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Tensions Emerge Between Hyperledger Blockchain’s Biggest Supporters

When the governing board of Hyperledger approved a new supply chain project earlier this month, it marked a significant departure for the open-source blockchain consortium.

Sawtooth Supply Chain, as the project is provisionally called, breaks new ground because it’s arguably the consortium’s first to really inhabit the application layer of the software stack. It’s built on top of the Sawtooth framework, which Intel contributed to Hyperledger.

Prior to this, Hyperledger confined its work to the lower layers and eschewed the custom-design of blockchain application code with industry players in mind. That job was left to vendors to carry out in a proprietary manner – as IBM has been doing in its now-live food-tracking supply chain platform with the likes of Walmart.   

Nevertheless, nine of the 11 Technical Steering Committee (TSC) members voted in favor of the new project on December 6. The approval of Sawtooth Supply Chain as a high-level project massively heightens its profile and means it enters Hyperledger’s formal project lifecycle and receives the support which goes along with that (community outreach, marketing, security review, etc.). 

This happened over the objections of the other two members of the TSC, who questioned whether the project belonged within the scope of Hyperledger, CoinDesk has learned. Notably, both of them work at IBM: Arnaud Le Hors, who was absent from the vote, and Chris Ferris, the former TSC chair, who was present but abstained. 

From the sidelines of the enterprise blockchain world, it looks like a tug-of-war has broken out, with IBM and its favored Hyperledger implementation, known as Fabric, on the one side, and the Intel-backed Sawtooth on the other. The latter team also has a budding champion in the form of newly appointed TSC chair, and Sawtooth lead maintainer, Dan Middleton of Intel.

As well as doing engineering further up the stack at the application layer, Sawtooth Supply Chain is the first project sponsored by a non-tech company, U.S. food giant Cargill. As such, the supply chain project, which has yet to be given a permanent name, will likely speed toward faster deployment than its Hyperledger peers. And given Cargill’s involvement, it is a prospective rival to IBM’s Food Trust. 

However, the stakes are higher than a potential competition between supply chain-focused platforms coming out of Hyperledger, as the tensions point to bigger questions around governance.

While IBM argues that putting Hyperledger’s imprimatur on an app-level project could undermine the consortium’s position as a neutral player, others characterized the tech giant’s resistance to the proposal as an attempt to stifle competition.

“This is fundamentally a discussion about what is open source software,” said James Mitchell, CEO of Bitwise, which wrote the bulk of Sawtooth 1.0 code and is contributing to the supply chain project. “And is the structure of an organization like Hyperledger ultimately to be protectionist around a set of commercial interests, or does it have a different set of goals?”

‘Paying rent’

One way to look at the tensions over the supply chain project is as a sign of Hyperledger growing past its origins as an IBM-dominated organization.

Choosing his words carefully, TSC chair Middleton told CoinDesk that part of his job is to ensure diversity within Hyperledger and to retain those strengths from which blockchain gains its preeminence.

He acknowledged that IBM has been a big contributor to Hyperledger and to the open source effort, as have Intel and a lot of other organizations.

“I think it’s important that no one of those organizations undermines the legitimacy of having an open source organization where we are all developing code transparently. We just want to make sure that we have a good balance among all the contributors,” said Middleton.

Mitchell of Bitwise was less diplomatic, claiming that IBM, with its early proliferation of Fabric, has used Hyperledger (and the consortium’s affiliation with the Linux Foundation) as a way to market its services to enterprises – what he called “open-source washing.”

“You want to be able to tell a story about how you are building open source solutions. But where it matters, which is the bulk of the application code, you want to be able to retain proprietary ownership of intellectual property and be able to monetize the solution at that level,” Mitchell said of IBM’s blockchain strategy to date.

“I think people are savvy to this; they realize they don’t want to be paying rent to a large technology provider for the next two decades on these solutions,” he added.

Michell warned that blockchain may represent an even more aggressive form of lock-in than previous enterprise software licensing, once an industry adopts a particular lingua franca of how business is transacted.

“Based on conversations we have had with industry partners we are working with, like Cargill and others, we strongly believe industry needs to own those solutions,” rather than the vendors, said Mitchell.

This could take the form of closed-source, shared ownership amongst those parties, he said, or, better yet, open source software that those industries are building, contributing to and sharing.  

Real or fabricated?

In expressing his concerns about widening the scope of Hyperledger to promote the Sawtooth supply chain project, IBM’s Ferris said this was his personal view and not an IBM-related matter.

He told CoinDesk:

“When we set up Hyperledger initially, we said we would not go into the application space. And we did that for a reason, because we want people to take the frameworks we are building and leverage them. We didn’t want to be perceived somehow as competition to someone who is legitimately trying to build a solution around supply chain.”

Ferris added that the components being built in the new supply chain project are “pretty specific” to Sawtooth right now. That concerned him because, according to Hyperledger Governing Board guidance, top-level tools projects also need to be seen to support multiple frameworks rather than being overly focused on one. 

Rather than be elevated to a top-level project, Sawtooth Supply Chain, in his opinion, should have been placed in Hyperledger Labs. This is where projects deemed too early for TSC approval for incubation, such as sample code from hackathons or research projects, are placed. If a Labs project wants to enter incubation and become a formal project, a project proposal must be submitted for TSC consideration.

Regarding Middleton’s point about the need for greater diversity within Hyperledger, Ferris said this has been addressed, particularly over the last year or so, as many developers from a range of organizations have joined the community. IBM now accounts for maybe 30 percent of the total contributions, he said.

“In Fabric, we are about 40 percent of that total. I mean, it used to be 100 percent. So the number is constantly coming down. Yes, IBM is very committed to the success of Hyperledger. But by the same token, we are also trying not to be overbearing in that investment, “ said Ferris.

Gari Singh, a distinguished engineer and blockchain CTO at IBM, added that while it can be flattering to hear how much IBM has done with Fabric, the lack of contributions from other big industry players is frustrating.

“So you look at Oracle running Fabric; Amazon and their new managed blockchain service actually takes the Fabric samples and uses it, but no contributions back. There are contributions coming but they are coming from the start-ups – we would actually like to see it from the big guys,” said Singh.

True Blue

Elsewhere at last week’s Hyperledger Forum in Basel, Switzerland, some important members of the community took the opportunity to show their respect to IBM.

Casey Kuhlman, CEO of Monax, said the fact that the Sawtooth Supply Chain project has been brought under the auspices of Hyperledger speaks for itself; despite misgivings, IBM ultimately did not stand in the project’s way, he said, adding that in his opinion Big Blue has behaved like a “very reasonable member of the community.”

“Their actions have been, in my opinion, very reasonably self-serving,” Kuhlman said. “Because at the end of the day we are all businesses and we are all trying to make money. We are all self-interested. We should be.”

Hyperledger director Brian Behlendorf said that while evolution is happening within the organization, the focus is still going to be on things that can be generally applicable.

“It’s not going to be just to solving Cargill’s needs for a reusable body of code or template or recipe or whatever for a large number of use cases,” said Behlendorf.

Speaking to the success of the first Hyperledger Global Forum, which saw hundreds of firms from across a wide range of industries descend on Basel for four days of talks and workshops, Behlendorf also wanted to pay due respect to IBM, concluding,   

“We would absolutely not be here if it were not for them.”

Intel’s Dan Middleton at the Hyperledger Global Forum image via Ian Allison for CoinDesk

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MultiChain Releases 2.0 Beta, Adds SAP and HCL as Partners

MultiChain, the enterprise blockchain framework created by Coin Sciences, has released its beta version 2.0 and added over 40 new partners, including big names like SAP and HCL Technologies.  

MultiChain 2.0 is a major upgrade to the platform which first went into production back in August of 2017. The announcement of the technological improvements dovetails with a jump in the ranks for its partner program, the roster for which now stands at 86 members.

Version 2.0 includes new features such as “smart filters” – MultiChain’s take on smart contracts – as well as support for structured data to be embedded and indexed in the chain, and easy management of off-chain data.

“MultiChain has full off-chain data functionality built in so it makes life a lot easier for developers who are already using this kind of technique but had to cobble things together themselves with multiple pieces,” said MultiChain founder Dr. Gideon Greenspan.

MultiChain’s smart filters approach has elements in common with both R3 Corda’s way of doing things, and also how ethereum works; indeed, the main enterprise blockchains all have slightly different ways of coding up rules on the blockchain, said Greenspan.

This had led to more design space in terms of how smart contract rules can be expressed and run, and how to deal with things like conflicting transactions, said Greenspan. Each of the main platforms makes some decisions in this design space, the result being that different designs are better or worse suited for different use cases.

“Before choosing which blockchain platform to use you have to actually understand the application you want to build and the types of transaction that application to conduct,” Greenspan noted, adding:

“Make sure that informs your decision of platform, rather than choosing a platform because you’ve heard about it or because it was in the news.”

Drilling down a little, Greenspan explained there are two types of MultiChain smart filters: transaction filters and stream filters. “The stream filter is particularly good for straightforward data validation, so any kind of use case where you are putting structured data on the blockchain and you want to make sure that the data is clean,” he said.

Transaction filters are well suited for creating niche financial systems running on the blockchain which require some special logic for that case. “This could be some kind of credit point scheme or currency transacting environment in a particular subset of organizations and the transaction filters are well suited for defining extra rules about those sorts of transactions in terms of who can do what and when,” said Greenspan.

SAP effect

Prominent among the new partners is German software giant SAP, which boasts more than 335,000 customers in 180 countries. The company will be adding MultiChain to the SAP cloud offering, along with Hyperledger Fabric and Quorum, the ethereum-derived enterprise platform.

MultiChain’s tracking and verification capabilities have already been put to the test by SAP in a pilot scheme around the authentication of returned prescription drugs, prior to these being reintroduced back into the market.

Raimund Gross, chief blockchain strategist at SAP, said that drugs are oftentimes ordered by hospitals, for instance, in excess of the amount actually required and need to be returned.

Another example might involve an order of a very tailor-made drug which could cost $30,000, which for some reason or other has to be returned.

“Those returned drugs are a significant asset and can represent for our individual customers a total value of between like $2-$3bn a year,” said Gross.

SAP image via Cineberg/Shutterstock

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Swiss Post, Swisscom Developing New Blockchain Platform on Hyperledger

Swiss Post, the country’s national postal service, and state-owned telecoms provider Swisscom have united to develop a blockchain platform.

The two announced Thursday that they are using Hyperledger Fabric to build their “simple, secure and sustainable” private blockchain infrastructure, intended to be utilized by their own, as well as other companies’, applications.

The infrastructure is designed to meet the high security levels required by banks, while all data hosted will remain within Switzerland, they added.

The announcement indicates that the system is more energy efficient than public blockchain offerings, stating:

“In contrast to “public blockchains” (e.g. bitcoin and ethereum), this private blockchain infrastructure requires much less energy, since it can only be used by identified users who have a contractual relationship with the providers of an application. This enables more efficient agreement procedures as well as significantly higher security and performance.”

The first pilot blockchain apps are scheduled for launch in Q2 2019, with use cases said to be focusing on corporates and government agencies desiring to digitize business processes in a “secure and verified” manner.

Swiss Post and Swisscom also said they are open to accepting other partners to join them on the project. Ultimately, they desire “to enable the Swiss economy to quickly obtain a leading position when it comes to using this promising technology.”

The two companies are already using blockchain technology for several use cases.

Swiss Post’s financial services unit PostFinance, for instance, launched a pilot project in May that provides smart energy billing via blockchain. It also stores temperature data on a blockchain for monitoring pharmaceuticals in transit.

Swisscom is working with its subsidiary, Daura AG, on a blockchain system that facilitates the issuance, purchase and sale of shares.

Swiss postal mailbox image via Shutterstock

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FedEx Joins Hyperledger in Blockchain Consortium’s Latest Expansion

Global shipping giant FedEx has just become one of the 14 newest members to join the Hyperledger consortium.

Hyperledger announced that FedEx, Honeywell International, as well as a number of crypto startups, have become the newest participants in its mission to to build blockchain platforms and applications for enterprises, according to a press release on Wednesday.

Executive director Brian Behlendorf noted in a statement that the group includes both established firms and startups, adding:

“We are gaining traction around the world in market segments from finance to healthcare and government to logistics. This growth and diversity is a signal of the increasing recognition of the strategic value of enterprise blockchain and commitment to the adoption and development of open source frameworks to drive new business models.”

FedEx has previously joined a number of other blockchain consortia, including the Blockchain in Transport Alliance and the Blockchain Research Institute.

Chairman and CEO Fred Smith has touted the technology in public appearances, telling the audience at CoinDesk’s Consensus conference in May that it “has the potential to completely revolutionize what’s across the border.”

He touted the ability to track goods’ chain of custody using the technology, as well as the fact that such information can be made publicly available for customers.

FedEx image via monticello / Shutterstock

The leader in blockchain news, CoinDesk is a media outlet that strives for the highest journalistic standards and abides by a strict set of editorial policies. CoinDesk is an independent operating subsidiary of Digital Currency Group, which invests in cryptocurrencies and blockchain startups.

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Forrester Research: 90% of Blockchain Initiatives by US Firms Will Never Become Operational

According to the U.S. market research firm Forrester Research, 2018 will become “the year of reckoning for blockchain initiatives.”

About 90 percent of currently active U.S. companies’ blockchain initiatives will ultimately be abandoned. This statistic comes from a study by Forrester Research, cited by Bloomberg in an article July 31.

The U.S. market research firm Forrester Research predicts that most of blockchain-powered projects initiated by American companies will be put on hold in 2018. Specifically, Forrester Research estimates that in a whopping 90 percent of cases, the projects will “never become part of a company’s operations.”

The researcher also claims that “some companies,” which have been striving to incorporate the widely touted distributed ledger technology (DLT) in their businesses, are now pulling back and scaling down their ambitions.

The most recent study marks at least the second instance in which Forrester has predicted a grim future for blockchain applications in corporate America. Back in 2017, the company published an article entitled “Predictions 2018: The Blockchain Revolution Will Have To Wait A Little Longer,” claiming that 2018 will be “the year of reckoning for blockchain initiatives.”

“Those who failed to translate the headlines into reality will write off their investments and give up, while others that have a deep understanding of the technology and its transformational potential in the long run will continue to forge ahead.”

According to Bloomberg, Ron Resnick, the first executive director of the Enterprise Ethereum Alliance (EEA), argued that blockchain development might still experience an uptick in 2019, saying that “[companies] are still testing the waters.”

Previously, Executive Director of Hyperledger Brian Behlendorf claimed that the “coming wave” of blockchain applications will not come from established tech giants, such as Google, Amazon or Facebook, as these companies “have a blind spot when it comes to blockchain.”

Earlier in July, former Wall Street executive Mike Novogratz predicted that mass adoption of cryptocurrencies and blockchain is “still five to six years away.”