Updating Consensus

Avoiding double spends, confusion, forks, and attacks, aren't the only complexities of a decentralized consensus mechanism, what happens when you want to update the consensus rules? How to you change a protocol that no one controls? In the last part of Chapter 10 we'll read through the various mechanisms for updating the the Bitcoin code and consensus rules. Read the Chapter 10 from "Changing the Consensus Rules" till the end. 

Soft Forks

Not all consensus rule changes cause a hard fork. Only consensus changes that are forward-incompatible cause a fork. If the change is implemented in such a way that a non-upgraded client still sees the transaction or block as valid under the previous rules, the change can happen without a fork.

The term soft fork was introduced to distinguish this upgrade method from a "hard fork." In practice, a soft fork is not a fork at all. A soft fork is a forward-compatible change to the consensus rules that allows non-upgraded clients to continue to operate in consensus with the new rules.

One aspect of soft forks that is not immediately obvious is that soft fork upgrades can only be used to constrain the consensus rules, not to expand them. In order to be forward compatible, transactions and blocks created under the new rules must be valid under the old rules too, but not vice versa. The new rules can only limit what is valid; otherwise, they will trigger a hard fork when rejected under the old rules.

Soft forks can be implemented in a number of ways – the term does not specify a particular method, rather a set of methods that all have one thing in common: they don't require all nodes to upgrade or force non-upgraded nodes out of consensus.

Soft forks redefining NOP opcodes

A number of soft forks have been implemented in bitcoin, based on the re-interpretation of NOP opcodes. Bitcoin Script had ten opcodes reserved for future use, NOP1 through NOP10. Under the consensus rules, the presence of these opcodes in a script is interpreted as a null-potent operator, meaning they have no effect. Execution continues after the NOP opcode as if it wasn't there.

A soft fork therefore can modify the semantics of a NOP code to give it new meaning. For example, BIP-65 (CHECKLOCKTIMEVERIFY) reinterpreted the NOP2 opcode. Clients implementing BIP-65 interpret NOP2 as OP_CHECKLOCKTIMEVERIFY and impose an absolute locktime consensus rule on UTXO that contain this opcode in their locking scripts. This change is a soft fork because a transaction that is valid under BIP-65 is also valid on any client that is not implementing (ignorant of) BIP-65. To the old clients, the script contains an NOP code, which is ignored.

Other ways to soft fork upgrade

The reinterpretation of NOP opcodes was both planned for and an obvious mechanism for consensus upgrades. Recently, however, another soft fork mechanism was introduced that does not rely on NOP opcodes for a very specific type of consensus change. This is examined in more detail in [segwit]. Segwit is an architectural change to the structure of a transaction, which moves the unlocking script (witness) from inside the transaction to an external data structure (segregating it). Segwit was initially envisioned as a hard fork upgrade, as it modified a fundamental structure (transaction). In November 2015, a developer working on Bitcoin Core proposed a mechanism by which segwit could be introduced as a soft fork. The mechanism used for this is a modification of the locking script of UTXO created under segwit rules, such that non-upgraded clients see the locking script as redeemable with any unlocking script whatsoever. As a result, segwit can be introduced without requiring every node to upgrade or split from the chain: a soft fork.

It is likely that there are other, yet to be discovered, mechanisms by which upgrades can be made in a forward-compatible way as a soft fork.