Flow – Developer-First Experience

Our experience developing blockchain applications like CryptoKitties and the Dapper Smart Contract wallet has led us to incorporate a number of improvements to developer ergonomics directly into the protocol layer on Flow. Several are outlined below.

Cadence

Cadence is the first ergonomic, resource-oriented smart contract programming language. 

While existing programming environments can be used to keep track of asset ownership, they are typically used in scenarios where they are reflecting ownership rather than defining it directly. Public blockchains are unique in that they are explicitly designed to manage ownership of digital assets with scarcity and full access control. Digital assets on public blockchains behave like physical assets: they cannot be copied or counterfeited, only moved. 

Last year, the Flow team was investigating the use of Linear Types in the context of blockchains, following academic research into better smart contract languages. At just about the same time, the Libra team defined a new programming model for Move based around a new ownership model inspired by Linear Types: resources. Resources are a new way of representing asset ownership and the properties of crypto-enabled digital assets directly in the programming language. From the Move paper’s introduction:
The key feature of Move is the ability to define custom resource types. Resource types are used to encode safe digital assets with rich programmability.
We were so struck by the power of Resource-Oriented Programming that it’s one of the defining features of Cadence, a programming language designed specifically for the new paradigm of crypto-enabled applications. 

Resource-oriented programming is a new paradigm, designed to be secure and easy-to-use. For the first time, developers can create uniquely durable digital artifacts where ownership is tracked by the language itself, enabling a powerful new category of applications.

As the first high-level resource-oriented programming language, Cadence has a comfortable, ergonomic syntax making it very easy to read. It uses a strong, static type system to minimize runtime errors, and allows all methods, interfaces, and transactions to include pre- and post-conditions to enforce expected behaviour. This has resulted in a language that is easier to learn, significantly easier to audit, and ultimately much more productive than any current alternatives. You can start learning Cadence on Flow Playground: play.onflow.org

Open source tooling

The Flow team has open sourced a series of tools to help developers get started:

Flow Go SDK: the Go SDK is a great tool for developers looking for backend integration with scalability in mind. Go is one of the most popular backend programming languages when performance is a top priority, and has been the go-to choice for Dapper Labs.

Flow JavaScript SDK: for frontend developers, our JavaScript SDK will allow you to easily integrate and interact with Flow. Develop without using ABIs, construct composable interactions and create dapps that delight your users. We think you’re going to love building with our JavaScript SDK.

Visual Studio Code Extension: interact with Flow and use the Cadence language natively in Visual Studio Code. Statically check your Cadence code for errors and test your smart contracts without leaving the comfort of this industry-leading IDE.

Flow Playground GUI: the hosted, in-browser development environment where users can learn and try out Cadence smart contract language without any setup needed. We make it easy for any new developer to get a taste of Cadence, the powerful new language for smart contract development.

Standards Proposals: FTs (Fungible tokens) and NFTs (Non-fungible tokens) are the Flow equivalent of Ethereum’s ERC-20 and ERC-721 tokens, respectively.

Upgradable Smart Contracts

One of the most important promises made by smart contract platforms is that users can trust the smart contract code instead of trusting the smart contract authors. This aspect of blockchains unlocks use cases that we are only beginning to explore, the most impactful of which might be the concept of open services and composability.

In their first incarnation, smart contract platforms were designed such that contract code could never be changed after it is released. This is the most straightforward method to achieve the goal: If the code can’t be changed, even by the original authors, you clearly don’t need to trust the authors after the code is launched.

Unfortunately, software is hard to get right the first time. There are no shortage of examples of smart contracts that – even with incredibly talented teams and motivated communities – had subtle problems that led to a massive loss of funds.

Many developers have expressed the desire to fix or improve a smart contract after it has been deployed, and several have gone to a lot of time and trouble to build some mechanism into their smart contract to allow for upgrades or migrations. But having each developer “roll their own” mechanism for upgradability adds complexity, and makes those smart contracts harder to trust.

On Flow, we allow smart contracts to be deployed to the mainnet in a “beta state”, where the code can be incrementally updated by the original authors. Users will be alerted to the unfinished nature of this code, and can choose to wait until the code is finalized before trusting it. Once authors are confident that their code is safe, they can irrevocably release their control on the contract, and it becomes perfectly immutable for the rest of time.

This system balances the needs of users to be informed about what kind of code they are dealing with – whether or not an application or smart contract is truly trustless – while allowing developers the flexibility to tweak their code for a limited time after shipping.

Fast, Deterministic Finality

From the standpoint of end users, the speed of a blockchain is most practically measured by the time it takes before they (or their client software) can be confident their transaction is permanently included in the chain. This is commonly referred to as “finality”. In Bitcoin, most people define finality as six block confirmations which can take more than an hour. Ethereum improves on this by achieving  probabilistic finality after about 6 minutes. 

On Flow, deterministic finality is achieved within seconds: once Consensus Nodes determine which block a transaction will be a part of, user agents can in most cases execute the transaction locally and give feedback to the user almost immediately. In cases where results may be influenced by other transactions in the network, users will either choose to trust an execution node, using modern APIs to get feedback within a couple of seconds, or wait until the results of the transaction are sealed into the blockchain along with all the relevant execution and verification receipts. This process of block sealing and formal observation takes around 10  blocks; about ten seconds at launch.

Built-in Logging Support

Sometimes, the only way to be sure that a complicated piece of software is working as expected is to log its behaviour, in detail, over a long period of time. Existing smart contract platforms don’t include a logging facility for the simple fact that storing a complete log record of the entire blockchain is completely intractable. Too much data!

Flow recognizes that since all smart contract transactions are fully deterministic, there is no need to store the actual logs for every transaction inside the network. Instead, Flow simply marks which transactions would have produced log messages for which topics. If someone wants to “examine” the logs, they can query the blockchain for the subset of transactions tagged with a particular topic and then re-run the transactions locally to generate those logs for analysis. This technique also makes event logging dramatically more efficient.