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Beginner's Guide to the Ethereum Virtual Machine (EVM)

The Ethereum Virtual Machine (EVM) is the central component of the Ethereum network, an open-source platform that has completely changed the blockchain technology landscape. Even though EVM is only useful for the Ethereum network, its significance goes beyond that of the network itself. Most blockchain networks nowadays strive to be EVM-compatible, partly due to Ethereum's large market share of the developer and dApp community.

In this article, we explore the fundamental ideas behind the EVM, its features, its role in the Ethereum ecosystem, and what the future holds for the EVM.

What is the Ethereum Virtual Machine (EVM)?

The Ethereum Virtual Machine (EVM) is a decentralized, Turing-complete virtual machine that operates as the runtime environment for smart contracts on the Ethereum blockchain. It serves as the execution platform for these smart contracts, enabling them to run and interact with the Ethereum network. The EVM is designed to be a sandboxed environment, ensuring that the execution of smart contracts is secure, deterministic, and isolated from the underlying network.
 

The EVM, along with the native Solidity programming language, plays a crucial role in attracting the developer community to Ethereum. The platform's flexibility, extensive developer tools, and large user base further contribute to its appeal for decentralized application (DApp) developers.

Beyond its core functionalities, the EVM retains access to all network nodes, managing smart contract execution and overseeing transactions on the Ethereum blockchain. This positions the EVM as one of the most potent virtual machines today.

Origin of the Ethereum Virtual Machine (EVM)

Introduced in 2013 by programmer Vitalik Buterin, the Ethereum network owes much of its success to the Ethereum Virtual Machine (EVM). Designed by Gavin Wood during his tenure at Ethereum, the EVM is written in C++ and utilizes the LLVM Project compiler. It continuously operates as a special state machine, determining each block's state in the Ethereum blockchain through immutable operations.

The EVM governs node actions on the distributed ledger and defines the rules for changing state from block to block, enabling the smart contract functionality for which Ethereum is renowned. 

EVM's role is to execute smart contract codes, written in languages such as Solidity, using a collection of 140 standard opcodes and implementing various blockchain-specific stack operations.

Key features of the Ethereum Virtual Machine

The Ethereum Virtual Machine is a foundational component of the Ethereum blockchain, incorporating several key features and functions:

  • Decentralized execution:

Operating on a decentralized network of nodes ensures that no single entity controls its operations, aligning with the trustless and censorship-resistant nature of the Ethereum blockchain.

  • Opcode system

The EVM uses an opcode system to define specific actions during code execution. Opcodes are the foundational components of EVM instructions, encompassing arithmetic operations, data storage and retrieval, conditional statements, contract interaction, and various other functions. 

Smart contracts, initially written in high-level languages by developers, undergo compilation into a sequence of opcodes intelligible to the EVM, facilitating execution.

  • Smart contract execution

Smart contracts are autonomous programs that enforce agreement terms or execute specific actions under predefined conditions.

The Ethereum Virtual Machine (EVM) is purpose-built for these smart contracts, typically scripted in high-level programming languages such as Solidity. Developers transform their code into bytecode, a low-level language comprehensible to the EVM.

A smart contract becomes immutable once deployed on the Ethereum blockchain, meaning its code and functionality remain unchangeable. The EVM rigorously enforces the embedded logic and rules of the smart contract, with its execution transparently auditable on the public blockchain.
 

  • Deterministic execution

The Ethereum Virtual Machine (EVM) guarantees deterministic execution, ensuring that with identical input and initial state, any node in the Ethereum network will yield precisely the same outcome when executing a transaction or smart contract. 

This determinism is pivotal for establishing consensus among all nodes, assuring uniform agreement on the blockchain's state. By upholding deterministic execution, trust and reliability are boosted, fostering a consensus-driven environment across all network participants.
 

  • Turing completeness

The EVM's ability to perform any algorithmically expressible computation provides developers with significant flexibility in creating complex algorithms and innovative blockchain solutions. This feature puts it ahead of simpler, non-Turing-complete blockchains.

Achieving Turing completeness introduces certain challenges, with the risk of infinite loops being a notable concern. However, the gas system is a mitigating factor for this challenge.
 

  • Gas system

Gas represents the cost of computational resources required to complete a transaction or execute a smart contract.

The EVM uses a gas system to manage resource allocation efficiently, ensuring that users pay for the resources they use.

The gas system has two objectives: deterring spam and network abuse by imposing a cost on resource consumption and motivating miners and nodes to handle transactions by providing transaction fees in gas.

  • Isolation and security

Every smart contract operates within its designated "sandbox," ensuring that the actions or conditions of one contract do not disrupt the state or operations of others.

Enforcing code execution in a secure, isolated environment enhances security by containing potential vulnerabilities within individual smart contracts. 

The overall integrity of the Ethereum network remains unaffected, even in the event of a bug or compromise in a single contract.

  • Stack-based execution

The EVM employs a stack-based execution model, pushing data and operands onto a stack and performing operations by popping values from the stack, ensuring efficient and predictable code execution. 

  • Global computation

Harnessing the combined computing power of all participating nodes enables global computation, fostering redundancy, fault tolerance, and resistance to censorship.
 

How the Ethereum Virtual Machine (EVM) works

The EVM operates as a stack machine, managing a stack depth of 1024 items, each a 256-bit word. It maintains temporary memory in the form of a byte array, changing between transactions on the Ethereum blockchain. During processing, the EVM exhibits a volatile machine state and a global or world state containing information about Ethereum blockchain accounts.

The EVM code has undergone iterations since the Ethereum network's launch in 2015, resulting in multiple implementations currently in use. As a mediator between Ethereum nodes and executing code, the EVM ensures consistent results without revealing intricate details to clients or nodes.

Here's a breakdown of its operation:

Nodes
Nodes may be miners responsible for adding new blocks to the blockchain or as full nodes that store and validate the entire Ethereum blockchain. Each node holds a copy of the Ethereum Virtual 
Machine (EVM) and actively engages in the execution of code across the network.

Consensus mechanism
Ethereum uses the Proof of Stake consensus mechanism, where validators (node operators) stake cryptocurrency to create new blocks and validate transactions, ensuring honest participation due to their financial stake.


Execution of code
Transactions or smart contracts submitted to the network are broadcast to all nodes. Each node's EVM processes the code, achieving consensus on the result of code execution. The EVM's strength lies in its global scale, with thousands of nodes executing code collaboratively, ensuring redundancy, security, and immutability.

Purpose of the Ethereum Virtual Machine (EVM)

The EVM reliably powers all apps on the Ethereum network, acting as the overarching program for smaller executable programs known as smart contracts. Developers can write these contracts in various programming languages, including Solidity, Vyper, Python, and Yul.

The flexibility offered by the EVM has led to thousands of DApps in decentralized finance (DeFi) and nonfungible token (NFT) spaces. These DApps and their constituent smart contracts are converted into bytecode and distributed among all nodes in the Ethereum network. 

Benefits of the Ethereum Virtual Machine (EVM)

The EVM's operation allows developers to execute code without concerns about its impact on the network or data security on node computers. It enables running complex smart contracts on diverse computing environments with distributed consensus, ensuring the failure of a single node doesn't impact DApp or smart contract functionality.

Global account data maintained by the EVM facilitates the creation of reliable smart contract codes and distinct DApps. The EVM's consistency and the availability of standard codes make it the preferred platform for Web3 development, with an increasing number of EVM-compatible layer-2 blockchains expanding its use cases.

Disadvantages of the Ethereum Virtual Machine (EVM)

The EVM has some flaws, including high transaction fees (gas costs) associated with running smart contracts on the Ethereum network. These fees, paid in ETH, vary based on contract complexity and network congestion.

The selection of Solidity as the primary language poses a challenge, requiring highly skilled developers who must have technical expertise to create efficient smart contracts in the language,

What's next for the Ethereum Virtual Machine?

While the EVM has revolutionized the blockchain ecosystem, ongoing improvements are seen in various blockchain projects. EVM-compatible blockchains offer lower gas costs and faster transaction speeds, facilitating seamless interaction with Ethereum users.

With Ethereum completing the Merge in September 2022, the focus shifts to transitioning from EVM to Ethereum WebAssembly (eWASM). Designed to be modular and platform-independent, eWASM is considered a potential game-changer for the Ethereum protocol. However, whether eWASM will replace the EVM as the most trusted mechanism for smart contracts remains a question for the future.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the Ethereum Virtual Machine stands as a sophisticated, decentralized, and secure execution environment, shaping the foundation of the Ethereum blockchain. Its features and functions empower the creation of decentralized applications with intricate logic, establishing the groundwork for trustworthy, censorship-resistant, and reliable blockchain solutions.

The Ethereum Virtual Machine's innovative capabilities have propelled it to the forefront of blockchain evolution, steering progress and redefining the digital landscape as it plays a pivotal role in the ongoing transformation of industries and pursuing a transparent, efficient, and decentralized future.