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Sequenced transactions using pacts

The Pact smart contract language features "pacts", a form of coroutine that allows for orchestrating a sequence of transactions, as might be found in an escrow process. In this document we discuss the two motivating scenarios under which pacts find their ideal use-case: for private, confidential transactions it enables single-actor process serialization with automatic rollbacks; for public, "trustless" two-party escrow with rules preventing early cancel by the debtor.

For private transactions, pacts provide the ability to sequence transactions such that they may be modeled as a compound operation, designed to only allow a single "entity" operate at a time. This comes from Kadena's "encrypted messaging" approach to smart contracts with entities representing cryptographic identities (Bob, Alice) communicating with symmetric encryption in a DH scheme.


An entity is an identity as a keypair for symmetric DH communications. Entities are intended to be highly-available, which means that a keypair must be replicated across local nodes, along with an entropy source. Messaging thus always "self-sends" to ensure replication.

Entities are intended mainly for private use, but there is an application for encrypted messaging on a public blockchain for execution in a separate, local runtime that has read-access to the global blockchain.

Considerations regarding disjointedness

An encrypted transaction on a blockchain is ignored by all who cannot read the plaintext, and will only impact the application state of those who can read it. Insofar as the blockchain itself must have identical contents, this means that an encrypted message is a no-op, as any record of results, even decryption success, leaks information and is necessarily inconsistent. We see then that at the blockchain-application level, an encrypted message neither succeeds or fails, which probably means that it always "succeeds" in performing the no-op.

Thus, once an encrypted message is decrypted and executed, its transaction log is completely distinct from the blockchain log, although it can be linked to it by transaction ID. The log of private transactions is thus sparse relative to the blockchain log, and is necessarily disjoint: one participant's private log records at different transaction IDs than another's. Participants in a given transaction will record something in their confidential log at the same ID, representing a modicum of consistency at the transaction ID/participants level.

If the private transaction log is disjoint, clearly the application state DB is disjoint with respect to these private applications. Thus the "private log" is consistent only in that "something is recorded at the same TID", but what is recorded is different. There is clearly an affinity with database keys (here "key" indicates the table too), as sanity would dictate: if two entities write different values to the same key at the same TID, logical consistency cannot be enforced. Instead we expect that participants will either all write the same "global" value at a key (leading to consistency with the private log), or only one of them write a "local" value at a key (narrowing consistency to a single database). Formal verification of these interactions is attractive, implying also that the former "global" case must be "stateless", ie argument-driven not db-driven, while DB-driven updates must only happen for a single participant at a key "owned" by them. Without this guarantee, in fact it is safer to not allow global cases, as these could unexpectedly fail disjointly.

Public/Private data hygeine

Clearly a "chinese wall" must divide public blockchain data from anything in private, most likely resulting in private transactions having read-only access to public data. This concept could be further extended as indicated above, with some tables only permitting "global" updates and others only permitting "local" updates.

Public code can provide a higher level of trust for executing pacts, as the public store guarantees all parties cannot run disjoint code.

Transaction success consistency

With single-actor disjoint execution, the active actor succeeds or fails, while the inactive actors are no-ops, and in fact have no knowledge whether the tx succeeded or not. The need arises to initiate another transaction simply to record the local success or failure. It can be argued that a single-step private transaction does not need any ack; but any system worth its salt will want it as it presumably represents the minimal "message received" so status can be given to the other participants.

Thus we conclude that "ack transactions" are useful if not required for the most minimal private transaction with two or more parties (one party being "self encryption", which succeeds or fails as a unit across replicating entity nodes, but even here an ack transaction is harmless, however wasteful). Automation becomes attractive to correctly service the ack transaction, and even "guarantee" acking (within some SLA).

Multi-step execution

Once in place, ack automation directly leads to the automation/orchestration of multi-step transactions. This serves to address the awkwardness of single-actor disjoint execution, where all activity must be serialized with respect to keys owned by different participants. The ack transaction now kicks off the next step upon success.

Failure automatically causes the runtime to "reverse direction" to serialize rollback execution in reverse order; failure messages cascade back as "nacks" until the first step is reached.

Final success results in a true "ack transaction" which can report success to participants and provide output. [NOTE: output for steps in Pact are currently ignored].

Multi-step leads directly to considerations of how to move information across the steps. Pacts offer yield and resume to allow messaging of an output value to the next step. (It is TBD if "reverse yielding" is necessary for rollbacks). Note however that this is forgeable, as it necessarily must be messaged from the sole entity executing a step.

As will be seen, automatic rollback is private-only; currently it is hardcoded into pact syntax.

Motivation: Public Oracle and Escrow transactions

In public, we no longer need automated servicing of the pact flow: ack transactions become pure RESUME messages sent from outside, as are CANCEL messages.

In public, automatic failure-initiated rollbacks are not valid, as it creates an attack vector of deliberately causing failure to get around CANCEL restrictions. Failure must always be a no-op, leaving the pact state unchanged.

The idea of a specialized CANCEL execution mode is unnecessary, beyond providing stylistic support. Since all failure is a no-op, a CANCEL is an intentional "success-oriented" operation, handled by control flow in whatever step is active. Features like timeouts become trivial to implement (assuming the system provides a time oracle) and normal keyset-based auth is useful.

Public requires the ability to retaining capabilities from previous steps. For example in the CANCEL case, the second actor successfully cancels, but effecting the cancel requires some update to the first actor's state, requiring that capability; a success case could see oracle data coming in that the initiator wants to update their own tables.

An original idea was to simply cascade capabilities, but this is too blunt an instrument. Better to explicitly scope the capability import, ie (import-capabilities step action). This would allow the CANCEL authorization scheme to enforce against the current signatures, before importing capabilities to effect the cancel.

Conditional enforcement

A CANCEL with different rules for initiator (like a timeout) vs respondent (just keyset) requires us to deviate from the "enforce failure kills the transaction" model Pact currently uses, and allow the testing of a sequence of enforcement conditions. To do this, enforce needs to use a "pure" execution model (like that used by keyset predicates) in order to "swallow" the failed enforces on the way to finding the first one that succeeds. We call this enforce-one:

(enforce-one  [(enforce-keyset 'responder-keyset)   (and (enforce-timeout) (enforce-keyset 'initiator-keyset))])
(enforce-one  [(enforce-keyset 'responder-keyset)   (and (enforce-timeout) (enforce-keyset 'initiator-keyset))])

Here the initiator has a timeout before a cancel, OR the respondent can cancel at any time.

Yield/Resume and application style

In Public, yield provides for unforgeable messaging between steps for both public and private. However, public has the additional need to inject more data in as part of a RESUME, in such a way as to suggest normal function application.

A pact id as part of a RESUME basically identifies the message as belonging to the active pact. A message can state step and other internal state but this can only be a form of over-validation; the internal step counter determines what state the pact is in, so the request must match it.

Thus, attempts are problematic to resemble normal function application at each step. First, using a function name that has been "blessed" to represent the current step will still have to check that blessing according to the incremental counter, putting a weird requirement on application, or conversely requiring functions to specify pact interactions "intrusively" (ie, (defun next-step () (set-step 2) ...)), an inversion of control from the current design. The problem here is that these functions will be available to run as stand-alone functions, too, but presumably insofar as they need pact magic they will simply fail in direct application.

Without function names (ie just RESUME [pact-id] [step]), using arguments becomes impractical, requiring a loosey-goosey notion of application (assuming that the arguments should match the step function being executed). Instead, RESUME should simply avail itself of the JSON payload only.

Pact-local and contract-local capabilities

Pact-local capabilities must be unforgeable, like yield/resume and the step counter. Direct reification in the database is problematic, as these must not be reifiable from outside the system, creating a datatype that cannot be exported. A pact capability becomes a transient (memory-only) datatype, at which point an (enforce-pact persisted-pactid) is acceptable: the pact id is merely a pointer to the internal data accessed in enforce-pact; knowing the id alone grants no capabilities. The only issue here is if a single table wants to have a hybrid capability storage; but given the move to also referencing keysets via pointer (to make rotation tractable) instead of directly, this raises the simple notion of a CAP-TYPE and CAP-VALUE tuple. Likewise, contract-local capabilities can simply (enforce-module persisted-modulename) where again the name alone does not grant capabilities. The CAP-TYPE field could simply accept (keyset|pact|module). Enum support would be nice for this.

Runtime Model

The unforgeable aspects of pact execution require an in-memory model (or at least distinct from the user application db) of:

  • step counter

  • pact ID

  • Public last-yielded values

  • overall activity status (to prevent dupe execution etc: (NEW|ACTIVE|DONE))

  • Public previous step capability lookup

  • Failure cascading and private yield values are messaging-borne and therefore forgeable. Entity signatures should be enforced to at least ensure the right entity sent the failure. Failure status should be tracked and validated.

  • In Pact environment, entity name as a Maybe, which doubles as a "is-public".

Reconciling public and private

Currently, rollback and entity selection are in syntax. Public needs no special meta-programming, which might indicate a private-oriented syntax, with entity and rollback as special forms.

Public therefore could be as simple as:

(defpact do-public-pact (name date oracle-ks initiator-ks)  (initiate-to-oracle oracle-ks name date)  (respond-from-oracle date))
(defpact do-public-pact (name date oracle-ks initiator-ks)  (initiate-to-oracle oracle-ks name date)  (respond-from-oracle date))

... with private needing the step, step-with-rollback. In the above, respond-from-oracle would handle canceling with bespoke code. However, CANCEL is common enough to merit usage that can match the syntax of step-with-rollback. Now we avoid state-flag control flow, and can focus on authorizing and implementing the cancel as a single action.

It emerges that the entity selector argument can sufficiently distinguish between private and public:

;; public step(step (initiate-to-oracle oracle-ks name date)) ;; public step with cancel(step-with-rollback (initiate-to-oracle oracle-ks name date)  (cancel-me initiator-ks oracle-ks name date)) ;; private step with entity argument(step 'me (do-stuff foo bar)) ;; private step with rollback, with entity argument(step-with-rollback 'me (do-stuff foo bar) (aw-shux baz))
;; public step(step (initiate-to-oracle oracle-ks name date)) ;; public step with cancel(step-with-rollback (initiate-to-oracle oracle-ks name date)  (cancel-me initiator-ks oracle-ks name date)) ;; private step with entity argument(step 'me (do-stuff foo bar)) ;; private step with rollback, with entity argument(step-with-rollback 'me (do-stuff foo bar) (aw-shux baz))

The open question is to declare the whole pact public or private. Prefer to simply validate via syntax that steps in a given pact cannot mix public and private constructions.

Considerations of using private messaging over a public blockchain

This would require the chinese-wall to be implemented, which is hygeinic for private but clearly essential for public: the execution environment must be entirely distinct, and even off-thread/pipelined as the public ledger has already signed off on this payload as an ENCRYPTED no-op.

It's possible if not necessarily desirable that the system can infer which tables are private through code analysis: any table that is touched under a pact must be private. Instead probably better to use a create-private-table to indicate the use of a given table in a private context, such that public tables will not be writable within a private pact execution.

Considerations of using public-style pacts in a private blockchain

Generally, this seems unnecessary as private trust contexts don't require magic assurance of e.g. an escrow flow. However there seems to be no reason not to allow it. Private would need to add a system time oracle for timeouts, or just blow up when attempting to get system time.