An Explanation of Substrate For Humans

Polkadot, Kusama, Moonbeam, Edgeware etc. are Substrate-based chains. What does it mean to be a Substrate-based chain? What is Substrate? Let's find out.

Video version:

Parity, the company building the software powering the Polkadot Network, has been a blockchain development shop for a while. In their past work, they had to build blockchains from scratch multiple times, and always reinvented certain elements more or less common to all blockchains.

For the curious: elements like the database, the transaction queue, the consensus layer...

Based on this experience, they decided to build a framework - a bundle of code from which all future blockchains can grow: Substrate.

Substrate is a framework, a template on which you can build your blockchain's custom functionality, and use pre-built plug-and-play modules called pallets to add additional functionality on top.

For example, say Starbucks wanted to replace their payment and loyalty systems with a custom made blockchain which perfectly executes these functions. They can take Substrate and:

  • plug in the Balances pallet to keep track of how many $tar Bucks each customer has, and to enable customers to send Bucks to each other.
  • plug in the Identity pallet to let users set their identities in the system, for coffee delivery and reliable identification when ordering
  • tweak the block time to something like 1-2 seconds from the default 6 seconds, because the network can take it if it's only relaying information within a private blockchain between Starbucks shops
  • build a custom pallet (module) which tracks loyalty points for each customer and displays them as special non-transferable tokens

An experienced team of developers could finish all these tasks within a month, as opposed to several months or years when developing a custom Starbucks blockchain from scratch, saving millions in man-hours and support costs.

For the curious: To get started developing on Substrate, please see

When we say that a chain is a Substrate-based chain, it has been built on Substrate, much like the Starbucks chain above. It started from the template and has been customized to match the needs of the team.

It also means that the chain comes with certain features built-in - features not found in other blockchains:

  • a Substrate-based chain will expose metadata about itself. This means it will describe what it can do to an external client reading it (like a wallet or a user interface). For example, the web application Polkadot Apps will change the layout and functionality based on the chain it is connected to due to this metadata.
  • a Substrate-based chain can perform a forkless upgrade. Forkless upgrades are explained in detail in this video, and touched on in the What is Polkadot Explainer.

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