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1 April 2016

Hyperledger blockchain code almost comes together for IoT

The steering committee of the Linux Foundation’s Hyperledger Project came very close to approving a vote to formally merge the blockchain codebases of its three founding contributors – IBM, Blockstream, and Digital Asset. However, an unnamed dissenting member has, for now, prevented the move that might unify a very exciting technology for IoT communications.

IBM has been a vocal advocate for blockchain, and notably founded the ADEPT project with Samsung in January 2015. Although Samsung appears to have cooled on the technology, IBM has forged ahead – and sees it as a powerful tool to sell to new and existing business customers that use its extensive cloud platforms and software. With its Bluemix application PaaS, IBM will also be putting blockchain to use managing physical devices, not just software-enabled transactions.

Bitcoin is a digital currency that verifies its transactions by using a distributed public ledger, which uses crowd-sourced computational power to verify the integrity of all the bitcoin involved in the global transactions – so that you can’t fake a transaction. This ledger system is referred to as the blockchain, as each transaction is recorded in the ledger, and added as a block to the chain of authenticity.

This means that every transaction can be traced, and won’t be completed unless the two parties have sufficient funds to move bitcoin from one public wallet to another. Using a shop as an example, this is a way to ensure that a cheque doesn’t bounce, and it also ensures that the buyers can remain anonymous – as the system tracks coins, rather than their holders.

Using services like bitcoin tumblers can obscure your identity, and the anonymity that bitcoin provided gave rise to its slightly grubby reputation – as it is regularly used for illicit underground transactions, and was at the heart of the Silk Road dark-web marketplace. However, cash is also a fairly grubby way of buying things, as you won’t necessarily want to know the history of every deal your dollar-bill has been a part of.

But while bitcoin as a mainstream currency seems a very long way off, there are very few people who would question the integrity of the blockchain – which has given rise to many businesses and developers that see it as a great way of managing transactions between distributed devices, to ensure the authenticity of identities and commands/orders. IBM is probably the biggest name to be backing the tech.

The same process of transaction tracking and management can be used with physical assets. Instead of recording to whom the bitcoin was sent, the blockchain can be used to chart the ambient temperature of goods as they move through the supply chain. Elsewhere, it could be used for smart metering, confirming serial numbers against user accounts, or sending commands and potentially updates to devices.

Last week, a Hyperledger hackathon saw demonstrations of the merged codebase, which was using Digital Asset’s client layers, Blockstream’s validation tech, and IBM’s Chaincode. After the test, according to Coin Desk, a single audience member said that they would like more progress on the requirement side of things, before backing the move to the unified code.

While the event, managed by the Linux Foundation’s Senior Director of IoT Philip DesAutels, could have called a two-thirds majority vote, the issue was not pressed. DesAutels said “this is open source. We can take this wherever we want, but we do need to move forward. There’s consensus even if there’s not unanimity. I will write it up, though.”

So for now at least, the informal nature of the town-hall gathering has prevented unification. Depending on your political leanings, this is either a great detriment to blockchain progress, or a safeguard to prevent IBM taking the reins.

The cynical line is that the vote of dissent was a move to prevent IBM muscling in on the technology, although IBM and its team will already know that the project almost fully supports the move, and could force the vote if needed. Those who don’t see Big Blue’s presence as a threat won’t begrudge the outcome of what looks to be a vote in favor of consolidation.

As this is housed in the Linux Foundation, the open source nature of the project should mean that no one company can seize control and take the tech in a single direction. IBM could, of course, fork Hyperledger to meet its business needs, but it wouldn’t be able to entirely scupper the project.

The first Hyperledger whitepaper is also being written as a collaborative effort. Apparently based on an IBM paper, in which the find-and-replace tool was used to swap IBM for Hyperledger (perhaps proof of IBM’s significance to the project). If you’re interested, you can find it here.

Held inside the Linux Foundation, the founding list of Hyperledger Project members reads: Accenture, ANZ Bank, Cisco, CLS, Credits, Deutsche Börse, Digital Asset Holdings, DTCC, Fujitsu Limited, IC3, IBM, Intel, J.P. Morgan, London Stock Exchange Group, Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group (MUFG), R3, State Street, SWIFT, VMware and Wells Fargo.

Microsoft adds Ethereum blockchain to Visual suite, with ConsenSys:

Elsewhere in blockchain news, Microsoft has announced a partnership with ConsenSys to incorporate the Ethereum blockchain into its Visual Studio programming suite. The Ethereum Solidity language will be available to application developers using Microsoft’s Visual platform, with ConsenSys working to allow Solidity users to run their applications inside the Ethereum Virtual Machine (EVM) – a distributed compute platform.

While the Ethereum cryptocurrency is much smaller than bitcoin, the core technology that authenticates the transactions may well find uses in the enterprise. Like IBM, Microsoft would be hoping that Visual Studio projects would end up generating revenue for the company through its Azure Cloud platform.

Ethereum, first introduced to the world in 2013, is not built on top of the bitcoin blockchain. Its EVM public blockchain has been live since July last year, with a number of users currently housing decentralized applications (DAPPs) and the regular contract functions of a blockchain inside the Ethereum platform. Its currency, called Ether, is charged for calculations run on the EVM, as a way of funding the necessary distributed computational power needed to handle and verify transactions on the network.

The ledgers used can be public (great for any app that requires trust from third-parties, who would be able to check the blockchain themselves), and also private, which may be more suited for companies that want to use blockchains as ways of trusting their own internal device deployments, which don’t interact with third-parties.