Introducing Substrate Smart Contracts with Ink

Implementing a non-fungible token written with Ink

Ross Bulat
May 2 · 10 min read

Parity’s Substrate blockchain framework, of which Polkadot is being built on top of, is in active development and making rapid progress towards a final release. Ink (or ink! as the name is commonly termed in documentation) is Parity’s solution to writing smart contracts for a Substrate based blockchain.

Like Substrate, Ink is built on top of Rust, and therefore adheres to Rust language rules and syntax. This talk will walk through an example smart contract replicating a non-fungible token, commonly referred to as ERC721 tokens on the Ethereum blockchain. The contract itself can be found on Github here.

This is Part 1 of a series that will cover the process of creating and deploying this Ink smart contract, specifically, we will cover:

  • How to install Substrate and Ink, with its dependencies
  • Writing the bare-bones non-fungible token contract that will support 3 main features: minting tokens, transferring tokens, and approving another account to send tokens on your behalf
  • How to build and deploy the smart contract on a Substrate blockchain, and test the functions on-chain using the Polkadot JS app

Note: The Polkadot JS app has been designed to manage not only Polkadot itself, but any Substrate chain.The interface is dynamic in that the management options available depend on which features a Substrate chain supports.

In this article we will walk through the installation process of Ink and it’s required dependencies, and introduce the non-fungible token example contract accompanying this series, talking through the structure of an Ink contract and how it differs to a Solidity based contract, as well as similarities between the two.

Non-fungible tokens, or NFTs, differ from ERC20 style tokens whereby every token is unique. In our contract, each token will have a unique ID used to represent the token. From here, each token could have its own value, its own metadata, or have a specific use within an application or value system.

Approving non-owner accounts to transfer or manage the token is also different, and has to be done on a per-token basis with Non-fungible tokens. Cryptokitties is the best known example where Non-fungible tokens have been implemented — each token representing a kitten on the platform.

NFTs present different challenges to a standard token, and therefore give us more to explore in terms of Ink syntax and capabilities. Let’s next install Substrate, Ink and the required packages to write our smart contract.


A few packages are needed to begin writing Ink contracts. Once they are installed we can run a Substrate chain in a terminal window — we will use this chain as the means of deploying our smart contract.

Substrate and Ink rely on Rust. Install Rust with the following commands, or refer to the installation page. Two further commands are included below to ensure your nightly Rust version (the latest available Rust version) is up to date, as well as WebAssembly build support for nightly Rust: Ink contracts compile into .wasm files, and consequently are deployed to Substrate chains as WebAssembly.

# install rust and update environmentcurl -sSf | sh
source ~/.cargo/env

# run rust updates and add WebAssembly target support
rustup update nightly
rustup target add wasm32-unknown-unknown --toolchain nightly

Note: Cargo is Rust’s package manager, the packages of which are called Crates. The public cargo registry can be browsed at

Note 2: Referring to the last command, target refers to the target folder in your Rust project directory that contains builds of your programs. This is where our smart contract files will be built.

Install Substrate with the following command:

curl -sSf | bash

Ink smart contracts are compiled into WebAssembly before uploaded onto a Substrate chain. In order to do this, we will need to install some utilities:

# We will install:
# Binaryen
# Compiler infrastructure and toolchain library for WebAssembly
# Wabt
# The WebAssembly Binary Toolkit
# Parity Wasm Utils
# Parity specific WebAssemply utilities */

# MacOS
brew install binaryen
brew install wabt
cargo install pwasm-utils-cli --bin wasm-prune
# Ubuntuapt install binaryen
apt install wabt
cargo install pwasm-utils-cli --bin wasm-prune

From here we can now install Ink via its crate. Run the following to do so:

cargo install --force --git cargo-contract

Our smart contract will be tested on a local Substrate blockchain running on your machine. With Substrate now installed, run the following to initialise the chain:

substrate --dev

The —-dev flag initialises a development blockchain for you, local to your machine only, and includes some user accounts from the off.

This setup is purely for testing purposes; you could think of it as the equivalent of Truffle’s Ganache program, that runs a local Ethereum based chain tweaked for testing purposes.

You will now notice the node running with new blocks being validated. Pressing CTRL+C or closing the Terminal window will stop node execution, although chain state is persisted until you next next run the chain. On this note, if you’d like to start a fresh chain, run the following to purge your chain:

substrate purge-chain --dev

With our chain running and Ink ready to be used, we can get to coding the contract. Before doing so, it is also worth mentioning Editor support. I have personally found Visual Studio Code to be the best editor for the job, of not only Ink development, but also Rust development in general. To get set up quickly:

  • Install VS Code from here if you do not already have the editor installed
  • Install the RLS (Rust Language Support) extension and the WebAssembly extensions. This can be done directly in the editor under the Extensions tab, or press Shift+CMD+X to jump directly to it.

Setting up the Ink Project

With all dependencies installed, let’s now set up the project.

The easiest way to do this currently is to install Ink’s “Hello World” contract, named Flipper. With Flipper installed, we can build upon what is already included and not have to worry about configuration and compile scripts — these are provided in Flipper.

Note: Both Substrate and Ink are in rapid development and are not yet feature complete, therefore the smart contract environment, and the smart contract code itself, will most likely change as Parity get nearer to a final release of the framework.

To jump start our Ink project fetch Flipper using cargo:

# fetch the Flipper Ink contractcargo contract new flipper

Flipper provides us a project boilerplate needed to start writing the smart contract. Included is:

  • The folder structure and configuration metadata of the project
  • A bare-bones Flipper contract in src/, that simply “flips” a boolean value between true and false via a flip() method, and gets this value on-chain using the get() method. We will be replacing this file with the NFT contract
  • The Rust specific Cargo.toml file, outlining the project dependencies and module metadata, a .gitignore file, and a file. The file is what we run to compile our smart contract, resulting in a compiled .wasm file of the contract, a JSON abstraction of the contract, and more. We’ll explore the built contract further down.

Note: Now is a good time to check out src/ to get a feel of the contract syntax.

Let’s change the name flipper to a more suitable name: nftoken. Amend the following:

  • /flipper folder name to /nftoken
  • Cargo.toml: Change [package] name and [lib] name to nftoken
  • amend PROJNAME=nftoken

Also, ensure we have permissions to run nftoken/

cd nftoken
chmod +x

Lastly, add the /nftoken folder to a VS Code Workspace, and we are ready to start writing.

About Ink

Ink has multiple levels of abstraction, where higher levels abstract over the lower levels. We will be using the highest level, which is dubbed the language level, or lang level. These levels have also been separated into modules that can be explored here.

Below the lang module are the model and core modules, that focus on mid-level abstractions and core utilities respectively. Below the core module we can also expect a CLI specifically for creating and managing Ink contracts.

Although there is little coverage on how to use these modules at the time of writing, we do indeed have the raw API docs to browse through, both for the core module and model module. If you are following this article these docs can be browsed through now, although our contract below will utilise some of these APIs intended to show how they are used in the context of the lang level via the non-fungible token contract.

With this in mind, let’s next examine what the structure of our lang derived contract looks like, and compare it to what we expect from a Solidity based smart contract.

Reminder: The completed contract can be found here on Github.

Contract Structure

Structuring an Ink contract is similar to that of a Solidity contract, where the major components we have come to expect with Solidity are also consistent in Ink: contract variables, events, public functions and private functions, as well as environment variables to grab the caller address and more.

Below is an abstraction of how the NFToken contract is structured:

// declare modules
use parity::<module>
//wrap entire contract inside the contract! macro
contract! {
// contract variables as a struct
struct NFToken {
owner: storage::Value<AccountId>,
// compulsory deploy method that is run upon the initial contract instantiation
impl Deploy for NFToken {
fn deploy(&mut self, init_value: u64){}
// define events
event EventMint { owner: AccountId, value: u64 }
// public contract methods in an impl{} block
impl NFToken {
pub(external) fn total_minted(&self) -> u64 {}
// private contract methods in a separate impl{} block
imp NFToken {
fn is_token_owner(
of: &AccountId,
token_id: u64) -> bool {}
// test functions
mod tests {
fn it_works() {}

Let’s briefly visit these sections and how they differ from what we have come to expect from a Solidity contract. Ink is built upon Rust, so all the syntax here is valid Rust syntax.

  • Our module declaration section is where we bring external functionality into the contract, and is the similar in nature to Solidity’s using declarations.
// Inkuse ink_core::{
env::{self, AccountId},
use ink_lang::contract;

// Solidity
interface ContractName {
using SafeMath for uint256;
using AddressUtils for address;
  • Events are declared inside the !contract macro, whereas with Solidity we define our events within a contract interface, typing each as an event:
// Inkevent Transfer { from: AccountId, to: AccountId, token_id: u64 }// Solidityevent Transfer(
address indexed from,
address indexed to,
uint256 indexed _tokenId
  • Where a Solidity contract is embedded within an interface block, an Ink contract is embedded within a contract! macro. Our events are declared inside of this macro, whereas events are declared within a Solidity interface. This is described below.

Note: A macro in Rust is a a declaration that represents a block of syntax that the wrapped expressions will be surrounded by. Macros abstract at a syntactic level, so the contract! macro is wrapping its contents with more syntax.

// Ink
contract! {
// contract
// Solidityinterface ContractName {
// contract
  • With Ink, our contract variables are written in a struct of the name of our contract. Hash maps derived from Rust’s HashMap type are in place of Solidity’s mapping type, providing key => value lists.

Any piece of data persisted on a Substrate chain is called an extrinsic, and Ink provides us the means to store extrinsics on-chain via the storage module, that lives within the core module of the language. In other words, all contract variables that you plan to persist on chain will use a type from storage. Conversely, the memory module is also available for data structures to operate on memory.

Solidity on the other hand adopts a different approach to this. From Solidity 0.5, storage and memory reference types were introduced to function arguments or function variables, so the contract knows where to reference those variables. However, this is not necessary for contract variables in Solidity.

Primitive types are also available and consistent throughout both languages; where Rust uses u64, Solidity adopts a more verbose uint64 type declaration. Overall it is quite simple to achieve the same contract variable structure between the two languages.

// Inkstruct NFToken {
owner: storage::Value<AccountId>,
approvals: storage::HashMap<u64, AccountId>,

// Solidity
address owner;
mapping (uint64 => address) approvals;

In the above example, the type of values that storage objects handle are passed in via the angled brackets in place of the type’s generics.

  • The concept of an initialisation function is present within both Ink and Solidity, albeit implemented in different ways. With Ink, we explicitly define a deploy() method within a Deploy{} implementation block. The parameters we define for this method are representative of what data we send when initialising the contract. E.g. for our non-fungible token, we will provide an initial amount of tokens to be minted:
// Inks initialisation function, deploy()impl Deploy for NFToken {
fn deploy(&mut self, init_value: u64) {
  • Public and private methods are also defined within impl blocks, where public methods are explicitly defined with pub(external). Again, when comparing this syntax to that of Solidity’s, internal and external are used to define a private or public resource.

Note: In Rust, functions, modules, traits and structs are private by default, and must be defined with the pub keyword in order for them to be externally reachable. The (external) extension to pub here is Ink specific, and is compulsory to include with public Ink functions.

// public functionsimpl NFToken {
pub(external) fn total_minted(&self) -> u64 {}
// private functionsimpl NFToken {
fn mint_impl(
&mut self,
receiver: AccountId,
value: u64) -> bool {

Again, we have separated our private and public functions in separate impl blocks, and have included pub(external) for public functions defined.

  • As the last building block of our contract, a tests module is defined that asserts various conditions as our functions are tested. Within the tests module, we can test our contract logic without having to compile and deploy it to a Substrate chain, allowing speedy ironing out of bugs and verification that the contract works as expected.

Up Next

We have now talked through the building blocks of an Ink smart contract. In the next part of the series we will explore the functions of the non-fungible token contract in more depth, understanding the Rust design patterns used and how they tie in with our contract logic. We will then walk through the process of building and deploying the smart contract to a local Substrate chain and test its functions using Polkadot JS.

Read the next part of the series here:

The Block Journal

Talks and hands-on walkthroughs around blockchain and cryptocurrency.

Ross Bulat

Written by

Director @ JKRB Investments

The Block Journal

Talks and hands-on walkthroughs around blockchain and cryptocurrency.