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The Filecoin State Machine

The majority of Filecoin's user facing functionality (payments, storage market, power table, etc) is managed through the Filecoin State Machine. The network generates a series of blocks, and agrees which 'chain' of blocks is the correct one. Each block contains a series of state transitions called messages, and a checkpoint of the current global state after the application of those messages.

The global state here consists of a set of actors, each with their own private state.

An actor is the Filecoin equivalent of Ethereum's smart contracts, it is essentially an 'object' in the filecoin network with state and a set of methods that can be used to interact with it. Every actor has a Filecoin balance attributed to it, a state pointer, a code CID which tells the system what type of actor it is, and a nonce which tracks the number of messages sent by this actor. (TODO: the nonce is really only needed for external user interface actors, AKA account actors. Maybe we should find a way to clean that up?)

Method Invocation

There are two routes to calling a method on an actor.

First, to call a method as an external participant of the system (aka, a normal user with Filecoin) you must send a signed message to the network, and pay a fee to the miner that includes your message. The signature on the message must match the key associated with an account with sufficient Filecoin to pay for the messages execution. The fee here is equivalent to transaction fees in Bitcoin and Ethereum, where it is proportional to the work that is done to process the message (Bitcoin prices messages per byte, Ethereum uses the concept of 'gas'. We also use 'gas').

Second, an actor may call a method on another actor during the invocation of one of its methods. However, the only time this may happen is as a result of some actor being invoked by an external users message (note: an actor called by a user may call another actor that then calls another actor, as many layers deep as the execution can afford to run for).

Sending Funds

As all messages carry a method ID, the method ID '0' is reserved for simple transfers of funds. Funds specified by the value field are always transferred, but specifying a method ID of '0' ensures that no other side effects occur.

State Representation

The global state is modeled as a map of actor IDs to actor structs. This map is implemented by an ipld HAMT (TODO: link to spec for our HAMT) with the 'key' being the serialized ID address (every actor has an ID address that can be looked up via the InitActor), and the value is an Actor object with the actors information. Within each Actor object is a field called state that is an ipld pointer to a graph that can be entirely defined by the actor.

Actor Creation

There are two mechanisms by which an actor can be created. By explicitly invoking exec on the Init actor, and by sending a message to a Public Key typed Address.

Calling exec to create an actor should generate an Actor address, and register it in the state tree (see Init Actor for more details).

Sending a message to a non-existant account via a public key address causes the creation of an account actor for that address. The To address should be placed into the actor storage for later use in validating messages sent from this actor.

This second route for creating an actor is allowed to avoid the necessity of an explicit 'register account' step for creating new accounts.

Execution (Calling a method on an Actor)

Message execution currently relies entirely on 'built-in' code, with a common external interface. The method and actor to call it on are specified in the Method and To fields of a message, respectively. Method parameters are encoded and put into the Params field of a message. The encoding is technically actor dependent, but for all built-in Filecoin actors it is the dag-cbor ipld encoding of the parameters struct for each method defined in the actors doc.

These functions are given, as input, an ExecutionContext containing useful information for their execution.

type VMContext interface {
	// Message is the message that kicked off the current invocation
	Message() Message

	// Storage provides access to the VM storage layer
	Storage() Storage

	// Origin is the address of the account that initiated the top level invocation
	Origin() Address

	// Send allows the current execution context to invoke methods on other actors in the system
	Send(to Address, method string, value AttoFIL, params []interface{}) ([][]byte, uint8, error)

	// BlockHeight returns the height of the block this message was added to the chain in
	BlockHeight() BlockHeight

If the execution completes successfully, changes to the state tree are saved. Otherwise, the message is marked as failed, and any state changes are reverted.

func ApplyMessage(st StateTree, msg Message) MessageReceipt {
	fromActor, found := st.GetActor(msg.From)
	if !found {
		Fatal("no such from actor")

	totalCost := msg.Value + (msg.GasLimit * msg.GasPrice)
	if fromActor.Balance < totalCost {
		Fatal("not enough funds")

	if msg.Nonce() != fromActor.Nonce+1 {
		Fatal("invalid nonce")

	toActor, found := st.GetActor(msg.To)
	if !found {
		toActor = TryCreateAccountActor(st, msg.To)

	st.DeductFunds(msg.From, totalCost)
	st.DepositFunds(msg.To, msg.Value)

	vmctx := makeVMContext(st, msg)

	if msg.Method != 0 {
		ret, errcode := toActor.Invoke(vmctx, msg.Method, msg.Params)
		if errcode != 0 {
			// revert all state changes since snapshot
			st.DeductFunds(msg.From, vmctx.GasUsed()*msg.GasPrice)
		} else {
			// refund unused gas
			st.DepositFunds(msg.From, (msg.GasLimit-vmctx.GasUsed())*msg.GasPrice)

	// reward miner gas fees
	st.DepositFunds(BlockMiner, msg.GasPrice*vmctx.GasUsed())

	return MessageReceipt{
		ExitCode: errcode,
		Return:   ret,
		GasUsed:  vmctx.GasUsed(),

func TryCreateAccountActor(st StateTree, addr Address) Actor {
	switch addr.Type() {
	case BLS:
		return NewBLSAccountActor(addr)
	case Secp256k1:
		return NewSecp256k1AccountActor(addr)
	case ID:
		Fatal("no actor with given ID")
	case Actor:
		Fatal("no such actor")


Every message execution generates a receipt. These receipts contain the encoded return value of the method invocation, and an exit code.


Actors are given acess to a Storage interface to fulfil their need for persistent storage. The Storage interface describes a content addressed block storage system (Put and Get) and a pointer into it (Head and Commit) that points to the actor's current state.

type Storage interface {
	// Put writes the given object to the storage staging area and returns its CID
	Put(interface{}) (Cid, error)

	// Get fetches the given object from storage (either staging, or local) and returns
	// the serialized data.
	Get(Cid) ([]byte, error)

	// Commit updates the actual stored state for the actor. This is a compare and swap
	// operation, and will fail if 'old' is not equal to the current return value of `Head`.
	// This functionality is used to prevent issues with re-entrancy
	Commit(old Cid, new Cid) error

	// Head returns the CID of the current actor state
	Head() Cid

Actors can store state as a single block or implement any persistent data structure that can be built upon a content addressed block store. Implementations may provide data structure implementations to simplify development. The current interface only supports CBOR-IPLD, but this should soon expand to allow other types of IPLD data structures (as long as the system has resolvers for them).

The current state of a given actor can be accessed first by calling Head to retrieve the CID of the root of the actors state, then by using Get to retrieve the actual object being referenced.

To store data, Put is used. Any number of objects may be Put, but only the object whose CID is committed, or objects that are linked to in some way by the committed object will be kept. All other objects are dropped after the method invocation returns. Objects stored via Put are first marshaled to CBOR-IPLD, and then stored, the returned CID is a 32 byte sha2-256 CBOR-IPLD content identifier.

Burning Funds

In the case that an actor needs to provably burn funds, the funds should be transferred to the 'Burnt Funds Actor' (ID 99).

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