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Formal specification of the Cardano blockchain ledger, mechanized in Agda

April/2024, FMBC 2024


Blockchain systems comprise critical software that handle substantial monetary funds, rendering them excellent candidates for formal verification. One of their core components is the underlying ledger that does all the accounting: keeping track of transactions and their validity, etc.

Unfortunately, previous theoretical studies are typically confined to an idealized setting, while specifications for real implementations are scarce; either the functionality is directly implemented without a proper specification, or at best an informal specification is written on paper.

The present work expands beyond prior meta-theoretical investigations of the EUTxO model to encompass the full scale of the Cardano blockchain: our formal specification describes a hierarchy of modular transitions that covers all the intricacies of a realistic blockchain, such as fully expressive smart contracts and decentralized governance.

It is mechanized in a proof assistant, thus enjoys a higher standard of rigor: type-checking prevents minor oversights that were frequent in previous informal approaches; key meta-theoretical properties can now be formally proven; it is an executable specification against which the implementation in production is being tested for conformance; and it provides firm foundations for smart contract verification.

Apart from a safety net to keep us in check, the formalization also provides a guideline for the ledger design: one informs the other in a symbiotic way, especially in the case of state-of-the-art features like decentralized governance, which is an emerging sub-field of blockchain research that however mandates a more exploratory approach.

All the results presented in this paper have been mechanized in the Agda proof assistant and are publicly available. In fact, this document is itself a literate Agda script and all rendered code has been successfully type-checked.