[bitcoin-dev] UTXO set commitment hash

Bob McElrath bob_bitcoin at mcelrath.org
Fri Oct 30 16:36:04 UTC 2015

The state of bitcoin transactions can be committed to in blocks by keeping two
running hashes, one of unspent transaction outputs and one of spent transaction
outputs.  A "running hash" $R$ I define as being computed by taking the previous
value of the hash $r$, concatenating it with the new data $x$, and hashing it:
    R = hash(r|x).
In the case of the UTXO set, the data $x$ can be taken to be the concatenation
(txid|vout|amount) for all outputs, let's call this running hash hTXO.  Because
data cannot be "removed" from this set commitment, a second hash can be computed
consisting of the spent outputs, let's call this hSTXO.  Thus the pair of hashes
(hTXO, hSTXO) is equivalent to a hash of all unspent outputs.  These hashes can
be placed into a block's Merkle tree by miners with a soft fork.  It can be
reduced to a single hash hUXTO = hash(hTXO|hSXTO) if desired.

By defining *how* to compute (hTXO, hSXTO) we can define an implementation
independent definition of consensus that is extremely cheap to compute.  The
order in which outputs are hashed is clearly important, but bitcoin has a well
defined ordering already in terms of the order in which transactions appear in
blocks, and the sequential order of outputs.

In the recent discussion surrounding leveldb and jgarzik's new sqlite branch, it
has been brought up repeatedly by gmaxwell that this db is "consensus critical".
As a data structure storing the state of transactions, of course it's consensus
critical.  However there's only one right answer to what the set of UTXOs is.
Any other result reported by the db is simply wrong.  By creating and publishing
(hTXO, hSXTO), miners can publish their view of the transaction state, and any
implementation can be validated against it.

As I understand it, leveldb is in the bitcoin core source tree because it could
have bugs and give the wrong answer for a given UTXO (see BIP50).  This is worse
than a consensus failure, it's just wrong, and the argument that we have to keep
leveldb around and maintain it because it could be wrong is pretty ugly, and I
don't think anyone actually wants to do this.  Let's not be wrong in the first
place, and let's choose databases based on performance and other considerations.
"Not being wrong" should go without saying, regardless of implementation

It should be noted that (hTXO, hSXTO) can be computed twice, once without the
database (while processing a new block) and once by requesting the same data
from the database.  So bad database behavior can be detected and prevented from
causing consensus failures.  And then we can remove leveldb from the core.

Cheers, Bob McElrath

"For every complex problem, there is a solution that is simple, neat, and wrong."
    -- H. L. Mencken 

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