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Hyperledger: At the frontline of the blockchain revolution

Tue 22 Jan 2019 | Marta Piekarska

Now that the “blockchain everything” hype has passed, it’s down to organisations like Hyperledger to unify enterprise IT and delimit what actually belongs within blockchain’s borders. Marta Piekarska, Hyperledger’s director of ecosystem, traces the development of blockchain technology and the progress made so far

About 10 years ago, Satoshi Nakamoto proved that Distributed Ledger Technology (DLT), could be used in the space of cryptocurrencies if combined with a strong consensus mechanism and public availability.

However, as time passed, more and more enterprises– from supply chain to humanitarian aid– have expressed interest in applying this concept to their fields. In these instances, it became clear having an entirely open system wasn’t entirely necessary.

If we consider solutions in healthcare, for instance, only a doctor should be allowed to enter new data on patients health, and only that person and their doctors should be permitted to view said information. However, it is still beneficial to have a system that is not relying on a trusted third party, is immutable and that provides a unified view to all participants.

This is why various new “levels” have been developed under the blockchain umbrella. The two main differentiators come from the permissioning model and the visibility of data.

We have permissionless: public solutions where anyone can join the network, submit information and view what is happening on it. Then, we have the middle ground: permissioned public systems where only certain parties can submit information, but where anyone can view it.

The opposite of this is a permissionless, private system. Here, anyone can read, but only certain participants can write. Finally, on the very end of this spectrum there are permissioned, private solutions. They are the most “elite” but are also extremely useful.

But it is important to remember that permissioning or visibility does not necessarily imply the breaking of anonymity. The fact that someone passes a threshold to join a network doesn’t mean they need to give away their full details.

“The greatest thing about blockchain is that the space is big and welcomes all. But the industry’s openness also produces significant headaches”

Chain reaction

When blockchain hype was at its highest, many forgot that a blockchain solution is not required most of the time. Companies wanted it because it was the new and shiny thing and because they believed their competitors were. There is still a lot of FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) going on.

Just because a lot of projects have failed to deliver tangible results, it doesn’t mean that blockchain is useless. Actually, it is a brilliant way of maintaining a reliable record of events, building trust into systems where traditionally we need to rely on third parties, and reducing the costs and improving the speed with which data is shared and made available.

While building a new system is costly, the fact that all the information is there and we don’t need to run between floors in a building or send countless emails is an incredible improvement to any enterprise.

But we shouldn’t get ahead of ourselves. We still don’t have clear numbers or the ability to just quote probable ROI. But, we can be fairly certain there are good reasons to use blockchain if you are dealing with multiple parties, need reliable sources of truth and are able to digitize your data.

I find the most interesting use cases for blockchain in places where we never thought of applying the technology. While they may not promise the biggest ROI, they exemplify what makes blockchain so brilliant: that it actually helps the ones who need technology most.

There are very few technologies developed in recent decades that are truly helping the world. Think of AI. Created and refined by the smartest people in the room over the course of half a century, and the source of remarkable innovations like smart homes, self-driving cars and search engines.

Where AI doesn’t get implemented is in impoverished nations and communities – countries where no one needs a smart fridge because they don’t have any food to refrigerate.

Frontrunners

Blockchain is different – from Red Crosses’ donation tracking to ScanTrust’s sustainable coffee tracking and even Energy Blockchain Lab’s CO2 emission control, organisations are working to make a real change to the ones who actually need it. Hyperledger is lucky to be associated with organisations like UN’s ID2020 and working on projects like Milk Donor tracking solutions.

Blockchain is a peer-to-peer system. It requires multiple participants and a diverse network to make sense.

Special Interest Groups: Groups within the Hyperledger project that gather the community that works on a domain specific problem and aims to create an environment for open discussion, document co-creation and solution proposals. 

Blockchain doesn’t work that way. As Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here reminds us: “Together we fight/Divided we fall.” This is what open source and blockchain need – teamwork.

While different consortia are created and different companies join forces, for the most part these announcements are merely gestures. Very rarely do you hear of competitors joining forces to improve the space and develop new solutions. An organisation is set up, others join to have a feel of what the group is doing, and nothing moves forward.

Block-by-block

Looking at the number of special interest groups (SIGs) that are created within Hyperledger at the request of our community, I am hopeful that this is changing.

SIGs in Hyperledger need to have at least 15 participants from a diverse community in order to be approved and we currently have four groups that are approved and operating. We have a Hyperledger Labs project on healthcare; a vibrant Public Sector group that is exploring what governments can do to use blockchain collaboratively; and we have just started Trade Finance and Social Impact groups.

The crucial point is, thanks to the open source nature of Hyperledger and the Linux Foundation, we can provide a safe, non-competitive environment for people to exchange ideas and develop unique concepts together.

Diversity is an attribute that is crucial to success – not only in terms of gender or race, but also companies, geographies, beliefs and experiences. The more that can be shared, the better we, as a community, can be and the more blockchain use cases we can implement and explore.

It all goes back to the main question: do you need a blockchain and what blockchain do you want, if any?

It is important to think long term – the things that seem like simple POCs might turn out to be not easily scalable or hard to sustain in long term (for example, a global, multinational identity system).

Then again some ideas that, at a glance, appear complex and costly, can become great applications for deployments of blockchain solutions.

Think of supply chain or insurance for instance. 

“Blockchain requires multiple participants and a diverse network to make sense. But enterprises still hold the view that they need to hoard the IP and protect everything”

Even for an MVP, one needs several nodes, complicated dependence graphs, and so on. But if a good system is designed it doesn’t matter how fast it grows.

The second challenge that I hope is solved in the coming months is the lack of objectivity. As the technology is new, there are very few actual “blockchain experts.”

Computer Science degrees do not educate on all aspects of the suite of technologies that comprise blockchain, so we end up with niche specialists focused only on one solution. These specialists push for their particular solution and depending on who you ask, they will tell you that only A or only B makes sense.

The truth is that both A and B have some advantages, some disadvantages, and are in many aspects identical. CEOs of companies shouldn’t be expected to know all of these permutations. We need the technical allrounders that can give them the clarity they need.

Blockchain
Join Marta at this year’s Blockchain Technology World, taking place at the ExCel London March 12-13. BTW and its colocated events attract over 20,000 IT industry professionals. Book your free ticket now.
Title of talk: Performance and Scalability of Permissioned Blockchains
Theatre: Keynote

Experts featured:

Marta Piekarska

Director of Ecosystem
Hyperledger

Tags:

Bitcoin Blockchain blockchain technology world feature hyperledger
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