Flows can do anything — How flows are the entry points to a Corda node

July 30, 2019

Flows can do anything — How flows are the entry points to a Corda node

In Corda, Flows can do a lot more than proposing new transactions to record between organisations. Although, saying they can do anything is probably a bit far-reaching (it’s catchy though). What I really want to say, is that flows are the entry points into a node. Corda provides a series of functions to interact with a node via RPC. Currently, these cover the more straightforward use cases, such as querying the vault, but there is a limitation to what is provided. Flows cover any of the non-standard logic that needs to be triggered. So, if you want to expose an API from a Corda node that a client can trigger or consume, then this post is for you.

I will be exploring the use of flows as entry points to a node throughout this post. Flows that propose new transactions are shown in many other tutorials and have been excluded from this post. The limelight will be solely shone onto flows that provide different functionality.

The theory

As mentioned in the introduction, and I want to reiterate it, the only way to expose an endpoint or API from a Corda node is through a flow. The existing RPC endpoints will handle the standard functionality. In the future this might change, adding support for custom RPC endpoints. But, as of now (Corda 4), flows are the only way to run non-standard logic within a node.

In my opinion, exposing the functionality of a node through flows is very similar to writing HTTP endpoints for a web server. You must define what is accessible. Clients cannot request access to any internal code inside the web server. If there is not an endpoint, an error is sent back. The same concept is true for Corda. It is then more straightforward to reason about what a client can or cannot do when interacting with a node.

In regards to the implementation, the easiest way to get started is by showing you an example:

If you know your stuff, then you will realise that you can do this via RPC. I chose this example to start you off with something familiar. You have probably done similar queries in your own flows. Although there is a good chance they were part of a more extensive process.

There are a few things to note here that differ compared to most flows:

  • No @InitiatingFlow annotation
  • No @Suspendable annotation
  • No matching responder flow

Why are they missing? Well, they are not needed. Think about it. Each point is related to communication with another node, which is not happening. The flow starts, does a query and returns the retrieved data. Let me expand on this:

  • @InitiatingFlow allows a flow to create new sessions to communicate with other nodes. Since no interactions are required, no sessions need to be created, and therefore the annotation can be removed.
  • @Suspendable is required on functions that suspend. Allowing a flow to create checkpoints that are loaded when the flow needs to wake up again. The most common place for a flow to suspend is during communication with another node. In this scenario, the annotation can be removed since the flow never needs to suspend.
  • Responder flows run on counterparty nodes and interact with your flows when you send data to them. Again, there is no communication, so there is no need for other nodes to have a flow installed that pairs with the flow above.

Most flows that do not interact with other nodes will follow this sort of structure (some flows can still suspend depending on what you are doing).

The flow defined above can then be accessed from an external client:


Below are a few examples of flows that you could write and why you might use them.

Retrieving a value from a service

If you have a service that stores some information that is useful to an external client, you will need a way to retrieve it.

Calling code inside the node to reduce code duplication

Useful pieces of reusable code can be extracted into separate classes. More specifically to Corda, you could place logic within a flow or service.

To execute code inside a flow or service from the client:

  • Inside a flow — Just call the flow from the client
  • Inside a service — Add a new flow that delegates to the service

You could implement the query above in the client, but you will have two versions if you also use the same query inside the node.

Executing logic that can’t be done via RPC

As mentioned earlier, there is a limit to what you can do via RPC. The code above is an example of this. It accesses the EntityManager which can execute lower level queries than what the vault allows.


Short conclusion for this post. Flows are the only entry points into a node that can run fully custom logic. Corda provides several APIs to interact with a node, but these provide limited functionality. To execute any sort of logic (that a node can run), you need to have a flow that is allowed to walk into the node and press the button for you.

If you enjoyed this post or found it helpful (or both) then please feel free to follow me on Twitter at @LankyDanDev and remember to share with anyone else who might find this useful!

Originally published at https://lankydan.dev on July 30, 2019.

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