How are transactions resolved?

It is important that all nodes that process a transaction always agree on whether it is valid or not, because transaction types are defined using JVM byte code. This means that the execution of that byte code must be fully deterministic. A standard JVM is not fully deterministic, and so some modifications have been made to supply a fully deterministic version, the DJVM.

So, what does it mean for a piece of code to be fully deterministic? Ultimately, it means that the code, when viewed as a function, is pure. In other words, given the same set of inputs, it will always produce the same set of outputs without inflicting any side-effects that might later affect the computation.

For a program running on the JVM, non-determinism could be introduced by a range of sources, for instance:

  • External input, e.g., the file system, network, system properties and clocks.
  • Random number generators.
  • Halting criteria, e.g., different decisions about when to terminate long running programs.
  • Hash-codes, or more specifically Object.hashCode(), which is typically implemented either by returning a pointer address or by assigning the object a random number. This could, for instance, surface as different iteration orders over hash maps and hash sets, or be used as non-pure input into arbitrary expressions.
  • Differences in hardware floating point arithmetic.
  • Multi-threading and consequent differences in scheduling strategies, affinity, etc.
  • Differences in API implementations between nodes.
  • Garbage collector callbacks.

To ensure that the contract verification function is fully pure even in the face of infinite loops we want to use a custom-built JVM sandbox. The sandbox performs static analysis of loaded byte code and a rewriting pass to allow for necessary instrumentation and constraint hardening.

The byte code rewriting further allows us to patch up and control the default behaviour of things like the hash-code generation for java.lang.Object. Contract code is rewritten the first time it needs to be executed and then stored for future use.

The sandbox is abstracted away as an executor which takes as input an implementation of the interface Function<in Input, out Output>, dereferenced by a ClassSource. This interface has a single method that needs implementing, namely apply(Input): Output.

A ClassSource object referencing such an implementation can be passed into the SandboxExecutor<in Input, out Output> together with an input of type Input. The executor has operations for both execution and static validation, namely run() and validate(). These methods both return a summary object.

    • Whether or not the runnable was successfully executed.
    • If successful, the return value of Function.apply().
    • If failed, the exception that was raised.
    • And in both cases, a summary of all accrued costs during execution.
    • A type hierarchy of classes and interfaces loaded and touched by the sandbox’s class loader during analysis, each of which contain information about the respective transformations applied as well as meta-data about the types themselves and all references made from said classes.
    • A list of messages generated during the analysis. These can be of different severity, and only messages of severity ERROR will prevent execution.

The sandbox has a configuration that applies to the execution of a specific runnable. This configuration, on a higher level, contains a set of rules, definition providers and emitters.

djvm overview
The set of rules is what defines the constraints posed on the runtime environment. A rule can act on three different levels, namely on a type-, member- or instruction-level. The set of rules get processed and validated by the RuleValidator prior to execution.

Similarly, there is a set of definition providers which can be used to modify the definition of either a type or a type’s members. This is what controls things like ensuring that all methods implement strict floating point arithmetic, and normalisation of synchronised methods.

Lastly, there is a set of emitters. These are used to instrument the byte code for cost accounting purposes, and also to inject code for checks that we want to perform at runtime or modifications to out-of-the-box behaviour. Many of these emitters will rewrite non-deterministic operations to throw RuleViolationError exceptions instead, which means that the ultimate proof that a function is truly deterministic is that it executes successfully inside the DJVM.

In summary, the byte code analysis currently performs the following checks. This is not an exhaustive list as further work may well introduce additional constraints that we would want to place on the sandbox environment.

Prevents exception handlers from catching ThreadDeath exceptions. If the developer attempts to catch an Error or a Throwable (both being transitive parent types of ThreadDeath), an explicit check will be injected into the byte code to verify that exceptions that are trying to kill the current thread are not being silenced. Consequently, the user will not be able to bypass an exit signal.

The ThresholdViolationException is, as the name suggests, used to signal to the sandbox that a cost tracked by the runtime cost accountant has been breached. For obvious reasons, the sandbox needs to protect against user code that tries to catch such exceptions, as doing so would allow the user to bypass the thresholds set out in the execution profile.

Forbids invokedynamic byte code as the libraries that support this functionality have historically had security problems and it is primarily needed only by scripting languages. In the future, this constraint will be eased to allow for dynamic invocation in the specific lambda and string concatenation meta-factories used by Java code itself.

Forbids native methods as these provide the user access into operating system functionality such as file handling, network requests, general hardware interaction, threading, etc. These all constitute sources of non-determinism, and allowing such code to be called arbitrarily from the JVM would require deterministic guarantees on the native machine code level. This falls out of scope for the DJVM.

Forbids finalizers as these can be called at unpredictable times during execution, given that their invocation is controlled by the garbage collector. As stated in the standard Java documentation:

Called by the garbage collector on an object when garbage collection determines that there are no more references to the object.

Forbids attempts to override rewritten classes. For instance, loading a class into the sandbox, analyses it, rewrites it and places it into Attempts to place originating classes in the top-level sandbox package will therefore fail as this poses a security risk. Doing so would essentially bypass rule validation and instrumentation.

For obvious reasons, the breakpoint operation code is forbidden as this can be exploited to unpredictably suspend code execution and consequently interfere with any time bounds placed on the execution.

For now, the use of reflection APIs is forbidden as the unmanaged use of these can provide means of breaking out of the protected sandbox environment.

Ensures that loaded classes are targeting an API version between 1.5 and 1.8 (inclusive). This is merely to limit the breadth of APIs from the standard runtime that needs auditing.

The runtime accountant inserts calls to an accounting object before expensive byte code. The goal of this rewrite is to deterministically terminate code that has run for an unacceptably long amount of time or used an unacceptable amount of memory. Types of expensive byte code include method invocation, memory allocation, branching and exception throwing.

The cost instrumentation strategy used is a simple one: just counting byte code that are known to be expensive to execute. The methods can be limited in size and jumps count towards the costing budget, allowing us to determine a consistent halting criteria. However it is still possible to construct byte code sequences by hand that take excessive amounts of time to execute. The cost instrumentation is designed to ensure that infinite loops are terminated and that if the cost of verifying a transaction becomes unexpectedly large (e.g., contains algorithms with complexity exponential in transaction size) that all nodes agree precisely on when to quit. It is not intended as a protection against denial of service attacks. If a node is sending you transactions that appear designed to simply waste your CPU time then simply blocking that node is sufficient to solve the problem, given the lack of global broadcast.

The budgets are separate per operation code type, so there is no unified cost model. Additionally the instrumentation is high overhead. A more sophisticated design would be to calculate byte code costs statically as much as possible ahead of time, by instrumenting only the entry point of ‘accounting blocks’, i.e., runs of basic blocks that end with either a method return or a backwards jump. Because only an abstract cost matters (this is not a profiler tool) and because the limits are expected to bet set relatively high, there is no need to instrument every basic block. Using the max of both sides of a branch is sufficient when neither branch target contains a backwards jump. This sort of design will be investigated if the per category budget accounting turns out to be insufficient.

A further complexity comes from the need to constrain memory usage. The sandbox imposes a quota on bytes allocated rather than bytes retained in order to simplify the implementation. This strategy is unnecessarily harsh on smart contracts that churn large quantities of garbage yet have relatively small peak heap sizes and, again, it may be that in practice a more sophisticated strategy that integrates with the garbage collector is required in order to set quotas to a usefully generic level.

Sets the strictfp flag on all methods, which requires the JVM to do floating point arithmetic in a hardware independent fashion. Whilst we anticipate that floating point arithmetic is unlikely to feature in most smart contracts (big integer and big decimal libraries are available), it is available for those who want to use it.

Replaces integer and long addition and multiplication with calls to Math.addExact() and Math.multiplyExact, respectively. Further work can be done to implement exact operations for increments, decrements and subtractions as well. These calls into java.lang.Math essentially implement checked arithmetic over integers, which will throw an exception if the operation overflows.

As mentioned further up, Object.hashCode() is typically implemented using either the memory address of the object or a random number; which are both non-deterministic. The DJVM shields the runtime from this source of non-determinism by rewriting all classes that inherit from java.lang.Object to derive from instead. This sandboxed Object implementation takes a hash-code as an input argument to the primary constructor, persists it and returns the value from the hashCode() method implementation. It also has an overridden implementation of toString().

The loaded classes are further rewritten in two ways:

  • All allocations of new objects of type java.lang.Object get mapped into using the sandboxed object.
  • Calls to the constructor of java.lang.Object get mapped to the constructor of instead, passing in a constant value for now. In the future, we can easily have this passed-in hash-code be a pseudo random number seeded with, for instance, the hash of the transaction or some other dynamic value, provided of course that it is deterministically derived.

The DJVM doesn’t support multi-threading and so synchronised methods and code blocks have little use in sandboxed code. Consequently, we automatically transform them into ordinary methods and code blocks instead.

CorDapp developers may need to tweak their contract CorDapps for use inside the DJVM. This is because not every class, constructor or method defined in the corda-core and corda-serialization modules is available when running inside the sandbox.

During development, you can choose to compile individual CorDapp modules against the DJVM by defining the following deterministic.gradle script plugin:

configurations {
    compileClasspath { Configuration c -> deterministic(c) }

private final void deterministic(Configuration configuration) {
    if (configuration.state == Configuration.State.UNRESOLVED) {
        // Ensure that this module uses the deterministic Corda artifacts.
        configuration.resolutionStrategy.dependencySubstitution {
            substitute module("$corda_release_group:corda-serialization") with module("$corda_release_group:corda-serialization-deterministic:$corda_release_version")
            substitute module("$corda_release_group:corda-core") with module("$corda_release_group:corda-core-deterministic:$corda_release_version")

And applying it to individual modules of your CorDapp using:

apply from: "${rootProject.projectDir}/deterministic.gradle"

Uses of Corda’s core or serialization APIs that are unavailable inside the sandbox will then cause compilation errors.

Note however that successful compilation against corda-core-deterministic and corda-serialization-deterministic is not sufficient. The only way to be sure that a piece of code is deterministic is to actually run it inside a DJVM sandbox, as described below.

You can enable the DJVM for your node by adding the following line to your node’s node.conf file:

systemProperties = { "net.corda.djvm" = true }

This will cause your node to sandbox every call to Contract.verify. If your transaction contains a source of non-determinism, transaction verification will fail.

You can download and unpack from the R3 Customer Hub. Alternatively, you can build it yourself from the source as follows.

Open your terminal and clone the DJVM repository from GitHub:

$ git clone

Navigate to this newly created djvm directory, and then issue the following command:

$ djvm/shell/install

This will build the DJVM tool and install a shortcut on Bash-enabled systems. It will also generate a Bash completion file and store it in the shell folder. This file can be sourced from your Bash initialisation script.

$ cd ~
$ djvm

Now, you can create a new Java file from a skeleton that djvm provides, compile the file, and consequently run it by issuing the following commands:

$ djvm new Hello
$ vim tmp/net/corda/sandbox/
$ djvm build Hello
$ djvm run Hello

This run will produce some output similar to this:

Running class net.corda.sandbox.Hello...
Execution successful
- result = null

Runtime Cost Summary:
- allocations = 0
- invocations = 1
- jumps = 0
- throws = 0

The output should be pretty self-explanatory, but just to summarise:

  • It prints out the return value from the Function<Object, Object>.apply() method implemented in net.corda.sandbox.Hello.
  • It also prints out the aggregated costs for allocations, invocations, jumps and throws.

Other commands to be aware of are:

  • djvm check which allows you to perform some up-front static analysis without running the code. However, be aware that the DJVM also transforms some non-deterministic operations into RuleViolationError exceptions. A successful check therefore does not guarantee that the code will behave correctly at runtime.
  • djvm inspect which allows you to inspect what byte code modifications will be applied to a class.
  • djvm show which displays the transformed byte code of a class, i.e., the end result and not the difference.

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