P2P Network

The Bitcoin network protocol allows full nodes (peers) to collaboratively maintain a peer-to-peer network for block and transaction exchange.

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Introduction

Full nodes download and verify every block and transaction prior to relaying them to other nodes. Archival nodes are full nodes which store the entire blockchain and can serve historical blocks to other nodes. Pruned nodes are full nodes which do not store the entire blockchain. Many SPV clients also use the Bitcoin network protocol to connect to full nodes.

Consensus rules do not cover networking, so Bitcoin programs may use alternative networks and protocols, such as the high-speed block relay network used by some miners and the dedicated transaction information servers used by some wallets that provide SPV-level security.

To provide practical examples of the Bitcoin peer-to-peer network, this section uses Bitcoin Core as a representative full node and BitcoinJ as a representative SPV client. Both programs are flexible, so only default behavior is described. Also, for privacy, actual IP addresses in the example output below have been replaced with RFC5737 reserved IP addresses.

Peer Discovery

When started for the first time, programs don’t know the IP addresses of any active full nodes. In order to discover some IP addresses, they query one or more DNS names (called DNS seeds) hardcoded into Bitcoin Core and BitcoinJ. The response to the lookup should include one or more DNS A records with the IP addresses of full nodes that may accept new incoming connections. For example, using the Unix dig command:

;; QUESTION SECTION:
;seed.bitcoin.sipa.be.	    IN  A

;; ANSWER SECTION:
seed.bitcoin.sipa.be.	60  IN  A  192.0.2.113
seed.bitcoin.sipa.be.	60  IN  A  198.51.100.231
seed.bitcoin.sipa.be.	60  IN  A  203.0.113.183
[...]

The DNS seeds are maintained by Bitcoin community members: some of them provide dynamic DNS seed servers which automatically get IP addresses of active nodes by scanning the network; others provide static DNS seeds that are updated manually and are more likely to provide IP addresses for inactive nodes. In either case, nodes are added to the DNS seed if they run on the default Bitcoin ports of 8333 for mainnet or 18333 for testnet.

DNS seed results are not authenticated and a malicious seed operator or network man-in-the-middle attacker can return only IP addresses of nodes controlled by the attacker, isolating a program on the attacker’s own network and allowing the attacker to feed it bogus transactions and blocks. For this reason, programs should not rely on DNS seeds exclusively.

Once a program has connected to the network, its peers can begin to send it addr (address) messages with the IP addresses and port numbers of other peers on the network, providing a fully decentralized method of peer discovery. Bitcoin Core keeps a record of known peers in a persistent on-disk database which usually allows it to connect directly to those peers on subsequent startups without having to use DNS seeds.

However, peers often leave the network or change IP addresses, so programs may need to make several different connection attempts at startup before a successful connection is made. This can add a significant delay to the amount of time it takes to connect to the network, forcing a user to wait before sending a transaction or checking the status of payment.

To avoid this possible delay, BitcoinJ always uses dynamic DNS seeds to get IP addresses for nodes believed to be currently active. Bitcoin Core also tries to strike a balance between minimizing delays and avoiding unnecessary DNS seed use: if Bitcoin Core has entries in its peer database, it spends up to 11 seconds attempting to connect to at least one of them before falling back to seeds; if a connection is made within that time, it does not query any seeds.

Both Bitcoin Core and BitcoinJ also include a hardcoded list of IP addresses and port numbers to several dozen nodes which were active around the time that particular version of the software was first released. Bitcoin Core will start attempting to connect to these nodes if none of the DNS seed servers have responded to a query within 60 seconds, providing an automatic fallback option.

As a manual fallback option, Bitcoin Core also provides several command-line connection options, including the ability to get a list of peers from a specific node by IP address, or to make a persistent connection to a specific node by IP address. See the -help text for details. BitcoinJ can be programmed to do the same thing.

Resources: Bitcoin Seeder, the program run by several of the seeds used by Bitcoin Core and BitcoinJ. The Bitcoin Core DNS Seed Policy. The hardcoded list of IP addresses used by Bitcoin Core and BitcoinJ is generated using the makeseeds script.

Connecting To Peers

Connecting to a peer is done by sending a version message, which contains your version number, block, and current time to the remote node. The remote node responds with its own version message. Then both nodes send a verack message to the other node to indicate the connection has been established.

Once connected, the client can send to the remote node getaddr and addr messages to gather additional peers.

In order to maintain a connection with a peer, nodes by default will send a message to peers before 30 minutes of inactivity. If 90 minutes pass without a message being received by a peer, the client will assume that connection has closed.

Initial Block Download

Before a full node can validate unconfirmed transactions and recently-mined blocks, it must download and validate all blocks from block 1 (the block after the hardcoded genesis block) to the current tip of the best block chain. This is the Initial Block Download (IBD) or initial sync.

Although the word “initial” implies this method is only used once, it can also be used any time a large number of blocks need to be downloaded, such as when a previously-caught-up node has been offline for a long time. In this case, a node can use the IBD method to download all the blocks which were produced since the last time it was online.

Bitcoin Core uses the IBD method any time the last block on its local best block chain has a block header time more than 24 hours in the past. Bitcoin Core 0.10.0 will also perform IBD if its local best block chain is more than 144 blocks lower than its local best header chain (that is, the local block chain is more than about 24 hours in the past).

Blocks-First

Bitcoin Core (up until version 0.9.3) uses a simple initial block download (IBD) method we’ll call blocks-first. The goal is to download the blocks from the best block chain in sequence.

Overview Of Blocks-First Method

The first time a node is started, it only has a single block in its local best block chain—the hardcoded genesis block (block 0). This node chooses a remote peer, called the sync node, and sends it the getblocks message illustrated below.

First GetBlocks Message Sent During IBD

In the header hashes field of the getblocks message, this new node sends the header hash of the only block it has, the genesis block (6fe2…0000 in internal byte order). It also sets the stop hash field to all zeroes to request a maximum-size response.

Upon receipt of the getblocks message, the sync node takes the first (and only) header hash and searches its local best block chain for a block with that header hash. It finds that block 0 matches, so it replies with 500 block inventories (the maximum response to a getblocks message) starting from block 1. It sends these inventories in the inv message illustrated below.

First Inv Message Sent During IBD

Inventories are unique identifiers for information on the network. Each inventory contains a type field and the unique identifier for an instance of the object. For blocks, the unique identifier is a hash of the block’s header.

The block inventories appear in the inv message in the same order they appear in the block chain, so this first inv message contains inventories for blocks 1 through 501. (For example, the hash of block 1 is 4860…0000 as seen in the illustration above.)

The IBD node uses the received inventories to request 128 blocks from the sync node in the getdata message illustrated below.

First GetData Message Sent During IBD

It’s important to blocks-first nodes that the blocks be requested and sent in order because each block header references the header hash of the preceding block. That means the IBD node can’t fully validate a block until its parent block has been received. Blocks that can’t be validated because their parents haven’t been received are called orphan blocks; a subsection below describes them in more detail.

Upon receipt of the getdata message, the sync node replies with each of the blocks requested. Each block is put into serialized block format and sent in a separate block message. The first block message sent (for block 1) is illustrated below.

First Block Message Sent During IBD

The IBD node downloads each block, validates it, and then requests the next block it hasn’t requested yet, maintaining a queue of up to 128 blocks to download. When it has requested every block for which it has an inventory, it sends another getblocks message to the sync node requesting the inventories of up to 500 more blocks. This second getblocks message contains multiple header hashes as illustrated below:

Second GetBlocks Message Sent During IBD

Upon receipt of the second getblocks message, the sync node searches its local best block chain for a block that matches one of the header hashes in the message, trying each hash in the order they were received. If it finds a matching hash, it replies with 500 block inventories starting with the next block from that point. But if there is no matching hash (besides the stopping hash), it assumes the only block the two nodes have in common is block 0 and so it sends an inv starting with block 1 (the same inv message seen several illustrations above).

This repeated search allows the sync node to send useful inventories even if the IBD node’s local block chain forked from the sync node’s local block chain. This fork detection becomes increasingly useful the closer the IBD node gets to the tip of the block chain.

When the IBD node receives the second inv message, it will request those blocks using getdata messages. The sync node will respond with block messages. Then the IBD node will request more inventories with another getblocks message—and the cycle will repeat until the IBD node is synced to the tip of the block chain. At that point, the node will accept blocks sent through the regular block broadcasting described in a later subsection.

Blocks-First Advantages & Disadvantages

The primary advantage of blocks-first IBD is its simplicity. The primary disadvantage is that the IBD node relies on a single sync node for all of its downloading. This has several implications:

  • Speed Limits: All requests are made to the sync node, so if the sync node has limited upload bandwidth, the IBD node will have slow download speeds. Note: if the sync node goes offline, Bitcoin Core will continue downloading from another node—but it will still only download from a single sync node at a time.

  • Download Restarts: The sync node can send a non-best (but otherwise valid) block chain to the IBD node. The IBD node won’t be able to identify it as non-best until the initial block download nears completion, forcing the IBD node to restart its block chain download over again from a different node. Bitcoin Core ships with several block chain checkpoints at various block heights selected by developers to help an IBD node detect that it is being fed an alternative block chain history—allowing the IBD node to restart its download earlier in the process.

  • Disk Fill Attacks: Closely related to the download restarts, if the sync node sends a non-best (but otherwise valid) block chain, the chain will be stored on disk, wasting space and possibly filling up the disk drive with useless data.

  • High Memory Use: Whether maliciously or by accident, the sync node can send blocks out of order, creating orphan blocks which can’t be validated until their parents have been received and validated. Orphan blocks are stored in memory while they await validation, which may lead to high memory use.

All of these problems are addressed in part or in full by the headers-first IBD method used in Bitcoin Core 0.10.0.

Resources: The table below summarizes the messages mentioned throughout this subsection. The links in the message field will take you to the reference page for that message.

Message From→To Payload
getblocks IBD→Sync One or more header hashes
inv Sync→IBD Up to 500 block inventories (unique identifiers)
getdata IBD→Sync One or more block inventories
block Sync→IBD One serialized block

Headers-First

Bitcoin Core 0.10.0 uses an initial block download (IBD) method called headers-first. The goal is to download the headers for the best header chain, partially validate them as best as possible, and then download the corresponding blocks in parallel. This solves several problems with the older blocks-first IBD method.

Overview Of Headers-First Method

The first time a node is started, it only has a single block in its local best block chain—the hardcoded genesis block (block 0). The node chooses a remote peer, which we’ll call the sync node, and sends it the getheaders message illustrated below.

First getheaders message

In the header hashes field of the getheaders message, the new node sends the header hash of the only block it has, the genesis block (6fe2…0000 in internal byte order). It also sets the stop hash field to all zeroes to request a maximum-size response.

Upon receipt of the getheaders message, the sync node takes the first (and only) header hash and searches its local best block chain for a block with that header hash. It finds that block 0 matches, so it replies with 2,000 header (the maximum response) starting from block 1. It sends these header hashes in the headers message illustrated below.

First headers message

The IBD node can partially validate these block headers by ensuring that all fields follow consensus rules and that the hash of the header is below the target threshold according to the nBits field. (Full validation still requires all transactions from the corresponding block.)

After the IBD node has partially validated the block headers, it can do two things in parallel:

  1. Download More Headers: the IBD node can send another getheaders message to the sync node to request the next 2,000 headers on the best header chain. Those headers can be immediately validated and another batch requested repeatedly until a headers message is received from the sync node with fewer than 2,000 headers, indicating that it has no more headers to offer. As of this writing, headers sync can be completed in fewer than 200 round trips, or about 32 MB of downloaded data.

    Once the IBD node receives a headers message with fewer than 2,000 headers from the sync node, it sends a getheaders message to each of its outbound peers to get their view of best header chain. By comparing the responses, it can easily determine if the headers it has downloaded belong to the best header chain reported by any of its outbound peers. This means a dishonest sync node will quickly be discovered even if checkpoints aren’t used (as long as the IBD node connects to at least one honest peer; Bitcoin Core will continue to provide checkpoints in case honest peers can’t be found).

  2. Download Blocks: While the IBD node continues downloading headers, and after the headers finish downloading, the IBD node will request and download each block. The IBD node can use the block header hashes it computed from the header chain to create getdata messages that request the blocks it needs by their inventory. It doesn’t need to request these from the sync node—it can request them from any of its full node peers. (Although not all full nodes may store all blocks.) This allows it to fetch blocks in parallel and avoid having its download speed constrained to the upload speed of a single sync node.

    To spread the load between multiple peers, Bitcoin Core will only request up to 16 blocks at a time from a single peer. Combined with its maximum of 8 outbound connections, this means headers-first Bitcoin Core will request a maximum of 128 blocks simultaneously during IBD (the same maximum number that blocks-first Bitcoin Core requested from its sync node).

Simulated Headers-First Download Window

Bitcoin Core’s headers-first mode uses a 1,024-block moving download window to maximize download speed. The lowest-height block in the window is the next block to be validated; if the block hasn’t arrived by the time Bitcoin Core is ready to validate it, Bitcoin Core will wait a minimum of two more seconds for the stalling node to send the block. If the block still hasn’t arrived, Bitcoin Core will disconnect from the stalling node and attempt to connect to another node. For example, in the illustration above, Node A will be disconnected if it doesn’t send block 3 within at least two seconds.

Once the IBD node is synced to the tip of the block chain, it will accept blocks sent through the regular block broadcasting described in a later subsection.

Resources: The table below summarizes the messages mentioned throughout this subsection. The links in the message field will take you to the reference page for that message.

Message From→To Payload
getheaders IBD→Sync One or more header hashes
headers Sync→IBD Up to 2,000 block headers
getdata IBDMany One or more block inventories derived from header hashes
block ManyIBD One serialized block

Block Broadcasting

When a miner discovers a new block, it broadcasts the new block to its peers using one of the following methods:

By default, Bitcoin Core broadcasts blocks using direct headers announcement to any peers that have signalled with sendheaders and uses standard block relay for all peers that have not. Bitcoin Core will accept blocks sent using any of the methods described above.

Full nodes validate the received block and then advertise it to their peers using the standard block relay method described above. The condensed table below highlights the operation of the messages described above (Relay, BF, HF, and SPV refer to the relay node, a blocks-first node, a headers-first node, and an SPV client; any refers to a node using any block retrieval method.)

Message From→To Payload
inv Relay→Any The inventory of the new block
getdata BF→Relay The inventory of the new block
getheaders HF→Relay One or more header hashes on the HF node’s best header chain (BHC)
headers Relay→HF Up to 2,000 headers connecting HF node’s BHC to relay node’s BHC
block Relay→BF/HF The new block in serialized format
merkleblock Relay→SPV The new block filtered into a merkle block
tx Relay→SPV Serialized transactions from the new block that match the bloom filter

Orphan Blocks

Blocks-first nodes may download orphan blocksblocks whose previous block header hash field refers to a block header this node hasn’t seen yet. In other words, orphan blocks have no known parent (unlike stale blocks, which have known parents but which aren’t part of the best block chain).

Difference Between Orphan And Stale Blocks

When a blocks-first node downloads an orphan block, it will not validate it. Instead, it will send a getblocks message to the node which sent the orphan block; the broadcasting node will respond with an inv message containing inventories of any blocks the downloading node is missing (up to 500); the downloading node will request those blocks with a getdata message; and the broadcasting node will send those blocks with a block message. The downloading node will validate those blocks, and once the parent of the former orphan block has been validated, it will validate the former orphan block.

Headers-first nodes avoid some of this complexity by always requesting block headers with the getheaders message before requesting a block with the getdata message. The broadcasting node will send a headers message containing all the block headers (up to 2,000) it thinks the downloading node needs to reach the tip of the best header chain; each of those headers will point to its parent, so when the downloading node receives the block message, the block shouldn’t be an orphan block—all of its parents should be known (even if they haven’t been validated yet). If, despite this, the block received in the block message is an orphan block, a headers-first node will discard it immediately.

However, orphan discarding does mean that headers-first nodes will ignore orphan blocks sent by miners in an unsolicited block push.

Transaction Broadcasting

In order to send a transaction to a peer, an inv message is sent. If a getdata response message is received, the transaction is sent using tx. The peer receiving this transaction also forwards the transaction in the same manner, given that it is a valid transaction.

Memory Pool

Full peers may keep track of unconfirmed transactions which are eligible to be included in the next block. This is essential for miners who will actually mine some or all of those transactions, but it’s also useful for any peer who wants to keep track of unconfirmed transactions, such as peers serving unconfirmed transaction information to SPV clients.

Because unconfirmed transactions have no permanent status in Bitcoin, Bitcoin Core stores them in non-persistent memory, calling them a memory pool or mempool. When a peer shuts down, its memory pool is lost except for any transactions stored by its wallet. This means that never-mined unconfirmed transactions tend to slowly disappear from the network as peers restart or as they purge some transactions to make room in memory for others.

Transactions which are mined into blocks that later become stale blocks may be added back into the memory pool. These re-added transactions may be re-removed from the pool almost immediately if the replacement blocks include them. This is the case in Bitcoin Core, which removes stale blocks from the chain one by one, starting with the tip (highest block). As each block is removed, its transactions are added back to the memory pool. After all of the stale blocks are removed, the replacement blocks are added to the chain one by one, ending with the new tip. As each block is added, any transactions it confirms are removed from the memory pool.

SPV clients don’t have a memory pool for the same reason they don’t relay transactions. They can’t independently verify that a transaction hasn’t yet been included in a block and that it only spends UTXOs, so they can’t know which transactions are eligible to be included in the next block.

Misbehaving Nodes

Take note that for both types of broadcasting, mechanisms are in place to punish misbehaving peers who take up bandwidth and computing resources by sending false information. If a peer gets a banscore above the -banscore= threshold, he will be banned for the number of seconds defined by -bantime=, which is 86,400 by default (24 hours).

Alerts

Removed in Bitcoin Core 0.13.0

Earlier versions of Bitcoin Core allowed developers and trusted community members to issue Bitcoin alerts to notify users of critical network-wide issues. This messaging system was retired in Bitcoin Core v0.13.0; however, internal alerts, partition detection warnings and the -alertnotify option features remain.