Towards Deeper Collaboration in Distributed Ledgers: Thoughts on Digital Asset’s Global Synchronisation Log

It’s now almost two months since we open-sourced Corda and I’m delighted by the reception it has received. In our rapidly growing community, we’re already seeing new users grow into leaders who help other newcomers get to grips with the platform.

And I am amazed by the number of inbound messages from users who have been impressed by the quality of Corda’s design and codebase – and who are already building significant applications and products on top of it. Indeed, as I write this, one of our member banks is running a global hackathon, with over 150 of their developers building on Corda and I’ve just returned from our Asia Members’ Conference in Hong Kong, where I sat through so many presentations about Corda projects I didn’t even know were happening…

If you’re not already on our Slack or participating in our discussion forum, you’re missing out!

But one additional benefit from delivering on our commitment to make Corda Open Source is that it means we can explore opportunities to collaborate with peers, competitors and partners across the ecosystem: identifying areas where our visions are aligned, where we see things the same way and where we might be able to reuse rather than needlessly reinvent.

A good example of the potential for firms who some might see as competitors (but who actually aren’t…) to collaborate was provided late last year in the form of an excellent whitepaper from Digital Asset: The Global Synchronization Log.  The paper helps clarify some really important aspects of distributed ledger design and shows a really deep understanding of the tradeoffs that are inherent in the design of these platforms.

The first time I read the paper, I was struck by how closely our two firms’ visions for DLT are aligned. As Mike Hearn has written, there are two fundamentally different ways to design a DLT –“UTXO” or “replicated virtual machine” – and it was very encouraging when I realised that our two firms, completely independently, had both concluded that the correct architecture for a significant range of important financial services use-cases is the UTXO model.

This bears repeating: two firms who, in R3’s case, had worked with a huge consortium of financial institutions on a groundbreaking year-long Architecture Working Group and, in the case of Digital Asset, had begun delivery of implementations for clients, had reached extremely similar conclusions about what the “correct” architecture should look like.

But, in reading the paper, it was also clear that we had made some different decisions, too.  And the interesting thing is that the differences are almost all related to choices we’d made about acceptable tradeoffs.  As I’ve often written, there are no perfect solutions in DLT; just tradeoffs. But I will also freely admit that we made some additions to Corda’s technical vision in the light of the paper!

So it’s time, I thought, to share my thoughts on what I think are the key points in the paper and outline how I think Corda could be a perfect way to implement the concept.

What is the Global Synchronisation Log?

At the heart of this space is a beguilingly simple vision:

DLT allows me to build systems where “I know that what I see is what you see”

That is: if a computer system that I own and run and which exists to serve my needs tells me something about a deal you and I have done, I want to know that the system you’re looking at, that you own and run and which exists to serve your needs, is telling you the same thing.

Before Bitcoin and blockchains and Distributed Ledger Technology there were only two ways of doing this, neither of them perfect:  1) we could build a centralised infrastructure and just agree to agree that whatever they say is the truth… consensus by authority, if you like or 2) we could build our own systems and then spend all our lives checking that they had come to the same conclusion about everything… consensus by reconciliation.

Bitcoin and the systems it inspired showed us there was a third way:  we could use advances in cryptography, consensus algorithms and other technologies to give ourselves near total assurance that our systems were in sync without having to employ armies of people to check.

But there was a problem… and this problem is at the absolute heart of everything that’s going on in the DLT space today: the solution invented by Bitcoin and refined through subsequent systems depends on all data being shared with all parties.  So you gain something amazing on one hand: an end to errors, duplication, inconsistency and associated risk. But, on the other hand, you create a privacy nightmare and a system that goes slower the more things you use it for.

This is precisely the conundrum that motivated the invention and development of Corda. We decomposed the building blocks of existing blockchain platforms and reassembled them in the light of the different threat-model we have, the different use-cases and different tradeoffs we are prepared to accept.

One of the key insights in our work was that, for our scenarios, we can separate transaction verification from the question of whether two verified transactions conflict with each other. I wrote about this when we first announced Corda in April last year.

We think the question of transaction verification should be down to the transaction participants: if one of them pretends that their smart contract produced a different answer to what it actually did then we’ll deal with it out-of-band; it’s a permissioned system and we know who they are…   They gain nothing by playing games like that.

But the question of which transactions actually get confirmed is a question for an independent observer; we need somebody we all trust to choose between two equally valid but conflicting transactions. At R3, we call this observer a notary but that’s just the name we use to generalise the role performed by miners in a traditional blockchain.

In so doing, we addressed many of the privacy and scalability issues of other platforms at a stroke.

But it’s a tradeoff, of course.  Because there’s something that a full public blockchain gives you that this approach doesn’t. Both approaches assure you that only valid transactions can get confirmed, but a full public blockchain also ensures that everybody gets to know when this happens.

But, of course, a traditional blockchain does this by using full broadcast, in the clear, of pretty much everything that happens. A privacy and scalability disaster.

So we had some very heated debates when we designed Corda about which tradeoffs were acceptable and which ones were not. And the GSL paper touches on all of them really succinctly.

Two of the more important debates were as follows:

  • If I send a full transaction to a notary (think ‘miner’ in a traditional blockchain), that could be a privacy leak: the notary gets to see all the data in the transaction. But if I only send the pieces of the transaction that the notary actually needs to see in order to decide transaction ordering then I could execute a “denial of state” attack by having the notary confirm an invalid transaction that “consumes” an input and stops a valid transaction from subsequently being confirmed.
  • If I send a transaction to a notary, how does it know which other parties to inform? I could execute an attack whereby I get a transaction confirmed but the other side doesn’t learn about it… that might allow me to selectively choose not to reveal it if it so suits me.

In Corda, we made the following observations. We said:

  • The “notary privacy versus denial-of-state” question is one that should be solved on a case-by-case basis. So we support “validating notaries” that need to see all data and “non-validating notaries” that just see the subset that allows them to make a confirmation decision. But we require the non-validating notaries record who sent them the transactions they sign so we know who’s to blame if anybody does try to do something nefarious.
  • But the notification issue is more tricky: recall, the full-broadcast solution used in “traditional” blockchains just won’t cut it. Indeed, that’s why, in Corda, there is no global broadcast, by design.  So if a notary is going to inform you that something happened, it needs to know who you are and how to reach you. But that’s also a privacy issue if you implement it simplistically. So users effectively need the right to decide who they trust more: the notary or their counterparties.

So now to Digital Asset’s paper.   What they propose is very reasonable.  In essence, they say the following:

  • The Digital Asset GSL model is comfortable with the risk of a “denial of state” attack. (As are we at R3 for many scenarios, by the way, because the mitigations are robust; but Corda’s default mode is to protect against this threat).
  • So this means it’s fine if the notary only gets to see the subset of a transaction that is needed in order to determine ordering/uniqueness.
  • But GSL users are entirely not OK if a transaction can be confirmed and yet all the affected parties don’t get to hear about it at the same time as the transaction submitter.

And the paper goes on to explain how they think that last problem should be solved.

In essence, they do the following:

  • They effectively add the identities of all the parties who should know about the transaction to the outside of the transaction. This is the part that the notary sees.
    • They don’t actually put the interested parties’ identities on directly – that would be a privacy leak – but that’s the effect; you can think of them as “tagging” the transaction with the list of everybody who needs to know about it.
  • But that’s not enough, of course. The notary doesn’t get to see most of the transaction contents, remember… so the list could be wrong and the notary wouldn’t know! So they go a step further.
  • They add an additional rule to the transaction verification logic: if the transaction doesn’t “tag” the right set of intended recipients then it isn’t considered valid.
  • So now you have something pretty cool: you can get a transaction that fails to tag the right people notarised just fine (the notaries are ‘non-validating’ in the DA model, remember). But the “attacker” gains nothing because the transaction itself won’t be considered valid per the rules of the system.  So whatever nefarious scheme you were plotting fails…
  • And if you do construct a valid transaction then the act of getting it confirmed is also the irreversible act of having the notary inform all affected parties. So a bad guy doesn’t get to withhold valid, confirmed transactions.
  • This approach binds the question of transaction validity to the question of notification of affected parties.  You can’t have one without the other.

So you achieve something useful: transaction contents remain visible only to those who need to see them, transaction verification is in the hands of those to whom they pertain, notaries don’t see what they shouldn’t and if a transaction gets committed all relevant parties get to hear about it.  For a good number of use-cases, that’s a decent set of tradeoffs.

So can Corda provide a solution for the GSL?

(Spoiler: YES!)

It turns out that Corda’s design already has every single one of the features needed to implement the GSL – apart from one, which we added specifically to address this requirement.

  • Corda’s notaries already log the transaction submitters when operating in non-validating mode so we already solve the “denial of state issue” just fine.
  • Corda already supports “transaction tear-offs”, the mechanism whereby only the relevant information is shared with third parties such as notaries, using Merkle trees.
  • Corda already supports the concept of “participants” – aka“tags” – a list attached to each transaction that identifies interested parties
  • Corda’s transaction verification engine already allows contracts to verify that the participant list is correctly populated.

So we already have the mechanism to bind the verification to the population of the notification list.  But the “out of the box” design does not then ensure the notification actually happens…  This was a deliberate choice based on prioritisation of requirements and (yet another!) tradeoff around privacy.

In other words, there was one missing piece, albeit a deliberate one.  But reading this paper made us convinced adding that feature made sense and so we’ve added it to our design and will be added to the codebase in a future milestone release. The thinking is captured in section 7.5 of our technical whitepaper, starting page 33.

Note that our proposed implementation is slightly different to the design sketched in the Digital Asset paper because we deliberately and famously don’t have a blockchain: so there is no data structure that participants can passively browse to look for transactions of interest. Instead, we use a push point-to-point messaging network.  So the notary will directly inform affected parties.

Open Innovation: 2017 is the Year Corda Goes Mainstream

One of the many benefits of working on an open source project is that it becomes so easy and natural to explore these sorts of concepts with other firms, through initiatives such as the Hyperledger Project; through discussion of each other’s papers, like here; and through coding and direct collaboration between developers: we’re very much enjoying working with one of Digital Asset’s developers in our public Slack group, for example.

We think Corda is shaping up to be a perfect architecture for implementing the Global Synchronization Log concept and I am grateful to the team at Digital Asset for sharing their thinking – and their list of requirements – so openly and clearly.

Here’s to open innovation!