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Building Blocks

What makes a good EVM package?

by Dennison Bertram

A mental shortcut for thinking about EVM packages is to compare them to a package manager such as NPM. Package managers serve as convenient repositories for code that you can easily reuse and share with others. Indeed, when you use zos link <<packageName>>, ZeppelinOS will actually download code from NPM and save it directly into your node_modules folder. This is similar behavior to npm install, which is how you would install the openzeppelin-solidity smart contracts.

The difference when using zos link <<packageName>> to install EVM packages rather than npm install is that after downloading the package, ZeppelinOS checks the zos.<<network-name>>.json files to see if and where the code is already deployed on-chain. If the bytecode is already deployed, the zos create command will link it to your project by creating a transparent proxy. In other words: instead of having to upload the logic contract’s code to the blockchain, ZeppelinOS will reuse the existing instance, and just spin up a proxy that delegates all logic to it. Linking to on-chain code, rather than deploying entirely new contracts, can be a vastly less expensive operation, especially for cases that might end up deploying hundreds of instances of the same contract.

Note that if you decide to write your own contracts extending from a base contract in an EVM package, ZeppelinOS will need to compile a completely new contract, extended from the downloaded Solidity source code. Publishing this code will essentially create a completely new logic contract that is now linkable itself. However, the gas savings from linking to an on-chain implementation during deployment will be lost.

When considering what makes a good EVM package, it helps to first clarify what your goals are. In keeping with DRY programming principles, we want to avoid rewriting code as much as possible to avoid the introduction of errors and improve code maintainability. Considering the level of danger that an error in smart contracts can expose users to, breaking a program down into smaller, isolated pieces of code can reduce a program’s attack surface area, improve readability/maintainability, and, if individual pieces are themselves upgradable, create more robust and less brittle software.

With DRY programming, we generally turn each particular task into its own function, and then rather than rewriting tasks, we reuse code via functions. When these functions are audited and well-tested, reusing them, rather than writing new implementations each time, allows developers to craft their contracts in a secure way. While theoretically, you could create an EVM package from a single function, in most cases this won’t end up being very efficient in terms of gas deployment savings or for the organization of code. Instead, EVM packages are best built out of collections of functions that form a standalone contract.

As you can rarely complete complicated tasks with a single function (we coding mortals anyway!), by grouping these functions together based on cohesive areas of functionality, you can build modular building blocks that can be used standalone or linked to as a part of something yet larger.

As an example, Zeppelin’s OpenZeppelin-eth implementation of the ERC20 standard is a concise collection of the functions and data definitions required to implement the functionality described by the EIP-20. Standards such as this make good candidates for EVM packages, and they gather all of the functionality required for a particular goal into a concise collection. Functions related to the implementation requirements of ERC20 tokens can be found inside the ERC20 EVM package, and any project wishing to incorporate ERC20 tokens need only link to the deployed on-chain contract to implement a standards-compliant and secure ERC20 token.

When building your own EVM packages, keep in mind how you might bundle together all the related functionality for a task, or implement a standalone standard by itself. The goal is to create a package that you might reuse any number of times for your own project and, optionally, share with a wider community of users. EVM packages should be self-contained, ready-to-go packs that don’t need external supporting code to make them work.

In building EVM packages, you may also find  yourself wondering, “Is this a Solidity library?” Generally, we use libraries to help keep our code DRY, and the OpenZeppelin-Solidity SafeMath library is a good example of this. SafeMath allows us to safely perform arithmetic operations repeatedly but using a “safe” implementation that protects us from things like overflow, which can be exploited to do some nasty things. As SafeMath is currently written, it is a library that has only internal functions, and as such will be embedded within the contract. At compile time, the SafeMath code is directly inserted into the user’s Solidity code and compiled together as if it were one large contract, while EVM packages are designed to be used as external bytecode.

While it is certainly possible to craft an EVM package that offers the functionality of a standard Solidity library, generally an EVM package will have its own storage and keep its own state. Contracts that make use of embedded libraries rather than link to them as an EVM package will also have an advantage in terms of gas cost: it is cheaper to call functions directly inside a contract than to call them externally. Thus, modifying SafeMath to work as an EVM package might save deployment gas costs (if you need to deploy many contracts), but the resulting smart contract could be significantly more expensive to interact with.

For developers working on private networks or sidechains with different gas-cost dynamics, this may or may not be a relevant concern. Certainly, a theoretical use case for libraries as EVM packages could be a private network where gas costs are not a concern and smart contract libraries are required to use singular approved implementations.

On a higher level, EVM packages are great for solving commonly occurring problems and simplifying the software development process. If you find yourself creating or using the same code over and over, or thinking, “Hasn’t someone already built this?”, then your code might be a good candidate for creating an EVM package. Thoughtful developers may also want to include documentation in their EVM packages or tests, to clarify what behavior is expected from the code and to make it easier and safer for the community to build on it. If you are developing your EVM package primarily for the community, nice documentation, sample usages, and a clear readme with a quick-start guide are always highly appreciated.

Have a look at what some noteworthy projects are building with EVM packages to get inspiration.

*Solidity libraries that are deployed separately and then linked at compile time (rather than having their code inlined by the compiler) or are linked manually after the compile process, are also not ideal EVM packages, as the ZeppelinOS system does not currently support linking to a Solidity library in an EVM package, although this will change in the future.