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Saturday, April 13, 2024

The Race to Save Sam Bankman-Fried’s Other Crypto Exchange

FTX might be doomed, but a small group of volunteers believes that Serum, Sam Bankman-Fried’s other crypto exchange, is worth saving. There’s just one problem: Serum faces an existential crisis of its own. Brian Long, one of the volunteers working on the project to save the exchange, says its pivotal role in Solana, a major blockchain network, means it is too important to leave for dead. But until recently it was under the thumb of FTX.

While Serum is technically governed by a decentralized autonomous organization (DAO), FTX holds the secret keys required to make changes to the code. But after around $400 million in cryptocurrency was lifted from FTX coffers on November 13, confidence in the security of both exchanges was lost. If FTX had been compromised, might the Serum keys have been compromised too?

Serum’s collapse could have caused chaos for users of Solana applications, putting cryptocurrency holdings at risk in the process. It may also have aggravated the crisis of confidence that cut more than 50 percent from the value of SOL, the cryptocurrency of the Solana network, in the days following the FTX crisis. So the “obvious decision,” says Long, was to clone the exchange and begin anew—a process known in crypto circles as “forking.”

That’s no easy feat. Forking requires everyone to migrate in concert from the old version to the new clone, not only the customers but also developers whose apps depend on Serum and market makers that supply the funds to make trading possible. However, if they wanted to pull Serum out from underneath the FTX wreckage, the volunteers were left with no choice but to make it work.  

The new version of Serum is identical to the original from a technical perspective, but it operates under the name Open Book—a nod to the transparency that was lacking at FTX. The main difference is that a small group of community members will have the final say on changes to the codebase, not FTX.

The volunteers were able to duplicate Serum because, as a decentralized exchange, or DEX, its codebase is public. The goal was not to enhance the original, but to create a trusted copy that anyone could plug back into with ease.

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The effort was orchestrated via GitHub and Telegram, where prominent members of the Solana community gathered. Some, like Max Schneider of trading platform Mango Markets, took the lead on the coding while others, like Long, were in charge of making sure everyone was pulling in the same direction.

By November 16, Open Book had surpassed Serum in daily transaction volume (at roughly $3 million), signaling that traders had accepted the clone as the official successor. On Twitter, project contributor Ansel described this moment as “the point of no return.” Many of the applications that interfaced with the original exchange—like DEX aggregator Jupiter, data provider OpenSerum, and trading interface Solape—have migrated over to the new version.

One community member, Dante Briger, who helps keep Open Book running smoothly by buying and selling regular quantities of cryptocurrency, described the speed with which the volunteers were able to stand up the new DEX as “in-fucking-credible.”

Decentralized exchanges differ from their centralized counterparts (like FTX, Binance, Coinbase, and others) in a few important ways. Most notably, instead of relying on an intermediary to match buyers with sellers, DEXs let users transact on a peer-to-peer basis—and keep custody of their own funds.

This arrangement is one example of what’s known as decentralized finance, or DeFi, an initiative to develop a suite of financial services atop blockchain technology. In a Twitter thread published in July 2020 that now reads like a grim prophecy, Bankman-Fried described DeFi as “filled with potential” because it doesn’t involve “relying on trust.”

Members of the community see FTX’s collapse as a key moment for DeFi, which, they argue, is a remedy to the problems that have haunted the crypto sector over the past year, following the collapse of large centralized organizations like crypto lender Celsius and hedge fund Three Arrows Capital.

According to Hayden Adams, founder of UniSwap, the world’s largest DEX, this is “a good learning moment for the industry.” Although the DEX model suffers from a steeper learning curve for new users, he says, it eliminates the need to store coins with an exchange, which is what gave FTX the opportunity to divert customer funds to its sister company, Alameda Research, in the first place.

Andrew Trudel, a contributor to Kwenta, another DEX, says customers can never be completely sure what’s happening to their assets inside a centralized exchange. But with a DEX, “how funds are being used is fully transparent” because everything is hosted on a public blockchain, he argues. Both Trudel and Adams predict the traffic to decentralized exchanges will eventually exceed traditional exchanges for these reasons.

With FTX in ruins and the integrity of powerful, centralized crypto companies being called into question, DeFi is having a moment. But now that Open Book is up and running, the volunteers face a series of dilemmas. The initial goal was to prevent the collapse of Serum from spilling over into the wider Solana ecosystem, but the group must now reckon with the ongoing management of the DEX, which is another proposition entirely.

Among the first questions up for debate is what to do with SRM, the token created by FTX for Serum, $2.2 billion of which was listed on the company’s balance sheet. The token, which provides holders with a discount on trading fees, is still supported by Open Book at the time of writing.

Some of the Open Book volunteers, including Long, would rather see the back of FTX, period. Long says supporting SRM offers no material benefit to Open Book users and serves only to put money into the pockets of FTX because the value of SRM is effectively tied to the revenue generated by the exchange. 

The management structure of the new DEX has also raised eyebrows. In a thread published on November 18, the Open Book volunteers explained that “upgrade authority” is now held by a small consortium of “reputable figures” from the Solana development community. Although the new model successfully cuts out FTX, traders are asking whether one overly centralized model has simply been replaced with another. To this question, the group of volunteers has yet to come up with an answer.

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