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What Is Exonum

Exonum is a blockchain framework that allows to build secure permissioned blockchain applications. Like all software, Exonum comes with its own set of features and capabilities. This page outlines in which cases Exonum could be useful and points out the main differences between Exonum and other distributed ledger solutions.

Why Blockchain

In the terms of data management, blockchains provide OLTP capabilities; a blockchain processes transactions (which are quite similar to transactions in ordinary database management systems) and changes the stored values correspondingly.

Compared to commonplace OLTP solutions, the use of blockchain brings several distinctive advantages.

Distribution

Like distributed databases, such as Cassandra, MongoDB or MySQL Cluster, blockchains are replicated on multiple nodes. However, compared to ordinary distributed DBs, blockchains are resistant against much wider range of attacks:

  • Blockchains are resistant against failures of any single node (or even multiple nodes at the same time). The threat model includes nodes being switched off, isolated from the rest of the network, or even completely compromised (say, by a hacker)
  • Blockchains can be deployed in a decentralized network, where there is no single administrator managing all nodes. This significantly reduces risks of data corruption and the bias in the system (e.g., preferential treatment of some participants)

Reliable Audit Trail

A core component of a blockchain is a tamper-resistant transaction log. (Tamper-resistance here means that the log entries cannot be modified retroactively.) Blockchains use the same methods to ensure the immutability of the log as evidence records used by certificate authorities and in other security-critical applications.

The reliable audit trail is needed in many regulated industries (e.g., finance and public registries), but it could be useful in other areas as well. The immutability of the transaction log provides provenance for any data piece in the blockchain, allowing to reliably trace its history.

Cryptography

Blockchain extensively uses cryptography in places where traditional systems rely on trust and informal relationships among participants of the system. The most prominent example of this is transaction authentication. Blockchains use public-key cryptography to ensure authenticity and integrity of transactions (instead of, say, password-based authentication). This corresponds to the best practices in security-critical industries and also ensures that the transaction log is completely verifiable.

Exonum Design Goals

Exonum is a framework; it's not a ready-made blockchain (like, say, Bitcoin). Instead, Exonum can be used to create blockchains, just like MVC frameworks (e.g., Django or Express) can be used to create web applications.

Permissioned Control

Exonum is geared towards permissioned blockchains. This means that only a limited list of nodes can commit transactions to the blockchain. Such approach is reasonable if there is a certain maintainer (or several maintainers) that should retain some control over the network (e.g., define and update transaction processing rules). Compared to permissionless blockchains (such as Bitcoin), Exonum applications are more local, but at the same time provide greater flexibility and a more controllable environment.

Controllability of Exonum does not mean that the control of maintainers is unrestricted; there are well-defined rules of transaction processing that even all the network maintainers together cannot bend. Indeed, Exonum allows to easily convey the compliance to transaction processing rules for external parties (be it the regulator, auditors, or users of a platform).

Example

In most reasonable blockchain setups, there is a requirement for all transactions to be digitally signed. If the blockchain maintainers do not have control over private keys in the system, they cannot forge transactions in the name of the key owners.

Transparency

The Exonum framework codifies the ever-increasing role of transparency in the modern world. Exonum provides a rich toolset to define the correct system operation, and allows external parties (e.g., regulators, auditors and end clients of the system) to continuously verify the system operation against these definitions.

Example

In a sample cryptocurrency implementation, users can monitor the state of their wallet in real time. The state returned to a user by network nodes is supplied with an unforgeable cryptographic proof.

Flexibility

One of the reasons for permissioned blockchain setup is a greater degree of flexibility. Exonum ensures flexibility by providing a rich environment for transaction execution.

Example

Document timestamping, cryptocurrency and property rights registries are three vastly different domains in which the Exonum framework can be used effectively.

Safety

As several high-profile blockchain heists have shown, transaction processing on blockchains may be vulnerable to logic bombs and difficult-to-detect marginal cases. Exonum uses the Rust programming language, which guarantees the highest degree of memory safety.

Example

Mutability, references and borrowing in Rust help enforce access restrictions. For example, if a variable is passed to an external component in a non-mutable reference, it cannot be changed no matter what the component does. Strict static typing and absence of null pointers in Rust helps preventing undefined behavior and memory access violations.

Performance

Exonum is geared towards peak throughput of thousands of transactions per second (tps). During test benchmarks, Exonum handles up to 7,000 tps, with a clearing delay (the interval between transaction generation and its inclusion into a block) 2.5 sec.

Main Components

Services

Services allow to specify the business logic for Exonum applications. It is the main extension point of the framework playing the same role as smart contracts in some other blockchains.

Developing Exonum services is similar to service development in Web or in enterprise platforms; they have the same principal components.

Endpoints

A service has a set of endpoints (realized as RESTful APIs) using which the service can communicate with the outside world. The Exonum framework acts as middleware, dispatching requests among services and abstracting the intricacies of data (de)serialization, access control, and other typical middleware tasks away from service developers.

There are 3 types of service endpoints:

  • Transactions correspond to PUT or POST requests in REST
  • Read requests correspond to GET requests in REST
  • Private APIs represent administrative and maintenance endpoints, generally are not accessible to the outside world

Persistence

Exonum provides means for services to persist their data as scalars, or as data collections (maps and lists). The Exonum data storage engine provides powerful abstractions for Merklized collections. In such a collection, any element can be supplied with an unforgeable cryptographic proof that it belongs to the collection (without disclosing any other elements of the collection).

With the help of Merklized collections, a service can provide strict proofs of data authenticity in response to read requests. This requires minimal involvement from the service developers – all heavy lifting is performed by the Exonum core.

Byzantine Consensus

Exonum uses a custom Byzantine fault tolerant consensus algorithm to synchronize data among the nodes in the network. The Exonum network would continue operating even if up to 1/3 validators are hacked, compromised or switched off. Hence, there is no single point of failure in the network; the whole process of transaction processing is fully decentralized.

Light Clients

Exonum supports light clients, network nodes that replicate only a very small part of the blockchain, which the client is interested in. Light clients allow to provide access to blockchain through web or mobile apps. A light client communicates with one or more services on a full node with the help of public APIs.

Example

In the cryptocurrency tutorial, a client corresponds to an owner of currency; it is only interested in transactions that involve the owner.

Exonum pays much attention to the security of light clients. Light clients do not unconditionally trust the responses from full nodes, but rather verify them against formally encoded rules. The verification uses cryptographic techniques, such as Merkle trees and linked timestamping, to ensure that the full nodes cannot misguide the client, even if there is a collusion among the blockchain maintainers.

Bitcoin Anchoring

Exonum provides an anchoring service to achieve the most complete security for light clients. The anchoring service periodically publishes a hash digest of the entire blockchain state to the Bitcoin Blockchain. This makes it impossible to revise the transaction history or to supply different clients with differing versions of the blockchain, even if all the blockchain maintainers collude. Moreover, anchoring is a fallback mechanism: even if the Exonum blockchain stops working, the authenticity of data stored in light clients could still be verified.

What’s Next