The Celo ultralight client

Marek Olszewski and Michael Straka


Hello everyone. My name is Marek Olszewski. We are going to be talking about Plumo which is Celo's ultralightweight client protocol. This is joint work with a number of collaborators.


Plumo sands for "feather" in esperanto. I hope most people here are familiar with this graph. Chain sizes are growing. This is a graph of the bitcoin chain size over time. It has continued to grow. We're now at 256 megabytes. The ethereum graph is almost 1000x times bigger. On the other hand, there are resource-constrained devices.

Resource constrained devices

There was an Ericsson mobility report that came out last November: we passed the 8 billion number mark for the number of mobile devices that have active mobile subscriptions in the world. 6 billion of these are smartphones. Almost half of them have LTE connectivity today, and that number will only grow in the future.

There's been a lot of talk about central banks getting excited about issuing their own digital currencies. This is a graph from a paper released by the Bank of International Settlements last month showing a number of countries interested in creating CBDCs - central bank digital currencies. Right now there's at least 50 countries that have created creating their own chains, most likely private chains that will have to communicate with other chains so that people can trade across countries, and hopefully they will tap into public chains so they can get into DeFi on the public chains. But to do that, you need to verify the state of the other chain in the smart contract of the other chain. As most people know, smart contracts are even more constrained than mobile devices.

Simplified payment verification

Satoshi to her credit was already thinking about this. If you go back to the original bitcoin paper, there was a section titled "simple payment verification" where she outlined a light client protocol that lets light clients sync with the chain. This assumes there isn't a 51% attack on the chain. The longest chain with the most PoW work done on, will have only valid state transitions. As a light client, you simply have to connect to the network and download all the headers since the genesis block, verify all of the PoW, and then you can use the last header or last merkle root commitment to verify any merkle proof that any node might send you for any transaction. For bitcoin, this means you have to download 47 megabytes of data, and for ethereum it's 4.4 gigabytes of data just to do a lite client sync. This is too much for doing a permissionless version of Venmo, you wouldn't be able to do that with today's simplified payment verification light clients. Doing this on a proof-of-stake network these numbers will be even higher, because in PoS systems you have lower block times so therefore you have more block headers. It's hard to build fully permissionless bridges.

btcrelay famously built something for ethereum where it was verifying bitcoin headers on ethereum for a little while, it was working until gas prices went up and then the cost of doing this was too onerous. It hasn't been syncing since 500 days ago, so over a year ago. This is really hard to do with the current light client protocols today.

There's been a lot of research around this like NiPoWPoW, Flyclient and Coda. NiPoWPoW and Flyclient use probabilistic arguments that allow you to download less than all the headers. With Flyclient you download something proportional to a logarithmic amount of headers, and for ethereum this comes out to 500 kilobytes which is much better than 4 GB but unfortunately it only applies to proof-of-work networks and it's hard to bring this to a proof-of-stake network.

On the proof-of-stake side, Coda has done some interesting work on this front through the use of recursive SNARK composition they construct SNARK proofs that prove not only that a block is part of the chain but also that the whole block is valid. This is exciting, but it's strictly more than we need for a lite client. It's hard to build smart contracts into a chain that is doing this; you would need a smart contract language written in a DSL that is SNARK compatible, that's one limitation, and then the choice of curves to construct these efficiently will have a number of tradoeffs.


Plumo is a lightclient protocol for the Celo proof-of-stake network. The Celo proof-of-stake network has a lot of similarities to something like Cosmos at a high level users will stake or lock up a digital asset, and then using that they will cast votes in an enhanced election to elect a number of validators who then secure the network by using PBFT consensus. These validators are signing off on a particular block by attaching a signature to the header of each block. If that header is for a block that has a valid state transition, they sign it and distribute it to the other validators who then collect them all and attach them to every header.

If you want to implement a lite client protocol that would sync with such a network, it would be pretty similar to the SPV algorithm from before: you fetch all the headers since the genesis block, you could use that to run merkle proofs when checking state from full nodes. But instead of checking proof-of-work at each header, you're instead checking that every block has 2/3rds of the current validator set signing off on it. Also, you're keeping tabs on any validator set change due to one of these elections. In Celo, a block is only valid if it contains an election and the election results are stored in the smart contract, but a diff of the validator set changes is also stored in the header so that a light client can keep track of any changes.

This allows you to create that standard SPV-style lightclient which is nice, but it's still pretty slow and still requires a lot of data, especially for a proof-of-stake chain where the block times are smaller than for proof-of-work chains. Plumo improves on this with three new innovations: (1) it introduces epoch-based syncing, where under Plumo a validator election can only happen on the last block of an epoch, and an epoch typically lasts a day which means that within that day the validator set cannot change. This means that you can actually sync any header in any order, you can skip headers entirely because you know the validator set won't change, and you can check any header by checking the signatures. If you want before the last epoch, then you look at where the validator set can change, so if you sync from the beginning of the network, you only need to download one header per day. So for a network with 5 second block periods, this is a 17,000x amount of reduction in the amount of data that a lightclient has to download.

Next, (2) Plumo uses BLS signatures to aggregate all of the validator's signatures into one efficient BLS signature which gives us another 10x reduction in the amount of data that the lightclient has to download. We can add more validators easily without impacting the size of the chain for the light clients.

And finally, since we wanted to have a mobile experience that rivaled centralized applications like Venmo and other ones you are familiar with, we wanted to reduce this even more, and we do that by using SNARK proofs that prove the lightclient protocol I just described- checking the header signatures of the last header of each epoch, and checking the validator set changes, so that a full node can do this computation, share it with a lightclient, these proofs are often only 500 bytes in size, and allow these light clients to sync with a chain nearly-instantly bringing back that experience that many of us are used to with centralized services.


For the rest of the talk, I will hand it off to Michael who will jump into more of the SNARK related work. Now we're just going to do a bit more of a technical dive into how we can achieve effectively a lightclient that will verify the correctness of a validator set using SNARKs.

What really are we trying to verify in each epoch? It's once per day, and then it encodes the change in the validator set that occurs in that epoch is also going to have a multisignature which we can use BLS signatures to aggregate every signature of any validator from the previous set who has signed off on the new one, into one signature. Then you use a bitmap stored in the epoch block to recover the correct aggregated public key. We can also then check in the bitmap: did more than 2/3rds of validators in the previous set sign off on the new one?

How might we try to do this using SNARKs? Well, the logical structure of the proofs we're talking about are inductive. Because they are inductive, they are naturally recursive. A good first approach might be to use recursive proofs. What this means is that we can create a proof that attests to the validity of the i-th validator set, corresponding to the i-th epoch, and that will attest to the validity of all (i-1) proofs. If it sounds magical, well it kind of is but that's how recursive proofs work.

The public input per epoch only needs to be the previous validator set and the next validator set. The prover is going to generate a proof attesting to the fact that the transition from the last validator set to the next validator set is valid. We can make this better, though. Instead of attesting to the validity of one validator set per proof, we can batch them together into one NP relation or one circuit in our actual SNARK construction such that many epochs can be verified at the same time, or 180 or about 6 months of validator set transitions. This is identical to evaluating six months of chain data.

If we do this, there's basically two ways of instantiating proof recursion at the moment. One is using the EMT curves which are known to be pretty large. 750 bit base fields, which is going to make our normal lightclient a bit more inefficient because you're going to have to download public keys- if we use these curves for our signature scheme that are about twice as large. The other more recent method is to use half-pairing cycles with halo which is a new argument system some of you may be familiar with. It's still very recent work, and we have chosen to take a more conservative approach with making sure that we have extremely good security and are relying on battle-tested and known-argument systems. In particular, we have chosen to use groth16.

How might we do this without relying on recursive proofs or proof recursion? As I said, the proofs we're talking about have a very natural inductive structure so we just need a way to link them together. We could introduce a compliance function which takes in the public inputs of two adjacent proofs, and return one if in fact it is valid for those two proofs to be next to each other. Really what I mean by that is that the last validator set, with the first proof, is equal to the first validator set of the next proof. So in fact, each proof is attesting to the fact that there is a valid path from the first validator set that the proof is considering, over six months, there's a valid path from that to the last validator set, over the six months. If you're a verifier on a mobile phone, all you need to do is download those two validator sets- or rather their hashes- as a performance optimization and the correct epoch index that we're at. Then you would need to verify one proof for every six months, and potentially less depending on how much checkpointing is used on-chain.

So what do we need to verify in these proofs? Well, we're verifying BLS signatures which means we're going to end up doing elliptic curve arithmetic and pairing checks that are shown here inside of an arithmetic circuit. This basically means we need to do verification in the base field of whatever elliptic curve that we're using, but in an arithmetic circuit that is using a modulus of the size of the elliptic curve itself. This is extremely expensive and has a logarithmic blow-up in the size of the modulus that you have. So hundreds times blow-up. We can solve this by doing what almost amounts to a depth-2 recursion. So finite depth recursion where we have one elliptic curve, in this case 377, which is the curve we use, which was found by some great and talented people behind the Zexe paper... and they also have a really amazing rust library for SNARK construction that we have been happy to use. But in their work, they found curve 377 such that there's another curve SW6 with a size that is the same size of the base field of 377. Basically what this allows us to do is to compute all of this elliptic curve arithmetic and pairing checks inside of SW6 while still using 377 which is a smaller curve for our signature scheme. So the public keys we store on-chain are still reasonably small. Here, we also need to compute a hash function. There's some exciting work about some algebraic flavor hashes that we know are much more efficient inside of arithmetic circuits than traditional symmetric cryptography but it's still not entirely clear how the cryptanalysis on these hashes is going to pan out. I think just yesterday a new attack was announced on one, which has been around for a few years already.

We instead chose to hedge against attacks by designing our own hybrid hash function, half of which is just a pedersen hash which is algebraic but does not output random-looking output and can be evaluated in SW6 for the reasons I was just saying, and the other half is blake2x which is going to take in the output from the pedersen hash and give us output which is now compressed and smaller, something like 2x, which is normally expensive. It's now going to give us a random-looking output for our hash-to-curve algorithm that we need for BLS verification. Then we can compute 2x in 377 which is a more efficient curve with basically depth-1 recursion.

So that's the basic math. What about performance? We rented a large computer on Google Cloud. About 4 TB of RAM. We ran it for 2 hours, and it cost us $12 dollars. We were able to generate a proof that would allow us to attest to 6 months of validator set changes, or in this case 180 epochs. We have some graphs here showing this. In particular, the speed of the two different circuits that I was just discussing.

We also looked at performance for verification. In particular, we're verifying groth16 proofs on mobile phones. We looked at a variety of phones, including the slowest phone we could find on browserstack. In the worst case, it takes about 6 seconds which isn't so bad, and using more recent phones, proof verification is almost instantaneous- it's a fraction of a second.

In addition, we have come up with some estimates for what it would cost to do inter-chain interoperability. In particular, between Celo and ethereum using our Plumo lightclient. We estimate that it would take about 4 million gas to validate one of these proofs which would correspond to a given epoch and then about 20,000 gas afterwards for each transaction that we want to verify in that epoch. This would come out to about $6 dollars which is still pretty good.

Sponsorship: These transcripts are sponsored by Blockchain Commons.

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