Bitcoin Developer Guide

Bitcoin Developer Guide

Find detailed information about the Bitcoin protocol and related specifications.

The Developer Guide aims to provide the information you need to understand Bitcoin and start building Bitcoin-based applications, but it is not a specification. To make the best use of this documentation, you may want to install the current version of Bitcoin Core, either from source or from a pre-compiled executable.

Questions about Bitcoin development are best asked in one of the Bitcoin development communities. Errors or suggestions related to documentation on Bitcoin.org can be submitted as an issue or posted to the bitcoin-documentation mailing list.In the following documentation, some strings have been shortened or wrapped: “[…]” indicates extra data was removed, and lines ending in a single backslash “” are continued below. If you hover your mouse over a paragraph, cross-reference links will be shown in blue. If you hover over a cross-reference link, a brief definition of the term will be displayed in a tooltip.

Proof Of Work

The block chain is collaboratively maintained by anonymous peers on the network, so Bitcoin requires that each block prove a significant amount of work was invested in its creation to ensure that untrustworthy peers who want to modify past blocks have to work harder than honest peers who only want to add new blocks to the block chain. Chaining blocks together makes it impossible to modify transactions included in any block without modifying all following blocks. As a result, the cost to modify a particular block increases with every new block added to the block chain, magnifying the effect of the proof of work.

The proof of work used in Bitcoin takes advantage of the apparently random nature of cryptographic hashes. A good cryptographic hash algorithm converts arbitrary data into a seemingly-random number. If the data is modified in any way and the hash re-run, a new seemingly-random number is produced, so there is no way to modify the data to make the hash number predictable. To prove you did some extra work to create a block, you must create a hash of the block header which does not exceed a certain value. For example, if the maximum possible hash value is 2256 − 1, you can prove that you tried up to two combinations by producing a hash value less than 2255.

In the example given above, you will produce a successful hash on average every other try. You can even estimate the probability that a given hash attempt will generate a number below the target threshold. Bitcoin assumes a linear probability that the lower it makes the target threshold, the more hash attempts (on average) will need to be tried.

New blocks will only be added to the block chain if their hash is at least as challenging as a difficulty value expected by the consensus protocol. Every 2,016 blocks, the network uses timestamps stored in each block header to calculate the number of seconds elapsed between generation of the first and last of those last 2,016 blocks. The ideal value is 1,209,600 seconds (two weeks).

  • If it took fewer than two weeks to generate the 2,016 blocks, the expected difficulty value is increased proportionally (by as much as 300%) so that the next 2,016 blocks should take exactly two weeks to generate if hashes are checked at the same rate.

  • If it took more than two weeks to generate the blocks, the expected difficulty value is decreased proportionally (by as much as 75%) for the same reason.

(Note: an off-by-one error in the Bitcoin Core implementation causes the difficulty to be updated every 2,016 blocks using timestamps from only 2,015 blocks, creating a slight skew.)

Because each block header must hash to a value below the target threshold, and because each block is linked to the block that preceded it, it requires (on average) as much hashing power to propagate a modified block as the entire Bitcoin network expended between the time the original block was created and the present time. Only if you acquired a majority of the network’s hashing power could you reliably execute such a 51 percent attack against transaction history (although, it should be noted, that even less than 50% of the hashing power still has a good chance of performing such attacks).

The block header provides several easy-to-modify fields, such as a dedicated nonce field, so obtaining new hashes doesn’t require waiting for new transactions. Also, only the 80-byte block header is hashed for proof-of-work, so including a large volume of transaction data in a block does not slow down hashing with extra I/O, and adding additional transaction data only requires the recalculation of the ancestor hashes in the merkle tree.

Block Height And Forking

Any Bitcoin miner who successfully hashes a block header to a value below the target threshold can add the entire block to the block chain (assuming the block is otherwise valid). These blocks are commonly addressed by their block height—the number of blocks between them and the first Bitcoin block (block 0, most commonly known as the genesis block). For example, block 2016 is where difficulty could have first been adjusted.

Multiple blocks can all have the same block height, as is common when two or more miners each produce a block at roughly the same time. This creates an apparent fork in the block chain, as shown in the illustration above. When miners produce simultaneous blocks at the end of the block chain, each node individually chooses which block to accept. In the absence of other considerations, discussed below, nodes usually use the first block they see.

Eventually a miner produces another block which attaches to only one of the competing simultaneously-mined blocks. This makes that side of the fork stronger than the other side. Assuming a fork only contains valid blocks, normal peers always follow the the most difficult chain to recreate and throw away stale blocks belonging to shorter forks. (Stale blocks are also sometimes called orphans or orphan blocks, but those terms are also used for true orphan blocks without a known parent block.)

Long-term forks are possible if different miners work at cross-purposes, such as some miners diligently working to extend the block chain at the same time other miners are attempting a 51 percent attack to revise transaction history. Since multiple blocks can have the same height during a block chain fork, block height should not be used as a globally unique identifier. Instead, blocks are usually referenced by the hash of their header (often with the byte order reversed, and in hexadecimal).

Transaction Data

Every block must include one or more transactions. The first one of these transactions must be a coinbase transaction, also called a generation transaction, which should collect and spend the block reward (comprised of a block subsidy and any transaction fees paid by transactions included in this block).

The UTXO of a coinbase transaction has the special condition that it cannot be spent (used as an input) for at least 100 blocks. This temporarily prevents a miner from spending the transaction fees and block reward from a block that may later be determined to be stale (and therefore the coinbase transaction destroyed) after a block chain fork. Blocks are not required to include any non-coinbase transactions, but miners almost always do include additional transactions in order to collect their transaction fees.

All transactions, including the coinbase transaction, are encoded into blocks in binary rawtransaction format. The raw transaction format is hashed to create the transaction identifier (txid). From these txids, the merkle tree is constructed by pairing each txid with one other txid and then hashing them together. If there are an odd number of txids, the txid without a partner is hashed with a copy of itself. The resulting hashes themselves are each paired with one other hash and hashed together. Any hash without a partner is hashed with itself. The process repeats until only one hash remains, the merkle root.

For example, if transactions were merely joined (not hashed), a five-transaction merkle tree would look like the following text diagram:

       ABCDEEEE .......Merkle root
      /        
   ABCD        EEEE
  /          /
 AB    CD    EE .......E is paired with itself
/    /    /
A  B  C  D  E .........Transactions

As discussed in the Simplified Payment Verification (SPV) subsection, the merkle tree allows clients to verify for themselves that a transaction was included in a block by obtaining the merkle root from a block header and a list of the intermediate hashes from a full peer. The full peer does not need to be trusted: it is expensive to fake block headers and the intermediate hashes cannot be faked or the verification will fail.

For example, to verify transaction D was added to the block, an SPV client only needs a copy of the C, AB, and EEEE hashes in addition to the merkle root; the client doesn’t need to know anything about any of the other transactions. If the five transactions in this block were all at the maximum size, downloading the entire block would require over 500,000 bytes—but downloading three hashes plus the block header requires only 140 bytes.

Note: If identical txids are found within the same block, there is a possibility that the merkle tree may collide with a block with some or all duplicates removed due to how unbalanced merkle trees are implemented (duplicating the lone hash). Since it is impractical to have separate transactions with identical txids, this does not impose a burden on honest software, but must be checked if the invalid status of a block is to be cached; otherwise, a valid block with the duplicates eliminated could have the same merkle root and block hash, but be rejected by the cached invalid outcome, resulting in security bugs such as CVE-2012-2459.

Chuck Reynolds
Contributor

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