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The concept of zkEVM

To grasp the concept of zkEVM, let's start by understanding what the Ethereum Virtual Machine (EVM) is.

The Ethereum Virtual Machine (EVM)โ€‹

EVM Overviewโ€‹

Starting from the Ethereum Foundation definition:

Ethereum's state is a large data structure which holds not only all accounts and balances, but a machine state, which can change from block to block according to a pre-defined set of rules, and which can execute arbitrary machine code. The specific rules of changing state from block to block are defined by the EVM.

From the above we get that the Ethereum blockchain is a distributed state machine and that the Ethereum Virtual Machine is a software-based emulation of a physical computer (virtual machine) used to operate (compute state transitions) this blockchain.

Note that the EVM is a deterministic execution environment.

  • Deterministic meaning that a smart contract will produce the same output given the same input, regardless of which node in the network executes it. This is essential for maintaining consensus across the network.
  • An execution environment i.e. where smart contracts are executed. Note that each Ethereum node runs an EVM instance, allowing it to participate in executing and validating smart contracts and transactions.
    • For instance, Ethereum Validators run both a consensus client and an execution client. This execution client is powered by an EVM implementation. That way, validators validate transactions by re-running them locally before voting to ensure their correctness โœ…!

TL;DR - the EVM is the common virtual computer used to run logic on the Ethereum network.

Architecture of the EVMโ€‹

Diagram - The EVM Illustrated by Takenobu:

The EVM illustrated by Takenobu Source: The EVM illustrated,

Let's use the image above from Takenobu to describe the machine architecture of the EVM.

  1. Virtual ROM: This contains the EVM code. Once smart contracts are deployed, their code cannot be changed (proxy pattern notwithstanding ๐Ÿง‘โ€๐Ÿ”ฌ). Smart contract code is said to be immutable on Ethereum.

  2. Program counter (PC): This keeps track of the position in the code that the EVM is currently executing.

  3. Gas available (Gas): Each operation in the EVM requires a certain amount of "gas," which is a unit that measures the computational effort required. The gas available field tracks how much gas is left for the transaction to continue operating.

  4. Machine state (ยต): This is the volatile state of the machine which includes the program counter, memory, stack, and more. It is volatile because it is reset between transactions. It is not shared between intra-transaction calls (e.g. if there are 3 different contracts calls within one transaction), though this will change with transient storage.

  5. Stack: The EVM is a stack-based machine, which means that it uses a data structure called a stack to store data. Operations in EVM code manipulate the stack in various ways.

  6. Memory: This is a temporary place to store data during execution. It is volatile because it is reset between transactions or intra-transaction calls.

  7. (Account) Storage: This is a long-term storage that each account in Ethereum has. Unlike memory, storage is persistent and remains between transactions and even between sessions. This includes both Account Contracts (smart contracts) and Externally Owned Accounts or EOAs (user accounts, like the account in your Metamask wallet!).

  8. World State (ฯƒ): This is the persistent state of the entire Ethereum system which includes all accounts (no. 7) and their balances, storage, code, etc.

It's called a "stack-based" architecture because the primary mode of computation is through a data stack, which is a last-in, first-out (LIFO) structure.

Kakarot is a zkEVM built in Cairo. Essentially, this means we've written number 1 to 8 in Cairo (by relying on existing StarknetOS clients as well). The Geth team has done it in Golang. The Reth team has done it in Rust. It just so happens that Cairo is provable by design, and the EVM needs to be proven for Ethereum to scale! How convenient ๐Ÿฅ•.

The concept of zk-Rollupโ€‹

The zk in zk-Rollup and zkEVM means zero-knowledge. It refers to the cryptographic method by which one party (the prover) can prove to another party (the verifier) that a statement is true. In the case of an Kakarot zkEVM, the prover (the rollup) proves to the verifier (Ethereum L1) that a batch of L2 transactions are valid. Zk-Rollups help Ethereum mainnet scale through this concept of batches: submit less transactions to Ethereum L1, have Ethereum L1 compute less logic, lower the costs.

The integrity of these so-called batches is mathematically guaranteed by zero-knowledge proofs (also called validity proofs when they are not privacy preserving).

To dive deeper, you can refer to a high-level article about zero-knowledge proofs, written by the inventors of STARK proofs: Starkware.

To grasp the value of zk-Rollups, it is important to understand that when a transaction is executed on Ethereum, all the full nodes in the network run it locally to verify its integrity. Therefore, each transaction is executed hundreds of thousands of times in order to guarantee the network's state. The idea behind zk-Rollups is to run a transaction once, compute that transaction's proof of integrity and thereafter only verify this proof without re-running the initial transaction. Luckily for us (and the Rollup centric roadmap of Ethereum), the verification of a transaction's proof is way cheaper than re-running that same transaction (it is asymptotically exponentially cheaper).

From there is derived the protocols of zk-Rollups. As per the Ethereum website:

Zero-knowledge rollups (ZK-rollups) bundle (or 'roll up') transactions into batches that are executed off-chain. Off-chain computation reduces the amount of data that has to be posted to the blockchain. ZK-rollup operators submit a summary of the changes required to represent all the transactions in a batch rather than sending each transaction individually. They also produce validity proofs to prove the correctness of their changes.

TL;DR - execute off-chain, verify on-chain, save on costs.

What does it mean to prove the EVM: the transition from EVM to zkEVM?โ€‹

A zkEVM is simply a zk-Rollup that is compatible with Ethereum. This means that users should be able to interact with it as if they were interacting with Ethereum (or almost). For instance, users will use the same tools on a zkEVM than on Ethereum L1, such as the same wallet (e.g. Metamask). Developers' smart contracts should be deployable to a zkEVM without any (or little) changes.

This is powerful in the sense that the cryptography part is abstracted away. Users continue to interact with a high-level abstraction they're familiar with: the EVM. In that sense, the iterative "build on existing work" aspect of innovation is preserved in the Ethereum ecosystem.

Other actors in the zk-Rollup ecosystem have decided to start over and break compatibility with the EVM. This includes for instance Starknet, also powered by the CairoVM. Users and developers on Starknet need to get used to using new tools and technologies, but do not have to suffer from EVM legacy. Kakarot places a somewhat different bet: the EVM will remain the dominant common abstraction layer in crypto and Cairo will be the strongest zkVM. Therefore, it makes sense to both:

  • build an EVM in 2024,
  • bet on the Cairo powerhouse for the years to come.

Kakarot users stand to benefit both from the Ethereum network effect and the innovations built on the most disruptive zk-toolbox: the CairoVM stack.

Note that a zkEVM also designates the software used to prove Ethereum-compatible transactions and blocks. It refers to code that is used to go from an EVM transaction to a zero-knowledge (or validity) proof. The implementation of a zkEVM can be either low-level (at the so-called "circuits" level) or high-level (use an intermediary zkVM). Scroll is an embodiment of the former, and Kakarot of the latter.

TL;DR: Execute Ethereum-compatible transactions on a Layer 2, prove them off-chain, bundle and verify them on Ethereum L1. Save on costs, benefit from an existing ecosystem: the Ethereum community.