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Blockchain Syncing

Read this in other languages: Korean.

We describe here the different methods used by a new node when joining the network to catch up with the latest chain state. We start with reminding the reader of the following assumptions, which are all characteristics of Grin or Mimblewimble:

  • All block headers include the root hash of all unspent outputs in the chain at the time of that block.
  • Inputs or outputs cannot be tampered with or forged without invalidating the whole block state.

We're purposefully only focusing on major node types and high level algorithms that may impact the security model. Detailed heuristics that can provide some additional improvements (like header first), while useful, will not be mentioned in this section.

Full History Syncing


This model is the one used by "full nodes" on most major public blockchains. The new node has prior knowledge of the genesis block. It connects to other peers in the network and starts asking for blocks until it reaches the latest block known to its peers.

The security model here is similar to bitcoin. We're able to verify the whole chain, the total work, the validity of each block, their full content, etc. In addition, with Mimblewimble and full UTXO set commitments, even more integrity validation can be performed.

We do not try to do any space or bandwidth optimization in this mode (for example, once validated the range proofs could possibly be deleted). The point here is to provide history archival and allow later checks and verifications to be made.

What could go wrong?

Identical to other blockchains:

  • If all nodes we're connected to are dishonest (sybil attack or similar), we can be lied to about the whole chain state.
  • Someone with enormous mining power could rewrite the whole history.
  • Etc.

Partial History Syncing

In this model we try to optimize for very fast syncing while sacrificing as little security assumptions as possible. As a matter of fact, the security model is almost identical as a full node, despite requiring orders of magnitude less data to download.

A new node is pre-configured with a horizon Z, which is a distance in number of blocks from the head. For example, if horizon Z=5000 and the head is at height H=23000, the block at horizon is the block at height h=18000 on the most worked chain.

The new node also has prior knowledge of the genesis block. It connects to other peers and learns about the head of the most worked chain. It asks for the block header at the horizon block, requiring peer agreement. If consensus is not reached at h = H - Z, the node gradually increases the horizon Z, moving h backward until consensus is reached. Then it gets the full UTXO set at the horizon block. With this information it can verify:

  • the total difficulty on that chain (present in all block headers)
  • the sum of all UTXO commitments equals the expected money supply
  • the root hash of all UTXOs match the root hash in the block header

Once the validation is done, the peer can download and validate the blocks content from the horizon up to the head.

While this algorithm still works for very low values of Z (or in the extreme case where Z=1), low values may be problematic due to the normal forking activity that can occur on any blockchain. To prevent those problems and to increase the amount of locally validated work, we recommend values of Z of at least a few days worth of blocks, up to a few weeks.

What could go wrong?

While this sync mode is simple to describe, it may seem non-obvious how it still can be secure. We describe here some possible attacks, how they're defeated and other possible failure scenarios.

An attacker tries to forge the state at horizon

This range of attacks attempt to have a node believe it is properly synchronized with the network when it's actually is in a forged state. Multiple strategies can be attempted:

  • Completely fake but valid horizon state (including header and proof of work). Assuming at least one honest peer, neither the UTXO set root hash nor the block hash will match other peers' horizon states.
  • Valid block header but faked UTXO set. The UTXO set root hash from the header will not match what the node calculates from the received UTXO set itself.
  • Completely valid block with fake total difficulty, which could lead the node down a fake fork. The block hash changes if the total difficulty is changed, no honest peer will produce a valid head for that hash.

A fork occurs that's older than the local UTXO history

Our node downloaded the full UTXO set at horizon height. If a fork occurs on a block at an older horizon H+delta, the UTXO set can't be validated. In this situation the node has no choice but to put itself back in sync mode with a new horizon of Z'=Z+delta.

Note that an alternate fork at Z+delta that has less work than our current head can safely be ignored, only a winning fork of total work greater than our head would. To do this resolution, every block header includes the total chain difficulty up to that block.

The chain is permanently forked

If a hard fork occurs, the network may become split, forcing new nodes to always push their horizon back to when the hard fork occurred. While this is not a problem for short-term hard forks, it may become an issue for long-term or permanent forks. To prevent this situation, peers should always be checked for hard fork related capabilities (a bitmask of features a peer exposes) on connection.

Several nodes continuously give fake horizon blocks

If a peer can't reach consensus on the header at h, it gradually moves back. In the degenerate case, rogue peers could force all new peers to always become full nodes (move back until genesis) by systematically preventing consensus and feeding fake headers.

While this is a valid issue, several mitigation strategies exist:

  • Peers must still provide valid block headers at horizon Z. This includes the proof of work.
  • A group of block headers around the horizon could be asked to increase the cost of the attack.
  • Differing block headers providing a proof of work significantly lower could be rejected.
  • The user or node operator may be asked to confirm a block hash.
  • In last resort, if none of the above strategies are effective, checkpoints could be used.