Deep Dive: What is the Ethereum Virtual Machine (EVM)?

(Credits: Zoltan Tasi)

Blockchain technology has revolutionized the way we conduct transactions and manage decentralized applications (dApps). At the heart of the Ethereum network lies a crucial component, the Ethereum Virtual Machine (EVM). This article will delve into the Ethereum Virtual Machine, its history, functions, working, opcodes, benefits, use cases, and much more. So, let’s embark on a journey to unravel the mysteries of the Ethereum Virtual Machine.

The Essence of the Ethereum Virtual Machine (EVM)

Ethereum, often regarded as the pioneer of smart contract programmability, owes its innovation to the Ethereum Virtual Machine (EVM). Think of EVM as the beating heart of Ethereum, providing the foundation for creating and executing thousands of smart contracts and decentralized applications. While it’s challenging to describe EVM’s physical form, akin to explaining the concept of the cloud, it remains a single entity maintained by thousands of interconnected computers.

The Ethereum protocol ensures continuity, immutability, and seamless operations of this special state machine, offering an environment for all Ethereum smart contracts and accounts. Within the Ethereum chain, each block maintains a single ‘canonical’ state, and the EVM defines rules for computing new valid states as blocks progress.

Understanding Ethereum Virtual Machine

In essence, the Ethereum Virtual Machine, or EVM, acts as the lifeblood of Ethereum, similar to how the human heart circulates oxygen and nutrients through the bloodstream. EVM serves as a ‘virtual computer’ or software platform utilized by developers to create decentralized applications and execute smart contracts on the Ethereum blockchain.

A Glimpse into EVM’s History

Before we dive into the intricacies of the Ethereum Virtual Machine, let’s take a brief look at its history. Ethereum’s creator, Vitalik Buterin, drew inspiration from BitTorrent, one of the earliest examples of decentralized applications. BitTorrent, created in 2001 by Bram Cohen, remains active to this day. Both BitTorrent and EVM share a commonality — they are virtual machines without physical limits.

Ethereum Virtual Machine is accessible to beginners and doesn’t require high-end hardware. However, grasping EVM-compatible code necessitates knowledge of concepts like proof of stake, hash functions, bytes, and more.

EVM: Distributed Ledger or State Machine?

EVM serves as a state machine within the Ethereum ecosystem, raising questions about its relationship with Ethereum’s distributed ledger. While Ethereum employs a distributed ledger for transaction record-keeping, it goes a step further by introducing smart contract features, creating a ‘distributed state machine.’ Unlike traditional blockchain networks primarily designed for decentralized currency, Ethereum combines its native cryptocurrency, Ether, with the power of smart contracts. This makes Ethereum a ‘distributed state machine.’


Ethereum’s state is a vast data structure housing balances, accounts, and machine states, transforming from one block to the next based on predefined rules. The EVM defines these rules, governing state changes from one block to another.

The Functions of EVM

EVM functions as a colossal database, storing Ethereum blockchain accounts and balances. It also operates as a machine state, capable of executing machine code and adapting to changes in the blockchain ledger. Developers leverage the EVM to create dApps, DeFi solutions, NFT marketplaces like OpenSea, and more, all using the EVM-compatible Solidity programming language.

EVM plays a vital role in maintaining the stability and security of the Ethereum network, as every node relies on it to preserve consensus.

How it Works

EVM operates like a mathematical function, generating deterministic outputs for given inputs. It’s formally described as follows: Y(S, T) = S’Copy. Here, S represents the old valid state, T denotes a set of valid transactions, and Y is the state transition function, yielding the new output state, S’.

EVM’s state is a massive data structure known as a modified Merkle Patricia Trie, responsible for recording all accounts and their relationships. Transactions, instructions from various accounts with cryptographic signatures, play a crucial role in EVM’s operation. EVM supports two transaction variants: message calls and contract creation.

Unveiling EVM Instructions

Ethereum Virtual Machine employs a stack machine featuring a depth of approximately 1024 items, each being a 256-bit word. This design ensures compatibility with 256-bit cryptography, avoiding conflicts with cryptographic operations. During execution, EVM uses transient memory in the form of a word-addressed byte array, which isn’t permanent between transactions. Contracts, on the other hand, maintain a Merkle Patricia storage trie as a word-addressable word array.


EVM instructions include multiple opcodes designed for executing machine-level instructions, covering various tasks such as data logging, arithmetic operations, and block information retrieval.

Understanding Opcodes

Opcodes are integral to any Ethereum Virtual Machine implementation, with around 150 different opcodes in Ethereum. These opcodes enable EVM’s classification as a Turing Complete system, capable of executing machine-level instructions. Opcodes play a crucial role in creating smart contracts and interacting with them, facilitating tasks like data manipulation and contract control.

Benefits of the Ethereum Virtual Machine

The Ethereum Virtual Machine offers numerous benefits, including EVM-compatible blockchains. Ethereum’s popularity led to slower transactions and high gas fees, prompting developers to create dApps on other EVM-compatible networks. This interoperability allows seamless asset movement between EVM networks, lower barriers to entry for developers, and portability of dApps.

Real-World Use Cases

EVM’s versatility finds application in ERC-20 tokens, which use smart contracts for naming, distributing, and monitoring tokens. Beyond cryptocurrencies, EVM also powers ERC-721 tokens, responsible for the rise of NFTs. Additionally, EVM contributes to the development of DAOs, providing an independent organizational structure.

Key Takeaways

The Ethereum Virtual Machine is the heartbeat of Ethereum, driving innovation and enabling decentralized applications and smart contracts. Understanding its history, functions, working, opcodes, benefits, and use cases is essential for anyone venturing into the world of blockchain technology.

EVM’s role in shaping the future of decentralized applications and blockchain interoperability cannot be underestimated.

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