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# Solana ABI management process

This document proposes the Solana ABI management process. The ABI management process is an engineering practice and a supporting technical framework to avoid introducing unintended incompatible ABI changes.

# Problem#

The Solana ABI (binary interface to the cluster) is currently only defined implicitly by the implementation and requires a very careful eye to notice breaking changes. This makes it extremely difficult to upgrade the software on an existing cluster without rebooting the ledger.

# Requirements and objectives#

• Unintended ABI changes can be detected as CI failures mechanically.
• Newer implementation must be able to process the oldest data (since genesis) once we go mainnet.
• The objective of this proposal is to protect the ABI while sustaining rather rapid development by opting for a mechanical process rather than a very long human-driven auditing process.
• Once signed cryptographically, data blob must be identical, so no in-place data format update is possible regardless of inbound and outbound of the online system. Also, considering the sheer volume of transactions we're aiming to handle, retrospective in-place update is undesirable at best.

# Solution#

Instead of natural human's eye due-diligence, which should be assumed to fail regularly, we need a systematic assurance of not breaking the cluster when changing the source code.

For that purpose, we introduce a mechanism of marking every ABI-related things in source code (structs, enums) with the new #[frozen_abi] attribute. This takes hard-coded digest value derived from types of its fields via ser::Serialize. And the attribute automatically generates a unit test to try to detect any unsanctioned changes to the marked ABI-related things.

However, the detection cannot be complete; no matter how hard we statically analyze the source code, it's still possible to break ABI. For example, this includes not-derived hand-written ser::Serialize, underlying library's implementation changes (for example bincode), CPU architecture differences. The detection of these possible ABI incompatibilities is out-of-scope for this ABI management.

# Definitions#

ABI item/type: various types to be used for serialization, which collectively comprises the whole ABI for any system components. For example, those types include structs and enums.

ABI item digest: Some fixed hash derived from type information of ABI item's fields.

# Example#

+#[frozen_abi(digest="eXSMM7b89VY72V...")]
#[derive(Serialize, Default, Deserialize, Debug, PartialEq, Eq, Clone)]
pub struct Vote {
/// A stack of votes starting with the oldest vote
pub slots: Vec<Slot>,
/// signature of the bank's state at the last slot
pub hash: Hash,
}

# Developer's workflow#

To know the digest for new ABI items, developers can add frozen_abi with a random digest value and run the unit tests and replace it with the correct digest from the assertion test error message.

In general, once we add frozen_abi and its change is published in the stable release channel, its digest should never change. If such a change is needed, we should opt for defining a new struct like FooV1. And special release flow like hard forks should be approached.

# Implementation remarks#

We use some degree of macro machinery to automatically generate unit tests and calculate a digest from ABI items. This is doable by clever use of serde::Serialize ([1]) and any::type_name ([2]). For a precedent for similar implementation, ink from the Parity Technologies [3] could be informational.

# Implementation details#

The implementation's goal is to detect unintended ABI changes automatically as much as possible. To that end, the digest of structural ABI information is calculated with best-effort accuracy and stability.

When the ABI digest check is run, it dynamically computes an ABI digest by recursively digesting the ABI of fields of the ABI item, by re-using the serde's serialization functionality, proc macro and generic specialization. And then, the check assert!s that its finalized digest value is identical as what is specified in the frozen_abi attribute.

To realize that, it creates an example instance of the type and a custom Serializer instance for serde to recursively traverse its fields as if serializing the example for real. This traversing must be done via serde to really capture what kinds of data actually would be serialized by serde, even considering custom non-derived Serialize trait implementations.

# The ABI digesting process#

This part is a bit complex. There is three inter-depending parts: AbiExample, AbiDigester and AbiEnumVisitor.

First, the generated test creates an example instance of the digested type with a trait called AbiExample, which should be implemented for all of digested types like the Serialize and return Self like the Default trait. Usually, it's provided via generic trait specialization for most of common types. Also it is possible to derive for struct and enum and can be hand-written if needed.

The custom Serializer is called AbiDigester. And when it's called by serde to serialize some data, it recursively collects ABI information as much as possible. AbiDigester's internal state for the ABI digest is updated differentially depending on the type of data. This logic is specifically redirected via with a trait called AbiEnumVisitor for each enum type. As the name suggests, there is no need to implement AbiEnumVisitor for other types.

To summarize this interplay, serde handles the recursive serialization control flow in tandem with AbiDigester. The initial entry point in tests and child AbiDigesters use AbiExample recursively to create an example object hierarchal graph. And AbiDigester uses AbiEnumVisitor to inquiry the actual ABI information using the constructed sample.

Default isn't enough for AbiExample. Various collection's ::default() is empty, yet, we want to digest them with actual items. And, ABI digesting can't be realized only with AbiEnumVisitor. AbiExample is required because an actual instance of type is needed to actually traverse the data via serde.

On the other hand, ABI digesting can't be done only with AbiExample, either. AbiEnumVisitor is required because all variants of an enum cannot be traversed just with a single variant of it as a ABI example.

Digestable information:

• rust's type name
• serde's data type name
• all fields in struct
• all variants in enum
• struct: normal(struct {...}) and tuple-style (struct(...))
• enum: normal variants and struct- and tuple- styles.
• attributes: serde(serialize_with=...) and serde(skip)

Not digestable information:

• Any custom serialize code path not touched by the sample provided by AbiExample. (technically not possible)
• generics (must be a concrete type; use frozen_abi on concrete type aliases)