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Contract Semantics

This document aims to clarify the semantics of how a CosmWasm contract interacts with its environment. There are two main types of actions: mutating actions, which receive DepsMut and are able to modify the state of the blockchain, and query actions, which are run on a single node with read-only access to the data.


In the section below, we will discuss how the execute call works, but the same semantics apply to any other mutating action - instantiate, migrate, sudo, etc.

SDK Context

Before looking at CosmWasm, we should look at the (somewhat under-documented) semantics enforced by the blockchain framework we integrate with - the Cosmos SDK. It is based upon the Tendermint BFT Consensus Engine. Let us first look how they process transactions before they arrive in CosmWasm (and after they leave).

First, the Tendermint engine will seek 2/3+ consensus on a list of transactions to be included in the next block. This is done without executing them. They are simply subjected to a minimal pre-filter by the Cosmos SDK module, to ensure they are validly formatted transactions, with sufficient gas fees, and signed by an account with sufficient fees to pay it. Notably, this means many transactions that error may be included in a block.

Once a block is committed (typically every 5s or so), the transactions are then fed to the Cosmos SDK sequentially in order to execute them. Each one returns a result or error along with event logs, which are recorded in the TxResults section of the next block. The AppHash (or merkle proof or blockchain state) after executing the block is also included in the next block.

The Cosmos SDK BaseApp handles each transaction in an isolated context. It first verifies all signatures and deducts the gas fees. It sets the "Gas Meter" to limit the execution to the amount of gas paid for by the fees. Then it makes an isolated context to run the transaction. This allows the code to read the current state of the chain (after the last transaction finished), but it only writes to a cache, which may be committed or rolled back on error.

A transaction may consist of multiple messages and each one is executed in turn under the same context and same gas limit. If all messages succeed, the context will be committed to the underlying blockchain state and the results of all messages will be stored in the TxResult. If one message fails, all later messages are skipped and all state changes are reverted. This is very important for atomicity. That means Alice and Bob can both sign a transaction with 2 messages: Alice pays Bob 1000 ATOM, Bob pays Alice 50 ETH, and if Bob doesn't have the funds in his account, Alice's payment will also be reverted. This is just like a DB Transaction typically works.

x/wasm is a custom Cosmos SDK module, which processes certain messages and uses them to upload, instantiate, and execute smart contracts. In particular, it accepts a properly signed MsgExecuteContract, routes it to Keeper.Execute, which loads the proper smart contract and calls execute on it. Note that this method may either return a success (with data and events) or an error. In the case of an error here, it will revert the entire transaction in the block. This is the context we find ourselves in when our contract receives the execute call.

Basic Execution

When we implement a contract, we provide the following entry point:

pub fn execute(
deps: DepsMut,
env: Env,
info: MessageInfo,
msg: ExecuteMsg,
) -> Result<Response, ContractError> { }

With DepsMut, this can read and write to the backing Storage, as well as use the Api to validate addresses, and Query the state of other contracts or native modules. Once it is done, it returns either Ok(Response) or Err(ContractError). Let's examine what happens next:

If it returns Err, this error is converted to a string representation (err.to_string()), and this is returned to the SDK module. All state changes are reverted and x/wasm returns this error message, which will generally (see submessage exception below) abort the transaction, and return this same error message to the external caller.

If it returns Ok, the Response object is parsed and processed. Let's look at the parts here:

pub struct Response<T = Empty>
T: Clone + fmt::Debug + PartialEq + JsonSchema,
/// Optional list of "subcalls" to make. These will be executed in order
/// (and this contract's subcall_response entry point invoked)
/// *before* any of the "fire and forget" messages get executed.
pub submessages: Vec<SubMsg<T>>,
/// After any submessages are processed, these are all dispatched in the host blockchain.
/// If they all succeed, then the transaction is committed. If any fail, then the transaction
/// and any local contract state changes are reverted.
pub messages: Vec<CosmosMsg<T>>,
/// The attributes that will be emitted as part of a "wasm" event
pub attributes: Vec<Attribute>,
pub data: Option<Binary>,

In the Cosmos SDK, a transaction returns a number of events to the user, along with an optional data "result". This result is hashed into the next block hash to be provable and can return some essential state (although in general client apps rely on Events more). This result is more commonly used to pass results between contracts or modules in the sdk. Note that the ResultHash includes only the Code (non-zero meaning error) and Result (data) from the transaction. Events and log are available via queries, but there are no light-client proofs possible.

If the contract sets data, this will be returned in the result field. attributes is a list of {key, value} pairs which will be appended to a default event. The final result looks like this to the client:

"type": "wasm",
"attributes": [
{ "key": "contract_addr", "value": "cosmos1234567890qwerty" },
{ "key": "custom-key-1", "value": "custom-value-1" },
{ "key": "custom-key-2", "value": "custom-value-2" }

Dispatching Messages

Now let's move onto the messages field. Some contracts are fine only talking with themselves, such as a cw20 contract just adjusting its balances on transfers. But many want to move tokens (native or cw20) or call into other contracts for more complex actions. This is where messages come in. We return CosmosMsg, which is a serializable representation of any external call the contract can make. It looks something like this (with stargate feature flag enabled):

pub enum CosmosMsg<T = Empty>
T: Clone + fmt::Debug + PartialEq + JsonSchema,
/// This can be defined by each blockchain as a custom extension
Stargate {
type_url: String,
value: Binary,

If a contract returns two messages - M1 and M2, these will both be parsed and executed in x/wasm with the permissions of the contract (meaning info.sender will be the contract not the original caller). If they return success, they will emit a new event with the custom attributes, the data field will be ignored, and any messages they return will also be processed. If they return an error, the parent call will return an error, thus rolling back state of the whole transaction.

Note that the messages are executed depth-first. This means if contract A returns M1 (WasmMsg::Execute) and M2 (BankMsg::Send), and contract B (from the WasmMsg::Execute) returns N1 and N2 (eg. StakingMsg and DistributionMsg), the order of execution would be M1, N1, N2, M2.

This may be hard to understand at first. "Why can't I just call another contract?", you may ask. However, we do this to prevent one of most widespread and hardest to detect security holes in Ethereum contracts - reentrancy. We do this by following the actor model, which doesn't nest function calls, but returns messages that will be executed later. This means all state that is carried over between one call and the next happens in storage and not in memory. For more information on this design, I recommend you read our docs on the Actor Model.


As of CosmWasm 0.14 (April 2021), we have added yet one more way to dispatch calls from the contract. A common request was the ability to get the result from one of the messages you dispatched. For example, you want to create a new contract with WasmMsg::Instantiate, but then you need to store the address of the newly created contract in the caller. With submessages, this is now possible. It also solves a similar use-case of capturing the error results, so if you execute a message from eg. a cron contract, it can store the error message and mark the message as run, rather than aborting the whole transaction. It also allows for limiting the gas usage of the submessage (this is not intended to be used for most cases, but is needed for eg. the cron job to protect it from an infinite loop in the submessage burning all gas and aborting the transaction).

This makes use of CosmosMsg as above, but it wraps it inside a SubMsg envelope:

pub struct SubMsg<T = Empty>
T: Clone + fmt::Debug + PartialEq + JsonSchema,
pub id: u64,
pub msg: CosmosMsg<T>,
pub gas_limit: Option<u64>,
pub reply_on: ReplyOn,

pub enum ReplyOn {
/// Always perform a callback after SubMsg is processed
/// Only callback if SubMsg returned an error, no callback on success case
/// Only callback if SubMsg was successful, no callback on error case

What are the semantics of a submessage execution. First, we create a sub-transaction context around the state, allowing it to read the latest state written by the caller, but write to yet-another cache. If gas_limit is set, it is sandboxed to how much gas it can use until it aborts with OutOfGasError. This error is caught and returned to the caller like any other error returned from contract execution (unless it burned the entire gas limit of the transaction). What is more interesting is what happens on completion.

If it return success, the temporary state is committed (into the caller's cache), and the Response is processed as normal (an event is added to the current EventManager, messages and submessages are executed). Once the Response is fully processed, this may then be intercepted by the calling contract (for ReplyOn::Always and ReplyOn::Success). On an error, the subcall will revert any partial state changes due to this message, but not revert any state changes in the calling contract. The error may then be intercepted by the calling contract (for ReplyOn::Always and ReplyOn::Error). In this case, the messages error doesn't abort the whole transaction

Handling the Reply

In order to make use of submessages, the calling contract must have an extra entry point:

pub fn reply(deps: DepsMut, env: Env, msg: Reply) -> Result<Response, ContractError> { }

pub struct Reply {
pub id: u64,
/// ContractResult is just a nicely serializable version of `Result<SubcallResponse, String>`
pub result: ContractResult<SubcallResponse>,

pub struct SubcallResponse {
pub events: Vec<Event>,
pub data: Option<Binary>,

After the submessage is finished, the caller will get a chance to handle the result. It will get the original id of the subcall so it can switch on how to process this, and the Result of the execution, both success and error. Note that it includes all events returned by the submessage, which applies to native sdk modules as well (like Bank) as well as the data returned from below. This and the original call id provide all context to continue processing it. If you need more state, you must save some local context to the store (under the id) before returning the submessage in the original execute, and load it in reply. We explicitly prohibit passing information in contract memory, as that is the key vector for reentrancy attacks, which are a large security surface area in Ethereum.

The reply call may return Err itself, in which case it is treated like the caller errored, and aborting the transaction. However, on successful processing, reply may return a normal Response, which will be processed as normal - events added to the EventManager, and all messages and submessages dispatched as described above.

The one critical difference with reply, is that we do not drop data. If reply returns data: Some(value) in the Response object, we will overwrite the data field returned by the caller. That is, if execute returns data: Some(b"first thought") and the reply (with all the extra information it is privy to) returns data: Some(b"better idea"), then this will be returned to the caller of execute (either the client or another transaction), just as if the original execute and returned data: Some(b"better idea"). If reply returns data: None, it will not modify any previously set data state. If there are multiple submessages all setting this, only the last one is used (they all overwrite any previous data value). As a consequence, you can use data: Some(b"") to clear previously set data. This will be represented as a JSON string instead of null and handled as any other Some value.

Order and Rollback

Submessages (and their replies) are all executed before any messages. They also follow the depth first rules as with messages. Here is a simple example. Contract A returns submessages S1 and S2, and message M1. Submessage S1 returns message N1. The order will be: S1, N1, reply(S1), S2, reply(S2), M1

Please keep in mind that submessage execution and reply can happen within the context of another submessage. For example contract-A--submessage --> contract-B--submessage --> contract-C. Then contract-B can revert the state for contract-C and itself by returning Err in the submessage reply, but not revert contract-A or the entire transaction. It just ends up returning Err to contract-A's reply function.

Note that errors are not handled with ReplyOn::Success, meaning, in such a case, an error will be treated just like a normal message returning an error. This diagram may help explain. Imagine a contract returned two submesssage - (a) with ReplyOn::Success and (b) with ReplyOn::Error:

processing a)processing b)reply calledmay overwrite result from replynote
okoka)a)returns success
errerrnonenonereturns error (abort parent transaction)
erroknonenonereturns error (abort parent transaction)
okerra)b)a)b)if both a) and b) overwrite, only b) will be used

Query Semantics

Until now, we have focused on the Response object, which allows us to execute code in other contracts via the actor model. That is, each contract is run sequentially, one after another, and no nested calls are possible. This is essential to avoid reentrancy, which is when calling into another contract can change my state while I am in the middle of a transaction.

However, there are many times we need access to information from other contracts in the middle of processing, such as determining the contract's bank balance before sending funds. To enable this, we have exposed the read only Querier to enable synchronous calls in the middle of the execution. By making it read-only (and enforcing that in the VM level), we can prevent the possibility of reentrancy, as the query cannot modify any state or execute our contract.

When we "make a query", we serialize a QueryRequest struct that represents all possible calls, and then pass that over FFI to the runtime, where it is interpretted in the x/wasm SDK module. This is extensible with blockchain-specific custom queries just like CosmosMsg accepts custom results. Also note the ability to perform raw protobuf "Stargate" queries:

pub enum QueryRequest<C: CustomQuery> {
Stargate {
/// this is the fully qualified service path used for routing,
/// eg. custom/
path: String,
/// this is the expected protobuf message type (not any), binary encoded
data: Binary,

While this is flexible and needed encoding for the cross-language representation, this is a bit of mouthful to generate and use when I just want to find my bank balance. To help that, we often use QuerierWrapper, which wraps a Querier and exposes a lot of convenience methods that just use QueryRequest and Querier.raw_query under the hood.

You can read a longer explanation of the Querier design in our docs.