supporting the network) were minimized to encourage participation in the Beacon Chain, but will now be calibrated to encourage active participation.
The Altair upgrade also provides an opportunity to test the limits of the Beacon Chain before the merge. The plan is for Altair to be the only upgrade to the Beacon Chain before the merge with the Mainnet in 2022.
The Altair upgrade “does not affect end-user accounts, contracts, and state secured by the proof-of-work chain” but node operators will have to download the latest version of the beacon node client.
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