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Capability-based runtime modules

Capability-based runtime modules for Substrate is an alternative design of Substrate Runtime Module Libraries. It aims at incoperating some capability-based system into runtime, to address some concerns on upgradability and security.

The core idea of capability-based runtime modules is that instead of modules compiled in one single binary and communicating directly through internal calls, we design a root OS-like runtime. Each function modules are compiled individually as its own binary and only talk with the root OS-like runtime. The root OS-like runtime then handles communications with other modules through capatibilities.

Rationale

The design of Substrate Runtime Module Libraries has significantly simplified runtime development for blockchains. In the mean time, we do still hear concerns regarding certain aspects of the current system:

  • There are very little separation of different runtime modules. This brings in some security concerns, as any flaw in a single runtime module will be a flaw for all runtime modules.

  • Decmoracy module is currently designed to update all aspects of the blockchain using the same rule. This sometimes does not represent the real needs, as in a law system, certain aspects (like the constitution) should be much harder to change than others. We cannot yet express this in the current model.

  • Currently, even if we only need to modify a single runtime module, we still need to replace the whole runtime binary. This is not an ideal situation.

  • It is not always clear for users regarding the influences of its funding when sending out transactions. The documentations usually point it out clearly, but still, there is nothing on-chain that can allow users to state clearly if it is willing to give the ability to runtime modules to slash or transfer the balances.

Capability-based runtime modules address those issues by:

  • Creating a root runtime. The root runtime acts as the "OS kernel" of the whole runtime. All function runtime modules are sandboxed and have their own child storage.

  • Provide any runtime modules the ability to define custom capatibilities, and pass those capatibilities to other modules for operations.

  • Provide users the ability to define their own capatibilities as well. For example, "may slash X coins" or "may lock X coins". Users pass those capatibilities as signed in a transaction, to parameters of runtime module calls.

Design

Root runtime and process modules

The root runtime is the runtime that is directly operated by Substrate. Process modules are function runtime modules that is operated by the root runtime.

The root runtime stores WebAssembly binaries of all process moudles, and upon each block, execute each process module one by one in the sandboxed WebAssembly environment. The sandboxed environment does not have the full storage access of the blockchain. Instead, it is only limited to a standalone child storage.

Capability and invocation

A capability has three items, the owner, the process module who created this capability, and the capability data. An invocation of a capability will execute a function call and consumes it. The invocation, besides passing the capability, also passes a function name and some parameters. This is to allow the sender to indicate how it wants to spend the capability. If a capability is repeatable, then the invocation may return new capatibilities. For example, a balance::slashable(address, 100) capability can be invoked with slash(90), and if successful, it will return a new capatibilty balance::slashable(address, 10).

Note that a capability may become dangling, if an incompatible process module upgrade is enacted. The root runtime will make sure that capatibilies cannot be modified, but it’s the process module’s job to check whether a capability is valid.

In an invocation, parameters to a function call can also be capatibilities. The capatibilities will be passed by root runtime from the sender to the receiver. The receiver can then store this capability for future use, to do invocations that it would otherwise not be able to do.

Capatibilities can also be created by user transactions. Those are created through a special method call in process modules and can only be invoked by root runtime. A user transaction can contain a requests field that has a capability balance::slashable(address, 100). The root runtime will pass this capability to be checked by balance module, indicating that it is signed by the user. It creates this capability if the request is valid. Otherwise, the whole user transaction will fail directly.

A capability cannot be copied by itself. Any duplicable capability will have a function call duplicate that can split the current capability to two.

Process module lifecycle

Each process module now has a lifecycle.

Upon initialization, the system module will pass two system capatibilities to the process module — system::upgradable(module) which will allow the process module to upgrade itself, and system::destroy(module) which will allow the process module to self-destruct.

Note that it is solely up to the process module if it is upgradable or destroyable. If it plans to be, then it should duplicate those two capatibilities and pass them to a democracy module.

Example

  • For an upgradable process module, upon initialization, it receives the two system capatibilities system::upgradable(module) and system::destory(module). The initialization parameter also requires a capability with interface push(<any capability>, <rule>) and clear(), which is supposed to point to a democracy module, for example, democracy::votable(id). The module then pushes system::upgradable(module) along with other votable capatibilities to democracy module. The democracy module presents users with lists of capatibilities that it receives, and users can vote to invoke those capatibilities under their specified rules.

  • For staking module, users, in their transactions, first specify a capability request balance::slashable(X). The extrinsic is then set to staking::bound(balance::slashable(X)).

Implementation

A viable way to implement capability-based runtime modules is to implement it as a SRML module. The root runtime becomes a normal modules that controls many sandboxed submodules.