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From transaction to block - part 1

Transaction connotes different meanings under different settings, even in software development. The concept of transactions in a traditional database represents multiple and usually complex actions that potentially manipulate data spanning different tables in a database. Transactions in blockchain have a similar connotation. Blockchain transaction describes a specific action and how a blockchain runtime should execute it.

Substrate and its ecosystem provide ergonomic tools and a modular approach that can be used to construct transactions and implement all processes relevant to transaction validation, transaction metering, transaction execution, and block propagation. Substrate also allows you as a developer to customize every step related to transaction execution and block production.

This guide is part 1 of a two-part series that provides a detailed description along with reference code implementation on how transactions and blocks are handled in Substrate. In this guide, we break down the essential process involving transactions within the context of Substrate and highlighting how each step can be customized.

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Extrinsic vs Transaction

Transactions in Substrate are referred to as Extrinsics. This is because they originate out of the runtime and are distinct from system calls originating from the runtime and the core client. Extrinsics describes runtime calls and usually contains a function signature, a signature created from the caller's private key, and some data to describe if the extrinsic has passed some validity checks. An extrinsic can be conceptually viewed like so:

type Extrinsic {
pub_key: AccountId,
method: RuntimeCall,
param: Option<ParamType>
signature: Option<Signature>,
data: SignedExtra,

In Substrate, the implementation of an extrinsic has two definitions, which are:

  • Extrinsic trait vs Extrinsic type alias

  • Extrinsic trait implements the "actions" an extrinsic should be able to perform. These actions could be checking if a transaction is signed or any other process that does not change the blockchain state and other runtime processes.

This also allows you as a runtime developer to customize what constitutes an extrinsic for your Blockchain.

The Extrinsic trait is defined like so:

pub trait Extrinsic: Sized {
type Call: TypeInfo;
type SignaturePayload: SignaturePayload;

// Provided methods
fn is_signed(&self) -> Option<bool> { ... }
fn new(
_call: Self::Call,
_signed_data: Option<Self::SignaturePayload>
) -> Option<Self> { ... }
  • Extrinsic type alias is used to define an extrinsic within the conceptual context of a Block.

The Extrinsic type alias is defined like so:

type Extrinsic: Member + Codec + Extrinsic + MaybeSerialize;

It is used to represent an extrinsics that constitutes a block.

Note: More on Blocks in the section here.

Substrate provides three (3) distinct formats of extrinsics based on the origin of the extrinsic. They include the following:

  1. Signed extrinsics
  2. Unsigned extrinsics
  3. Inherents

Signed extrinsics

Also called Signed transactions are the commonest form of a substrate extrinsic. They are generally used to make RPC requests to a chain and must contain the following:

  • A signature from the account sending the inbound request to the runtime using the sender's private key.
  • sufficient balance in the sender's account to pay for the transaction fee.

A signed extrinsic can be conceptually viewed like so:

type Extrinsic {
pub_key: AccountId,
method: RuntimeCall,
param: Option<ParamType>
signature: Some(Signature), // <-- notice it must contain a signature
data: SignedExtra,

Unsigned extrinsics

Unsigned extrinsics do not include any information about who submitted the transaction. This form of extrinsic does not contain a field for signature and rather must meet conditions defined by the runtime to be valid.

Unsigned extrinsics are commonly used by off-chain workers to feed data to the runtime and trigger function calls when certain conditions are met.

An unsigned extrinsic can be conceptually viewed like so:

type Extrinsic {
pub_key: AccountId,
method: RuntimeCall,
param: Option<ParamType>
signature: None, // <-- notice it does not contain a signature
data: SignedExtra,


Substrate provides a special type of unsigned transaction that can be constructed by block authors. They may contain the information required to build a block such as timestamps, storage proofs, and information about preceding blocks, and can also include any other data the block author wishes to include.

Inherents are handled and represented differently within Substrate. And has a different type from an Extrinsic.

Because Inherents have an endogenous origin and are only called just before a block is created and proposed to other nodes in the network, it is defined differently in Substrate.

Substrate inherent has a complex implementation and represents InherentType like so:

type InherentType: Slot;

struct Slot(T);

This enables adaptable implementation for different block production mechanisms like BABE.

Data created from an inherent is included first in a Block and the block's proposal.

You can learn more about Inherents here

Guide to Substrate Consensus is coming in a future article.

Extrinsic Lifecycle

Extrinsic lifecycle

Moving along from the previous section, we may have a clue that extrinsics contain information that the runtime could use to effect some changes to the storage of the chain.

The changes are executed by the node that received the request, which is usually a validating full node. The data changes are recorded and used to construct a block proposal.

This section provides an overview of how extrinsics get processed by a node and lays more groundwork for subsequent sections.

The process involved in an extrinsic life cycle is described extensively in substrate doc

The process that will be discussed in this article includes the following:

  • Extrinsic Submission
  • Extrinsic Validation and Queuing
  • Extrinsic Ordering
  • Extrinsic Execution
  • Block Authoring
  • Block Propagation

Submitting an extrinsic

This process usually occurs outside the entire chain’s client software and is facilitated by external libraries. These external libraries are complex packages however their core features include:

  • generating signature from a private key
  • creating a connection to a node
  • constructing a valid extrinsic
  • making a request containing the extrinsic

Most libraries within Substrate ecosystem also listen for runtime events and confirm extrinsic execution, with excellent error handling.

Prominent Rust crates that enable developers to submit Extrinsic include:

A very popular alternative for Javascript developers is the PolkadotJs package. Substrate-api-sidecar is a Typescript-based package that interacts with Substrate nodes using RESTful APIs.

Other options are available in other languages including Python, Kotlin, and Java which can be found here

The Substrate transaction module is defined here. It provides the Transaction API which is leveraged by the packages mentioned above.

Verifying an Extrinsic

After a node receives an extrinsic, the node verifies the extrinsic and adds the extrinsic to its transaction pool.

An extrinsic is valid if it meets the criteria defined by the runtime. The validity of an extrinsic is checked against certain criteria before it is added to the node's transaction pool.

These criteria ensure the following:

  • The extrinsic signature is cryptographically valid.
  • The account of the caller has sufficient balance to cover runtime fees.
  • The extrinsic nonce is valid.
  • The extrinsic has not expired.
  • The extrinsic has not been included in a previous block.
  • The extrinsic data is not too large to be added to the current block.

If data from an extrinsic is too large to be added, it is tagged as invalid and moved to the next validation round for a future block where it may be added before other extrinsic of similar priority or lower priority.

The transaction nonce is mainly derived from the account of the caller and denotes the index of the transactions originating from an account.

Transactions that do not meet all criteria defined in the runtime are dropped from the transaction pool and do not get added to a Block proposal. These invalid transactions do not get executed.

Substrate provides an interface that enables the core client to construct extrinsic valid from the transaction pool.

The interface is defined like so:

pub trait TaggedTransactionQueue<Block: BlockT>: Core<Block> {
// --------- snip -------- //

fn validate_transaction(
__runtime_api_at_param__: <Block as BlockT>::Hash,
source: TransactionSource,
tx: <Block as BlockT>::Extrinsic,
block_hash: Block::Hash
) -> Result<TransactionValidity, ApiError> { ... }

Substrate runtime also provides an interface that enables core client and FRAME executive pallet to verify an extrinsic within a given block here and here

A valid transaction is defined in Substrate like so:

pub struct ValidTransaction {
pub priority: TransactionPriority,
pub requires: Vec<TransactionTag>,
pub provides: Vec<TransactionTag>,
pub longevity: TransactionLongevity,
pub propagate: bool,

Each field can be customized to meet the needs of your chain. For example, the default TransactionLongevity is u64::MAX blocks. This means an otherwise valid transaction becomes invalid if it is not executed after 18446744073709551615 blocks from the block height at which it was submitted.

You can learn more about transaction validation here

Ordering Extrinsics

This step is carried out by a node if it is selected as the block author.

The authoring node in Substrate uses a priority system to order extrinsics from the transaction pool. Recall that all transactions in the transaction pool are valid at any point in time.

Transactions are ordered from the highest priority to the lowest priority until the block reaches a maximum length or weight.

Learn about weight in Substrate from our previous guide on benchmarking here.

It is important to note that this maximum length does not include Inherents. Inherents have the highest priority in Substrate and can be included in a block even after the maximum length is reached. And as always, you can override this behavior by customizing the EnsureInherentsAreFirst trait

Substrate priority system ensures that transactions from an account are added in ascending order of the transaction nonce. This ensures that transactions required by other transactions are added first, allowing a deterministic sequential execution of chained transactions.

Substrate uses "tags" to include higher-order transactions in a ValidTransaction as defined here

Executing Extrinsics

After valid transactions have been added to the transaction queue, the FRAME executive pallet orchestrates the execution of all transactions. The "execution" of extrinsics is basically sequential calls to Substrate runtime that cause a change in some state value and generate a "proof". (More about this proof later).

The executive pallet instruments the execution of Extrinsics and is intricately connected to the rest of the Substrate runtime. The executive's actions can be understood along the following phases:

  • Initializing a block
  • Executing transactions
  • Finalizing a block

  • Initializing a block

Here the executive pallet calls the on_initialize function in the FRAME system pallet after which it calls the on_initialize function in other runtime pallets (if any contain on_initialize) according to the order they are defined in the runtime/ construct_runtime!. The on_initialize function can be used to "hook" certain actions, that can be used to implement dynamic business logic which should be completed before transactions are executed in the runtime.

The executive pallet also checks the parent hash in the block header and the trie root to verify that the digest from the hash is valid.

To learn about the implementation details of the Header passed, check here. To see the Digest implementation check here and here

The executive pallet initialize_block function is defined like so:

/// Start the execution of a particular block.
pub fn initialize_block(header: &frame_system::pallet_prelude::HeaderFor<System>) {
// ---------- snip ----------

// verify header
let digests = Self::extract_pre_digest(header);

// initialize runtime pallets
Self::initialize_block_impl(header.number(), header.parent_hash(), &digests);

fn initialize_block_impl(
block_number: &BlockNumberFor<System>,
parent_hash: &System::Hash,
digest: &Digest,
) {
let mut weight = Weight::zero();

// ---------- snip ----------

// call system `on_initialize` function
<frame_system::Pallet<System>>::initialize(block_number, parent_hash, digest);

// add weight for all on_initialize function execution
weight = weight.saturating_add(<AllPalletsWithSystem as OnInitialize<

// ---------- snip ----------

  • Executing transactions

After the block has been initialized, each transaction is executed in the order priority discussed in the preceding section.

It is important to know that state changes are written directly to storage during execution. If a transaction were to fail mid-execution, any state changes that took place before the failure would not be reverted, leaving the block in an unrecoverable state.

When implementing custom transaction execution logic ensure the runtime performs all necessary checks to ensure the extrinsic will succeed before committing any state changes to storage.

It is also important to note that events are also written to storage. If a transaction fails after an event is emitted, the event will not be reverted. As such ensure that all your FRAME pallet logic should not emit an event before performing the complementary actions.

The FRAME executive execute_block function is implemented like so:

pub fn execute_block(block: Block) {
// -------- snip --------

sp_tracing::within_span! {
// initialize block

// any initial checks

// execute extrinsics
let (header, extrinsics) = block.deconstruct();
Self::execute_extrinsics_with_book_keeping(extrinsics, *header.number());

// any final checks, ensure hash is still valid

  • Finalizing a block

After all queued transactions have been executed, the executive pallet calls into each pallet's on_idle and on_finalize functions (if any contain on_initialize) to perform any final business logic that should take place at the end of the block. The modules are again executed in the order that they are defined in the construct_runtime! macro, but in this case, the on_finalize function in the system pallet is executed last.

After all of the on_finalize functions have been executed, the executive module checks that the digest and storage root in the block header match what was calculated when the block was initialized.

The on_idle function also passes through the remaining weight of the block to allow for execution based on the usage of the blockchain.

The FRAME executive finalize_block function is implemented like so:

pub fn finalize_block() -> frame_system::pallet_prelude::HeaderFor<System> {
// ----------- snip ----------

sp_tracing::enter_span!(sp_tracing::Level::TRACE, "finalize_block");


let block_number = <frame_system::Pallet<System>>::block_number();



Check out our guide here on Substrate Hooks to learn how you can use on_initialize and on_finalize Hooks to implement interesting business logic on a runtime.


This brings us to the end of part 1 of from transaction to block. In this guide, we develop a fundamental understanding of what transactions are and how they are constructed within the context of Substrate.

We developed an understanding of the following:

  • What an extrinsic is and its various forms
  • How transactions are verified
  • Substrate transaction priority system
  • How transactions are queued
  • How extrinsic get executed within the context of a block

We also got exposed to software libraries and implementation facilitating these processes.

To learn more about how transactions and blocks are handled in Substrate, check out these resources:

Help us measure our progress and improve Substrate in Bits content by filling out our living feedback form. Thank you!

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