How the different components of your app fit together


This article shows you how the different objects and interfaces in a typical bitcoinj based application interact. We will see how data arrives from the network, is converted into Java objects, and then how those objects travel around until they are eventually used to perform various actions or saved to disk.

For the purposes of this article we will assume the application is a wallet.

The network

The life of a piece of Bitcoin data starts in two ways - when it is sent to us by another node in the peer-to-peer network, or when a transaction is created by ourselves.

The lowest level of the Networking API is an object that implements ClientConnectionManager. This interface provides methods for opening new connections, and requesting that some (randomly chosen) connections be closed. To open a new connection, an object that implements the StreamParser interface must be provided along with the network address to connect to. The client connection manager will then set up a socket and manage reads/writes to it. There are no guarantees about threading here - the manager may run methods of the provided StreamParser on any number of threads or just one. There are two implementations provided: BlockingClientManager and NioClientManager. If you create a high level PeerGroup object then by default a NioClientManager will be created, though you can also provide your own via the constructors. The difference between them is that NioClientManager uses a single thread and async epoll/select based IO, and BlockingClientManager uses a thread per connection with standard Java blocking sockets. Why does bitcoinj support both approaches?

Note that for many types of apps, notably wallets or merchant apps, you don’t need lots of simultaneous connections and thus the performance difference between the two is largely irrelevant. Also, whilst the scalability difference between thread-per-connection and async IO was once very large in recent times the advent of much better kernel schedulers and multi-core systems means the differences are often no longer so clear cut. With careful attention paid to thread stack sizes it can be the case that a thread per connection is not as expensive as it once was.

In theory, NioClientManager could easily support both async IO and multiple threads together, however the current implementation does not.


As noted above, the client manager classes require an implementation of the StreamParser interface. This interface provides methods for notification that a connection is opened or closed, receiving raw byte buffers and being given an implementation of the MessageWriteTarget interface. StreamParsers are given data packets read from the network without any kind of framing or parsing done. For instance it’s valid for half a message to show up on a StreamParser’s front door. The parser buffers data, handles framing and consumes the data in some way.

When a client manager is given a new parser, it sets an internal object as the MessageWriteTarget. This interface just exposes a method for writing bytes, and closing the connection. Thus the parser object usually manages the lifecycle of a connection once started.

The abstract PeerSocketHandler class implements StreamParser for the Bitcoin P2P networking protocol, by providing buffering, checksumming and parsing of the byte streams into Message objects. This is done using the BitcoinSerializer class, which knows how to read the type of the message and its checksum from the wire, then build the appropriate object to represent that kind of message. It has a static map of names to object types. Each object it can construct is a descendent of the Message class. Each message class is responsible for its own deserialization from raw byte form.

Once a Message is fully constructed and finished deserializing itself, it’s passed to an abstract method on PeerSocketHandler. Thus if you want to just get access to a stream of parsed messages, you should subclass at this point.

The serialization of messages is a custom binary format designed by Satoshi. It has minimal overhead and consequently minimal flexibility.

Peer logic

However, most likely your app does not want to handle a stream of raw Bitcoin protocol messages, but rather operate at a higher level. For this purpose, the Peer class subclasses PeerSocketHandler, tracks state related to the connection and processes incoming messages. It provides high level operations like downloading blocks, the entire chain, transactions, performing pings and so on.

It also dispatches messages to various other objects to which it is connected, specifically:

On receiving a message, each PeerEventListener has a chance to read and intercept the message, possibly modifying it, replacing it with a different message or suppressing further processing entirely. If processing is not suppressed, the following will happen:

The memory pool

It can be convenient to know how many peers (and which ones) have announced a particular transaction. See the article on the bitcoinj SecurityModel for information on why this may be interesting. To implement this, the MemoryPool class keeps track of transactions and transaction hashes that have been seen.

For example, if a peer sends us an “inv” stating it has the transaction with hash 87c79f8d77fe2078333c612e2bdf1735127c6c02 then the Peer will inform the MemoryPool of that, and it will record that this peer has seen that transaction. We may eventually download the given transaction to find out if it belongs to us, and at that point it’s also given to the MemoryPool which keeps it around in case some part of the app is interested in it. As further invs come in, the transactions confidence object is updated.

It may be that the same “tx” message is sent to us multiple times. Normally this shouldn’t happen. But if it does the MemoryPool deduplicates them to ensure only one Java object is floating around, even if it was deserialized multiple times.

Chains and stores

A subclass of AbstractBlockChain is responsible for receiving blocks, fitting them together, and doing validation on them. The BlockChain class does SPV level validation, the FullPrunedBlockChain does full validation as the name implies.

You pass the block chain to a Peer or PeerGroup and the block data flows via that connection from the network, through the block chain object and towards an implementation of the BlockStore interface. There are multiple kinds of block store, but all of them take block data and save at least the headers, and possibly (for a full store) the transaction data as well. For SPV clients a SPVBlockStore is the usual choice and for full mode clients an implementation of FullPrunedBlockStore is needed, for example, H2FullPrunedBlockStore.

The stores talk directly to a database or disk file. There are no other objects beneath them.

Chains invoke callbacks on their BlockChainListeners. A Wallet is an example of a block chain listener, although it’s recommended to use the more specific BlockChain.addWallet() method (it does the same thing as addListener() but this may change in future).

Listeners are invoked for the following events:

In order, a new full block on the best chain triggers isTransactionRelevant for each transaction, receiveFromBlock, then notifyNewBestBlock. A new filtered block on the best chain triggers isTransactionRelevant, a mix of receiveFromBlock or notifyTransactionIsInBlock, then notifyNewBestBlock. New blocks that extend a side chain have the same sequence but not notifyNewBestBlock and new blocks that extend a side chain and cause a reorganize have the same sequence but call reorganize instead of notifyNewBestBlock at the end.

For an SPV mode app, the block store is given all non-orphan blocks regardless of where they connect, and is informed when the new best chain head changes so it can be written to disk. It is only expected to store headers.

Data pruning

For a fully validating node, the store is expected to do a lot more and must implement the FullPrunedBlockStore interface. Together the chain and store implement the ultraprune algorithm, the same as Bitcoin 0.8+ does. However unlike Bitcoin 0.8 the store will actually permanently delete unneeded data after a while, so it cannot serve the chain to other nodes, but the utilized disk space is a lot lower.

A pruning node does not attempt to store the entire block chain. Instead it stores only the set of unspent transaction outputs (UTXO set). Once a transaction output is spent, its data is no longer needed and it can be deleted. Reorganize events complicate the picture somewhat because they can rewrite history, therefore pruning stores are expected to also keep around a number of “undo blocks” which allow a reversal of the changes to the UTXO set. The number of undo blocks stored is a tradeoff between disk space used and the largest reorganize that can be processed. If undo blocks are thrown away too aggressively, a large reorg might permanently kick the node off the chain forcing re-initialization from scratch, so it’s best to be conservative.

The FullPrunedBlockStore interface provides methods for adding, removing and testing the UTXO set. It also has methods for inserting blocks and undo blocks and beginning/ending database transactions (note: as distinct from Bitcoin transactions).

The wallet

The Wallet class acts as a block chain listener and receives data and events from the chain object. It saves the data it receives within itself and keeps track of all transactions that might be interesting for the wallet user, such as ones that send money to its keys. The wallet can be saved to a protocol buffer using WalletProtobufSerializer, and functionality is provided to automatically do so from time to time when the wallet has changed.

Currently, the Wallet doesn’t have any way to store itself to a database. It would be a nice addition for the future.

The Wallet also takes responsibility for updating the confidence levels of transactions placed within it. A transaction outside of the wallet might be updated by the MemoryPool as new peers announce it, but ultimately will not learn about its position in the chain.