EIP 5: Gas Usage for `RETURN` and `CALL*` Source

AuthorChristian Reitwiessner
TypeStandards Track


This EIP makes it possible to call functions that return strings and other dynamically-sized arrays. Currently, when another contract / function is called from inside the Ethereum Virtual Machine, the size of the output has to be specified in advance. It is of course possible to give a larger size, but gas also has to be paid for memory that is not written to, which makes returning dynamically-sized data both costly and inflexible to the extent that it is actually unusable.

The solution proposed in this EIP is to charge gas only for memory that is actually written to at the time the CALL returns.


The gas and memory semantics for CALL, CALLCODE and DELEGATECALL (called later as CALL*) are changed in the following way (CREATE does not write to memory and is thus unaffected):

Suppose the arguments to CALL* are gas, address, value, input_start, input_size, output_start, output_size, then, at the beginning of the opcode, gas for growing memory is only charged for input_start + input_size, but not for output_start + output_size.

If the called contract returns data of size n, the memory of the calling contract is grown to output_start + min(output_size, n) (and the calling contract is charged gas for that) and the output is written to the area [output_start, output_start + min(n, output_size)).

The calling contract can run out of gas both at the beginning of the opcode and at the end of the opcode.

After the call, the MSIZE opcode should return the size the memory was actually grown to.


In general, it is good practise to reserve a certain memory area for the output of a call, because letting a subroutine write to arbitrary areas in memory might be dangerous. On the other hand, it is often hard to know the output size of a call prior to performing the call: The data could be in the storage of another contract which is generally inaccessible and determining its size would require another call to that contract.

Furthermore, charging gas for areas of memory that are not actually written to is unnecessary.

This proposal tries to solve both problems: A caller can choose to provide a gigantic area of memory at the end of their memory area. The callee can “write” to it by returning and the caller is only charged for the memory area that is actually written.

This makes it possible to return dynamic data like strings and dynamically-sized arrays in a very flexible way. It is even possible to determine the size of the returned data: If the caller uses output_start = MSIZE and output_size = 2**256-1, the area of memory that was actually written to is (output_start, MSIZE) (here, MSIZE as evaluated after the call). This is important because it allows “proxy” contracts which call other contracts whose interface they do not know and just return their output, i.e. they both forward the input and the output. For this, it is important that the caller (1) does not need to know the size of the output in advance and (2) can determine the size of the output after the call.


This way of dealing with the problem requires a minimal change to the Ethereum Virtual Machine. Other means of achieving a similar goal would have changed the opcodes themselves or the number of their arguments. Another possibility would have been to only change the gas mechanics if output_size is equal to 2**256-1. Since the main difficulty in the implementation is that memory has to be enlarged at two points in the code around CALL, this would not have been a simplification.

At an earlier stage, it was proposed to also add the size of the returned data on the stack, but the MSIZE mechanism described above should be sufficient and is much better backwards compatible.

Some comments are available at https://github.com/ethereum/EIPs/issues/8

Backwards Compatibility

This proposal changes the semantics of contracts because contracts can access the gas counter and the size of memory.

On the other hand, it is unlikely that existing contracts will suffer from this change due to the following reasons:


The VM will not charge more gas than before. Usually, contracts are written in a way such that their semantics do not change if they use up less gas. If more gas were used, contracts might go out-of-gas if they perform a tight estimation for gas needed by sub-calls. Here, contracts might only return more gas to their callers.

Memory size:

The MSIZE opcode is typically used to allocate memory at a previously unused spot. The change in semantics affects existing contracts in two ways:

  1. Overlaps in allocated memory. By using CALL, a contract might have wanted to allocate a certain slice of memory, even if that is not written to by the called contract. Subsequent uses of MSIZE to allocate memory might overlap with this slice that is now smaller than before the change. It is though unlikely that such contracts exist.

  2. Memory addresses change. Rather general, if memory is allocated using MSIZE, the addresses of objects in memory will be different after the change. Contract should all be written in a way, though, such that objects in memory are relocatable, i.e. their absolute position in memory and their relative position to other objects does not matter. This is of course not the case for arrays, but they are allocated in a single allocation and not with an intermidiate CALL.


VM implementers should take care not to grow the memory until the end of the call and after a check that sufficient gas is still available. Typical uses of the EIP include “reserving” 2**256-1 bytes of memory for the output.

Python implementation:

old: http://vitalik.ca/files/old.py new: http://vitalik.ca/files/new.py