What Is A Bitcoin Hard Fork?

Given the current ongoing Bitcoin block size debate, there has been a lot of talk about whether or not a hard fork needs to be used. Some people are in favor of this option, whereas others prefer to take a more cautious approach. But what is it about a hard fork that has so many people concerned?

Understanding The Implications Of a Hard Fork

First of all, it is important to explain what a hard fork of software code entails exactly. Making such a drastic change to the Bitcoin protocol is always a bit of a risk. A hard fork makes previously invalid blocks and transactions valid, which means that the entire network will be affected by this change. If a hard fork occurs, it is pertinent that all Bitcoin users around the world update their Bitcoin clients as soon as possible, and preferably even in advance.

As the name suggests, an alteration of the Bitcoin source code shakes things up at the fundamental level. Many different things are changed, although most of these changes may not be of great interest to the general public. This creates a new danger when a hard fork occurs, as not everyone may see the point in upgrading their clients right away.

Some of the things that will change during a hard fork include the block structure and hash, or even the mining difficulty adjustment rules. In the current discussion, the objective is to increase the current 1MB block size to 2MB or more. Doing so would allow more transactions to be included in every block, and would improve the overall scalability of the Bitcoin network.

It is evident that a hard fork requires network participation. First and foremost, all of the mining pools will need to support the updated code, and they will usually seek to implement it before the hard fork network activation threshold is met. Other Bitcoin service providers, such as payment processors, wallet providers, and gambling platform operators, need to update their clients ahead of time as well.

Older Bitcoin clients will be incompatible with the changes  proposed during the hard fork event. This means that older clients will not accept new network blocks or transactions generated by users who switched to the latest client. In the worst case, this would result in two different Bitcoin blockchains being created.

However, the longest blockchain will always remain in power, and as long as more people upgrade compared to those who don’t, this should not be a big issue. That said, the risk factor should not be overlooked either. Incompatibility with existing software is a problem when dealing with hard forks, hence they are not that common in the Bitcoin world.

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