Improving coin selection in BDK

By César Alvarez Vallero on 8/18/2022 - Tags: Coin selection, BDK, Development, Summer of bitcoin


As a project designed to be used as a build tool in wallet development, one of the main things that BDK provides is the coin selection module. The purpose of the module is to select the group of utxos to use as inputs for the transaction. When you coin select you must consider cost, size and traceability.

  • What are those costs?

    Principally fees determined by the satisfaction size required by each of the inputs. But the costs are also related to the change outputs generated. Change outputs are not part of the inputs, but they must be considered during coin selection because they affect the fee rate of the transaction and will be used in future transactions as inputs. For example, if you always create change outputs when you have some excess after coin selecting, you'll probably end up with very small UTXOs. The smaller the UTXO, the greater the proportion of fees spend to use that UTXO, depending on the fee rate.

  • What do we mean by "size" considerations?

    Here we are not referring to the size in MB of the transaction, as that is addressed by the associated fees. Here, "size" is the number of new UTXOs created by each transaction. It has a direct impact on the size of the UTXO set maintained by each node.

  • What is this traceability thing?

    Certain companies sell services whose purpose is to link address with their owners, harming the fungibility of some bitcoins and attacking the privacy of the users. There are some things that coin selection can do to make privacy leaking harder. For example, not creating change outputs, avoiding mixing UTXOs belonging to different owned addresses in the same transaction, or the total expenditure of the related utxos.

Besides the algorithm you use to coin select, which can target some of the things described above, other code changes also have implications for them. The following section will describe some of those changes and why they have been done or could be added.

# Waste

One of my project changes for the coin_selection module is the addition of the Waste metric, and its use to optimize the coin selection in relation to the fee costs.

Waste is a metric introduced by the BnB algorithm as part of its bounding procedure. Later, it was included as a high-level function to use in comparison of different coin selection algorithms in Bitcoin Core.

# How it works?

We can describe waste as the sum of two values: creation cost and timing cost.

Timing cost is the cost associated with the current fee rate and some long-term fee rate used as a threshold to consolidate UTXOs. It can be negative if the current fee rate is cheaper than the long-term fee rate or zero if they are equal.

Creation cost is the cost associated with the surplus of coins besides the transaction amount and transaction fees. It can happen in the form of a change output or excessive fees paid to the miner. Change cost derives from the cost of adding the extra output to the transaction and spending it in the future. Excess happens when there is no change, and the surplus of coins is spent as part of the fees to the miner.

The creation cost can be zero if there is a perfect match as a result of the coin selection algorithm.

So, waste can be zero or negative if the creation cost is zero and the timing cost is less than or equal to zero

You can read about the technical details in bdk PR 558 (opens new window). Comments and suggestions are welcome!

But, while developing the proposal, some requirements to resolve first arose. Let's talk about them.

# What has been done

Waste is closely related to the creation of change or the drop of it as fees. Formerly, whether your selection would produce change or not, was decided inside the create_tx function. From the perspective of the Waste metric, that was problematic. How to score coin selection based on Waste if you don't know yet if it will create change or not?

The problem had been pointed out before, in this issue (opens new window).

The bdk PR 630 (opens new window) merged in release 0.21.0 (opens new window) moved change creation to the coin_selection module. It introduced several changes:

  • the enum Excess.
  • the function decide_change.
  • a new field in CoinSelectionResult to hold the Excess produced while coin selecting.

We hope to have chosen meaningful names for all these new additions, but lets explain them in depth.

Formerly, when you needed to create change inside create_tx, you must get the weight of the change output, compute its fees and, jointly with the overall fee amount and the outgoing amount, subtract them from the remaining amount of the selected utxos, then decide whether the amount of that output should be considered dust, and throw the remaining amount to fees in that case. Otherwise add an extra output to the output list and sum their fees to the fee amount. Also, there was the case when you wanted to sweep all the funds associated with an address, but the amount created a dust output. In that situation, the dust value of the output and the amount available after deducing the fees were necessary to report an informative error to the user.

In general, the idea was to compute all those values inside coin_selection but keep the decision logic where it was meaningful, that is, inside create_tx.

Those considerations ended up with an enum, Excess, with two struct variants that differentiated the cases mentioned above, which carry all the needed information to act in each one of those cases.

/// Remaining amount after performing coin selection
pub enum Excess {
    /// It's not possible to create spendable output from excess using the current drain output
    NoChange {
        /// Threshold to consider amount as dust for this particular change script_pubkey
        dust_threshold: u64,
        /// Exceeding amount of current selection over outgoing value and fee costs
        remaining_amount: u64,
        /// The calculated fee for the drain TxOut with the selected script_pubkey
        change_fee: u64,
    },
    /// It's possible to create spendable output from excess using the current drain output
    Change {
        /// Effective amount available to create change after deducting the change output fee
        amount: u64,
        /// The deducted change output fee
        fee: u64,
    },
}

The function decide_change was created to build Excess. This function requires the remaining amount after coin selection, the script that will be used to create the output and the fee rate aimed by the user.

/// Decide if change can be created
///
/// - `remaining_amount`: the amount in which the selected coins exceed the target amount
/// - `fee_rate`: required fee rate for the current selection
/// - `drain_script`: script to consider change creation
pub fn decide_change(remaining_amount: u64, fee_rate: FeeRate, drain_script: &Script) -> Excess {
    // drain_output_len = size(len(script_pubkey)) + len(script_pubkey) + size(output_value)
    let drain_output_len = serialize(drain_script).len() + 8usize;
    let change_fee = fee_rate.fee_vb(drain_output_len);
    let drain_val = remaining_amount.saturating_sub(change_fee);

    if drain_val.is_dust(drain_script) {
        let dust_threshold = drain_script.dust_value().as_sat();
        Excess::NoChange {
            dust_threshold,
            change_fee,
            remaining_amount,
        }
    } else {
        Excess::Change {
            amount: drain_val,
            fee: change_fee,
        }
    }
}

To pass this new value to Wallet::create_tx and make decisions based on it, the field excess was added to the CoinSelectionResult, and the coin_select methods of each algorithm were adapted to compute this value, using decide_change after performing the coin selection.

/// Result of a successful coin selection
pub struct CoinSelectionResult {
    /// List of outputs selected for use as inputs
    pub selected: Vec<Utxo>,
    /// Total fee amount for the selected utxos in satoshis
    pub fee_amount: u64,
    /// Remaining amount after deducing fees and outgoing outputs
    pub excess: Excess,
}

# Work in progress

There remains unresolved the work to integrate the Waste::calculate method with the CoinSelectionAlgorithm implementations and the decide_change function.

A step towards that goal would be the removal of the Database generic parameter from the CoinSelectionAlgorithm trait. There isn't a clear way to make it, as you may guess by this issue (opens new window). The only algorithm currently using the database features is OldestFirstCoinSelection. There is a proposal to fix this problem by removing the need for a database trait altogether, so, in the meanwhile, we could move the generic from the trait to the OldestFirstCoinSelection, to avoid doing work that will probably be disposed in the future.

Another step in that direction is a proposal to add a CoinSelectionAlgorithm::process_and_select_coins wrapper to the coin selection module, which will join together preprocessing and validation of the utxos, coin selection, the decision to create change and the calculus of waste in the same function. The idea is to create a real pipeline to build a CoinSelectionResult.

In addition, the function will allow the separation of the algorithms BranchAndBound and SingleRandomDraw from each other, which were put together only by the dependence of the former on the second one as a fallback method. That dependence will not be broken, but the possibility to use SingleRandomDraw through BDK will be enabled, expanding the flexibility of the library.

As a bonus, this function will save some parts of the code from unnecessary information, avoid code duplication (and all the things associated with it) and provide a simple interface to integrate your custom algorithms with all the other functionalities of the BDK library, enhancing them through the new change primitives and the computation of Waste.

You can start reviewing bdk PR 727 (opens new window) right now!

# Further Improvements

Besides the Waste metric, there are other changes that could improve the current state of the coin selection module in BDK, which will impact the privacy and the flexibility provided by it.

# Privacy

In Bitcoin Core, the term Output Group is associated with a structure that joins all the UTXOs belonging to a certain ScriptPubKey, up to a specified threshold. The idea behind this is to reduce the address footprint in the blockchain, reducing traceability and improving privacy. In BDK, OutputGroups are a mere way to aggregate metadata to UTXOs. But this structure can be improved to something like what there is in Bitcoin, by transforming the weighted utxos into a vector of them and adding a new field or parameter to control the amount stored in the vector.

# Flexibility

A further tweak in the UTXO structure could be the transition to traits, which define the minimal properties accepted by the algorithms to select the underlying UTXOs. The hope is that anyone can define new algorithms consuming any form of UTXO wrapper that you can imagine, as long as they follow the behavior specified by those primitive traits.

Also, there is a major architectural change proposal called bdk_core that will refactor a lot of sections of BDK to improve its modularity and flexibility. If you want to know more, you can read the blog post (opens new window) about it or dig directly into its prototype (opens new window).

# Conclusion

A lot of work is coming to the coin selection module of BDK. Adding the Waste metric will be a great step in the improvement of the coin selection features of the kit, and we hope to find new ways to measure the selection capabilities. We are open to new ideas! The new changes range from refactorings to enhancements. It's not hard to find something to do in the project, as long as you spend some time figuring out how the thing works. Hopefully, these new changes will make this task easier. And we are ready to help anyone who needs it. If you would like to improve something, request a new feature or discuss how you would use BDK in your personal project, join us on Discord (opens new window).

# Acknowledgements

Special thanks to my mentor Daniela Brozzoni (opens new window) for the support and help provided during the development of the above work, and to Steve Myers (opens new window), for the final review of this article.

Thanks to all BDK contributors for their reviews and comments and thanks to the Bitcoin community for the open source work that made this an enjoyable learning experience.

Finally, thanks to the Summer of Bitcoin (opens new window) organizers, sponsors and speakers for the wonderful initiative, and all the guide provided.

# References

# About coin selection considerations

# About Waste metric

# About improving privacy in coin selection

# About bdk_core

Last Updated: 11/24/2022, 5:41:21 PM