Immutability

This opinioned article aims to explore the "immutability" concept in regards of blockchains. The goal is to provide a practical definition of "immutability" that can be followed, and discuss how to design blockchains to maintain backward compatibility.

The idea we are exploring here uses the concept of state graph — transactions that touch state modified by prior transactions. Immutability is then defined in regards of a hard fork, that potential state graphs already formed by past transactions do not change.

Concept

In this section, we define two concepts callable transaction and state graph.

State graph

A blockchain is a collection of transactions. Each transaction affects the state of the blockchain. Those affected states can then further be modified by future transactions. Given one single transaction T, we define the potential state graphs that all future transactions can touch, base on T, to be the transaction state graph of T.

The state graph is easy to be defined in UTXO systems. For account-based systems, transactions modify what is often called the shared world state. Any future transactions that touch a prior transaction’s modified world state is affected by it.

To given the example of Ethereum, two types of primitives exist — function calls and contract creations, forming transactions. Function calls modify an accounts balance and storage values. Contract creations modify contract code of the world state. Given transaction T, any future transactions that inspect or modify the balance, storage value, or contract code touched by T form T's transaction state graph.

Callable transaction

A transaction is callable if there exists valid parameters of a block that can include the transaction. Note that a callable transaction defines its potential, but not immediacy. A block may contain a relatively low block gas limit that renders including some transactions not possible, but when the gas limit raises in the future, the transaction can be included.

Definition

With the concept of callable transaction and state graph, we can define immutability.

Before and after a hard fork, the state graph formed by all callable transactions of all past transactions already on the blockchain should not change.

Designing blockchains

The obvious benefit of having a definition of immutability is backward compatibility, ensuring that protocol developers can add new features to the blockchain freely, while not breaking past smart contracts already there. Hard forks can be thought as adding additional possibilities of state graphs, while not modifying any existing ones. The added state graphs may be interleaved with pre-hard-fork state graphs after the hard fork, but not before.