More on the Bitcoin Network

To obtain a deeper understanding of how data is transmitted on the Bitcoin network, we'll first need to learn Bitcoin's Peer-to-Peer network architecture by understanding nodes and how they communicate with each other.

Peer-to-Peer Network Architecture

Bitcoin is structured as a peer-to-peer network architecture on top of the internet. The term peer-to-peer, or P2P, means that the computers that participate in the network are peers to each other, that they are all equal, that there are no "special" nodes, and that all nodes share the burden of providing network services. The network nodes interconnect in a mesh network with a "flat" topology. There is no server, no centralized service, and no hierarchy within the network. Nodes in a P2P network both provide and consume services at the same time with reciprocity acting as the incentive for participation. P2P networks are inherently resilient, decentralized, and open. A preeminent example of a P2P network architecture was the early internet itself, where nodes on the IP network were equal. Today's internet architecture is more hierarchical, but the Internet Protocol still retains its flat-topology essence. Beyond bitcoin, the largest and most successful application of P2P technologies is file sharing, with Napster as the pioneer and BitTorrent as the most recent evolution of the architecture.

Bitcoin's P2P network architecture is much more than a topology choice. Bitcoin is a P2P digital cash system by design, and the network architecture is both a reflection and a foundation of that core characteristic. Decentralization of control is a core design principle that can only be achieved and maintained by a flat, decentralized P2P consensus network.

The term "bitcoin network" refers to the collection of nodes running the bitcoin P2P protocol. In addition to the bitcoin P2P protocol, there are other protocols such as Stratum that are used for mining and lightweight or mobile wallets. These additional protocols are provided by gateway routing servers that access the bitcoin network using the bitcoin P2P protocol and then extend that network to nodes running other protocols. For example, Stratum servers connect Stratum mining nodes via the Stratum protocol to the main bitcoin network and bridge the Stratum protocol to the bitcoin P2P protocol. We use the term "extended bitcoin network" to refer to the overall network that includes the bitcoin P2P protocol, pool-mining protocols, the Stratum protocol, and any other related protocols connecting the components of the bitcoin system.


Node Types and Roles

Although nodes in the bitcoin P2P network are equal, they may take on different roles depending on the functionality they are supporting. A bitcoin node is a collection of functions: routing, the blockchain database, mining, and wallet services. A full node with all four of these functions is shown in A bitcoin network node with all four functions: wallet, miner, full blockchain database, and network routing.

Figure 1. A bitcoin network node with all four functions: wallet, miner, full blockchain database, and network routing


All nodes include the routing function to participate in the network and might include other functionality. All nodes validate and propagate transactions and blocks, and discover and maintain connections to peers. In the full-node example in A bitcoin network node with all four functions: wallet, miner, full blockchain database, and network routing, the routing function is indicated by a circle named "Network Routing Node" or with the letter "N".

Some nodes, called full nodes, also maintain a complete and up-to-date copy of the blockchain. Full nodes can autonomously and authoritatively verify any transaction without external reference. Some nodes maintain only a subset of the blockchain and verify transactions using a method called simplified payment verification, or SPV. These nodes are known as SPV nodes or lightweight nodes. In the full-node example in the figure, the full-node blockchain database function is indicated by a circle called "Full Blockchain" or the letter "B". In The extended bitcoin network showing various node types, gateways, and protocols, SPV nodes are drawn without the "B" circle, showing that they do not have a full copy of the blockchain.

Mining nodes compete to create new blocks by running specialized hardware to solve the Proof-of-Work algorithm. Some mining nodes are also full nodes, maintaining a full copy of the blockchain, while others are lightweight nodes participating in pool mining and depending on a pool server to maintain a full node. The mining function is shown in the full node as a circle called "Miner" or the letter "M".

User wallets might be part of a full node, as is usually the case with desktop bitcoin clients. Increasingly, many user wallets, especially those running on resource-constrained devices such as smartphones, are SPV nodes. The wallet function is shown in A bitcoin network node with all four functions: wallet, miner, full blockchain database, and network routing as a circle called "Wallet" or the letter "W".

In addition to the main node types on the bitcoin P2P protocol, there are servers and nodes running other protocols, such as specialized mining pool protocols and lightweight client-access protocols.

Different types of nodes on the extended bitcoin network shows the most common node types on the extended bitcoin network.


The Extended Bitcoin Network

The main bitcoin network, running the bitcoin P2P protocol, consists of between 5,000 and 8,000 listening nodes running various versions of the bitcoin reference client (Bitcoin Core) and a few hundred nodes running various other implementations of the bitcoin P2P protocol, such as Bitcoin Classic, Bitcoin Unlimited, BitcoinJ, Libbitcoin, btcd, and bcoin. A small percentage of the nodes on the bitcoin P2P network are also mining nodes, competing in the mining process, validating transactions, and creating new blocks. Various large companies interface with the bitcoin network by running full-node clients based on the Bitcoin Core client, with full copies of the blockchain and a network node, but without mining or wallet functions. These nodes act as network edge routers, allowing various other services (exchanges, wallets, block explorers, merchant payment processing) to be built on top.

The extended bitcoin network includes the network running the bitcoin P2P protocol, described earlier, as well as nodes running specialized protocols. Attached to the main bitcoin P2P network are a number of pool servers and protocol gateways that connect nodes running other protocols. These other protocol nodes are mostly pool mining nodes (see [mining]) and lightweight wallet clients, which do not carry a full copy of the blockchain.

The extended bitcoin network showing various node types, gateways, and protocols shows the extended bitcoin network with the various types of nodes, gateway servers, edge routers, and wallet clients and the various protocols they use to connect to each other.

Figure 2. Different types of nodes on the extended bitcoin network

Figure 3. The extended bitcoin network showing various node types, gateways, and protocols


Bitcoin Relay Networks

While the bitcoin P2P network serves the general needs of a broad variety of node types, it exhibits too high network latency for the specialized needs of bitcoin mining nodes.

Bitcoin miners are engaged in a time-sensitive competition to solve the Proof-of-Work problem and extend the blockchain (see [mining]). While participating in this competition, bitcoin miners must minimize the time between the propagation of a winning block and the beginning of the next round of competition. In mining, network latency is directly related to profit margins.

Bitcoin Relay Network is a network that attempts to minimize the latency in the transmission of blocks between miners. The original Bitcoin Relay Network was created by core developer Matt Corallo in 2015 to enable fast synchronization of blocks between miners with very low latency. The network consisted of several specialized nodes hosted on the Amazon Web Services infrastructure around the world and served to connect the majority of miners and mining pools.

The original Bitcoin Relay Network was replaced in 2016 with the introduction of the Fast Internet Bitcoin Relay Engine or FIBRE, also created by core developer Matt Corallo. FIBRE is a UDP-based relay network that relays blocks within a network of nodes. FIBRE implements compact block optimization to further reduce the amount of data transmitted and the network latency.

Relay networks are not replacements for bitcoin's P2P network. Instead they are overlay networks that provide additional connectivity between nodes with specialized needs. Like freeways are not replacements for rural roads, but rather shortcuts between two points with heavy traffic, you still need small roads to connect to the freeways.


Network Discovery

When a new node boots up, it must discover other bitcoin nodes on the network in order to participate. To start this process, a new node must discover at least one existing node on the network and connect to it. The geographic location of other nodes is irrelevant; the bitcoin network topology is not geographically defined. Therefore, any existing bitcoin nodes can be selected at random.

To connect to a known peer, nodes establish a TCP connection, usually to port 8333 (the port generally known as the one used by bitcoin), or an alternative port if one is provided. Upon establishing a connection, the node will start a "handshake" by transmitting a version message, which contains basic identifying information, including:


The bitcoin P2P protocol version the client "speaks" (e.g., 70002)


A list of local services supported by the node, currently just NODE_NETWORK


The current time


The IP address of the remote node as seen from this node


The IP address of the local node, as discovered by the local node


A sub-version showing the type of software running on this node (e.g., /Satoshi:  )


The block height of this node's blockchain

The version message is always the first message sent by any peer to another peer. The local peer receiving a version message will examine the remote peer's reported nVersion and decide if the remote peer is compatible. If the remote peer is compatible, the local peer will acknowledge the version message and establish a connection by sending a verack message.

How does a new node find peers? The first method is to query DNS using a number of "DNS seeds," which are DNS servers that provide a list of IP addresses of bitcoin nodes. Some of those DNS seeds provide a static list of IP addresses of stable bitcoin listening nodes. Some of the DNS seeds are custom implementations of BIND (Berkeley Internet Name Daemon) that return a random subset from a list of bitcoin node addresses collected by a crawler or a long-running bitcoin node. The Bitcoin Core client contains the names of nine different DNS seeds. The diversity of ownership and diversity of implementation of the different DNS seeds offers a high level of reliability for the initial bootstrapping process. In the Bitcoin Core client, the option to use the DNS seeds is controlled by the option switch -dnsseed (set to 1 by default, to use the DNS seed).

Alternatively, a bootstrapping node that knows nothing of the network must be given the IP address of at least one bitcoin node, after which it can establish connections through further introductions. The command-line argument -seednode can be used to connect to one node just for introductions using it as a seed. After the initial seed node is used to form introductions, the client will disconnect from it and use the newly discovered peers.

Figure 4. The initial handshake between peers

Once one or more connections are established, the new node will send an addr message containing its own IP address to its neighbors. The neighbors will, in turn, forward the addr message to their neighbors, ensuring that the newly connected node becomes well known and better connected. Additionally, the newly connected node can send getaddr to the neighbors, asking them to return a list of IP addresses of other peers. That way, a node can find peers to connect to and advertise its existence on the network for other nodes to find it. Address propagation and discovery shows the address discovery protocol.

Figure 5. Address propagation and discovery

A node must connect to a few different peers in order to establish diverse paths into the bitcoin network. Paths are not persistent ­– nodes come and go ­– and so the node must continue to discover new nodes as it loses old connections as well as assist other nodes when they bootstrap. Only one connection is needed to bootstrap, because the first node can offer introductions to its peer nodes and those peers can offer further introductions. It's also unnecessary and wasteful of network resources to connect to more than a handful of nodes. After bootstrapping, a node will remember its most recent successful peer connections, so that if it is rebooted it can quickly reestablish connections with its former peer network. If none of the former peers respond to its connection request, the node can use the seed nodes to bootstrap again.

On a node running the Bitcoin Core client, you can list the peer connections with the command getpeerinfo:

$ bitcoin-cli getpeerinfo

        "addr" : "",
        "services" : "00000001",
        "lastsend" : 1405634126,
        "lastrecv" : 1405634127,
        "bytessent" : 23487651,
        "bytesrecv" : 138679099,
        "conntime" : 1405021768,
        "pingtime" : 0.00000000,
        "version" : 70002,
        "subver" : "/Satoshi:",
        "inbound" : false,
        "startingheight" : 310131,
        "banscore" : 0,
        "syncnode" : true
        "addr" : "",
        "services" : "00000001",
        "lastsend" : 1405634127,
        "lastrecv" : 1405634124,
        "bytessent" : 4460918,
        "bytesrecv" : 8903575,
        "conntime" : 1405559628,
        "pingtime" : 0.00000000,
        "version" : 70001,
        "subver" : "/Satoshi:0.8.6/",
        "inbound" : false,
        "startingheight" : 311074,
        "banscore" : 0,
        "syncnode" : false


To override the automatic management of peers and to specify a list of IP addresses, users can provide the option -connect=<IPAddress> and specify one or more IP addresses. If this option is used, the node will only connect to the selected IP addresses, instead of discovering and maintaining the peer connections automatically.

If there is no traffic on a connection, nodes will periodically send a message to maintain the connection. If a node has not communicated on a connection for more than 90 minutes, it is assumed to be disconnected and a new peer will be sought. Thus, the network dynamically adjusts to transient nodes and network problems, and can organically grow and shrink as needed without any central control.


Full Nodes

Full nodes are nodes that maintain a full blockchain with all transactions. More accurately, they probably should be called "full blockchain nodes". In the early years of bitcoin, all nodes were full nodes and currently the Bitcoin Core client is a full blockchain node. In the past two years, however, new forms of bitcoin clients have been introduced that do not maintain a full blockchain but run as lightweight clients. We'll examine these in more detail in the next section.

Full blockchain nodes maintain a complete and up-to-date copy of the bitcoin blockchain with all the transactions, which they independently build and verify, starting with the very first block (genesis block) and building up to the latest known block in the network. A full blockchain node can independently and authoritatively verify any transaction without recourse or reliance on any other node or source of information. The full blockchain node relies on the network to receive updates about new blocks of transactions, which it then verifies and incorporates into its local copy of the blockchain.

Running a full blockchain node gives you the pure bitcoin experience: independent verification of all transactions without the need to rely on, or trust, any other systems. It's easy to tell if you're running a full node because it requires more than one hundred gigabytes of persistent storage (disk space) to store the full blockchain. If you need a lot of disk and it takes two to three days to sync to the network, you are running a full node. That is the price of complete independence and freedom from central authority.

There are a few alternative implementations of full blockchain bitcoin clients, built using different programming languages and software architectures. However, the most common implementation is the reference client Bitcoin Core, also known as the Satoshi client. More than 75% of the nodes on the bitcoin network run various versions of Bitcoin Core. It is identified as "Satoshi" in the sub-version string sent in the version message and shown by the command getpeerinfo as we saw earlier; for example, /Satoshi:0.8.6/.


Exchanging "Inventory"

The first thing a full node will do once it connects to peers is try to construct a complete blockchain. If it is a brand-new node and has no blockchain at all, it only knows one block, the genesis block, which is statically embedded in the client software. Starting with block #0 (the genesis block), the new node will have to download hundreds of thousands of blocks to synchronize with the network and reestablish the full blockchain.

The process of syncing the blockchain starts with the version message, because that contains BestHeight, a node's current blockchain height (number of blocks). A node will see the version messages from its peers, know how many blocks they each have, and be able to compare to how many blocks it has in its own blockchain. Peered nodes will exchange a getblocks message that contains the hash (fingerprint) of the top block on their local blockchain. One of the peers will be able to identify the received hash as belonging to a block that is not at the top, but rather belongs to an older block, thus deducing that its own local blockchain is longer than its peer's.

The peer that has the longer blockchain has more blocks than the other node and can identify which blocks the other node needs in order to "catch up". It will identify the first 500 blocks to share and transmit their hashes using an inv (inventory) message. The node missing these blocks will then retrieve them, by issuing a series of getdata messages requesting the full block data and identifying the requested blocks using the hashes from the inv message.

Let's assume, for example, that a node only has the genesis block. It will then receive an inv message from its peers containing the hashes of the next 500 blocks in the chain. It will start requesting blocks from all of its connected peers, spreading the load and ensuring that it doesn't overwhelm any peer with requests. The node keeps track of how many blocks are "in transit" per peer connection, meaning blocks that it has requested but not received, checking that it does not exceed a limit (MAX_BLOCKS_IN_TRANSIT_PER_PEER). This way, if it needs a lot of blocks, it will only request new ones as previous requests are fulfilled, allowing the peers to control the pace of updates and not overwhelm the network. As each block is received, it is added to the blockchain, as we will see in [blockchain]. As the local blockchain is gradually built up, more blocks are requested and received, and the process continues until the node catches up to the rest of the network.

This process of comparing the local blockchain with the peers and retrieving any missing blocks happens any time a node goes offline for any period of time. Whether a node has been offline for a few minutes and is missing a few blocks, or a month and is missing a few thousand blocks, it starts by sending getblocks, gets an inv response, and starts downloading the missing blocks. Node synchronizing the blockchain by retrieving blocks from a peer shows the inventory and block propagation protocol.

Figure 6. Node synchronizing the blockchain by retrieving blocks from a peer

Source: Andreas M. Antonopoulos,
Creative Commons License This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 License.

Last modified: Tuesday, October 5, 2021, 2:47 PM