Bitcoin Bits and Bobs 1: Block Header Parsing

2022-10-26 03:30

I have an interest in having a deeper understanding of the various parts of the Bitcoin protocol, so I’m going to write some pieces exploring various things that interest me as they come up. I’m calling it Bitcoin Bits and Bobs. Here is the public repo.

I thought I might begin by looking at the structure of a block, starting with the block header. I’m going to write a parser for a block header.

In order to parse it, I will use the Rust crate nom, a library of parser combinators. Parser combinators, if you’re not aware, are small functions or objects that parse a very specific thing, and return success or failure, along with the parsed object and the remaining unparsed input.

In the case of nom, that return is an IResult<I, O>, where I is the remaining input, and O is the output. So when a parser returns Ok(I, O) it indicates a successful parse, and Err indicates a failure to parse. Since Bitcon is a largely Binary protocol, the input will be a slice of u8: &[u8].

I chose the most recent block at the time of coding, block 76010. Additionally, the protocol documentation on the Bitcoin wiki describes the structure of the block header.

Here is the basic structure described as a rust struct:

pub struct BlockHeader {
    version: i32,
    prev_block: [u8; 32],
    merkle_root: [u8; 32],
    timestamp: u32,
    bits: u32,
    nonce: u32,

So there are three datatypes we must be able to parse: i32, u32 and a 32-byte bytestring. This will be fairly straightforward in nom as you will see. But first, let’s get some test data.

Using blockchain explorers and the bitcoin-cli, I was able to figure out the necessary bits of data to test:

mod tests {
    use super::*;

    // bitcoin-cli getblock "00000000000000000006ff82442b971512e1d7a5865c323a169ae8e238181430"
    static HEADER: &'static str = "04000020cc58a01f0c48627419b089b5020b658dcc1fd0e3c1a0000000000000000000009959dac9f575d922c975f275932f69342f921adc017159eef78fcd54184e1e7e9d8c566329a40717c5d73b67";
    static VERSION: i32 = 0x20000004;
    static PREV_BLOCK: &'static str =
    static MERKLE_ROOT: &'static str =
    static TIMESTAMP: u32 = 0x63568C9D;
    static BITS: u32 = 0x1707a429;
    static NONCE: u32 = 0x673BD7C5;

    fn hb() -> Vec<u8> {

    fn pbh() -> [u8; 32] {
        let mut h: [u8; 32] = hex::decode(PREV_BLOCK).unwrap().try_into().unwrap();
        h.reverse(); // Almost everything is in little endian so let's reverse the byte order of the hash

    fn mr() -> [u8; 32] {
        let mut m: [u8; 32] = hex::decode(MERKLE_ROOT).unwrap().try_into().unwrap();

    fn test_parse_block_header() {
        let hb = hb();
        let (input, bh) = parse_block_header(&hb).unwrap();
            BlockHeader {
                version: VERSION,
                prev_block: pbh(),
                merkle_root: mr(),
                timestamp: TIMESTAMP,
                bits: BITS,
                nonce: NONCE

HEADER is the hex value of the full binary block header. We can use the hex create to conveniently decode this. Also, notice in the convenience functions I wrote, I reversed the bytes to account for byte order in the block header vs. the hex representation from the blockchain explorer.

So, how can we parse the data? For parsing i32 and u32, nom comes with handy built-in parsers for integers from binary data. In our case, we need le_i32 and le_u32 to parse integers from bytestrings in Little Endian byte order. Most things in Bitcoin are in Little Endian byte order.

If you are unaware of Endianness, you can read the wiki page for more detailed information, but a quick summary is that little endian means least significant byte first, and big endian means most significant byte first. Our brains are used to thinking in big endian, so little endian can be tough to wrap your head around, but it’s a very common byte order in computing.

Since le_u32 and le_i32 parsers are generic across inputs, we will wrap them in a convenience method just to make them easier to reason about without dealing with more type variables:

fn parse_i32(input: &[u8]) -> IResult<&[u8], i32> {

fn parse_u32(input: &[u8]) -> IResult<&[u8], u32> {

Parsing a bytestring into a fixed array for [u8; 32] is a just bit more tricky and we will combine multiple parsers for it:

fn parse_bytes(count: usize, input: &[u8]) -> IResult<&[u8], [u8; 32]> {
    map_res(take(count), |pb: &[u8]| pb.try_into())(input)

Breaking it down:

  1. take(count) will take an exact number of bytes count from the input, and return a slice. If the exact number of bytes are not available, it will fail to parse.
  2. map_res will take the input from the first parser (take in this case) and apply a fallible function to it. If the map function fails, it will wrap the inner Err into a parser error. In this case, that function attempts to fill a static array with the values from a slice. See this stack overflow answer for some details on using the TryInto trait as seen here.

Finally, we can take these parser pieces and wrap them in a complete parser for a block header:

fn parse_block_header(input: &[u8]) -> IResult<&[u8], BlockHeader> {
    let (input, version) = parse_i32(input)?;
    let (input, prev_block) = parse_bytes(32, input)?;
    let (input, merkle_root) = parse_bytes(32, input)?;
    let (input, timestamp) = parse_u32(input)?;
    let (input, bits) = parse_u32(input)?;
    let (input, nonce) = parse_u32(input)?;
        BlockHeader {

You can see how incredibly convenient it is to make use of Rust’s early failure operator ? here. At every step, we parse the input, returning the remaining input, and the parsed value. This makes writing parsers exceedingly obvious and clear.

If you run the test above, it will pass!