EUTxO Crash Course
If you have absolutely no idea what developing on Cardano looks like, worry not. You just found the right piece to get started. Aiken is a language platform that makes on-chain programming easy. But what is "on-chain programming" to begin with? While this succinct documentation piece has no ambition to be a complete course on blockchains, it should give you enough insights to build a basic understanding of the fundamentals.
This course will reference cryptography concepts such as hash digests or digital signatures. We, therefore, expect readers to be either familiar with those concepts (at least a tiny bit) or to read up on them. There are plenty of resources available in the wild regarding cryptography and this crash course isn't one of them.
Blocks & transactions
Blockchains are made of blocks. And blocks are made of transactions. Without going into the details, you can think of blocks as being objects divided into two parts: a header and a body. The header contains information about the blocks, such as who produced them and when they were made. The body is nothing more than an ordered sequence of transactions.
Note that the "chain" of blockchain comes from how blocks reference one another. Indeed, each block header includes at least two things:
- A hash digest of the block body
- A hash digest of the previous block header
┏━ Header ━━━━━━━━━━━━━━┳━ Body ━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━┓ ┃ ┃ ┃ ┃ Body hash ┃ ┌────────────────┬────────────────┬─────┐ ┃ ┃ Previous header hash ┃ │ Transaction #1 │ Transaction #2 │ ... │ ┃ ┃ Timestamp ┃ └────────────────┴────────────────┴─────┘ ┃ ┃ ┃ ┃ ┗━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━┻━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━┛
A hash digest is a tamper-proof mechanism that maps an input value to a fixed-sized output. Think of it as a way to assign an identifier to a piece of content, such that the identifier depends on the content itself: change the content, change the identifier.
A chain is formed by including in every block header:
- a hash of the block body; and
- a header hash of the previous block.
Changing any transaction in a block will change the block body hash, thus changing the block header hash, the header hash of the next block, and so on, invalidating the entire chain that follows.
____ ____ ____ ____ ____ / /\ / /\ / /\ / /\ / /\ o ❮❮ /____/ \ ❮❮ /____/ \ ❮❮ /____/ \ ❮❮ /____/ \ ❮❮ /____/ \ ... \ \ / \ \ / \ \ / \ \ / \ \ / ╿ \____\/ \____\/ \____\/ \____\/ \____\/ │ │ ╿ │ │ └ Genesis configuration │ └ Block
A transaction is, therefore, the most fundamental primitive on blockchains. They are the mechanism whereby users (a.k.a you) can take actions to change the state of the blockchain. A chain starts from an initial state typically referred to as genesis configuration. And from there, transactions map a previous state into a new state. Finally, blocks are merely there to batch transactions together.
Unspent Transaction Outputs
In the traditional database world, a transaction is a means to bundle together a series of atomic operations so that all are successful or none happen. In the financial world, it is a way to transfer assets from one location to another.
In the blockchain world, it is a bit of both.
A transaction is, first and foremost, an object with an input from where it takes assets and an output to where it sends them. Often, as is the case in Cardano, transactions have many inputs and many outputs. And, in addition to inputs and outputs, blockchain protocols often include other elements that modify different parts of the blockchain state (e.g. delegation certificates, governance votes, user-defined assets definitions...)
Moreso, like in the database world, a transaction is an all-or-nothing atomic series of commands. Either it is valid, and all its changes are applied, or it isn't, and none are applied.
We'll talk more about other capabilities later. For now, let's focus on inputs and outputs, starting with the outputs.
In Cardano, an output is an object that describes at least two things:
- a quantity of assets -- also known as, a value;
- a condition for spending (and/or delegating) those assets -- also known as an address.
In addition, a data payload can also be added to outputs but let's not bother with that just now. The role of the value is pretty transparent, and it indicates how many assets hold the output.
Incidentally, Cardano supports two kinds of assets: the main protocol currency (a.k.a. Ada); and user-defined currencies. Both live side-by-side in values though slightly different rules apply to each.
The address captures the logic that tells the protocol under what conditions one can utilize the assets at a particular output. It is what defines ownership of the assets. We'll explore this very soon. Bear with us a little more.
┏━━━━━━━━━┳━━━━━━━━━━━┳━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━┓ ┃ ┃ ┃ ┃ ┃ Value ┃ Address ┃ Data payload ┃ ┃ ┃ ┃ ┃ ┗━━━━━━━━━┻━━━━━━━━━━━┻━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━┛
An input is a reference to a previous output. Think of outputs as post-it notes with a unique serial number and inputs as being this serial number.
A transaction is a document indicating which post-it notes should be destroyed and which new ones should be pinned to the wall. Note that there are rules regarding the construction of transactions. For example, there must be as much value in as there's value out. Said differently, the total value should balance out but might be shuffled differently.
An output that hasn't been spent yet (i.e. is still on the wall) is called -- you guessed it -- an unspent transaction output, or UTxO in short. The blockchain state results from looking at the entire wall of post-it remaining notes. It includes not only the available UTxO, but also any additional data defined by the protocol.
Okay, back to inputs.
Technically speaking, an input's "serial number" is the hash digest of the transaction that emitted the output it refers to and the position of the output within that transaction. These two elements make each input unique. And because outputs are removed from the available set (post-it note is destroyed) when spent, they can only be spent once. At least, that's what the blockchain protocol makes sure of.
┏━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━┳━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━┓ ┃ ┃ ┃ ┃ Transaction hash ┃ Output index ┃ ┃ ┃ ┃ ┗━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━┻━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━┛
Where do the first outputs come from?
If you've carefully followed the narrative we just went through, you might have realized that we have a chicken-and-egg situation. Inputs are references to outputs. And outputs are created by spending inputs.
This is what the genesis configuration is for. It defines the starting point of the blockchain in the form of an agreed-upon initial list of outputs. Those outputs can be referred to using some special identifiers. For example, the genesis configuration hash digest and the output's position in the configuration.
How the genesis configuration comes to be is also an interesting question but out of the scope of the current course. In the case of Cardano, the initial distribution resulted from an initial coin offering (abbrev. ICO) where a portion of the total Ada supply was sold to stakeholders before the launch of the network.
Let's quickly recap what we've seen so far:
- A blockchain has an initial state called a genesis configuration;
- A transaction captures instructions to modify that state (e.g. transfer of assets);
- A block batches transactions together and has a reference to a parent block;
- Assets movement are expressed using inputs and outputs in transactions;
- An output is an object with at least an address and a value;
- An address describes the conditions needed to use the value associated to it;
- An input is a reference to a previous output.
It is now time to delve more into Cardano addresses. A typical address is made of 2 or 3 parts:
┏━━━━━━━━━━┳━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━┳━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━┓ ┃ ┃ ┃ ┃ ┃ Header ┃ Payment credentials ┃ Delegation credentials ┃ ┃ ┃ ┃ ┃ ┗━━━━━━━━━━┻━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━┻━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━┛
We said 2 or 3 because the last part -- the delegation credentials -- is
optional. The first part is called the
Header, and it describes the type of
address (i.e. what comes next) and the network within which this address can be
used. We call that last bit a network discriminant and it prevents silly
mistakes like sending real Mainnet funds to a test address. An address is
represented as a sequence of bytes, usually encoded using
bech32 (opens in a new tab)
or simply base16 (opens in a new tab) text strings.
We can dissect the latter text string to make the three parts mentionned above more apparent:
Type = 3 ┐┌ Network = 1 (1 = mainnet, 0 = testnet) ││ ╽╽ Header: 31 Payment credentials: c37b1b5dc0669f1d3c61a6fddb2e8fde96be87b881c60bce8e8d542f Delegation credentials: c37b1b5dc0669f1d3c61a6fddb2e8fde96be87b881c60bce8e8d542f
As we can see, this address is a type 3, is for mainnet and uses the same credentials for both the payment and the delegation part.
You will often need to convert back-and-forth between bech32-encoded strings and hex-encoded strings. A great command-line tool for working with bech32 can be found at input-output-hk/bech32 (opens in a new tab). Use it!
The next part is the payment credentials, also called the payment part. This is what describes the spending conditions for the address. Remember how UTxOs are like post-it notes on a wall? Yet you don't get to hang them or pick them up directly yourself. You have to hand over a transaction to the network validators. Imagine an employee who's gatekeeping the wall of post-it notes and to whom you must give a form that describes what you want to do. Each post-it note has written on it the conditions one must meet to pick it up and destroy it. That's what the payment credentials are for in the address. They come in one of two forms:
- a verification key hash digest; or
- a script hash digest.
In the first form, the validator nodes -- or the employee -- will ask you to provide a digital signature from the signing key corresponding to the verification key. This approach relies on asymmetric cryptography, where one generates credentials as a public (verification) and private (signing) key pair. In the address, we store only a hash digest of the verification key for conciseness and to avoid revealing it too early (even though it is public material). When spending from such an address, one must reveal the public key and show a signature of the entire transaction as witnesses (a.k.a proofs). This way of specifying spending conditions is relatively straightforward but also constrained because it doesn't allow for expressing any elaborate logic.
This is where the second form gets more interesting. Cardano allows locking
funds using a script representing the validation logic that must be satisfied
to spend funds guarded by the address. We typically call such addresses:
script addresses. Similarly to the first form, the entire script must be
provided as a witness by any transaction spending from a script address, as
well as any other elements required by the script. Scripts are like predicates.
Said differently, they are functions that return a boolean value:
False. To be considered valid, all scripts in a transaction must return
True. We'll explore how this mechanism works in a short moment.
Addresses may also contain delegation credentials, also called a delegation part. We will only go a little into the details but think of the delegation credentials as a way to control what can be done with the stake associated with the address. The stake corresponds to the Ada quantity in the output's value that the consensus protocol counts to elect block producers. In Cardano, the stake can be delegated to registered entities called stake pools. By delegating, one indicates that the stake associated with an output should be counted as if it belonged to the delegatee, increasing their chance of producing a block. In return, the delegatee agrees to share a portion of their block-producing rewards with the delegator.
While the payment credentials control how to spend an output, delegation credentials control two separate operations:
- how to publish a delegation certificate (e.g. to delegate stake to a stake pool);
- how to withdraw rewards associated with the stake credentials.
Like payment credentials, delegation credentials comes in two forms: as verification key hash digest or as script hash digest.
More information about addresses and how they work can be found in CIP-0019 (opens in a new tab)
┌ For spending │ ╽ ┏━ Header ━━━━━━━━━━━━━┳━ Payment credentials ━━━━━━━┳━ Delegation credentials ━━━━┓ ┃ ┃ ┃ ┃ ┃ ┃ ┌───────────────────────┐ ┃ ┌───────────────────────┐ ┃ ┃ ┌──────┬─────────┐ ┃ │ Verification key hash │ ┃ │ Verification key hash │ ┃ ┃ │ Type │ Network │ ┃ ├────────── OR ─────────┤ ┃ ├────────── OR ─────────┤ ┃ ┃ └──────┴─────────┘ ┃ │ Script hash │ ┃ │ Script hash │ ┃ ┃ ┃ └───────────────────────┘ ┃ └───────────────────────┘ ┃ ┃ ┃ ┃ ┃ ┗━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━┻━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━┻━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━━┛ ╿ │ └ For: - publishing certificates - withdrawing rewards
Before we move on, let's recap again:
- An address is made of 2 or 3 parts: a header, payment credentials and delegation credentials;
- The header describes the type of address and the network it is for;
- The last part, the delegation credentials, is optional though highly recommended;
- Credentials (payment or delegation) take one of two forms:
- a verification key hash;
- a script hash;
- Payment credentials control how to spend from an address;
- Delegation credentials control how to publish certificates and how to withdraw rewards;
- A script allows the definition of arbitrary validation logic.
Scripts, Datums and Redeemers
Hang in there! We are almost at the end of this crash course. We've seen what a
UTxO is what an address is made of. And we spoke a bit about scripts. In
particular, we said that scripts are like predicates, that is, pure functions
(in the Mathematical sense) that take a transaction as an argument and return
Well, not exactly. We lied to you (only a tiny bit).
If we only had that, it would be hard to express more elaborate logic. In particular, capturing a state, which programs often require, would be infeasible. A state and transitions from that state. This is where the extended UTxO model strikes in. It adds two new components to what we've already seen: datums and redeemers.
We mentioned the datum earlier without calling it a datum when we said that outputs contained a value, an address and a data payload. This is what the datum is, a free payload that developers can use to attach data to script execution. When a script is executed in a spending scenario, it receives not only the transaction as context but also the datum associated with the output being spent.
The redeemer, on the other hand, is another piece of data that is also provided with the transaction for any script execution. Notice that the datum and redeemer intervene at two distinct moments. A datum is set when the output is created (i.e. when the post-it note is hung on the wall, it is part of the note). Whereas the redeemer is provided only when spending the output (i.e. with the form handed over to the employee).
Another way to look at scripts, datums and redeemers is to think of them as a parameterised mathematical function.
Script ╭─────────╮ f(x) = x * a + b = true | false ╿ ╿ ╿ Redeemer ┘ │ │ └─┬─┘ Datum
The script defines the function as a whole. It indicates how the parameters and arguments are combined to produce a boolean outcome. The datum corresponds to the parameters of the function. It allows configuring the function and re-using a similar validation logic with different settings. Both the function and the parameters are defined when assets are locked in an output. Which leaves only the function argument to be later provided. That argument is the redeemer (as well as the rest of the transaction).
This is why scripts are often referred to as validators. Unlike some other blockchain systems, they are also, therefore, fully deterministic. Their execution only depends on the transaction they're involved with, and evaluating the transaction's outcome is possible before sending it to the network. Datums act as local states, and redeemers are user inputs provided in the transaction itself.
If we take a step back and look at the typical public/private key procedure for spending funds, we can see how eUTxO is merely a generalization of that. Indeed, the public key (hash) can be seen as the datum, whereas the signature is the redeemer. The script is the digital signature verification algorithm that controls whether the signature is valid w.r.t the provided key.
So far, we've mostly talked about scripts in the context of validating whether an output can be spent. We've also briefly mentioned earlier how scripts can be used to control the publication of delegation certificates or how consensus rewards can be withdrawn.
These different use cases are commonly referred to as script purposes. Until
now, we've seen three purposes:
withdraw. There's a
The mint purpose refers to scripts that are executed to validate whether user-defined assets can be minted (i.e. created) or burned (i.e. destroyed). Cardano indeed supports user-defined assets which are used to represent both fungible quantities (like a protocol currency) or non-fungible quantities (a.k.a NFTs).
The rules that govern the creation or destruction of an asset are defined as a
script. We often refer to such scripts as minting policies, which correspond
mint purpose above.
Each purpose, therefore, indicates for what purpose a script is being
executed. During validation, that information is passed to the script alongside
the transaction and the redeemer. Note that only scripts executed with the
spend purpose are given a datum. This is because they can leverage the data
payload present in outputs, unlike the other purposes that do not get this
And we've reached the end of this crash course. Let's do a final recap regarding scripts, datums and redeemers.
- Scripts are akin to parameterized predicate functions, returning either true or false.
- Datums take the role of function parameters, whereas redeemers the one of argument.
- Scripts are also called validators and are completely deterministic.
- Scripts are used to validate specific operations in a transaction.
- What a script is used for is referred to as its purpose. There are 4 purposes:
spend-- controls how to spend outputs;
publish-- controls how to publish delegation certificates;
withdraw-- controls how to withdraw consensus rewards;
mint-- controls how to mint or burn assets.
- Only spending scripts (i.e. purpose=spend) have access to a datum.