Hyperledger chain gang man explains Penguins' blockchain play

Group cultivating Bitcoin's serious cousin

LinuxCon, Berlin Jim Zemlin raises an eyebrow when I say Hyperledger is rather outside Linux Foundation's usual domain, being a bit, er, consumery.

“It’s totally enterprise,” the Foundation's executive director tells me. “It’s infrastructure.” Just like Linux, he reckons. Hyperledger is the layer above the operating system, above Linux.

Linux is the Linux Foundation’s oldest and hardest of hard-core projects - a technology fundamental that drives economies.

The Foundation went beyond Linux ages ago and in 2015 it set a record in starting new projects – 13, nearly half the Foundation’s total.

2016 has seen seven so far – network switch, network analytics and small footprint real time operating systems.

The most intriguing is Hyperledger with 30 founding members including IBM who kick-started things donating chunks of its Blockchain code under an ASF licence.

For an industry with notoriously poor long-term memory, it’s worth remembering IBM kickstarted the Eclipse open-source tooling framework similarly in the early 2000s.

Eclipse succeeded in gutting an entire IDE industry and ended up becoming the open framework tools alternative to Microsoft’s Visual Studio.

Hyperledger takes the Blockchain digital ledger asset used in Bitcoin and seeks to turn it into a distributed, secure record of transactions for business - and more.

There’s talk of recording not just business transactions, but tracking the provenance of items such as fish and blood diamonds and providing a platform for medical data.

Hyperledger is the Foundation’s fastest growing project: after just sit months, there are 85 members - August saw a rush of 17 – with more than 100 contributors.

Beyond IBM and corporate familiars like Intel, Fujitsu and Red Hat there are some blue chip names - Deutsche Boerse, JP Morgan and Wells Fargo.

Hyperledger executive director lead Brian Behlendorf, the silver-haired Apache web server daddy, says the project has attracted people completely new to the Foundation, too - in startups and fintech.

Why? After all, of the two – Bitcoin and Blockchain - it’s the former that’s landed the headlines of a tech and national press desperate for the next big thing.

Blockchain has resonated, unlike Bitcoin, precisely because of its familiarity - the ledger - only in a format that promises radical change according to Behlendorf.

Financial services like blockchains because they raise the prospect translations can be fulfilled in the same real-time way as they are sealed. Today, when you transfer money online to somebody’s account, sure, you get a notification, but it’s a virtual transaction - the actual money still takes days to actually move between accounts.

Hyper-quick cash transfer

Blockchain and Hyperledger promises to compact that transfer process, speeding up procedures in transfer and authorisation and doing it securely and to scale.

“Some of the early crypto currency experts came across as we have come from Pluto and you have to buy into a bunch of assumptions to get there - that was a big bridge for many,” he told The Reg at LinuxCon.

“The lack of dynamic, business friendly leadership hindered its adoption.”

“Crypto currency will always have difficulty being accepted in a world of regulation. But [Hyperledger] is a much more immediate connection to systems that they [companies] already have.”

The private sector certainly seems intent on something Blockchain-like and devs are responding with Ethereum, Multichain and Eris, too.

And their interest hasn’t abated despite recent problems for Ethereum that gave digital block chains a bad rep when it was hacked and $89m pinched.

Ethereum was hacked in early summer yet Hyperledger got those 17 new recruits just after in August. Behlendorf reckons firms are learning, and they realised the different between permissioned ledgers and unpermissioned types.

The former comprises a known group of permissions givers but with the latter, members can come and go. Hyperledger can do both.

But Behlendorf doesn’t dismiss the security risks.

The prospect of writing confidential data in big, public stores won’t appeal to very many while there’s the prospect highly records could be cracked using, should it ever materialise, quantum computing.

“The most important thing we can do is demonstrate competent development processes, peer review of both architecture and underlying implementation, test suites and security processes, and most importantly, running code in production. That's the trajectory for Fabric and STL [Sawtooth Lake],” he said.

The most immediate problem for businesses picking a blockchain technology is the one endemic to open source: proliferation, forking and knowing who to bet on. The Ethereum currency was forked following the hack. “It made it a challenge to convince banks that this was a network they wanted to participate in,” Behlendorf noted.

The Foundation believes Hyperledger can avoid forks that might arise through inter personal politics or other disagreements. It claims its standard “IP neutral zone” for Hyperledger and unity in that Hyperledger’s sub projects use exactly the same open-source licence (Apache 2.0). The hope is that with more members comes critical mass.

That’s important as Behlendorf’s hope is he can build a system that wraps in other open-source components and other projects that build out Hyperledger.

Hyperledger currently consists of two projects: Fabric, a layer for components to plug into, and Sawtooth Lake - a consensus algorithm and that originated from Intel.

Both are early but Fabric is already used in pilots - the fundamentals of a chain and smart contracts are already there it’s a question of performance, Behlendorf said.

The plan is for Fabric 1.0 within six to nine months.

Areas of work include making Fabric capable of supporting permissionless systems. The challenge is governance - the length of the chain can become unwieldy to manage while authorisation that’s done in the CPU can thrash the processor.

Another area is encryption libraries that mean participants can view just parts of a transaction, say an account summary, rather view all the data in a transaction behind that transaction. Portable identities is on the list – so members’ identities to work across different chains without need for multiple log ins or different IDs - and smart contract engines.

Behlendorf sees potential for homomorphic encryption where computations are be carried out in cipher text and when decrypted match the results in plaintext.

Also, he’s interested in zero knowledge proofs where statements can be authorised as true without providing evidence.

Other technologies of interest are a browser UI – you currently navigate using a command line and - and having libraries and SDKs work with Python and Java.

Behlendorf’s goal is to bring projects together. But how to make the right choices and stop going down dead ends or dismissing projects that have potential in an area filled with that Siren-like mix of potential, enthusiasm and ideas endemic to “the new” in tech?

“We do need to be about these communities doing experiments but as they pan out saying ‘finally’. This is my long game that there is a common fabric that does work best for 99 per cent of cases,” Behlendorf says.

“I resonate with the innovators trying something high risk, highly divergent from today. If we can apply objective methods to it and become its champion, I feel that’s the way go to.”

Ultimately, however, it will be for the marketplace to pick what works - that is those deploying Hyperledger and building the code in the real world. “For me I want to build that marketplace of idea and projects and back the winners,” Behlendorf says.

In other words, just like Linux. ®

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