Many of the Metropolis hard forks and recent discussions in Ethereum Classic Improvement Proposals are about adding new precompiled contracts. Precompiled contracts are just native code in EVM – when you issue a CALL to any of the precompiled contract address, instead of trying to evaluate the actual code in that address, the EVM will execute a pre-defined native codes and return the results. Those precompiled contracts adds additional functionality such as zkSNARK that allows various interesting features.

Adding new precompiled contracts, however, have one really unpleasent drawback – it requires a consensus hard fork, which requires a large amount of efforts to carry out, and is possible to cause a community split. So, is it possible to add new precompiled contracts without requiring a hard fork?

tldr, the answer is yes. We will only need to modify the client and use a special rule for including transactions in a block to reach the same performance as the hard fork way. A soft fork can be carried out if we want to prevent a block gas limit attack, but it is pretty unlikely unless the attacker controls a significant amount of the network’s hashpower.

Below I’ll introduce the way to do this.

Implement the Functionality in EVM Opcodes

The first step is to implement the functionality of the proposed precompiled contract in EVM opcodes. This provides a slow version of what is desired. Implementation might be a little bit tricky, but given EVM’s similarity to other VMs like WebAssembly, it is doable.

The resulting contract A might be quite slow, and might also require a large amount of gas to execute. If the gas required exceeds the block gas limit, miners will need to vote to raise the block gas limit to the level that is the originally comfortable level plus the gas of the newly created contract A. They should still only accept transactions up to the originally comfortable level – the raised level is totally just for the new contract.

You can see, in this way, no hard fork happens when we get the functionality. So old clients are not affected. Next, the only thing we need to do is to make it so that the contract A runs reasonably fast.

Replace the Contract with Native Codes

To do this, we create an equivalent native Rust/Go code as the above contract A. When the client tries to run anything that invokes the contract A (either in a transaction or through CALL* opcodes), instead of executing the EVM codes, it executes the native code. This returns the same result, and costs the same gas.

Clients solely uses the raised block gas limit if it finds that a block has a transaction that executes contract A. In that case, it accepts a gas price reduction – transactions that use contract A can have a lower gas price compared with other transactions.

In this way we reached our objective – adding precompiled contracts without any hard fork, and in terms of performance, it is the same as the hard fork way.

Block Gas Limit Attack

If an attacker controls a significant amount of hash power, it can abuse the raised block gas limit to include other transactions, which may cause a slow down in miners importing new transactions.

This attack can be prevented by doing a soft fork that allows the chain to keep a secondary block gas limit (for example, as a RLP item in the extra data field of the block). If a block does not contain any transactions invoking contract A but its total used gas exceeds the secondary block gas limit, then that block is rejected.

Detecting Transactions and Contracts that Call Contract A

To cheaply detect whether a transaction or contract contains invocation to contract A, the client can use some heuristics. A simple way to do this is to search for the opcode sequence as below:

PUSH20(<contract A address>)
SWAP1
CALL

See the next blog post for a more detailed explanation on how this can be done.

Next: Safely Detecting Gas Price Reduction in Non-HF Precompiled Contracts

September 25, 2017

The non-hard-fork approach to precompiled contracts, the second part.

Previous: Parallel Transaction Execution in SputnikVM

September 7, 2017

Executing multiple transactions in a MapReduce-like fashion.

Up: Classic in Orbit