15 Mar, 23

What is the Solana Virtual Machine?

what is the solana virtual machine?
beau chaseling headshot
Beau Chaseling

Innovation Analyst

Consider how certain blockchains are able to interpret, compute and execute the abstract functionality contained within smart contract code. Conversely, traditional blockchains, such as the Bitcoin Network, can only facilitate simple payment transactions. They do so using virtual machines, the integral infrastructure powering blockchain-based applications. Presently, several blockchains host their own virtual machines (VMs) to enable smart contract functionality. Solana is one such blockchain – a high-performance platform using its unique architecture to achieve high transaction throughput and low latency. This article will explain the Solana Virtual Machine (SVM), how it facilitates the execution of smart contracts and the characteristics which in the eyes of many technical members of the cryptocurrency community make it superior to many other VMs.

What is the Solana Virtual Machine (SVM)?

Before understanding the SVM it is necessary to grasp the concept of blockchain VMs in general. As mentioned briefly above, a VM is a program that emulates a computer, possessing a virtual CPU, memory and storage. Since these aspects of the VM are simulated, not physical, they can be hosted on a server or network. In the context of blockchains, they are responsible for interpreting and executing the native code in a decentralised and trustless manner. 

In order to enable complex smart contract functionality, blockchains require their VMs to be ‘Turing Complete’. A Turing Complete blockchain is theoretically able to solve any computational problem and perform any calculation that can be represented as an algorithm. This is important because a VM needs to understand the instructions which make up smart contracts. Without Turing completeness, a blockchain network would be incapable of comprehending and executing smart contracts, a crucial factor for the utility of any blockchain.

That being said, the SVM is a Turing Complete VM, custom-made for the Solana blockchain. Being the execution environment for the blockchain’s native smart contracts, it is the integral component upon which Solana’s native ecosystem lives. Running on an application named ‘Sealevel’, it is designed to handle high transaction throughput via its parallel execution engine, making it a crucial factor in the scalability of the Solana network.

Sealevel is a custom-built, lightweight and secure execution environment written in the Rust programming language. Intended to provide a scalable and secure environment for the processing of transactions and smart contracts, Sealevel hosts a number of specific features to optimise it for the network’s intended functionality. Boasting a custom execution mechanism and lightweight data storage mechanism, the system is designed to facilitate efficiency for the network.

In addition, Sealevel’s unique features enable a range of functionality for the Solana blockchain. Leading among the benefits provided by the SVM is scalability. Stack-based parallel execution and custom instructions ensure Solana can process transactions quickly and with low latency. Using the compact memory model and tail call optimisation reduces the risk of memory-related security vulnerabilities as well as enables greater storage capacity.

Ultimately, the SVM is the crucial component of Solana’s native ecosystem without which the network’s functionality would be compromised. Designed specifically to provide an optimal execution environment, the SVM has proved to be one of the most desirable in the current blockchain landscape. 

How Does the Solana Virtual Machine Work?

A key component of the Solana network is the speed with which it executes transactions. The network is theoretically capable of processing up to 65,000 transactions per second, greatly eclipsing competitors such as Ethereum. Responsible for transaction execution, the speed of the Solana blockchain depends largely on the SVM. 

Foremost among the reasons behind Solana’s efficient transaction processing is the SVM’s parallel execution engine. The parallel execution engine is a unique feature of the blockchain which enables multiple transactions or smart contracts to be executed in parallel. In doing so, state changes can be executed simultaneously. Competitors such as the Ethereum Virtual Machine (EVM) can only execute transactions sequentially, one at a time.

To understand the functionality of the SVM, visualise a supermarket with a large number of customers. Should only one teller be available at the time, only one customer could be served at a time. No matter how fast the single teller is, inherent congestion issues may be encountered. 

Source: Dall-E

Conversely, the same supermarket with multiple tellers could serve multiple customers simultaneously. If the tellers are made more efficient, the impact is multiplied. This is exactly what the Solana Virtual Machine does, executing multiple transactions in parallel while the EVM, for example, is more comparable to a single teller.

Source: Dall-E

This system of executing transactions in parallel is made possible by the SVM’s unique transaction structure. When initiated, a Solana transaction describes the state structures it interacts with while executing. This system allows transactions interacting with the same state structure (eg. the same account) to be identified and executed sequentially. Meanwhile, transactions without overlapping state structures are executed by the SVM in parallel. 

As well as the parallel execution model, several other aspects of the SVM enable greater scalability. Utilising a stack-based model for executing smart contracts allows the SVM to process smart contracts as a series of instructions manipulating values on a stack. When a contract is executed, the input values are pushed onto the stack and the instructions in the contract operate on the values on the stack to produce an output. The output of the contract is represented by the final state of the stack. This model can be visualised by a stack of plates whereby a plate can physically only be added and taken from the top – this is akin to the first in first out (FIFO) processing method.

The SVM’s stack-based execution mechanism and custom instruction set allows for superior execution. Similarly, the use of succinct data structures lessens the demand on nodes. Combined, these factors facilitate the efficiency of the SVM and the ability of the Solana blockchain to process transactions with high performance.

DApps on the Solana Blockchain

Decentralised applications, or DApps, are an integral part of any blockchain. They offer a way for users to interact directly with decentralised systems, enabling a wide range of functionalities. Without DApps, blockchain networks would be simple mediums for exchange, like the Bitcoin blockchain. Many DApps are powered by complex smart contracts which require excessive computational resources to compute. The demands imposed by native a large native ecosystem may lead to scalability and security issues. 

Considering a blockchain’s VM is its execution environment, its characteristics are vital for the functionality of DApps. Fortunately, the SVM is optimised for smart contracts built on the Solana blockchain. The Solana Virtual Machine allows for high transaction throughput and low latency, enabling the Solana blockchain to handle large numbers of users and transactions. Furthermore, the SVM’s high-performance capabilities allow for faster and more efficient transactions, reducing costs for users. This is particularly beneficial for applications that rely on frequent and high-volume transactions, as it can significantly lower the overall cost of using the Solana blockchain. Subsequently, this makes it well-suited for applications that require high performance and substantial transaction throughput.

These characteristics of the SVM, accompanied by the network’s security and flexibility, make it an attractive platform for DApp development. Hence, the Solana ecosystem is rapidly expanding, with a growing number of partnerships and collaborations with other companies and projects. Some notable partnerships include a collaboration with Chainlink, a decentralised oracle network, to bring real-world data to the Solana blockchain, and a partnership with Google to run Google Cloud’s blockchain node engine on the Solana chain. Another example is Solana Mobile, an android based mobile phone integrated with the SVM. 

Conclusion

Lying at the heart of the Solana network, the Solana Virtual Machine facilitates the network’s liveliness and enables it to execute complex transactions. Being a Turing Complete parallel execution engine, it implements a range of additional features which provide the network with additional scalability and efficiency. Combined, its features facilitate an optimised environment for DApps built on the Solana blockchain to prosper. With its cutting-edge technology and thriving ecosystem, the Solana network is and likely will continue to shape the decentralised landscape.

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FAQs

What is the Solana Virtual Machine (SVM)?

The Solana Virtual Machine (SVM) is a Turing Complete virtual machine custom-made for the Solana blockchain. It serves as the execution environment for Solana’s native smart contracts. The SVM runs on an application named ‘Sealevel’, designed to handle high transaction throughput via its parallel execution engine, making it a crucial factor in the scalability of the Solana network.

How does the Solana Virtual Machine work?

The SVM works by executing multiple transactions in parallel, which is made possible by its unique transaction structure. When a Solana transaction is initiated, it describes the state structures it interacts with while executing. This system allows transactions interacting with the same state structure to be identified and executed sequentially, while transactions without overlapping state structures are executed by the SVM in parallel.

What is Sealevel in the context of the Solana Virtual Machine?

Sealevel is a custom-built, lightweight, and secure execution environment written in the Rust programming language. It is designed to provide a scalable and secure environment for the processing of transactions and smart contracts on the Solana network. Sealevel hosts a number of specific features to optimise it for the network’s intended functionality, including a custom execution mechanism and lightweight data storage mechanism.

How does the Solana Virtual Machine contribute to the speed of the Solana network?

The speed of the Solana network largely depends on the SVM. The SVM’s parallel execution engine allows multiple transactions or smart contracts to be executed in parallel, enabling state changes to be executed simultaneously. This system of executing transactions in parallel is what allows Solana to process transactions quickly and with low latency.

What are the benefits of the Solana Virtual Machine for DApps?

The SVM allows for high transaction throughput and low latency, enabling the Solana blockchain to handle large numbers of users and transactions. Its high-performance capabilities allow for faster and more efficient transactions, reducing costs for users. This makes it well-suited for applications that require high performance and substantial transaction throughput, making it an attractive platform for DApp development.

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