Ethereum Yellow Paper

So, you want to read the Yellow Paper? Before we dive in, keep in mind that the Yellow Paper is outdated, and some in the community might refer to it as being deprecated. Check out the yellowpaper repository on GitHub and its file to stay up-to-date on how closely this document tracks the latest version of the Ethereum protocol. At the time of writing, the Yellow Paper is up to date with the Berlin hardfork, which occurred in April 2021. For an overview of all Ethereum forks and which EIPs are included in each of them, see the EIPs Forks page.

For a more up-to-date reference, check out the Ethereum Specification, which features a detailed description of each opcode for each hardfork in addition to reference implementations written in Python.

That said, the Yellow Paper is still a rich resource for ramping up on the fundamentals of the Ethereum protocol. This document aims to provide some guidance and assistance in deciphering Ethereum's flagship specification.

Mathematical Symbols

One challenging part of the Yellow Paper, for those of us who are not well-trained in formal mathematics, is comprehending the mathematical symbols. A cheat-sheet of some of these symbols is provided below:

  • : there exists
  • : for all
  • : and
  • : or

And some more Ethereum-specific symbols:

  • N_{H}: 1,150,000, aka block number at which the protocol was upgraded from Homestead to Frontier.
  • T: a transaction, e.g., T = {n: nonce, p: gasPrice, g: gasLimit, t: to, v: value, i: initBytecode, d: data}
  • S(): returns the sender of a transaction, e.g., S(T) = T.from
  • Λ: (lambda) account creation function
  • KEC: Keccak SHA-3 hash function
  • RLP: Recursive Length Prefix encoding

High-level Glossary

The following are symbols and function representations that provide a high-level description of Ethereum. Many of these symbols represent a data structure, the details of which are described in subsequent sections.

  • σ: Ethereum world state
  • B: block
  • μ: EVM state
  • A: accumulated transaction sub-state
  • I: execution environment
  • o: output of H(μ,I); i.e., null if we're good to go or a set of data if execution should halt
  • Υ(σ,T) => σ': the transaction-level state transition function
  • Π(σ,B) => σ': the block-level state transition function; processes all transactions then finalizes with Ω
  • Ω(B,σ) => σ: block-finalization state transition function
  • O(σ,μ,A,I): one iteration of the execution cycle
  • H(μ,I) => o: outputs null while execution should continue or a series if execution should halt.

Ethereum World-State: σ

A mapping between addresses (external or contract) and account states. Saved as a Merkle-Patricia tree whose root is recorded on the blockchain backbone.

σ = [account1={...}, account2={...},
    n: nonce, aka number of transactions sent by account3
    b: balance, i.e., the number of wei account3 controls
    s: storage root, hash of the Merkle-Patricia tree that contains this account's long-term data store
    c: code, hash of the EVM bytecode that controls this account; if this equals the hash of an empty string, this is a non-contract account.
  }, ...

The Block: B

B = Block = {
  H: Header = {
    p: parentHash,
    o: ommersHash,
    c: beneficiary,
    r: stateRoot,
    t: transactionsRoot,
    e: receiptsRoot,
    b: logsBloomFilter,
    d: difficulty,
    i: number,
    l: gasLimit,
    g: gasUsed,
    s: timestamp,
    x: extraData,
    m: mixHash,
    n: nonce,
  T: Transactions = [
    tx1, tx2...
  U: Uncle block headers = [
    header1, header2...
  R: Transaction Receipts = [
    receipt_1 = {
      σ: root hash of the ETH state after transaction 1 finishes executing,
      u: cumulative gas used immediately after this tx completes,
      b: bloom filter,
      l: set of logs created while executing this tx

Execution Environment: I

I = Execution Environment = {
  a: address(this), address of the account which owns the executing code
  o: tx.origin, original sender of the tx that initialized this execution
  p: tx.gasPrice, price of gas
  d: data, aka byte array of method id & args
  s: sender of this tx or initiator of this execution
  v: value sent along with this execution or transaction
  b: byte array of machine code to be executed
  H: header of the current block
  e: current stack depth

EVM State: μ

The state of the EVM during execution. This is the data structure provided by the debug_traceTransaction JSON RPC method. See this page for more details about using this method to investigate transaction execution.

μ = {
  g: gas left
  pc: program counter, i.e., index into which instruction of I.b to execute next
  m: memory contents, lazily initialized to 2^256 zeros
  i: number of words in memory
  s: stack contents

Accrued Sub-state: A

The data accumulated during tx execution that needs to be available at the end to finalize the transaction's state changes.

A = {
  s: suicide set, i.e., the accounts to delete at the end of this tx
  l: logs
  t: touched accounts
  r: refunds, e.g., gas received when storage is freed

Contract Creation

If we send a transaction tx to create a contract, is set to null, and we include a tx.init field that contains bytecode. This is NOT the bytecode run by the contract. Rather, it RETURNS the bytecode run by the contract, i.e., the tx.init code is run ONCE at contract creation and never again.

If == 0, then this is a contract creation transaction, and T.init != null, == null.