Scilla Design Principles

Smart contracts provide a mechanism to express computations on a blockchain, i.e., a decentralized Byzantine-fault tolerant distributed ledger. With the advent of smart contracts, it has become possible to build what is referred to as decentralized applications or Dapps for short. These applications have their program and business logic coded in the form of a smart contract that can be run on a decentralized blockchain network.

Running applications on a decentralized network eliminates the need of a trusted centralized party or a server typical of other applications. These features of smart contracts have become so popular today that they now drive real-world economies through applications such as crowdfunding, games, decentralized exchanges, payment processors among many others.

However, experience over the last few years has shown that implemented operational semantics of smart contract languages admit rather subtle behaviour that diverge from the intuitive understanding of the language in the minds of contract developers. This divergence has led to some of the largest attacks on smart contracts, e.g., the attack on the DAO contract and Parity wallet among others. The problem becomes even more severe because smart contracts cannot directly be updated due to the immutable nature of blockchains. It is hence crucial to ensure that smart contracts that get deployed are safe to run.

Formal methods such as verification and model checking have proven to be effective in improving the safety of software systems in other disciplines and hence it is natural to explore their applicability in improving the readability and safety of smart contracts. Moreover, with formal methods, it becomes possible to produce rigorous guarantees about the behavior of a contract.

Applying formal verification tools with existing languages such as Solidity however is not an easy task because of the extreme expressivity typical of a Turing-complete language. Indeed, there is a trade-off between making a language simpler to understand and amenable to formal verification and making it more expressive. For instance, Bitcoin’s scripting language occupies the simpler end of the spectrum and does not handle stateful-objects. On the expressive side of the spectrum is a Turing-complete language such as Solidity.

Scilla is a new (intermediate-level) smart contract language that has been designed to achieve both expressivity and tractability at the same time, while enabling formal reasoning about contract behavior by adopting certain fundamental design principles as described below:

Separation Between Computation and Communication

Contracts in Scilla are structured as communicating automata: every in-contract computation (e.g., changing its balance or computing a value of a function) is implemented as a standalone, atomic transition, i.e., without involving any other parties. Whenever such involvement is required (e.g., for transferring control to another party), a transition would end, with an explicit communication, by means of sending and receiving messages. The automata-based structure makes it possible to disentangle the contract-specific effects (i.e., transitions) from blockchain-wide interactions (i.e., sending/receiving funds and messages), thus providing a clean reasoning mechanism about contract composition and invariants.

Separation Between Effectful and Pure Computations

Any in-contract computation happening within a transition has to terminate, and have a predictable effect on the state of the contract and the execution. In order to achieve this, Scilla draws inspiration from functional programming with effects, drawing a distinction between pure expressions (e.g., expressions with primitive data types and maps), impure local state manipulations (i.e., reading/writing into contract fields) and blockchain reflection (e.g., reading current block number). By carefully designing semantics of interaction between pure and impure language aspects, Scilla ensures a number of foundational properties about contract transitions, such as progress and type preservation, while also making them amenable to interactive and/or automatic verification with standalone tools.

Separation Between Invocation and Continuation

Structuring contracts as communicating automata provides a computational model, which only allows tail-calls, i.e., every call to an external function (i.e., another contract) has to be done as the absolutely last instruction.