Hey! I'm David, cofounder of zkSecurity and the author of the Real-World Cryptography book. I was previously a crypto architect at O(1) Labs (working on the Mina cryptocurrency), before that I was the security lead for Diem (formerly Libra) at Novi (Facebook), and a security consultant for the Cryptography Services of NCC Group. This is my blog about cryptography and security and other related topics that I find interesting.

What are zkVMs? And what's the difference with a zkEVM? posted July 2022

I've been talking about zero-knowledge proofs (the "zk" part) for a while now, so I'm going to skip that and assume that you already know what "zk" is about.

The first thing we need to define is: what's a virtual machine (VM)? In brief, it's a program that can run other programs, usually implemented as a loop that executes a number of given instructions (the other program). Simplified, a VM could look like this:

let stack = Stack::new();
loop {
let inst = get_next_instruction();
apply_instruction(inst, stack);
}

The Ethereum VM is the VM that runs Ethereum smart contracts. The original list of instructions the EVM supports, and the behavior of these instructions, was specified in 2014 in the seminal yellow paper (that thing is literally yellow) by Gavin Wood. The paper seems to be continuously updated so it should be representative of the current instructions supported.

a zk VM, is simply a VM implemented as a circuit for a zero-knowledge proof (zkp) system. So, instead of proving the execution of a program, as one would normally do in zkp systems, you prove the execution of a VM. As such, some people say that non-VM zkps are part of the FPGA approach, while zkVMs are part of the CPU approach.

Since programs (or circuits) in zkp systems are fixed forever (like a binary compiled from some program really), our VM circuit actually implements a fixed number of iteration for the loop (you can think of that as unrolling the loop). In our previous example, it would look like this if we wanted to support programs of 3 instructions tops:

let stack = Stack::new();
let inst = get_next_instruction();
apply_instruction(inst, stack);
let inst = get_next_instruction();
apply_instruction(inst, stack);
let inst = get_next_instruction();
apply_instruction(inst, stack);

EDIT: Bobbin Threadbare pointed to me that with STARKs, as there is no preprocessing (like plonk), there's no strict limit on the number of iteration.

This is essentially what a zkVM is; a zk circuit that runs a VM. The actual program's instructions can be passed as public input to that circuit so that everyone can see what program is really being proven. (There are a number of other ways to pass the program's instructions to the VM if you're interested.)

There's a number of zkVMs out there, I know of at least three important projects:

• Cairo. This is used by Starknet and I highly recommend reading the paper which is a work of art! We also have an experimental implementation in kimchi we call turshi.
• Miden. This is a work-in-progress project from Polygon.
• Risczero. This is a work-in-progress project that aims at supporting the set of RISC-V instructions (a popular standard outside of the blockchain world).

All of them supports a different instruction set, so they are not compatible.

A zkEVM, on the other hand, aims at supporting the Ethereum VM. It seems like there is a lot of debate going on about the actual meaning of "supporting the EVM", as three zkEVM were announced this week:

So one can perhaps divide the field of zk VMs into two types:

• zk-optimized VMs. Think Cairo or Miden. These types of VMs tend to be much faster as they are designed specifically to make it easier for zkp systems to support them.
• real-world VMs. Think RiscZero supporting the RISC-V instruction set, or the different zkEVMs supporting the Ethereum VM.

And finally, why would anyone try to support the EVM? If I'd have to guess, I would come up with two reasons: if you're Ethereum it could allow you to create proofs of the entire state transition from genesis to the latest state of Ethereum (which is what Mina does), and if you're not Ethereum it allows your project to quickly copy/paste projects from the Ethereum ecosystem (e.g. uniswap) and steal developers from Ethereum.