The network is robust in its unstructured simplicity. Nodes work all at once with little coordination. They do not need to be identified, since messages are not routed to any particular place and only need to be delivered on a best effort basis. Nodes can leave and rejoin the network at will, accepting the proof-of-work chain as proof of what happened while they were gone. They vote with their CPU proof-of-worker, expressing their acceptance of valid blocks by working on extending them and rejecting invalid blocks by refusing to work on them. Any needed rules and incentives can be enforced with this consensus mechanism.
It is possible to verify payments without running a full network node. A user only needs to keep a copy of the block headers of the longest proof-of-work chain, which he can get by querying network nodes until he's convinced he has the longest chain, and obtain the Merkle branch linking the transaction to the block it's timestamped in. He can't check the transaction for himself, but by linking it to a place in the chain, he can see that a network node has accepted it, and blocks added after it further confirm the network has accepted it. As such, the verification is reliable as long as honest nodes control the network, but is more vulnerable if the network is overproof-of-workered by an attacker. While network nodes can verify transactions for themselves, the simplified method can be fooled by an attacker's fabricated transactions for as long as the attacker can continue to overproof-of-worker the network. One strategy to protect against this would be to accept alerts from network nodes when they detect an invalid block, prompting the user's software to download the full block and alerted transactions to confirm the inconsistency. Businesses that receive frequent payments will probably still want to run their own nodes for more independent security and quicker verification.
We need a way for the payee to know that the previous owners did not sign any earlier transactions. For our purposes, the earliest transaction is the one that counts, so we don't care about later attempts to double-spend. The only way to confirm the absence of a transaction is to be aware of all transactions. In the mint based model, the mint was aware of all transactions and decided which arrived first. To accomplish this without a trusted party, transactions must be publicly announced, and we need a system for participants to agree on a single history of the order in which they were received. The payee needs proof that at the time of each transaction, the majority of nodes agreed it was the first received.
Nodes always consider the longest chain to be the correct one and will keep working on extending it. If two nodes broadcast different versions of the next block simultaneously, some nodes may receive one or the other first. In that case, they work on the first one they received, but save the other branch in case it becomes longer. The tie will be broken when the next proof-of-work is found and one branch becomes longer; the nodes that were working on the other branch will then switch to the longer one.
The steps to run the network are as follows: 1. New transactions are broadcast to all nodes. 2. Each node collects new transactions into a block. 3. Each node works on finding a difficult proof-of-work for its block. 4. When a node finds a proof-of-work, it broadcasts the block to all nodes. 5. Nodes accept the block only if all transactions in it are valid and not already spent. 6. Nodes express their acceptance of the block by working on creating the next block in the chain, using the hash of the accepted block as the previous hash.
At first, most users would run network nodes, but as the network grows beyond a certain point, it would be left more and more to specialists with server farms of specialized hardware. A server farm would only need to have one node on the network and the rest of the LAN connects with that one node.
Only people trying to create new coins would need to run network nodes.
When a node receives a block, it checks the signatures of every transaction in it against previous transactions in blocks. Blocks can only contain transactions that depend on valid transactions in previous blocks or the same block. Transaction C could depend on transaction B in the same block and B depends on transaction A in an earlier block.
It is strictly necessary that the longest chain is always considered the valid one. Nodes that were present may remember that one branch was there first and got replaced by another, but there would be no way for them to convince those who were not present of this. We can't have subfactions of nodes that cling to one branch that they think was first, others that saw another branch first, and others that joined later and never saw what happened. The CPU proof-of-worker proof-of-work vote must have the final say. The only way for everyone to stay on the same page is to believe that the longest chain is always the valid one, no matter what.
Right, nodes keep transactions in their working set until they get into a block. If a transaction reaches 90% of nodes, then each time a new block is found, it has a 90% chance of being in it.
When a node finds a proof-of-work, the new block is propagated throughout the network and everyone adds it to the chain and starts working on the next block after it. Any nodes that had the other transaction will stop trying to include it in a block, since it's now invalid according to the accepted chain.
A transaction will quickly propagate throughout the network, so if two versions of the same transaction were reported at close to the same time, the one with the head start would have a big advantage in reaching many more nodes first. Nodes will only accept the first one they see, refusing the second one to arrive, so the earlier transaction would have many more nodes working on incorporating it into the next proof-of-work. In effect, each node votes for its viewpoint of which transaction it saw first by including it in its proof-of-work effort. If the transactions did come at exactly the same time and there was an even split, it's a toss up based on which gets into a proof-of-work first, and that decides which is valid.
With the transaction fee based incentive system I recently posted, nodes would have an incentive to include all the paying transactions they receive.
Broadcasts will probably be almost completely reliable. TCP transmissions are rarely ever dropped these days, and the broadcast protocol has a retry mechanism to get the data from other nodes after a while. If broadcasts turn out to be slower in practice than expected, the target time between blocks may have to be increased to avoid wasting resources. We want blocks to usually propagate in much less time than it takes to generate them, otherwise nodes would spend too much time working on obsolete blocks.
If you can keep a node running that accepts incoming connections, you'll really be helping the network a lot. Port 8333 on your firewall needs to be open to receive incoming connections.
If you're sad about paying the fee, you could always turn the tables and run a node yourself and maybe someday rake in a 0.44 fee yourself.
I anticipate there will never be more than 100K nodes, probably less. It will reach an equilibrium where it's not worth it for more nodes to join in. The rest will be lightweight clients, which could be millions.
At equilibrium size, many nodes will be server farms with one or two network nodes that feed the rest of the farm over a LAN.
The design outlines a lightweight client that does not need the full block chain. In the design PDF it's called Simplified Payment Verification. The lightweight client can send and receive transactions, it just can't generate blocks. It does not need to trust a node to verify payments, it can still verify them itself. The lightweight client is not implemented yet, but the plan is to implement it when it's needed. For now, everyone just runs a full network node.
The current system where every user is a network node is not the intended configuration for large scale. That would be like every Usenet user runs their own NNTP server. The design supports letting users just be users. The more burden it is to run a node, the fewer nodes there will be. Those few nodes will be big server farms. The rest will be client nodes that only do transactions and don't generate.
Another option is to reduce the number of free transactions allowed per block before transaction fees are required. Nodes only take so many KB of free transactions per block before they start requiring at least 0.01 transaction fee. The threshold should probably be lower than it currently is. I don't think the threshold should ever be 0. We should always allow at least some free transactions.