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2.3 Understanding ABI Files

Introduction

Previously you deployed the eosio.token contract using the provided ABI file. This tutorial will overview how the ABI file correlates to the eosio.token contract.

ABI files can be generated using the eosio-cpp utility provided by eosio.cdt. However, there are several situations that may cause ABI's generation to malfunction or fail altogether. Advanced C++ patterns can trip it up and custom types can sometimes cause issues for ABI generation. For this reason, it's imperative you understand how ABI files work, so you can debug and fix if and when necessary.

What is an ABI?

The Application Binary Interface (ABI) is a JSON-based description on how to convert user actions between their JSON and Binary representations. The ABI also describes how to convert the database state to/from JSON. Once you have described your contract via an ABI then developers and users will be able to interact with your contract seamlessly via JSON.

Security Note

ABI can be bypassed when executing transactions. Messages and actions passed to a contract do not have to conform to the ABI. The ABI is a guide, not a gatekeeper.

Create an ABI File

Start with an empty ABI, name it eosio.token.abi


{
   "version": "eosio::abi/1.0",
   "types": [],
   "structs": [],
   "actions": [],
   "tables": [],
   "ricardian_clauses": [],
   "abi_extensions": [],
   "___comment" : ""
}

Types

An ABI enables any client or interface to interpret and even generate an GUI for you contract. For this to work in a consistent manner, describe the custom types that are used as a parameter in any public action or struct that needs to be described in the ABI.

Built-in Types

EOSIO implements a number of custom built-ins. Built-in types don't need to be described in an ABI file. If you would like to familiarize yourself with EOSIO's built-ins, they are defined here

{
   "new_type_name": "name",
   "type": "name"
}

The ABI now looks like this:

{
   "version": "eosio::abi/1.0",
   "types": [{
     "new_type_name": "name",
     "type": "name"
	 }],
   "structs": [],
   "actions": [],
   "tables": [],
   "ricardian_clauses": [],
   "abi_extensions": []
}

Structs

Structs that are exposed to the ABI also need to be described. By looking at eosio.token.hpp, it can be quickly determined which structs are utilized by public actions. This is particularly important for the next step.

A struct's object definition in JSON looks like the following:

{
   "name": "issue", //The name 
   "base": "", 			//Inheritance, parent struct
   "fields": []			//Array of field objects describing the struct's fields. 
}

Fields

{
   "name":"", // The field's name
   "type":""   // The field's type
}    

In the eosio.token contract, there's a number of structs that require definition. Please note, not all of the structs are explicitly defined, some correspond to an actions' parameters. Here's a list of structs that require an ABI description for the eosio.token contract:

Implicit Structs

The following structs are implicit in that a struct was never explicitly defined in the contract. Looking at the create action, you'll find two parameters, issuer of type name and maximum_supply of type asset. For brevity this tutorial won't break down every struct, but applying the same logic, you will end up with the following:

create

{
  "name": "create",
  "base": "",
  "fields": [
    {
      "name":"issuer", 
      "type":"name"
    },
    {
      "name":"maximum_supply", 
      "type":"asset"
    }
  ]
}
{
  "name": "issue",
  "base": "",
  "fields": [
    {
      "name":"to", 
      "type":"name"
    },
    {
      "name":"quantity", 
      "type":"asset"
    },
    {
      "name":"memo", 
      "type":"string"
    }
  ]
}
{
  "name": "retire",
  "base": "",
  "fields": [
    {
      "name":"quantity", 
      "type":"asset"
    },
    {
      "name":"memo", 
      "type":"string"
    }
  ]
}
{
  "name": "transfer",
  "base": "",
  "fields": [
    {
      "name":"from", 
      "type":"name"
    },
    {
      "name":"to", 
      "type":"name"
    },
    {
      "name":"quantity", 
      "type":"asset"
    },
    {
      "name":"memo", 
      "type":"string"
    }
  ]
}
{
  "name": "close",
  "base": "",
  "fields": [
    {
      "name":"owner", 
      "type":"name"
    },
    {
      "name":"symbol", 
      "type":"symbol"
    }
  ]
 }

Explicit Structs

These structs are explicitly defined, as they are a requirement to instantiate a multi-index table. Describing them is no different than defining the implicit structs as demonstrated above.

account

{
  "name": "account",
  "base": "",
  "fields": [
    {
      "name":"balance", 
      "type":"asset"
    }
  ]
}
{
  "name": "currency_stats",
  "base": "",
  "fields": [
    {
      "name":"supply", 
      "type":"asset"
    },
    {
      "name":"max_supply", 
      "type":"asset"
    },
    {
      "name":"issuer", 
      "type":"account_name"
    }
  ]
}

Actions

An action's JSON object definition looks like the following:

{
  "name": "transfer", 			//The name of the action as defined in the contract
  "type": "transfer", 			//The name of the implicit struct as described in the ABI
  "ricardian_contract": "" 	//An optional ricardian clause to associate to this action describing its intended functionality.
}

Describe the actions of the eosio.token contract by aggregating all the public functions described in the eosio.token contract's header file.

Then describe each action's type according to its previously described struct. In most situations, the function name and the struct name will be equal, but are not required to be equal.

Below is a list of actions that link to their source code with example JSON provided for how each action would be described.

create

{
  "name": "create",
  "type": "create",
  "ricardian_contract": ""
}
{
  "name": "issue",
  "type": "issue",
  "ricardian_contract": ""
}
{
  "name": "retire",
  "type": "retire",
  "ricardian_contract": ""
}
{
  "name": "transfer",
  "type": "transfer",
  "ricardian_contract": ""
}
{
  "name": "close",
  "type": "close",
  "ricardian_contract": ""
}

Tables

Describe the tables. Here's a table's JSON object definition:

{
  "name": "",       //The name of the table, determined during instantiation. 
  "type": "", 			//The table's corresponding struct
  "index_type": "", //The type of primary index of this table
  "key_names" : [], //An array of key names, length must equal length of key_types member
  "key_types" : []  //An array of key types that correspond to key names array member, length of array must equal length of key names array.
}

The eosio.token contract instantiates two tables, accounts and stats.

The accounts table is an i64 index, based on the account struct, has a uint64 as it's primary key

Here's how the accounts table would be described in the ABI

{
  "name": "accounts",
  "type": "account", // Corresponds to previously defined struct
  "index_type": "i64",
  "key_names" : ["primary_key"],
  "key_types" : ["uint64"]
}

The stat table is an i64 index, based on the currenct_stats struct, has a uint64 as it's primary key

Here's how the stat table would be described in the ABI

{
  "name": "stat",
  "type": "currency_stats",
  "index_type": "i64",
  "key_names" : ["primary_key"],
  "key_types" : ["uint64"]
}

You'll notice the above tables have the same "key name." Naming your keys similar names is symbolic in that it can potentially suggest a subjective relationship. As with this implementation, implying that any given value can be used to query different tables.

Putting it all Together

Finally, an ABI file that accurately describes the eosio.token contract.

{
  "version": "eosio::abi/1.0",
  "types": [
    {
      "new_type_name": "name",
      "type": "name"
    }
  ],
  "structs": [
    {
      "name": "create",
      "base": "",
      "fields": [
        {
          "name":"issuer", 
          "type":"name"
        },
        {
          "name":"maximum_supply", 
          "type":"asset"
        }
      ]
    },
    {
       "name": "issue",
       "base": "",
       "fields": [
          {
            "name":"to", 
            "type":"name"
          },
          {
            "name":"quantity", 
            "type":"asset"
          },
          {
            "name":"memo", 
            "type":"string"
          }
       ]
    },
    {
       "name": "retire",
       "base": "",
       "fields": [
          {
            "name":"quantity", 
            "type":"asset"
          },
          {
            "name":"memo", 
            "type":"string"
          }
       ]
    },
    {
       "name": "close",
       "base": "",
       "fields": [
          {
            "name":"owner", 
            "type":"name"
          },
          {
            "name":"symbol", 
            "type":"symbol"
          }
       ]
    },
    {
      "name": "transfer",
      "base": "",
      "fields": [
        {
          "name":"from", 
          "type":"name"
        },
        {
          "name":"to", 
          "type":"name"
        },
        {
          "name":"quantity", 
          "type":"asset"
        },
        {
          "name":"memo", 
          "type":"string"
        }
      ]
    },
    {
      "name": "account",
      "base": "",
      "fields": [
        {
          "name":"balance", 
          "type":"asset"
        }
      ]
    },
    {
      "name": "currency_stats",
      "base": "",
      "fields": [
        {
          "name":"supply", 
          "type":"asset"
        },
        {
          "name":"max_supply", 
          "type":"asset"
        },
        {
          "name":"issuer", 
          "type":"name"
        }
      ]
    }
  ],
  "actions": [
    {
      "name": "transfer",
      "type": "transfer",
      "ricardian_contract": ""
    },
    {
      "name": "issue",
      "type": "issue",
      "ricardian_contract": ""
    },
    {
      "name": "retire",
      "type": "retire",
      "ricardian_contract": ""
    },
    {
      "name": "create",
      "type": "create",
      "ricardian_contract": ""
    },
    {
      "name": "close",
      "type": "close",
      "ricardian_contract": ""
    }
  ],
  "tables": [
    {
      "name": "accounts",
      "type": "account",
      "index_type": "i64",
      "key_names" : ["currency"],
      "key_types" : ["uint64"]
    },
    {
      "name": "stat",
      "type": "currency_stats",
      "index_type": "i64",
      "key_names" : ["currency"],
      "key_types" : ["uint64"]
    }
  ],
  "ricardian_clauses": [],
  "abi_extensions": []
}

Cases not Covered by Token Contract

Vectors

When describing a vector in your ABI file, simply append the type with [], so if you need to describe a vector of permission levels, you would describe it like so: permission_level[]

Struct Base

It's a rarely used property worth mentioning. You can use base ABI struct property to reference another struct for inheritance, as long as that struct is also described in the same ABI file. Base will do nothing or potentially throw an error if your smart contract logic does not support inheritance.

You can see an example of base in use in the system contract source code and ABI

Extra ABI Properties Not Covered Here

A few properties of the ABI specification were skipped here for brevity, however, there is a pending ABI specification that will outline every property of the ABI in its entirety.

Ricardian Clauses

Ricardian clauses describe the intended outcome of a particular actions. It may also be utilized to establish terms between the sender and the contract.

ABI Extensions

A generic "future proofing" layer that allows old clients to skip the parsing of "chunks" of extension data. For now, this property is unused. In the future each extension would have its own "chunk" in that vector so that older clients skip it and newer clients that understand how to interpret it.

Maintenance

Every time you change a struct, add a table, add an action or add parameters to an action, use a new type, you will need to remember to update your ABI file. In many cases failure to update your ABI file will not produce any error.

Troubleshooting

Table returns no rows

Check that your table is accurately described in the file. For example, If you use cleos to add a table on a contract with a malformed definition and then get rows from that table, you will recieve an empty result. cleos will not produce an error when adding a row nor reading a row when a contract has failed to properly describe its tables in its File.