What’s the Difference Between Ethereum Nodes and Clients?
The blockchain world is made up of many complex words. As such, the terms Ethereum client and Ethereum node are often used interchangeably. However, they represent two different components within the Ethereum system. So, what does each term stand for?
In the world of computers, a client refers to computer software that requests access to a service provided by a server. For instance, a web browser is essentially a client that requests information from servers all over the entire internet. On the other hand, a “node” represents any computer that runs client software and is connected to a network that can send, receive, and store data. When it comes to the Ethereum blockchain, a “client” is essential to access the Ethereum network, while a “node” helps maintain the network by enforcing so-called network rules.
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What is an Ethereum node?
In most basic terms, an Ethereum node is a computer. The Ethereum blockchain is made up of a distributed network of computers (nodes) running Ethereum client software to verify blocks and validate transactions. The client software running on one’s computer makes it an active Ethereum node that can “speak” the Ethereum network’s protocol language.
In other words, an Ethereum node is a computer that makes sure consensus rules are enforced within the Ethereum network and relies on a client software for execution. According to current data from Etherscan, at the time of writing, there were over 415,000 public nodes on the Ethereum network. It’s worth noting that public node counts have to be taken as an estimation, as many don’t disclose their IPs or use virtual private networks (VPNs) to hide their IPs.
What does an Ethereum node do?
A diverse network of nodes is important to the health and security of the Ethereum blockchain. The nodes contribute to Ethereum by consistently verifying and approving new transactions and ensuring the network rules are followed by all participants. A higher number of nodes means a more decentralized network.
Ethereum nodes can be classified into three distinct types of nodes that consume data differently. They include a full node, light node, and archive node.
- A full node verifies all blocks and states and participates in block validation. Full nodes can store and distribute all the on-chain data from the Ethereum network. They hold a complete copy of the Ethereum blockchain.
- A light node is similar to a full node but handles less data — they only store block headers. A light node enables one to participate in the Ethereum network without the powerful hardware or computing power needed to run a full node. Light nodes do not validate blocks but can access the Ethereum network with the same functionality as full nodes. Light nodes don’t have a copy of the entire blockchain though.
- Lastly, an archive node stores all of the data of the entire blockchain since the first block. As a repository of historical states, they enable services like block explorers, on-chain analytics, and wallet
Why run an Ethereum node?
Running an Ethereum node is important since it is essential to securing the network, making sure consensus rules are enforced. The higher the number of independent nodes, the more decentralized the enforcement of the network’s consensus rules becomes. This makes the overall network more decentralized and hence more resilient. Moreover, a larger number of nodes is useful in lowering the latency in sharing of blocks within the peer-to-peer system, which results in a faster network altogether.
By running a full node, one does not only contribute to the Ethereum network’s overall decentralization but receives personal transactional security. This means that any personal transactions are not intermediated but are directly communicated to the Ethereum network when sent through the full node. Whoever runs an Ethereum full node can be sure to receive and see the true state of the blockchain. This isn’t the case with light nodes since they don’t verify any blocks and don’t hold a copy of the entire blockchain.
Having said that, light nodes can be used to retrieve basic information stored in a block such as a timestamp and hash of the previous block without having to access the copy of the entire blockchain. This makes it easy for users with low-capacity devices such as smartphones to still access data on the Ethereum blockchain.
As an individual running a personal Ethereum node, one can access the blockchain in a secure, private, and trustless manner. Trustless in a sense that personal nodes autonomously verify all transactions and blocks against consensus rules. This way a user does not have to depend on any other nodes in the network. Also, running one’s node prevents one from exposing critical information like addresses and balances to random nodes. Instead, everything can be verified with the client directly.
What is an Ethereum client?
The Ethereum client represents the software that is needed by an Ethereum node to read and verify the blocks of the Ethereum blockchain. It enables the node to speak the “language” of Ethereum. The behavior of an Ethereum node is influenced by the client software it runs. An Ethereum client enables developers to interact with the network and its nodes through several programming languages.
Some of the different programming languages used by various clients supported by the Ethereum Foundation include Rust, Go, Java, and C#. If a language isn’t fully supported by the Ethereum Foundation, one can use a third-party Ethereum client with a compatible language.
The most important function of an Ethereum client is to provide an interface to verify transactions, mine blocks, and more. Ethereum clients can be classified into three types. They include:
- Light clients are suitable for developers looking for faster speeds and fewer storage requirements.
- Light clients can be considered as a lesser version of a full client.
- Unlike full clients, light clients do not store the entire Ethereum blockchain network and thus improve transaction speeds and free up data storage.
- Light clients handle smart contract interactions and broadcast transactions.
- Light clients are also used to interface private keys and Ethereum addresses within a crypto wallet.
- While almost similar to a light client, it differs by not storing a copy of the Ethereum blockchain.
- A remote client does not validate transactions.
- Remote clients depend on full and light clients to enable access to the Ethereum network.
- Act as wallets for sending and receiving digital tokens.
An example of how an Ethereum client works is MetaMask, a browser and app-based crypto wallet. One can install MetaMask on several computer browsers including Firefox, Chrome, Brave, etc.
MetaMask is a remote client that interfaces with the blockchain via a light client. For security, MetaMask uses its light client to communicate with the remote client. The remote client is responsible for wallet storage capability, broadcasting transactions, and more.
How to run an Ethereum client
Clients are an integral part of the Ethereum network, which is why Ethereum’s developers chose a multi-client arrangement. Instead of trusting a single client, software nodes are incentivized to run different client implementations with the goal that no client software should have a super majority. Instead, the ecosystem should strive for client diversity, which entails having a fair distribution of client software on network nodes. Ideally, no Ethereum client should power the majority of nodes in the Ethereum network. However, as it stands, around 80% of nodes are operated using the Geth software. Here is an overview of the different client solutions.
So what’s the difference between node and client?
As we observed earlier, nodes and clients are often mentioned together but they are not the exact same thing. Ultimately, nodes are computers that are equipped with a software application, known as a client.
Only if Ethereum client software is run on a computer, such a computer can become an Ethereum node and with this part of the Ethereum network. So, while an Ethereum node and an Ethereum client are two different things, they still are inextricably linked, working together to enable the Ethereum network.