April 12, 2019
This is an updated version of the Developing with Corda post that I wrote last year. Since then quite a lot has changed, but from your perspective, as a developer, it should feel very similar. Corda has changed a lot to increase its performance, improve security and provide a better developer experience. Touching on the last point, improving the developer experience requires adding better functionality while removing less desirable parts. But, to do so while maintaining backwards compatibility allows you to go through the process of working with Corda 3 to 4 come with little issues. That being said, there are a few differences. These are the things that will be highlighted throughout this post while mainly focusing on providing a base for any newer Corda developers reading this.
If you have already worked with Corda before, then skimming through this post is probably enough. Maybe you have worked with Corda 3 and want to upgrade to 4, then taking a quick look at the code examples and seeing if anything looks different will probably get you what you need out of this post. But, if you are a brand new to Corda, then I recommend you take some time to read through this as well as What is Corda? and watch the Corda key concepts.
From this point on you will be reading through an updated version of Developing with Corda.
In What is Corda? I gave an overview of what Corda is trying to achieve and the design decisions that were made to do so. That information is great to know so we can get some perspective of the platform but it’s not going to help us in writing a system that can leverage Corda. To do that we need to know how the components of Corda work and fit together, only then can we start writing an application that actually does something and works correctly from the perspective of Corda. I see this as the same as learning any other framework. But, we need the voice in the back of our heads to remind us every now and then that we are in fact designing upon a Distributed Ledger Technology platform. Steps need to be taken to ensure that the applications we create are properly designed.
In this post, we will look at writing a very simple Corda application.
Corda is compatible with any JVM language. I know you’re thinking it, but no, it’s not written in Java. It is actually written in Kotlin. This might require a little bit of extra learning to get to grips with Kotlin if you normally work with Java (like I do) but it shouldn’t take you long to be comfortable with it. Due to this, I personally suggest writing your own code in Kotlin to keep the whole stack in the same language. This will help when you need to dig down into Corda’s own code as it will look less alien compared to what you were just writing. Obviously, that is just my suggestion and you could instead use Clojure. But you’re going to find it hard to get a hold of any existing examples without first converting them into their Clojure equivalents.
It is a bit hard to dive straight into the code without first understanding the key concepts of Corda. Rather than going through these myself, I personally believe the documentation provide on this subject is very helpful and should get you most of the way there.
For the purpose of this post, I think it is best to leave out the configuration required to actually setup Corda nodes and instead we should fully focus on writing a Corda application.
Before we can begin writing any code, we need to have an understanding of what the application is trying to achieve. Rather than coming up with my own example, I will lean upon r3’s training materials as the example is reasonably simple to understand. This example is the “IOU” process (I owe you), where someone requests for some money which will be paid back at a later date. In this post, we will just focus on the issuing of an IOU.
Below is a sequence diagram containing the very simplified steps involved in issuing an IOU between two people:
As you can see, the borrower asks for some money, if the lender agrees, then they both try and remember that the borrower owes the lender some money. This is process is simple, but even then, it has been simplified some more. In this process, we haven’t actually mentioned when and how the money is transferred between them. For the purpose of this tutorial, we shall leave this transfer out and just focus on saving the intent of borrowing and lending money between them.
So, how is this sort of process modelled in Corda? Again, before we move on, I want to mention Corda’s key concepts as they are extremely important for understanding what is going on properly.
To model this process in Corda, we need to replace some of the steps. Determining how much money to borrow, becomes the creation of a transaction containing this information. A party being happy with what is proposed is now represented by signing the transaction with their key. Communication between the borrower and lender is replaced with sending a transaction between them. Finally, remembering who owes who is now set in stone with both parties saving the transaction that occurred between them. By altering the simple diagram with this new information, a new version is created:
There are more steps, but the process is still pretty simple. The diagram really speaks for itself and I don’t think there is anything more I can add to it. What I will say, is that I have still further simplified the diagram a little bit by removing the Notary, but only to focus on the process we are trying to model. We’ll touch on what a Notary is very, very, very briefly later on but I will again suggest Corda’s documentation on the subject (I’ll do the same again later on).
These diagrams should provide us with enough guidance to put our Corda application together for issuing an IOU between two parties.
Onto the coding sections, let’s start with states. Information on states can be found here from the Corda documentation. States are passed around the network between nodes and eventually find themselves stored on the ledger. In terms of a transaction, a state can be an input or an output and many of these can exist on a single transaction. They are also immutable, which is required to build up the chain of states that are used within transactions.
As mentioned earlier, I am leaning upon r3 training materials. Below is the IOUState that will be passed around with the application:
Due to the “IOU” concept, pretty much all the fields make sense without much explanation; amount is the lent amount, lender the party lending the money and so on. The only property that needs explaining is linearId which is of type UniqueIdentifier, this class is basically a UUID, in fact, it’s internalId is generated from the UUID class.
The state extends LinearState which is one of the general types of state that Corda uses with another being FungibleState. Both of these are implementations of ContractState. LinearStates are used to represent states that, quoting its docs, evolves by superseding itself. As such, when the state is updated it should be included as an input of a transaction with a newer version being output. The old state will now be marked as CONSUMED from UNCONSUMED when saved to the vault (Corda’s abstraction over the database).
ContractState requires a property that returns the participants of the state.
The participants are a very important part of the state. The parties defined within this list determine who gets to have the state saved to their own vault/database. If you find that your state is not being saved to a party that should know about it, this is most likely the issue. I have personally run into and felt the pain of this mistake.
In the above code, the participants were not included in the constructor and instead relies on defining a get function that can be used to retrieve them. Here it returns the lender and the borrower since they are the only two parties involved in the transaction. If you wanted to, you could add the participants to the constructor like below:
This allows you to define participants that might not be included in the state. Which route you take depends on your use-case, for this tutorial either will do the job.
One quick little thing before moving onto the next section. The @BelongsToContract annotation, that was not mentioned before, is binding a state to a contract (which we will look at very soon). Another way to write the same code without the need for the annotation is to move the state into an inner class of the contract, this would look something like the below:
If you don’t do this or add the annotation then you’re going to get the following warning:
Lucky for you, it is a clear message and should point you in the correct direction. If you ever get around to looking into the Corda codebase then you will see that the inbuilt states that have their own contracts are written like the example above. More information on this can be found in the Corda 3 to 4 upgrade notes.
Next up are contracts. Contracts are used to validate input and output states for a given command by all parties involved in the transaction. The command could be, for example, issuing the state or paying off owed money. We will look at commands slightly later in this section but we should be able to brush over them for now.
Contracts are quite nice to write due to their expressiveness. We are able to write conditions within the contract that must be met for a transaction to be valid. If any are not met then an exception will be thrown. This normally ends in terminating the current transaction since an involved party has found it invalid.
These conditions use the requireThat DSL that Corda defines to specify conditions along with error messages that detail what is wrong with the transaction. This makes it nice and easy to go through a contract and understand what it is doing since the code conditions are nicely complemented by the English messages (or whatever language you want to write them in).
Below is an example of a contract that is used to validate the IOUState defined above:
I have simplified the contract for the purpose of this post since we will only focus on implementing one command type. Let’s start from the top and work our way down.
The IOUContract implements Contract requiring it to now have a verify function that gets called to verify (hence the name) a transaction.
The class name of the contract has been included here:
This is used in other parts of Corda when reflection is required. Another way to write this if you don’t want to put the string in directly is like below:
Now we can talk about the commands that I briefly mentioned earlier on in this section. I have put them below again so you don’t need to scroll again:
These commands are used to specify the intention of the transaction. They have been put here due to their connection to the contract since they determine what conditions must be validated. That being said, you could put these commands somewhere else if you wanted, such as in their own file or outside of the contract class but within the same file. As long as your solution best describes your intention then you are probably going in the correct direction.
Since these commands are simple and are only used to specify intent, TypeOnlyCommandData is extended. Other abstract classes are available that specify commands that we might want to use, such as MoveCommand.
We will see how to use the commands in the next section.
Here’s where most of the magic happens, the code has been copied and pasted below:
The verify function checks whether the proposed transaction is valid. If so, the transaction will continue forward and most likely be signed and committed to the ledger. But, if any of the conditions are not met an IllegalArgumentException is thrown thus leading to the termination of the proposed transaction.
Exceptions are generally how Corda deals with unmet requirements. When an exception is thrown, assuming nothing is trying to catch it, execution is terminated and propagated up until it is caught or it ends up in the console output. This provides a simple way to control the flow of the transaction since it can be stopped anywhere in its execution, even on the counterparty’s node, as the exception will be passed back to the initiator.
Onto the verification code itself. The command that the transaction is executing on its states is retrieved and depending on the type, different checks are made to check the validity of the transaction. The requireThat DSL that Corda provides allows you to write a condition that must be true to continue along an error message that is output if the condition is false.
Let’s look at one of the requireThat statements a bit more closely:
There’s not much to explain here. The DSL takes care of the intent of the statement. What I will point out is the syntax:
<string message of what condition should be met> using <condition it must pass>
Quite simple. Although I will highlight this point. Something that used to stupidly catch me out when I started working with Corda, was the need for brackets in the using statement if the condition contains any spaces. Forgetting this will give you some errors 🤦. Finally, the DSL can contain code that is not in a condition expression, allowing you to initialise variables and such which can then be used in the actual conditions.
That’s enough of contracts for now. They will pop up again in the next section when we put the IOUContract into action.
In Corda, flows are the central point where we tie off all previous sections. States, contracts, and commands all come together to write the code that will propose a new transaction, send it to all counterparties to sign and commit it to the ledger if everyone is happy. You can do much more complicated things within flows but for this tutorial, we will stick with the basics.
Following on from the examples in the previous sections, we will now implement the IOUIssueFlow. Below is the code as a whole which we will then split and examine:
The flow of this code (yes that is a pun 😅) is reasonably straight forward and will be possibly one of the typical flows that you write within your own application. I can say for most flows that I have written over the last year or so for both work and for my other blog posts have followed this sort of structure. To be honest, whenever I start a new one, I copy and paste one a flow that looks like this and then start from there. Hasn’t failed me yet 🙂.
You obviously don’t have to write your flows in the exact same way. I have split the call function into a load of smaller functions. It does actually make the code a lot longer. But, I don’t think it can get any easier to read than that 😎.
Anyway, enough about myself and back to the code.
What it does:
Now that we know the steps that are made within this flow, we can go through and explain how this is done within the code.
Here’s the code again with just the Initiating Flow extracted from it:
Firstly, the flow class is annotated with @InitiatingFlow and extends FlowLogic. This combination is required by any flow that requests communication with a counterparty. FlowLogic contains one abstract function call that needs to be implemented by the flow. This is where all the magic happens. When the flow is triggered, which we will look at later, call is executed and any logic that put inside the function runs. FlowLogic is generic (FlowLogic<T>) where T determines the return type of call. In the above example, a SignedTransaction is returned but it is totally feasible to use FlowLogic<Unit> if you have no desire to return anything back to the caller of the flow.
Next up is the @StartableByRPC annotation. This allows the flow to be called from an RPC connection which is the interface between the outside of a Corda node and it’s internals. We’ll touch on this a bit more when we look at triggering the flow.
Yet another annotation popping up. @Suspendable actually originates from quasar-core instead of one of Corda’s own libraries. If you forget to add it then you will see the error below and your flow will hang:
java.lang.IllegalArgumentException: Transaction context is missing. This might happen if a suspendable method is not annotated with @Suspendable annotation.
@Suspendable is needed on all functions that communicate with a counterparty. As the name suspendable suggests, the annotation allows the function to be suspended while the counterparty is dealing with their side of the transaction. Quite a bit of magic goes on here and it is touched on briefly in the Corda documentation on flows.
In my original version of this post, I talked about the error being confusing and unrelated. But, it looks like that is resolved and an error message explaining exactly what is wrong has been thrown. That being said, if you do ever get some weird errors, it is still worth double checking that you have got @Suspendable in the right place.
Linking this back to the example. call, collectSignatures and recordTransaction are all annotated with @Suspendable. Both collectSignatures and recordTransaction call subFlows that interact with counterparties. call on the other hand needs the annotation because it is delegating to our own functions which are suspending.
This is our first encounter with subFlows. I will put a little section further down to quickly cover this and give the topic the explanation it deserves.
Back to the task at hand.
Missing the @Suspendable annotation is one of the most common pitfalls I have seen other developers fall into. So let me reiterate this point again.
You need to add the @Suspendable annotation to any function that has an interaction with a counterparty
You don’t understand how hard it is to not simplify this all the way down to 🤦
You need to add the @Suspendable annotation to any function that suspends
Just read whichever one gets my point across.
Now we’re done with the annotations we can look more closely at the contents of the call function.
First, we will look at building the proposed transaction, the relevant code has been extracted below:
For the purpose of this post, we will assume there is only one Notary which allows us to be lazy and just retrieve the first one from the list. If you do not know what a Notary is, like earlier I suggest reviewing the Corda Key Concepts for a good explanation on the topic. For now, I’ll provide you the bare minimum to carry on. A Notary is a node whose sole purpose is to validate that no double spends have occurred within a transaction sent to it. Extra validation can also be run if it is set up to do so.
The serviceHub comes provided since we extended FlowLogic; the function networkMapCache will then provide the identities of the parties on the network and notaryIdentities narrows it down even more. As I mentioned earlier, we’re going to be lazy and just retrieve the first one from this list. How you retrieve the Notary that you wish to use in a transaction might change depending on your requirements.
We then create a command that represents the intent of the transaction. In this case, we use the IOUContract.Commands.Issue that was defined earlier. In creating the command we also need to provide the public keys of the parties required to sign the transaction. it is a Party and owningKey represents their public key. The only signers in this transaction are contained within the states participants property but an independent list could be passed in instead.
All the components needed for the transaction have now been retrieved or created. Now we need to actually start putting it together. TransactionBuilder does just that. The Notary is added via one of the TransactionBuilder’s constructors but can be set later on if preferred. addOutputState takes in the state passed into the flow along with the contract name that will verify it. Remember I mentioned two ways to get this name; via a public property within the object (how Corda normally does it) or by manually adding the classes name yourself, either way, the end goal is the same. The final component we add to this transaction is the command we created.
The next block of code focuses on verifying and signing the transaction, again the relevant code has been pasted below:
Once we are happy that everything we want to include in the transaction has been included, we need to verify it. Simply call the verify function the TransactionBuilder provides. This function results in the validation inside the contract running against the transaction. As mentioned earlier in the contract section, if any of the conditions in the contract fail an exception is thrown. Since, in this code, there are no attempts to catch the exception, the flow will fail as the exception is propagated up the stack.
After the transaction has passed validation, as far as we (the initiator) are concerned, the transaction is valid and should be signed. To do this, serviceHub.signInitialTransaction is called. This creates a new SignedTransaction that is currently only signed by the initiator. Having this transaction signed will become important later when the Notary checks that the transaction has been signed by all the parties involved.
The transaction is now both verified and signed by the initiator. The next step is requesting the signatures of the counterparties involved in the transaction. Once that is done the transaction can be persisted to everyone’s vaults as they all agree that the transaction is correct and meets their needs.
Below is the code in charge of collecting signatures from counterparties:
The counterparties in this transaction are defined by the parties in the participants list. If we remember back to how the state’s participants field was constructed, only two parties were contained in it, therefore only two parties will need to sign the transaction. Although that statement is correct, the transaction has already been signed by the initiator so now only the single counterparty (the lender) needs to sign it.
To send the transaction to the counterparty we first need to create a session with them. The code below does just that and the sessions returned from it are the input to the function above:
The initiateFlow function creates a session to another node, it takes in a Party and returns a FlowSession to be used for communication. As mentioned the initiator does not need to sign the transaction again through this construct, so in the code, they have been removed from the parties whose communication sessions are being created for. Due to us knowing who are involved in this transaction, the single FlowSession could be created with the code below instead:
Instead of relying on the participants list we instead just create a session for the lender as our knowledge of the state indicates that they are the only counterparty.
The FlowSession needs to be used inside of the CollectSignaturesFlow along with the SignedTransaction that is still only signed by the initiator at this point. CollectSignaturesFlow sends the SignedTransaction to the counterparty (counterparties if multiple need to sign) and awaits their response. We will look at how the response is sent back in a following section. Once returned, the SignedTransaction is now complete as it has been signed by everyone and can be persisted.
The following code persists the transaction:
Although, for a one-liner, this piece of code packs quite a punch. FinalityFlow will most likely always be called at the end of your flows, at least for the simpler flows anyway.
Calling FinalityFlow will:
Expanding slightly on the 1st point. A transaction is only sent to a Notary if it has any input states that are being consumed. This is due to Notaries checking for previously spent states to prevent double spends. Therefore, if there are no input states then there is nothing for the Notary to do. Not sending it to the Notary is mainly an optimisation that removes wasted work.
The last two steps depend on the Notary finding the transaction valid. If it does not, like usual, an exception is thrown thus leading to an exit from the flow.
Everything in the flow that we have looked at so far is on the initiator’s side of the process. There have been a few times during the example where the transaction was sent over to the counterparty and some “stuff” happened. In this brief section we will inspect the code that the counterparty would run:
As before this code was included earlier on in the post.
The most important line in this class is the @InitiatedBy annotation that specifies which flow it accepts requests from and responds back to. In this example, it is the IOUIssueFlow that we have already gone through.
Since IOUIssueFlowResponder is also a flow, it extends FlowLogic and will need to implement its own version of call. The FlowSession in the constructor is the session that was used by the initiator to communicate with this flow. @Suspendable is also used on call just like it was in the initiating flow.
SignTransactionFlow is the other half of the CollectSignaturesFlow that was called in the initiator. It is an abstract class that requires checkTransaction to be implemented. This contains any extra validation that the counterparty might want to run against the transaction. SignTransaction’s call function will still verify the transaction against the contract so this is the chance for anything else; ensuring that the transaction is up to the standards of the counterparty. Saying that, checkTransaction can also contain as little code as desired and could even be empty if the contract validation is enough. Rather than showing you what that would look like, I’ll let you use your vivid imagination to imagine an empty function…
subFlow is then called on the implementation of SignTransactionFlow leading to it being executed. The validation in the contract runs, followed by the contents of checkTransaction and if all the checks come back fine, the transaction is signed and sent back to where it came from.
The final step is the invocation of ReceiveFinalityFlow. This is different to how it previously worked in Corda 3, where you did not need to manually receive the transaction. Anyway, this subFlow needs to be called to record the transaction to the vault of the counterparty. The id of the expected transaction to record is extracted from the transaction that was signed beforehand. After this point, both the counterparty will have the transaction saved away in their vault, ready to use in future flows.
The code in this class could be as simple or complicated as it needs to be. For the example used in this tutorial, simple is good enough. This will change depending on your requirements and what must be communicated between the initiator and its responders.
You will have seen the subFlow function scattered throughout the code examples. Finally, I think we have reached a point in the post where I can talk about them a bit more.
subFlows are flows, similar to the one we are looking at in this post, that are called from within other flows. For example, CollectSignaturesFlow and FinalityFlow cannot be triggered by themselves as they are not annotated with @InitiatingFlow, therefore they can only ever be used from within a subFlow. Most of the flows provided by Corda out of the box fall within this same category.
All subFlow does is run the flow passed into it, by calling the flow’s call function and returning whatever the flow would normally return. A flow does not require anything special to be passed into subFlow, if we ever needed to, IOUIssueFlow could be passed into it from another flow.
Corda provides flows for a lot of the typical operations that need to be repeated throughout our own flows. These are called via subFlow and include (and many more): CollectSignaturesFlow, SignTransactionFlow, SendTransactionFlow and ReceiveTransactionFlow.
In this final section, we will look at how to call a flow from outside of the Corda node.
There are a few ways to do this, each working slightly differently. But, let’s keep this short and sweet and only look at the bog standard startFlow function:
That’s it. As I said, short and sweet. proxy is of type CordaRPCOps which contains a load of functions revolved around interacting with the Corda node via RPC. startFlow is one of those functions. It takes in the name of the flow class along with any arguments that are part of the flow’s constructor. So in this example, IOUIssueFlow’s call function will be invoked with an IOUState being passed in to be used within the flow.
A FlowHandle<T> is returned where T is the same generic type of the invoked flow, in this case, a SignedTransaction. returnValue can then be called to retrieve a CordaFuture, allowing the result to be retrieved as soon as it’s available. CordaFuture is a subtype of a standard Future with a few extra methods made available, one of which is toCompletableFuture that may or not be useful to you (this was useful to me anyway).
Here we are, at the end at last.
This post should have hopefully given you some help in understanding how to go about developing with Corda. There is much more to learn as I have only covered the basics in this post. In this post, we implemented the process of an IOU while inspecting the components that are required to do so. States are facts that are shared among parties on the network, contracts are used to validate transactions and flows contain the logic to propose new transactions. With this information, you should be in a good place to start writing your own flows. There is much more you can do with flows that hasn’t been covered within this post, but these basics should serve you well through any flows that you try to write.
If you found this post helpful and want to keep up with my posts as I write them, then you can follow me on Twitter at @LankyDanDev.
You can also join the Corda slack channel if you have any questions or are interested in learning about Corda further after reading this post.
Originally published at lankydan.dev on April 5, 2019.
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