Advanced CorDapp concepts

At the heart of the Corda design and security model is the idea that a transaction is valid if and only if all the verify() functions in the contract code associated with each state in the transaction succeed. The contract constraints features in Corda provide a rich set of tools for specifying and constraining which verify functions out of the universe of possibilities can legitimately be used in (attached to) a transaction.

In simple scenarios, this works as you would expect and Corda’s built-in security controls ensure that your applications work as you expect them too. However, if you move to more advanced scenarios, especially ones where your verify function depends on code from other non-Corda libraries, code that other people’s verify functions may also depend on, you need to start thinking about what happens if and when states governed by these different pieces of code are brought together. If they both depend on a library, which common version should be used? How do you avoid your verify function’s behaviour changing unexpectedly if the wrong version of the library is used? Are you at risk of subtle attacks? The good news is that Corda is designed to deal with these situations but the flip side is that you need to understand how this is done, and the implications for how you package, distribute and attach your contract code to transactions.

This document provides the information you need in order to understand what happens behind the scenes and how it affects the CorDapp you are working on.

Corda transactions evolve input states into output states. A state is a data structure containing: the actual data fact (that is expressed as a strongly typed serialized java object) and a reference to the logic (contract) that needs to verify a transition to and from this state. Corda does not embed the actual verification bytecode in transactions. The logic is expressed as a Java class name and a contract constraint (read more in Contract Constraints), and the actual code is contained in a JAR file that is referenced by the transaction.

Being a decentralized system, anyone who can build transactions can create .java files, compile and bundle them in a JAR, and then reference this code in the transaction he created. If it were possible to do this without any restrictions, an attacker seeking to steal your money, for example, might create a transaction that transitions a Cash contract owned by you to one owned by the attacker. The only thing that is protecting your Cash is the contract verification code, so all the attacker has to do is attach a version of the contract class that permits this transition to occur. So we clearly need a way to ensure that the actual code attached to a transaction purporting to implement any given contract is constrained in some way. For example, perhaps we wish to ensure that only the specific implementation of that was specified by the initial issuer of the cash is used. Or perhaps we wish to constrain it in some other way.

To prevent the types of attacks that can arise if there were no restrictions on which implementations of Contract classes were attached to transactions, we provide the contract constraints mechanism to complement the class name. This mechanism allows the state to specify exactly what code can be attached. In Corda 4, for example, the state can say: “I’m ok to be spent if the transaction is verified by a class: com.megacorp.megacontract.MegaContract as long as the JAR containing this contract is signed by Mega Corp”.

Another relevant aspect to remember is that because states are serialized binary objects, to perform any useful operation on them they need to be deserialized into instances of Java objects. All these instances are made available to the contract code as the LedgerTransaction parameter passed to the verify method. The LedgerTransaction class abstracts away a lot of complexity and offers contracts a usable data structure where all objects are loaded in the same classloader and can be freely used and filtered by class. This way, the contract developer can focus on the business logic.

Behind the scenes, the matter is more complex. As can be seen in this illustration:

tx chain

Let’s consider a very simple case, a transaction swapping Apples for Oranges. Each of the states that need to be swapped is the output of a previous transaction. Similar to the above image the Apples state is the output of some previous transaction, through which it came to be possessed by the party now paying it away in return for some oranges. The Apples and Oranges states that will be consumed in this new transaction exist as serialized TransactionStates. It is these TransactionStates that specify the fully qualified names of the contract code that should be run to verify their consumption as well as, importantly, the governing constraints on which specific implementations of that class name can be used. The swap transaction would contain the two input states, the two output states with the new owners of the fruit and the code to be used to deserialize and verify the transaction as two attachment IDs - which are SHA-256 hashes of the apples and oranges CorDapps (more specifically, the contracts JAR).

This combination of fully qualified contract class name and constraint ensures that, when a state is spent, the contract code attached to the transaction (that will ultimately determine whether the transaction is considered valid or not) meets the criteria laid down in the transaction that created that state. For example, if a state is created with a constraint that says its consumption can only be verified by code signed by MegaCorp, then the Corda consensus rules mean that any transaction attaching an implementation of the class that is not signed by MegaCorp will not be considered valid.

The previous discussion explained the construction of a transaction that consumes one or more states. Now let’s consider this from the perspective of somebody verifying a transaction they are presented with. The first thing the node has to do is to ensure that the transaction was formed correctly and then execute the contract verification logic. Given that the input states are already agreed to be valid facts, the attached code has to be compliant with their constraints.

The rule for contract code attachment validity checking is that for each state there must be one and only one attachment that contains the fully qualified contract class name. This attachment will be identified as the CorDapp JAR corresponding to that state and thus it must satisfy the constraint of that state. For example, if one state is signature constrained, the corresponding attachment must be signed by the key specified in the state. If this rule is breached the transaction is considered invalid even if it is signed by all the required parties, and any compliant node will refuse to execute the verification code.

This rule, together with the no-overlap rule - which we’ll introduce below - ensure that the code used to deserialize and verify the transaction is legitimate and that there is no ambiguity when it comes to what code to execute.

After ensuring that the contract code is correct the node needs to execute it to verify the business rules of the transaction. This is done by creating an AttachmentsClassloader from all the attachments listed by the transaction, then deserializing the binary representation of the transaction inside this classloader, creating the LedgerTransaction and then running the contract verification code in this classloader.

Corda transactions can combine any states, which makes it possible that 2 different transaction attachments contain the same class name (they overlap). This can happen legitimately or it can be a malicious party attempting to break the contract rules. Due to how Java classloaders work, this would cause ambiguity as to what code will be executed, so an attacker could attempt to exploit this and trick other nodes that a transaction that should be invalid is actually valid. To address this vulnerability, Corda introduces the no-overlap rule:

The process described above may appear surprising and complex. Nodes have CorDapps installed anyway, so why does the code need to also be attached to the transaction? Corda is designed to ensure that the validity of any transaction does not depend on any node specific setup and should always return the same result, even if the transaction is verified in 20 years when the current version of the CorDapps it uses will not be installed on any node. This attachments mechanism ensures that given the same input - the binary representation of a transaction and its back-chain, any node is and will be able to load the same code and calculate the exact same result.

Another surprise might be the fact that if every state has its own governing code then why can’t we just verify individual transitions independently? This would simplify a lot of things. The answer is that for a trivial case like swapping Apples for Oranges where the two contracts might not care about the other states in the transaction, this could be a valid solution. But Corda is designed to support complex business scenarios. For example the Apples contract logic can have a requirement to check that Pink Lady apples can only be traded against Valencia oranges. For this to be possible, the Apples contract needs to be able to find Orange states in the LedgerTransaction, understand their properties and run logic against them. If apples and oranges were loaded in separate classloaders then the Apples classloader would need to load code for Oranges anyway in order to perform those operations.

Exchanging Apples for Oranges is a contrived example, of course, but this pattern is not uncommon. And a common scenario is one where code that is common to a collection of state types is abstracted into a common library. For example, imagine Apples and Oranges both depended on a Fruit library developed by a third party as part of their verification logic.

This library must obviously be available to execute, since the verification logic depends on it, which in turn means it must be loaded by the Attachments Classloader. Since the classloader is constructed solely from code attached to the transaction, it means the library must be attached to the transaction.

The question to consider as a developer of a CorDapp is: where and how should my dependencies be attached to transactions?

There are 2 options to achieve this (given the hypothetical Apples for Oranges transaction):

  • Bundle the Fruit library with the CorDapp. This means creating a Fat-JAR containing all the required code.
  • Add the dependency as another attachment to the transaction manually.

These options have pros and cons, which are now discussed:

The first approach is fairly straightforward and does not require any additional setup. Just declaring a compile dependency will by default bundle the dependency with the CorDapp. One obvious drawback is that CorDapp JARs can grow quite large in case they depend on large libraries. Other more subtle drawbacks will be discussed below.

The second approach is more flexible in cases where multiple applications depend on the same library but it currently requires an additional security check to be included in the contract code. The reason is that given that anyone can create a JAR containing a class your CorDapp depends on, a malicious actor could just create his own version of the library and attach that to the transaction instead of the legitimate one your code expects. This would allow the attacker to change the intended behavior of your contract to his advantage. See Code samples for dependent libraries and CorDapps for an example. Basically, what this manual check does is extend the security umbrella provided by the attachment constraint of the state to its dependencies.

It should be evident now that each CorDapp must add its own dependencies to the transaction, but what happens when two CorDapps depend on different versions of the same library? The node that is building the transaction must ensure that the attached JARs contain all code needed for all CorDapps and also do not break the no-overlap rule.

In the above example, if the Apples code depends on Fruit v3.2 and the Oranges code depends on Fruit v3.4 that would be impossible to achieve, because of the overlap over some of the fruit classes.

A simple way to fix this problem is for CorDapps to shade this common dependency under their own namespace. This would avoid breaking the no-overlap rule. The primary downside is that multiple apps using (and shading) this dependency may lose the ability in other contexts to carry out operations like casting to a common superclass. If this is the approach taken then Apples and Oranges could not be treated as just com.fruitcompany.Fruit but would actually be or, which would not be ideal.

Also, currently, the Corda gradle plugin does not provide any tooling for shading.

The ideal solution is for CorDapps to declare their dependencies, and for the platform to be able to automatically select valid dependencies when a transaction is built, and also to ensure that transactions are formed with the right dependencies at verification time. This type of functionality is what we plan to implement in a future version of Corda.

Until then, because the network is not that developed and the chance of overlap is not very high, CorDapps can just choose one of the above approaches, and in case such a clash becomes a real problem, handle it in a case by case basis. For example the authors of the two clashing CorDapps could decide to use a certain version of the dependency and thus not trigger the no-overlap rule

We presented the “complex” business requirement earlier where the Apples contract has to check that it can’t allow swapping Pink Lady apples for anything but Valencia Oranges. This requirement translates into the fact that the library that the Apples CorDapp depends on is itself a CorDapp (the Oranges CorDapp).

Let’s assume the Apples CorDapp bundles the Oranges CorDapp as a fat-jar. If someone attempts to build a swap transaction they would find it impossible:

  • If the two attachments are added to the transaction, then the com.orangecompany.Orange class would be found in both, and that would breat the rule that states “There can be only one and precisely one attachment that is identified as the contract code that controls each state”.
  • In case only the Apples CorDapp is attached then the constraint of the Oranges states would not pass, as the JAR would not be signed by the actual OrangeCo.

Another example that shows that bundling is not an option when depending on another CorDapp is if the Fruit library contains a ready to use Banana contract. Also let’s assume that the Apples and Oranges CorDapps bundle the Fruit library inside their distribution fat-jar. In this case Apples for Oranges swaps would work fine if the two CorDapps use the same version of Fruit, but what if someone attempts to swap Apples for Bananas? They would face the same problem as described above and would not be able to build such a transaction.

The recommended solution for CorDapp to CorDapp dependency is to always manually attach the dependent CorDapp to the transaction. See Code samples for dependent libraries and CorDapps.

Another way to look at bundling third party CorDapps is from the point of view of identity. With the introduction of the SignatureConstraint, CorDapps will be signed by their creator, so the signature will become part of their identity: com.fruitcompany.Banana signed by the FruitCo. But if another CorDapp developer, OrangeCo bundles the Fruit library, they must strip the signatures from the FruitCo and sign the JAR themselves. This will create a com.fruitcompany.Banana signed by the OrangeCo, so there could be two types of Banana states on the network, but “owned” by two different parties. This means that while they might have started using the same code, nothing stops these Banana contracts from diverging. Parties on the network receiving a com.fruitcompany.Banana will need to explicitly check the constraint to understand what they received. In Corda 4, to help avoid this type of confusion, we introduced the concept of Package Namespace Ownership (see Package namespace ownership). Briefly, it allows companies to claim namespaces and anyone who encounters a class in that package that is not signed by the registered key knows is invalid.

This new feature can be used to solve the above scenario. If FruitCo claims package ownership of com.fruitcompany, it will prevent anyone from bundling its code because they will not be able to sign it with the right key.

Add this to the flow:


And in the contract code verify that there is one attachment that contains the dependency.

In case the contract depends on a specific version:

requireThat {
    "the correct fruit jar was attached to the transaction" using (tx.attachments.find { == hash_of_fruit_jar} !=null)
requireThat(require -> {
    require.using("the correct fruit jar was attached to the transaction", tx.getAttachments().contains(hash_of_fruit_jar));

In case the dependency has to be signed by a known public key the contract must check that there is a JAR attached that contains that class name and is signed by the right key:

requireThat {
    "the correct my_reusable_cordapp jar was attached to the transaction" using (tx.attachments.find {attch -> attch.containsClass(dependentClass) && SignatureAttachmentConstraint(my_public_key).isSatisfiedBy(attch)} !=null)
requireThat(require -> {
    require.using("the correct my_reusable_cordapp jar was attached to the transaction", tx.getAttachments().stream().anyMatch(attch -> containsClass(attch, dependentClass)  new SignatureAttachmentConstraint(my_public_key).isSatisfiedBy(attch))));

In Corda v3 transactions were verified inside the System Classloader that contained all the installed CorDapps. This was a temporary simplification and we explained above why it could only be short-lived.

If we consider the example from above with the Apples contract that depends on Fruit, the Apples CorDapp developer could have just released the Apples specific code (without bundling in the dependency on Fruit or attaching it to the transaction ) and rely on the fact that Fruit would be on the classpath during verification.

This means that in Corda 3 nodes could have formed valid transactions that were not entirely self-contained. In Corda 4, because we moved transaction verification inside the AttachmentsClassloader these transactions would fail with ClassNotFound exceptions.

These incomplete transactions need to be considered valid in Corda 4 and beyond though, so the fix we added for this was to look for a trusted attachment in the current node storage that contains the missing code and use that for validation. This fix is in the spirit of the original transaction and is secure because the chosen code must have been vetted and whitelisted first by the node operator.

This change also affects testing as the test classloader no longer contains the CorDapps.

Corda ships with a finance CorDapp demo that brings some handy utilities that can be used by code in other CorDapps, some abstract base types like OnLedgerAsset, but also comes with its own ready-to-use contracts like: Cash, Obligation and Commercial Paper.

As it is just a sample, it is signed by R3’s development key, which the node is explicitly configured - but overridable - to blacklist by default in production. This was done in order to avoid you inadvertently going live without having first determined the right approach for your solution.

Some CorDapps might depend on the finance CorDapp since Corda v3, when it was not signed. Most likely the finance CorDapp was not bundled or attached to the transactions, but the transactions created just worked as described above.

The path forward in this case is first of all to reconsider if depending on a sample is a good idea. If the decision is to go forward, then the CorDapp needs to be updated with the code described here: Code samples for dependent libraries and CorDapps.

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