A Scilla vs Move case study

A Scilla vs Move case study

The recent release by Facebook introduced the Move programming language for writing smart contracts for the Libra blockchain. Naturally, all the language geeks from the Scilla language team rushed to try out this new and shiny piece of technology. I take you through some of our findings in this Scilla vs Move case study. In case you are not very familiar with Scilla I’d suggest to browse through Scilla Docs.

Let us start with the following example of the earmarked coin:

Bob is going to create an account at address a at some point in the future. Alice wants to "earmark" some funds for Bob so that he can pull them into his account once it is created. But she also wants to be able to reclaim the funds for herself if Bob never creates the account.

This is an example of a more general notion of escrow contract. Yet another example of this family of contracts is the hello-world of smart contracts — the crowdfunding contract.

Money in Move is handled using resources, an abstraction that makes having multiple references to the same object not possible. This is to make sure money is scarce in the system and to facilitate transfer of ownership over money. Technically, Move uses a linear type system to guarantee scarcity of resources. Linearity ensures that each resource must be used exactly one time in a procedure. This is similar to the approach taken in the Rust programming language, which has affine type system ensuring that variables are used zero or one time only.

Move’s programming model is based on changing the sender’s account as execution progresses. This point of view is quite different from Scilla’s — contracts are not allowed to change user accounts in any way. Contracts are independent entities with their own accounts.

In some sense Move’s model assumes we have a global bank with the global mapping of addresses (representing the “bank”’s clientele) to assets (resources). Everybody can change their account by publishing new resources. Often a new resource will be a coin with some relaxed notion of ownership. Linearity of resources ensures that users cannot loose or duplicate their assets when transforming their assets from one kind to another.

On the other hand, Scilla’s model presupposes that each contract is like a local bank. This means contracts commonly have their own local mappings of addresses to users’ assets. The necessity of maintaining those local maps can be handled with by using a generic contract published alongside with the specific contract the programmer wants to deploy.

To better understand the point made above, let’s go over the solution in Move, translating it in a piecewise manner into Scilla. But before we dive into the implementation of the earmarked coin contract in Move, let me show you how one would use the contract we are going to take apart and explain.

To use the earmarked coin contract, Alice writes a transaction script to program her interaction with the system. Suppose Alice owns some (let’s say 100 for the sake of example) Libra coins, the primary currency of the Libra blockchain. The values of LibraCoin.T type represent the primary currency on the formal level. The fact that Alice owns some Libra coins is reflected in the balance field of her LibraAccount.T resource. LibraAccount is sort of a high-level wrapper for LibraCoin as it supports more advanced authentication, keeps track of some statistics, etc. The balance field of LibraAccount.T resource has type R#LibraCoin.T, where R# is a syntactic clue hinting that we are dealing with a "resource". Bob has no means of accessing Alice's Libra coins because LibraCoin.T resource is very strict about ownership. So Alice needs to create a new resource EarmarkedLibraCoin.T (see below for its definition), which lets strangers get your money, but only if you explicitly let them. Creating a new earmarked coin consumes a Libra coin of the same worth, meaning Alice needs to split a new coin off her account and transform it into the earmarked coin she wants to create. So she invokes the following transaction script:

Notice that the move semantics makes it not possible to loose or duplicate money in this case.

Now it’s possible for Bob to get the earmarked coin, convert it to a Libra coin and publish under his account. To get the earmarked coin Bob needs to know the address it’s been published under ( alice_address below).

The earmarked coin contract in Move starts as follows:

Move’s modules are a lot like Scilla’s contracts: a module in Move is a “long-lived piece of code published in the global state”.

Move modules enforce data abstraction and localize critical operations on resources. The encapsulation enabled by a module combined with the protections enforced by the Move type system ensures that the properties established for a module’s types cannot be violated by code outside the module.

The solution in Move creates a custom resource type T by pairing a LibraCoin.T resource with the recipient's address.

To create an earmarked coin, the sender’s transaction script would call the function create defined within EarmarkedLibraCoin module:

In the snippet above the coin parameter representing the funds the sender wants to earmark gets moved into earmarked resource t (with coin: move(coin) statement), which makes the funds associated with coin not immediately available for the sender. The line

publishes the newly created earmarked coin under the sender’s account.

Note that this module (contract) only allows each sender to earmark some funds for one person only, as the second call to create will fail at move_to_sender invocation, because

accounts can contain at most one resource value of a given type.

This design decision provides, according to the Move whitepaper, “a predictable storage schema for top-level account values”. There is, however, a workaround for the use case when one wants to have multiple values of a resource type under one account. This can be done

by defining a custom wrapper resource (e.g.,resource TwoCoins { c1: 0x0.Currency.Coin, c2: 0x0.Currency.Coin }).

If multiple users wanted to earmark funds for the recipients of their choice they would use a transaction script like the following one:

This script withdraws some amount from the caller's account of Libra coins and re-publishes that amount as an earmarked coin again under the caller's account. At first sight it might seem that we have gained nothing, because there was no transfer of ownership, however the notion of ownership for the earmarked coin is a relaxed one (as we will see below).

The runtime system of Move keeps track of resources for each user, hence multiple users can earmark funds for someone by creating new resources. In a sense, the approach taken for the Move implementation is user-centric, as opposed to Scilla contracts, which are contract-centric. Scilla contracts have their own balances to acquire ownership of funds transferred to them. A contract’s _balance special mutable field stores a 128-bit unsigned integer reflecting the total funds accumulated by the contract, hence Scilla escrow-like contracts usually keep record of who exactly has transferred funds using an explicit map of donors or backers.

Putting the explanation I just gave to work, here is how the corresponding contract could look like in Scilla (the version here is simplified for the sake of clarity of exposition, see the full version here):

(* funds and their future owner *)
type EarmarkedCoin =
| EarmarkedCoin of Uint128 ByStr20
contract EarmarkedCoin
(* this contract does not have any parameters *)
field earmarked_coins : Map ByStr20 EarmarkedCoin =
Emp ByStr20 EarmarkedCoin

The type EarmarkedCoin is analogous to EarmarkedLibraCoin.T, except for it's not linear, because Scilla's type system is based on second-order polymorphic lambda calculus. Also, notice the explicit earmarked_coins mutable map from senders' addresses to paired funds and the intended recipients of those funds. The earmarked_coins map is empty when the contract is initialized.

Let’s look at how the Scilla analogue of create procedure looks like:

The transition is named Earmark to indicate that there is a difference between Scilla and Move. The transition works as follows. First, we check if the sender haven't already earmarked funds, because each sender is only allowed to earmark for at most one person. If the sender has not earmarked funds yet, the contract accepts the transfer of funds by using the special accept builtin statement. This increases the contract's_balance mutable field by _amount -- the implicit parameter of each Scilla transition and decreases the sender's balance by the same quantity. The next three statements create a new value of datatype EarmarkedCoin, put it into earmarked_coins map to remember that_sender earmarked _amount of tokens for recip recipient. Abstracting over the exact implementation, this is what Move's runtime does implicitly.

Here is the Move implementation of claim_for_recipient function, returning an earmarked coin reserved for the caller:

The move_from function call lets the funds change ownership

as the Move type system guarantees the original sender won’t have access to that earmarked coin anymore.

I should mention that the following line

ensures that only the intended recipient can get the ownership over the earmarked coin.

The corresponding transition in Scilla would look like so:

Here the code first checks that there is a coin earmarked by a sender with earmarked_coin_address account address. Next, the code checks the coin has been earmarked for the transition's caller by checking the implicit_sender parameter. The TransferFunds procedure (not shown for brevity) transfers funds from the contract's balance to the recipient's. The next line deletes the record of the just transferred earmarked coin from the global earmarked_coins map. Because the contract's balance accumulates funds from many senders, forgetting to delete that record might result in a malicious user performing multiple claims of the same coin until the user drains the contract's account preventing the other recipients from rightfully claiming their funds.

It’s easy for the programmer to forget to remove the record, because the Scilla type system does not track ownership. This is where Move shows its strength because this exact mistake is not possible by virtue of its linear type system. However, Move’s type system, as the whitepaper admits, will not ensure, for instance, that

the total value of all coins in existence is preserved …

because deep down money is represented as an unsigned integer value.

An approach being explored by the Scilla team to ensure money-safety of Scilla contracts is the usage of SMT solvers to formally prove properties that can be expressed in linear integer arithmetic, which covers many practically important contracts. The great advantage of SMT solvers is their ability to prove specified properties completely automatically, without user intervention. Along with the properties mentioned above, we should be also able to ensure that there will never be any integer overflow or underflow exceptions while executing SMT-verified contracts.

In addition, if the programmer is facing a highly complicated set of conditions and possible interactions such that even SMT solvers cannot handle those, we will always be able to prove the safety properties manually using the Coq proof assistant using our work-in-progress framework.

The Move implementation of claim_for_creator is pretty straightforward:

It makes the earmarked coin unavailable by calling the same move_from<T> as in claim_for_recipient. After calling the function, the original sender will hold the only possible reference to the resource, effectively locking out the intended recipient from aqcuiring the ownership of it.

The analogous transition in Scilla is also simpler than the ClaimForRecipient transition:

The same line or reasoning as above applies here too.

Note: this section only applies to the Move programming language.

Transaction scripts claiming an earmarked coin would have to call the unwrap function:

to strip the address component off the earmarked coin and turn it into a spendable Libra coin.

I hope this illustration of the differences between models of Move and Scilla has been informative and clear. Each of the models has different sets of trade-offs and represent user-centric vs bank-centric points of view for Move and Scilla respectively.

Many thanks to Ilya Sergey, Amrit Kumar and Vaivaswatha Nagaraj for their numerous suggestions on this article.

Research Engineer @zilliqa