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Stellar Core, or stellar-core, separates data into "current" and "historical."

Current data is the subject of peer-to-peer messages--consensus is only concerned with the present, not the past. Current data resides in a local SQL database paired with each stellar-core process. This database is consulted and updated "live" in an ACID fashion as stellar-core applies each transaction set for which consensus was reached and forms each new ledger.

Unlike many similar systems, stellar-core does not need to consult history in order to apply a single transaction or set of transactions. Only "current" data--the state of the current ledger and the hash of the previous one--is required to apply transactions. "Historical" data exists for peers to catch up to one another, as well as for record auditing and interoperability with other programs.

Historical data resides in history archives. A stellar-core process should almost always have access to a history archive. While it is possible to run a stellar-core process without any associated history archives, other peers will not be able to catch up with it, and it will not be able to catch up with other peers, so it will likely be a very incomplete configuration. For normal operations, a stellar-core process should always be configured with one or more history archives.

For history archives to be effective, they should be configured in such a way that each validator writes to one or more archives, which are in turn readable by one or more other peers. A common configuration is for each peer in a group to have a single history archive that it knows how to write to, while also knowing how to read from all archives in the group.

History archives

Many different facilities or services can be used as history archives; stellar-core only needs to be supplied with a way to "get" and "put" files to and from the archive. For example, history archives may be FTP or SFTP servers, filesystem directories shared between stellar-core processes, AWS S3, Google Cloud Storage, Azure Blob storage or similar commodity object storage services.

History archives are defined in a very lightweight fashion, in stellar-core's configuration file, by providing a pair of get and put command templates. stellar-core will run the provided command template, with its own file names substituted for placeholders in the template, in order to get files from, and put files into, a given history archive. This interface is meant to support simple commands like curl, wget, aws, gcutil, s3cmd, cp, scp, ftp or similar. Several examples are provided in the example configuration files.

Serialization to XDR and gzip

stellar-core leans heavily on the XDR data format. This is an old, stable, standardized serialization format, defined in RFC 4506 and used for several standard unix and internet protocols and formats.

XDR is used for 3 related but different tasks, the first 2 of which are discussed elsewhere:

  • Exchanging peer-to-peer network protocol messages and achieving consensus.
  • Cryptographically hashing ledger entries, buckets, transactions, and similar values.
  • Storing and retrieving history (discussed in this document).

When storing XDR files to history archives, stellar-core first applies gzip (RFC 1952) compression to the files. The resulting .xdr.gz files can be concatenated, accessed in streaming fashion, or decompressed to .xdr files and dumped as plain text by stellar-core.


During normal operation, a validating stellar-core server will save a "checkpoint" of its recent operations to XDR files, compress them, and publish them to all of its configured writable history archives once every 64 ledgers (about once every 5 minutes).

History checkpoints include the set of buckets that have changed since the last checkpoint (see description of buckets) as well as the ledger headers, transaction sets, results of transactions, and a small amount of indexing metadata stored in JSON files. This permits a variety of fine-grained auditing, transaction replay, or direct catchup.

Checkpointing happens asynchronously based on snapshot read isolation in the SQL database and immutable copies of buckets; it does not interrupt or delay further rounds of consensus, even if the history archive is temporarily unavailable or slow. If a pending checkpoint publication fails too many times, it will be discarded. In theory, every validating node that is in consensus should publish identical checkpoints (aside from server-identification metadata). Thus, so long as some history archive in a group receives a copy of a checkpoint, the files of the checkpoint can be safely copied to any other history archive that is missing them.

Catching up

When stellar-core finds that it is out of sync with its peers--either because it is joining a network for the first time, or because it crashed or was disconnected for some reason--it contacts a history archive and attempts to find published history records from which to "catch up." This is the first and most essential use of history archives: they are how peers catch up with one another.

This bears repeating: peers never send historical data to one another directly, and they must share access to a common history archive if they're ever to successfully catch up with one another when out of sync. If you run a stellar-core server without configuring history archives, it will never synchronize with its peers (unless they all start at the same time).

The peer-to-peer protocol among stellar-core peers deals only with the current ledger's transactions and consensus rounds. History is sent one-way from active peers to history archives, and is retrieved one-way by new peers from history archives. Aside from establishing which value to catch up to, peers do not provide one another with the data to catch up when out of sync.

Catching up is based on buffering live network traffic in memory while awaiting a checkpoint that overlaps with the buffered traffic. Usually any catchup operation must wait, on average, half the duration of a checkpoint window (2.5 minutes) before enough material is buffered and published to successfully catch up. The catchup time window varies depending on the responsiveness and reachability of the history archive selected, but in general catchup will retry until it finds enough history material to succeed.

Auditing and interoperability

One of the factors motivating the stellar-core history design was to permit other programs and 3rd parties transparent, easy, and unbiased access to the ledger and transaction history, without having to "go through" the stellar-core program or protocol. Any program that can fetch data from a history archive and deserialize XDR can read the complete history; there is no need to speak the stellar-core peer-to-peer protocol or interact with any stellar-core peers.

With the exception of a single "most recent checkpoint" metadata file, all files written to a history archive are written once and never modified. Bucket files are named by hash, but transaction sets, ledger headers, and checkpoint metadata (including the hashes of buckets) are named sequentially. Anyone wishing to audit or reconstruct the activity of stellar-core by monitoring a history archive can simply poll the archive and consume new files as they arrive.

All XDR encoding and decoding in stellar-core is done by code generated automatically from the associated XDR schemas; any other compliant XDR code generator should produce a deserializer that can read and write the same history. The XDR code generator used in stellar-core is developed independently, but included in the source tree as a submodule.

Additional design considerations

In addition to the considerations of interoperability and software flexibility presented above, a few additional, less obvious motives are at work in the design of the history system in stellar-core. A few reasons that the extra effort of configuring independent history archives is, in our judgment, worth its slight awkwardness:

  • Configuring independent history archives helps ensure valid backups get made. It is very easy to build a backup system that is not run frequently enough, only run in emergencies, or never run at all. Such systems tend to accumulate bugs or misconfiguration that can render them useless in production. By forcing normal operation to use the same code path that is making continuous, long-term flat-file backups, we help ensure the backup code works, and is being run on a regular schedule.

  • This design reduces the risk of lost peers. stellar-core peers are comparatively ephemeral: new ones can be brought online relatively quickly (only downloading missing buckets) and the state stored on a given peer is likely only one checkpoint, or 5 minutes, worth of unique data (the rest has been archived). While stellar-core is designed to run as a highly fault-tolerant replicated system in the first place, the less damage suffered by losing a single replica, the better.

  • It is fast, flexible and cheap. Copying bytes sequentially from flat files is the case that all operating systems, file service providers, and networking systems are optimized for. Anything more interactive or involving more round trips or random seeking would be slower. The service also parallelizes almost perfectly and is provided by a wide variety of highly competitive vendors.

  • Finally, configuring independent history archives enforces a separation between (time-sensitive) consensus and (time-insensitive) history traffic, which is good for isolating and managing system load. New peers coming online may need significant amounts of data to catch up; if they requested this data from existing peers, they would put immediate load on those peers and could interfere with those peers performing the delicate and time-sensitive work of acquiring consensus and forming new ledgers. By performing catchup against independent history archives, the work can occur in parallel and use entirely separate resources (network, CPU, disk).

Detailed structure of history archives

Each history archive contains a number of directories, each containing either .json files (JSON format, RFC 7159) or .xdr.gz files (Gzipped XDR format, RFCs 1952 and 4506).

History Archive State (HAS) files

The JSON files in a history archive all have a format called a "History Archive State" or "HAS": they are a JSON serialization of the data structure called HistoryArchiveState and contain the following fields:

  • version: number identifying the file format version
  • server: an optional debugging string identifying the software that wrote the file
  • currentLedger: a number denoting the ledger this file describes the state of
  • currentBuckets: an array containing an encoding of the bucket list for this ledger

The currentBuckets array contains one object for each level in the bucket list. The objects in the array correspond to "levels" in the bucket list; any field in the bucket list which is said to denote "a bucket" is a string that holds the hex-encoded SHA256 hash of the bucket. The level objects of the bucket list contain the following fields:

  • curr: the "current" bucket for the level
  • snap: the "snap" bucket for the level
  • next: the "next" future-bucket for the level, an object with the following fields:
    • state: a number denoting the state of the future bucket. If state == 0 then no other fields exist. Otherwise some fields may exist:
    • output (if state == 1): a fully-merged bucket
    • curr (if state == 2): the curr bucket used as input to a merge
    • snap (if state == 2): the snap bucket used as input to a merge
    • shadow (if state == 2): an array of buckets used as input to a merge

The organization of the bucket list is somewhat subtle: it is an 11-entry array of temporally-stratified, exponentially-growing sequences of ledger entries, each of which comprises a subset of ledger entries last-changed a given amount of time in the past. The detailed structure is explained in the BucketList.h header. It suffices here to say that the higher-numbered levels in the bucket list denote larger buckets (with more ledger entries) that change more slowly; whereas the lower-numbered levels denote smaller buckets (with fewer ledger entries) that change more quickly. Reconstructing the state of the ledger described by a given bucket list involves applying the buckets of ledger entries in reverse order, from higher to lower levels.

Root HAS

Every history archive has a "root" HAS which can be found at a fixed location within the archive: .well-known/stellar-history.json. This is kept in the RFC 5785 .well-known directory, and is intended as a "starting place" for any client reading from a history archive. It is a duplicate copy of the most recent HAS file written to the archive. Reading the root HAS file gives enough information to navigate the rest of the archive. The root HAS file is also the last file written to the history archive when any update is made, so represents an atomic "commit point" to changes to the archive.

Other files

Aside from the root HAS file, all other files in the history archive are named by one of two logical naming schemes:

  • By ledger number: these files have the form category/ww/xx/yy/category-wwxxyyzz.xdr.gz, where:

    • category describes the content of the file (history, ledger, transactions, results or scp)
    • 0xwwxxyyzz is the 32bit ledger sequence number for the checkpoint at which the file was written, expressed as an 8 hex digit, lower-case ASCII string.
    • ext is a file extension, either .json or .xdr.gz
  • By hash: these files have the form bucket/pp/qq/rr/bucket-ppqqrrssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssss.xdr.gz where ppqqrrssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssss is the 256-bit SHA256 hash value of the contents of the bucket, expressed as a 64 hex digit, lower-case ASCII string. Only bucket files are stored in this form.

Checkpoints are made once every 64 ledgers, at ledger sequence numbers that are one-less-than a multiple of 64. For example, HAS files are written at checkpoints for the following ledger sequence numbers and paths:

  • ledger 0x0000003f, stored in history/00/00/00/history-0000003f.json
  • ledger 0x0000007f, stored in history/00/00/00/history-0000007f.json
  • ledger 0x000000bf, stored in history/00/00/00/history-000000bf.json
  • ledger 0x000000ff, stored in history/00/00/00/history-000000ff.json
  • ledger 0x0000013f, stored in history/00/00/01/history-0000013f.json
  • ledger 0x0000017f, stored in history/00/00/01/history-0000017f.json
  • ledger 0x000001bf, stored in history/00/00/01/history-000001bf.json
  • ledger 0x000001ff, stored in history/00/00/01/history-000001ff.json
  • etc.

These HAS files in turn contain all the hash-based names of buckets associated with each checkpoint. Every other file in the archive is, like the HAS file, named by ledger number.

Individual file contents

In total, each checkpoint number 0xwwxxyyzz consists of the following files:

  • One HAS file, named by ledger number as history/ww/xx/yy/history-wwxxyyzz.json, as described above: a JSON file listing the individual buckets associated with the checkpoint.

  • Zero or more bucket files, named by hash as bucket/pp/qq/rr/bucket-ppqqrrssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssss.xdr.gz. One such file should exist for every bucket mentioned in any of the bucket list fields in the checkpoint's HAS file, history/ww/xx/yy/history-wwxxyyzz.json. Bucket files are added as needed to the history archive; generally each checkpoint will involve changing one or more buckets but only those buckets that change between checkpoints are uploaded with the checkpoint, the rest are assumed to already exist in the archive. The HAS file and the buckets, together, are sufficient to reconstruct the state of the ledger at the checkpoint; but not enough to connect that state to the historical "trust chain" of the current network.

  • One ledger-headers file, named by ledger number as ledger/ww/xx/yy/ledger-wwxxyyzz.xdr.gz. The file contains a sequence of XDR structures of type LedgerHeaderHistoryEntry, one per ledger in the checkpoint (so there should be 64 such structures in all checkpoints except the first, which has 63 headers). These header structures are fixed-size and small, and are sufficient to establish the "trust chain" of linked cryptographic hashes between the present state of the network and previous, historical states.

  • One transactions file, named by ledger number as transactions/ww/xx/yy/transactions-wwxxyyzz.xdr.gz. The file contains a sequence of XDR structures of the type TransactionHistoryEntry, with zero-or-more structures per ledger; it is the concatenation of all the transactions applied in all the ledgers of a given checkpoint. Each TransactionHistoryEntry structure indicates the ledger it was a part of, and there may be dozens, hundreds, even thousands of such structures per ledger. These files are potentially large, and should only be downloaded if replaying history (rather than simply reconstructing a point-in-time) or verifying individual transactions.

  • One results file, named by ledger number as results/ww/xx/yy/results-wwxxyyzz.xdr.gz. The file contains a sequence of XDR structures of the type TransactionHistoryResultEntry, with zero-or-more structures per ledger. The file is similar to the transactions file, in that there is one entry per transaction applied to a ledger in the checkpoint; but this file stores the results of applying each transaction. These files allow reconstruction the history of changes to the ledger without actually running the stellar-core transaction-apply logic.

  • (Optionally) one SCP file, named by ledger number as scp/ww/xx/yy/scp-wwxxyyzz.xdr.gz. The file contains a sequence of XDR structures of the type SCPHistoryEntry, with zero-or-more structures per ledger. The file records the sequence of nomination and ballot protocol messages exchanged during consensus for each ledger. It is primarily of interest when debugging, or when analyzing trust-relationships and protocol behavior of SCP. It is not required for reconstructing the ledger state or interpreting the transactions.