Formal verification is a complex task but made possible and easier on Tezos smart contracts with proof assistant tools (such as Coq) and Michelson conception choices.
All about trust
The main trait of the blockchain is that it ensures the execution of transactions without a trusted third-party. The deployment of smart contracts re-introduces a trusted party (the one who wrote the smart contracts). Tests can be done but nothing ensures the completeness (all situations of execution) of these tests.
A bug in a smart contract would destroy the trust.
The formal verification consists in proving mathematically that a smart contract possesses properties described in its formal specification. The mathematical proof is formal so its correctness can be verified automatically.
The trust is based on the existence of a proof for a smart contract and the understanding of the formal specifications of the smart contracts. The formal specification of a smart contract describes without ambiguity the properties of the program.
What is the formal verification on Tezos smart contract
The formal verification on Tezos smart contracts consist on:
- describing formal specifications of the expected behavior of the smart contract
- translating the smart contract, its formal specifications and specification of the language itself into a proof assistant language.
- writing a proof. In the proof assistant, one can manually (or assisted by solvers tools) produce a formal proof that the smart contract comply to the given specifications.
- publishing this proof in order to allow anyone to verify automatically that the smart contract comply to its specifications.
Formal verification made possible
Formal verification is a complex task but made possible on Tezos smart contracts with Michelson conception choices.
Indeed the Michelson language has been designed in order to take the formal verification into account. It is done by:
- introducing typing system on a stack-based language for facilitating formal verification.
- preventing JUMP instructions which make the formal verification more complex
- prevent floating-point number (because of overflow and rounding)
- less execution error with explicit failure (e.g. division by 0)
Formal verification benefits
There is a real benefit to be able to prove the behavior of a smart contract, (i.e. to verify that a smart contract complies to some specifications).
Generally speaking, smart contracts have specific characteristics making them more bound to be verified than other common programs:
- Due to the blockchain context, a smart contract is not intended to be modified (hard to modify once deployed), and thus can be proven once and for all.
- particularly relevant when financial transfers are at stake (bug causing the loss of a token).
- Proofs can be verified automatically without a trusted third-party. The proof process is aligned with the decentralization concept.
- smart contracts are short , thus it is not too hard to write a proof
- smart contracts are executed in a well-defined context (protocol Tezos) which relatively separated, thus facilitating the formal verification.
This compliance can be verified by anyone for a given smart contract and proof.
Many proof assistants can be used to translate a smart contract into a formal definition and formalize its specifications and its compliance to these specifications.
Nomadic Labs provides Mi-Cho-Coq, a library for the Coq proof assistant.
Archetype language integrates directly information concerning formal verification (based on Why3, may automatically produce the proof). specifications are written in the smart contract.
K-Michelson is based on K-framework which is a generic tool for specifications and proofs languages.
Coq and Mi-Cho-Coq
Initially developed by Thierry Coquand, Coq  is a proof assistant designed to develop mathematical proofs, and especially to write formal specifications, programs, and proofs that programs comply to their specifications.
Specifications, programs, and proofs are formalized in the Coq language called Gallina, which follows the Calculus of Inductive Constructions (CIC).
A program is a sequence of instructions in a language. Coq is a generic tool and can support many languages (e.g. Mi-Cho-Coq is a library for Michelson language support). A program represents how a modification is applied. The specification of a program represents what a program is meant to do. Coq provides a language (called Gallina -Terms) for modeling logical objects such as theorems, axioms, assumptions). The proof is a sequence of logical deductions (based on axioms, assumptions and the inference rule) that verify the compliance of a program to its specification.
The Mi-Cho-Coq library represents the bridge between Tezos smart contracts and formal proofs in Coq.
In practice, the Mi-Cho-Coq library is used to produce a formal definition of a Michelson script (i.e., the "Modeling theorem" section). Each Michelson instruction has its equivalent in the Mi-Cho-Coq library.
The Mi-Cho-Coq library provides a formal definition (in Gallina) of the type system (Michelson types), the syntax (instructions of the Michelson), the semantics (evaluator) and the lexing and parsing (for type-checking). More details in the next page.
Pros and cons
Coq combined with Mi-Cho-Coq provides a manual low-level approach to write manually a proof assisted by Coq. This approach performs verification at smart contract level (Michelson script).
It also provides a way to perform formal verification on smart contracts written in high-level languages (LIGO, SmartPy) since ultimately they are compiled to Michelson.
Mi-Cho-Coq limitations are:
- data serialization/deserialization is not supported yet
- cryptographic functions are considered as a black box and used as such.
- gas model is not taken into account.
Mi-Cho-Coq official repository is available at https://gitlab.com/nomadic-labs/mi-cho-coq
Archetype official documentation is available at https://archetype-lang.org/
K-Michelson official documentation is available at https://runtimeverification.github.io/michelson-semantics/
Juvix official documentation is available at https://juvix.org/docs/proof-system
Lorentz official documentation is available at https://serokell.io/blog/lorentz
All these proof assistants provides tools for formal verification but also provides a way to express the semantic of a program (e.i. formal semantic). They share the same purpose which is to define what a program is meant to do and to verify that the program does comply to these intentions (called specifications).
Expressivity vs automation
Proof assistants have chosen different ways to model specifications. For example, Mi-Cho-Coq is a Coq library allowing to verify at Michelson level, and specifications are designed in Coq as logical objects (with all the expressivity power of the Gallina language).
Whereas Archetype design specifications by adding annotations directly inside the smart contract (written in a high-level language). Using annotations for expressing specifications, has the benefit to allow the automatic generation of the proof. This automatic proof cannot be done in all cases (it depends on the complexity) but is It introduces an inconvenience which is to limit the expressivity of these specifications to the annotation grammar.
FIGURE 1: Comparison of proof assistants approaches.
Due to these different approaches and their implementations, the time of verification may vary. Automated generated proofs take more time to verify correctness (i.e. time spent for running the proof). Obviously, automation reduces drastically the time spent on writing the proof !
It's worth to mention that these proof assistants have different approaches concerning the level at which the verification is applied.
The Mi-Cho-Coq approach is to apply formal verification on the low-level language (Michelson) and provides trust on the smart contract.
Another approach is to apply formal verification on a high-level language and provides trust in the high-level language compiler (which produces Michelson). (e.g. Archetype).
Specification based on resources
By default, specifications are expressed on impacts of execution of a smart contract (i.e. on modifications of the smart contract storage).
Some proof assistants also express specifications based on resources (such as the storage size, or the gaz consumption). The size of storage could be bounded, and thus specifications could reason on these boundaries. The gaz consumption (equivalent to the execution time) could also be a criterion useful for specifying the intention of the smart contract.
Verification applied on interactions of multiple contracts
As a stand-alone, Mi-Cho-Coq approach provides a solid (full-expressivity) manner for expressing specifications and for verifying a proof but does not provide a way to verify interactions between multiple smart contracts.
The Concert library for Coq provides a way to model each smart contract as a Coq function and allows to reason on these functions (which can call each other). Concert is a generic tool and not a tezos-specific library such as Mi-Cho-Coq.
Examples of famous proven smart contracts
There smart contracts that have already been proven such as Dexter thus providing trust on the Dexter decentralized exchange platform.
Liquidity Baking smart contracts have also been proven.