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Maker OTC on-chain orderbook deep-dive

2019-09-08This post is over 2 years old and may now be out of date

(10 minute read)

This post is a deep-dive into MakerDAO's Over-the-counter (OTC) Ethereum smart contract that can be used to facilitate the trading of ERC-20 tokens. The orderbook is on-chain, which means that all offers and trades are conducted fully on the blockchain with no need for an external backend service. This is different to other projects such as 0x, which only perform settlement on-chain (i.e. the actual swap of assets) and thus typically require additional infrastructure to manage the orderbook off-chain.

The contracts can be found at: https://github.com/makerdao/maker-otc. I will be referencing the code at commit d1c5e3f52258295252fabc78652a1a55ded28bc6 (August 7th, 2019).

The contract hierarchy is as follows:

  • MatchingMarket - this is the main contract, and inherits from ...
  • ...ExpiringMarket - this is a market which runs until a set time in the future, but can be stopped at any time. This inherits from ...
  • ... SimpleMarket - this is the base class which provides the ability to make, take and cancel offers.

Maker-taker liquidity

Before I dive into the contracts, a quick look at the maker-taker model that these markets are based on...

  • Maker - someone who creates an offer in a market for other participants to take (it could be an offer to buy or sell).
  • Taker - someone who "takes" a previously "made" offer off the market, i.e. this is when an actual exchange takes place.
  • Liquidity - a measure of how easy it is to trade one's assets in a given market at a fair market price. Liquidity is directly correlated to the no. of available offers in a market. Markets with high liquidity allow you to buy/sell large quantities at a fair market price, and vice versa for markets with low liquidity.

Since makers add offers to a market, makers are seen as increasing a market's liquidity. Likewise, takers are seen as decreasing a market's liquidity since they remove offers from a market. This is why many exchanges charge lower fees to makers than they do to takers.

Note: These contracts do not at present charge trading fees or have a provision to do so.


SimpleMarket actually inherits from EventfulMarket, which defines events which can be emitted by a market. Here are the key ones:

  • LogMake - when an offer gets made.
  • LogTake - when a previously made offer gets taken.
  • LogKill - when a previously made offer gets cancelled.
  • LogUpdate - when an offer is made, cancelled or bought.

Offer storage

The data for each offer is stored in the following structure:

struct OfferInfo {
  uint     pay_amt;   // <-- amount to pay/sell (wei)
  ERC20    pay_gem;   // <-- address of ERC-20 contract
  uint     buy_amt;   // <-- amount to buy (wei)
  ERC20    buy_gem;   // <-- address of ERC-20 contract
  address  owner;     // <-- who created the offer
  uint64   timestamp; // <-- when offer was created

Note: although OfferInfo uses uint256 for amounts, the various other methods in the contract restrict amounts to uint128 precision, presumably to reduce the likelihood of overflows when it comes to mathematical calculations.

Offers are also assigned a unique id. The id is a uint256, starting at 0 and counting upwards. The last_offer_id class member tracks this number:

uint public last_offer_id;

Offer ids are mapped to their respective offer details in offers:

mapping (uint => OfferInfo) public offers;

Re-entrancy attacks

The transfer of ERC-20 tokens from one participant to another requires calling into ERC-20 token contracts, and there is hence a risk of re-entrancy.

To protect against such attacks a mutex is used. This is accomplished via a synchronized modifier:

bool locked;

modifier synchronized {
  locked = true;
  locked = false;

The modifier is applied to the buy, cancel, and offer methods since they all have the capability of transferring tokens from one address to another:

Make offer

The offer() method is used to create a new offer to add to the market:

function offer(uint pay_amt, ERC20 pay_gem, uint buy_amt, ERC20 buy_gem)
    returns (uint id) { /* ... */ }

It performs some basic validation checks on the function arguments. It generates a unique id for the offer, constructs an OfferInfo, and then saves a new entry in to the offers mapping.

Finally, it transfers pay_amt worth of the pay_gem token from the caller to market escrow:

require( pay_gem.transferFrom(msg.sender, this, pay_amt) );

Note: the owner will have previously had to call authorize() on the token contract in order to enable the market to transfer tokens on their behalf.

Note: The make() method internally calls offer() but converts the returned unique id into its bytes32 representation.

Cancel offer

The cancel() method is used to cancel a previously made offer.

function cancel(uint id)
  returns (bool success) { /* ... */ }

The can_cancel modifier checks that the offer is stil active and ensures that only the owner of an offer can cancel it:

modifier can_cancel(uint id) {
  require(getOwner(id) == msg.sender);

function getOwner(uint id) public constant returns (address owner) {
  return offers[id].owner;

function isActive(uint id) public constant returns (bool active) {
  return offers[id].timestamp > 0;

Cancelling an offer involves deleting it from the offers mapping:

delete offers[id];

Note that this simply has the effect of zero-ing the OfferInfo struct data thats stored against the offer id. This is why the isActive() method checks to see if timestamp > 0 in order to determine if an offer is still active - an offer is still active as long as it hasn't already been cancelled.

Finally, the cancellation process involves transferring the tokens from escrow back to the owner:

require( offer.pay_gem.transfer(offer.owner, offer.pay_amt) );

Take offer

The buy() method is used to take a previously made offer.

function buy(uint id, uint quantity)
  returns (bool) { /* ... */ }

The can_buy modifier simply checks that the offer is still active (see above).

The passed-in quantity is expected to be less than or equal to the offer pay_amt. Thus, the process first calculates how much of the offer buy_gem the taker wishes to exchange for the pay_gem:

uint spend = mul(quantity, offer.buy_amt) / offer.pay_amt;

// check for overflow, etc
require(uint128(spend) == spend);
require(uint128(quantity) == quantity);

Then it checks to ensure that the taker's request is non-zero and within the upper bounds of what the maker is offering:

if (quantity == 0 || spend == 0 || quantity > offer.pay_amt || spend > offer.buy_amt) {
  return false;

The transfer is made and the offer gets updated:

offers[id].pay_amt = sub(offer.pay_amt, quantity);  // <- calculate what's left to sell
offers[id].buy_amt = sub(offer.buy_amt, spend);     // <- calculate what's left to buy

require( offer.buy_gem.transferFrom(msg.sender, offer.owner, spend) );
require( offer.pay_gem.transfer(msg.sender, quantity) );

Finally, if the offer pay_amt is zero (i.e. there is nothing left to sell) then it effectively gets cancelled:

if (offers[id].pay_amt == 0) {
  delete offers[id];


ExpiringMarket extends SimpleMarket with the ability to automatically "close" itself at a set point in future such that no more trades are allowed after that point in time.

The modifiers declared in SimpleMarket get upgraded with this additional check:

modifier can_offer {

modifier can_buy(uint id) {

modifier can_cancel(uint id) {
  require((msg.sender == getOwner(id)) || isClosed());

Note: once a market is closed, anyone can call cancel() to cancel an offer, not just the offer owner.

The isClosed() method checks whether the market's closing time has passed or whether it has manually been stopped earlier (see below):

uint64 public close_time;
bool public stopped;

function isClosed() public constant returns (bool closed) {
  return stopped || getTime() > close_time;

The close_time gets set during construction, and there is no means of changing this value once the contract has been deployed (one must choose this wisely!).

However it can always be stopped earlier than close_time by an admin:

function stop() public auth {
  stopped = true;

Note: the auth modifier ensures that only the market owner (i.e. the contract deployer) or an authorized admin can call the stop() method. Please refer to auth.sol for details.


MatchingMarket extends ExpiringMarket with bi-directional orderbooks with automatic order matching as well as convenience methods to make it easier for a participant to take multiple, consecutive, sorted orders in one go.

As the repository README file states, there is legacy code in this contract which is likely to be removed in future versions. I will thus focus solely on the code that is recommended for use today. I will also skip over read-only methods which are purely there for convenience purposes.


This contract adds a number of events the existing list, the key ones being:

  • LogMatchingEnabled - whether matching market is enabled or not.
  • LogSortedOffer - when a new offer gets added to the sorted list.
  • LogUnsortedOffer - when a new offer gets added to the un-sorted list.

Matching vs non-matching modes

Matching is turned on by default:

bool public matchingEnabled = true;

In non-matching mode the market reverts to the ExpiringMarket behaviour. Matching can be toggled on/off at any point:

function setMatchingEnabled(bool matchingEnabled_) public auth returns (bool) {
  matchingEnabled = matchingEnabled_;
  return true;

I'm not entirely sure why this functionality is available, except perhaps it's to enable users of this contract to decide whether they wish to use on-chain or off-chain matching mechanisms.

Dust handling

In this context dust refers to such tiny asset quantities that the gas cost of making/taking an offer is higher than the amount being traded. The market enables a minimum sell-amount to be set for all tokens:

mapping(address => uint) public _dust;       

This value is always checked prior to the creation of a new offer. On the flip-side, if a take succeeds and an offer is left with a pay_amt lower than _dust[pay_gem] then the offer gets cancelled:

function _buys(uint id, uint amount) internal returns (bool) {
  /* ... */

  // If offer has become dust during buy, we cancel it
  if (isActive(id) && offers[id].pay_amt < _dust[offers[id].pay_gem]) {
    /* ... */

  return true;

Unsorted list

The market provides both a sorted and unsorted list of offers. The unsorted list is useful for applications which to provide an OTC trading service where traders manually pick offers to trade, rather than an exchange which automatically matches offers.

The unsorted list represented as a uni-directional linked list which maps a given offer id to the next offer id in the list:

uint _head;                            // first unsorted offer id
mapping(uint => uint) public _near;    // next unsorted offer id

The offer() method is overloaded in this contract. Here is the variant to add an offer to the unsorted list:

function offer(
  uint pay_amt,    // maker (ask) sell how much
  ERC20 pay_gem,   // maker (ask) sell which token
  uint buy_amt,    // maker (ask) buy how much
  ERC20 buy_gem,   // maker (ask) buy which token
returns (uint) { /* ... */ }

It internally calls through to the following code:

// check min. sell amount
require(_dust[pay_gem] <= pay_amt);

// SimpleMarket.offer(...)
id = super.offer(pay_amt, pay_gem, buy_amt, buy_gem);

// add to unsorted list
_near[id] = _head;
_head = id;

The buy() and cancel() base class methods are overridden to ensure that offers in the unsorted list are differentiated from ones in the sorted list (see below):

function cancel(uint id) public can_cancel(id) returns (bool success) {
  /* ... */

  if (isOfferSorted(id)) {
      require(_unsort(id));   // <-- remove from sorted list
  } else {
      require(_hide(id));     // <-- remove from unsorted list

  /* ... */

  return super.cancel(id);

Bi-directional sorted list

For every pair of tokens which can be traded, two sorted lists need to be maintained. Each list represents the best price obtainable for a given token.

In the above image, the bottom of the red list represents the lowest BNB sell price (aka the highest ETH buy price) and the top of the green list lower represents the highest BNB buy price (aka the lowest ETH sell price).

In the code a double-linked list is used in the form of a mapping:

struct sortInfo {
    uint next;  // points to id of next higher offer
    uint prev;  // points to id of previous lower offer
    uint delb;  // block number where this entry is marked for deletion

mapping(uint => sortInfo) public _rank; // double-linked list

mapping(address => mapping(address => uint)) public _best;  // id of the highest offer for a token pair

The _best mapping maps pay_gem to buy_gem to offer id. The _rank mapping keeps track of where a given offer sits in the sorted list of offers.

The overloaded offer() method is used to add an offer to the sorted list:

function offer(
  uint pay_amt,    // maker (ask) sell how much
  ERC20 pay_gem,   // maker (ask) sell which token
  uint buy_amt,    // maker (ask) buy how much
  ERC20 buy_gem,   // maker (ask) buy which token
  uint pos,        // position to insert offer, 0 should be used if unknown
  bool rounding    // match "close enough" orders?
returns (uint) { /* ... */ }

This first attempts to match the offer to an existing offer in the sorted list (see below) before adding it to the list itself:

id = super.offer(t_pay_amt, t_pay_gem, t_buy_amt, t_buy_gem);
_sort(id, pos);

The pos parameter should be the id of the offer closest to the new offer in terms of sort order. If instead it's set to 0 then the sorting algorithm will start the at the top of the list (represented by the _best member variable) and walk down the list it finds the correct spot to insert the offer.

Otherwise, it will start at pos and iterate down until it finds the first active offer; it will then iterate up or down the sorted list until find the right spot to insert the offer.

Thus, an accurate pre-calculated pos value should be provided if possible to save on gas costs.

The sorting is based on how offer prices compare:

function _isPricedLtOrEq(
    uint low,   // lower priced offer's id
    uint high   // higher priced offer's id
  returns (bool)
  return mul(offers[low].buy_amt, offers[high].pay_amt)
    >= mul(offers[high].buy_amt, offers[low].pay_amt);

The calculation shown above is arrived at as follows:

  • lS = low.pay_amt (amount lower offer is selling)

  • lB = low.buy_amt (amount lower offer is buying)

  • lS ÷ lB (price per unit of what lower is buying)

  • hS = high.pay_amt (amount higher offer is selling)

  • hB = high.buy_amt (amount higher offer is buying)

  • hS ÷ hB (price per unit of what higher is buying)

  • (lS ÷ lB) ≤ (hS ÷ hB) (true if lower comes before higher in sorted list)

  • (lS × hB) ≤ (hS × lB) (true if lower comes before higher in sorted list)

  • (lS × hB) > (hS × lB) (true if lower comes after higher in sorted list)

Note: We prefer multiplication to division due to floating-point and rounding imprecision, hence why the above calculation's final form involves multiplications.

Example of sorting in action based on above algorithm:

  1. Initial list: []
  2. Sell 1 ETH for 2 DGX -> [ 1-2 ]
  3. Sell 9 ETH for 2 DGX -> [ 1-2, 9-2 ]
  4. Sell 1 ETH for 3 DGX -> [ 1-3, 1-2, 9-2 ]
  5. Sell 5 ETH for 1 DGX -> [ 1-3, 1-2, 9-2, 5-1 ]

The lowest price for the ETH-DGX pair is at the top of the list (5 ETH per DGX) where ETH is thus at its cheapest. And vice versa for the highest price (⅓ ETH per DGX).

Matching algorithm

Before inserting a new offer into the sorted list, the The _matcho() method attempts to match it to existing offers:

function _matcho(
  uint t_pay_amt,    // taker sell how much
  ERC20 t_pay_gem,   // taker sell which token
  uint t_buy_amt,    // taker buy how much
  ERC20 t_buy_gem,   // taker buy which token
  uint pos,          // position id
  bool rounding      // match "close enough" orders?
  returns (uint id) { /* ... */ }

The calculation is as follows...

  • tS = t_pay_amt (amount of pay_gem taker is selling)

  • tB = t_buy_amt (amount of buy_gem taker is buying)

  • tS ÷ tB (highest buy_gem price per unit taker is willing to pay)

  • mS = offers[best_maker_id].pay_amt (amount of buy_gem maker is selling)

  • mB = offers[best_maker_id].buy_amt (amount of pay_gem maker is buying)

  • mS ÷ mB (highest pay_gem price per unit maker is willing to pay)

  • mB ÷ mS (lowest buy_gem price per unit maker is willing to sell at)

  • (tS ÷ tB) ≥ (mB ÷ mS) (true if taker price is high enough)

  • (tS × mS) ≥ (mB × tB) (true if taker price is high enough)

  • (mB × tB) > (tS × mS) (true if taker price is NOT high enough)

Note: For the sake of calculation simplicity I will ignore the rounding parameter for now and deal with it in the next section.

If the taker is able to pay for the current best offer then the quantity taken equals the minimum of tS and mB:

buy(best_maker_id, min(m_pay_amt, t_buy_amt));

The taker's parameters get updated accordingly so that in the next iteration of the loop the process can try to fulfil the remaining part of the taker's order:

t_buy_amt_old = t_buy_amt;
t_buy_amt = sub(t_buy_amt, min(m_pay_amt, t_buy_amt));  // new tB
t_pay_amt = mul(t_buy_amt, t_pay_amt) / t_buy_amt_old;  // new tS

Continuing from the previous example, let's say we are selling ETH for DGX and have the following order list at present:

  1. [5-1] = 5 ETH per DGX (_best[ETH][DGX], i.e. the lowest price of ETH)
  2. [9-2] = 4.5 ETH per DGX
  3. [1-2] = 0.5 ETH per DGX
  4. [1-3] = 0.3333 ETH per DGX**

Let the incoming taker order be: Sell 2 DGX for 6 ETH.

The taker order is willing to buy at 3 ETH per DGX. This is higher than the lowest sell price (5 ETH per DGX). Since the lowest sell-price offer only has 5 ETH, the internal call to make the trade will be buy(id, 5):

// do the trade
buy(best_maker_id, min(m_pay_amt, t_buy_amt));        

// update taker parameters, ready for next iteration
t_buy_amt_old = t_buy_amt;
t_buy_amt = sub(t_buy_amt, min(m_pay_amt, t_buy_amt));
t_pay_amt = mul(t_buy_amt, t_pay_amt) / t_buy_amt_old;

In the second iteration, the incoming taker order would then be: Sell 0 DGX for 1 ETH (thanks to Wenhua Zhang for pointing out an earlier mistake).

This will immediately cause the loop to exit thanks to the line:

if (t_pay_amt == 0 || t_buy_amt == 0) {

If on the other hand, we had started with different initial values and the next iteration of the loop had the order as Sell 1 DGX for 1 ETH, then although the [1-2] list item is trade-able at this price, the loop would never reach this item since it will already break at the second list item ([9-2]), according to the calculation above:

if (mul(m_buy_amt, t_buy_amt) > mul(t_pay_amt, m_pay_amt)) {

Thus, the matching loop is structured such that only immediately consecutive offers can be matched to an incoming offer.


The calculation from earlier which decided if a match wasn't possible was:

(mB × tB) > (tS × mS) (true if taker price is NOT high enough)

Due to calculations being done in Solidity, it is possible small rounding errors may occur at times. Thus, if we are taking rounding into account then we want to be more optimistic in making matches. We want to err towards making the above comparison less likely to succeed:

((mB - 1) × (tB - 1)) > ((tS + 1) × (mS + 1))

This is reflected in the matching algorithm with the following code:

// Ugly hack to work around rounding errors. Based on the idea that
// the furthest the amounts can stray from their "true" values is 1.
// Ergo the worst case has t_pay_amt and m_pay_amt at +1 away from
// their "correct" values and m_buy_amt and t_buy_amt at -1.
// Since (c - 1) * (d - 1) > (a + 1) * (b + 1) is equivalent to
// c * d > a * b + a + b + c + d, we write...
if (mul(m_buy_amt, t_buy_amt) > mul(t_pay_amt, m_pay_amt) +
  (rounding ? m_buy_amt + t_buy_amt + t_pay_amt + m_pay_amt : 0))

By default it is recommended to set rounding to true, and indeed one of the offer() method polymorphic variants does just this:

function offer(
  uint pay_amt,    // maker (ask) sell how much
  ERC20 pay_gem,   // maker (ask) sell which token
  uint buy_amt,    // maker (ask) buy how much
  ERC20 buy_gem,   // maker (ask) buy which token
  uint pos         // position to insert offer, 0 should be used if unknown
  returns (uint)
  // rounding = true
  return offer(pay_amt, pay_gem, buy_amt, buy_gem, pos, true);


There is a notion of a keeper in the contrats - any third-party who can perform useful admin tasks on the market.

Keepers can move items from the unsorted list to the sorted list:

function insert(
  uint id,   // maker (ask) id
  uint pos   // position to insert into
  returns (bool)
  /* ... */
  _hide(id);                      // remove offer from unsorted offers list
  _sort(id, pos);                 // put offer into the sorted offers list
  /* ... */

They can also remove an offer from the sorted list if it has been marked for removal in the near future:

function del_rank(uint id)
  returns (bool)
  /* ... */
  require(!isActive(id) && _rank[id].delb != 0 && _rank[id].delb < block.number - 10);
  delete _rank[id];
  /* ... */

Note: Offers in the sorted list get marked for removal when they are fulfilled or cancelled.

Trade at market price

If a taker wishes to simply trade at market price (i.e. buy/sell at whatever the current best prices are) they can do so using the following methods.

  • Sell as much of pay_gem as possible until a limit of pay_amt, ensuring at least min_fill_amount of buy_gem has been obtained so that a fair price was obtained for buy_gem bought:
function sellAllAmount(ERC20 pay_gem, uint pay_amt, ERC20 buy_gem, uint min_fill_amount)
  returns (uint fill_amt)
{ /* ... */ }
  • Buy as much of buy_gem as possible until a limit of buy_amt, ensuring at most max_fill_amount of pay_gem was sold so that a fair price was obtained for pay_gem sold:
function buyAllAmount(ERC20 buy_gem, uint buy_amt, ERC20 pay_gem, uint max_fill_amount)
  returns (uint fill_amt)
{ /* ... */ }
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