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Analysis: Ethereum Heads to The Enterprise

With this week’s launch of the Enterprise Ethereum Alliance (EEA), companies looking to implement blockchain technology for production business applications got another open-source option to explore, as an alternative to the Fabric and Corda platforms in development under the stewardship of the Hyperledger Project, and instead of proprietary offerings.

The EEA is supported by several name-brand IT players, initially including Accenture, Intel, Microsoft, Thomson Reuters and Wipro, which are lending their muscle to an initiative that is very much the vision of ConsenSys, the Brooklyn-based Ethereum software development shop that has championed Ethereum since its early days.

Invented by the Russian Vitalik Buterin in 2013 and now developed by the Ethereum Foundation, the public Ethereum blockchain has risen in popularity as a more generalized and functional alternative to the Bitcoin ecosphere, and has been widely adopted by companies as they experiment and roll out proofs-of- concept (PoCs) for blockchain-based applications.

While experiments and PoCs have been crucial in proving the utility of blockchain technology, in 2017 the focus is on rolling out production pilots. But building real business applications on a public blockchain (with a development roadmap that is directed by a diverse community) is a non-starter for many companies, especially those operating in regulated industries, like financial services and healthcare.

Enter the EEA with a mission to crystalize requirements and build the functionality, privacy, performance and governance structure for Ethereum blockchains to support global business enterprises.

At its outset, the EEA has some 30 members ranging from startups to global enterprises, and is led by a board initially comprising Accenture, Banco Santander, BlockApps, BNY Mellon, CME Group, ConsenSys, IC3, Intel, J.P. Morgan, Microsoft and Nuco.

Other members include technology vendors and consumers operating in the financial services, energy, professional information and supply chain industries, including BBVA, BP, Chronicled, Credit Suisse, ING, Monax Industries, Tendermint, Thomson Reuters, UBS and Wipro. Members are expected to play a major role in developing specifications and building reference architectures with a decentralized approach to governance of projects guided, but not driven, by the group’s board.

Jeremy Millar, chief of staff at ConsenSys and a founding board member of the EEA, noted at the launch event that the group was put together in recent months, following an initial meeting in December. But according to ConsenSys founder Joe Lubin, interest in Ethereum from major companies has been growing for around 18 months, causing ConsenSys to create a practice to focus on enterprise needs. Millar suggested that the initial membership of the EEA represents just “the tip of the iceberg” of enterprises with tangible interest in building on Ethereum.

Like Ethereum itself, the EEA’s offerings will be open sourced and Millar expects the group to contribute certain developments to the public Ethereum project. In time, he predicts, public Ethereum will offer a number of enterprise functions, such as permissioning, which can be leveraged by the community at large.

In this respect, EEA has a different vision than the Linux Foundation’s Hyperledger initiative, which hosts a number of blockchain platforms but all with very much of a private deployment model. Notably, a number of the EEA’s members — including Accenture, Intel, J.P. Morgan and Monax — are also members of the 120-ish member Hyperledger community. But one might suppose that the prospect of the Hyperledger-oriented IBM or EEA-focused Microsoft playing in both camps is perhaps not in the cards.

Alliance members are looking to benefit from the economics of community-driven innovation to develop internal and customer applications and in some cases to monetize their involvement through professional services, developer tools and infrastructure offerings.

For example, Microsoft is building a business for hosting blockchain-based applications (Ethereum and others) on its Azure cloud offering and is building integration platforms, such as Project Bletchley, and supply chain applications like Project Manifest. Essentially, Microsoft wants companies — and industry networks — to build their Ethereum-based applications using its tools (such as Visual Studio and, perhaps one day, its Excel spreadsheet as a front end), and then run them “as a service” out of its global network of data centers.

At the other end of the corporate scale, Toronto-based startup Nuco is developing enterprise-ready infrastructure running on Ethereum, building in its own consensus algorithm and high performance application programming interfaces.

For its part, J.P. Morgan leveraged Ethereum for its Quorum platform, which can be deployed in either public or private environments (and as of this week, on Microsoft’s Azure cloud). The investment bank — which already open sourced Quorum ahead of its involvement in the EEA — used Quorum to build a payments PoC, which it demonstrated along with Banco Santander and BNY Mellon at the launch.

With its experience of building on Ethereum, J.P. Morgan is expected to play a key role in developing the Enterprise Ethereum reference implementations, with an emphasis on privacy and confidentiality aspects.

Other goals for a 1.0 release, consisting of specifications and reference implementations, to be made available this year will be permissioning and scalability, the latter being addressed by exploring consensus mechanisms like Byzantine fault tolerance and engaging in benchmarking efforts. Reference implementations will likely be developed for Python, although it is understood that production vendor implementations will probably be implemented with higher-performing languages.

One company that is surprisingly not an EEA member (yet, at least), but which could well play an important role in deploying Ethereum in enterprises, is Red Hat, which has built a business based on open-source offerings, including the Linux operating system, as well as components that manage application deployment, data integration and API management.

Indeed, EEA board member BlockApps (a spinoff from ConsenSys) recently announced that a partnership to run its STRATO Ethereum application development platform on Red Hat’s OpenShift deployment offering, which leverages Docker and Kubernetes container technology, is now production ready, allowing enterprises to easily deploy applications across private and public cloud infrastructures.

While the EEA’s goal is to provide an Ethereum platform with requisite performance and functionality for enterprises, BlockApps’ mission is to enable the rapid development of enterprise-scale Ethereum applications leveraging a modular micro-services architecture that allows for scalability, manageability and maintainability. Says BlockApps Founder and CEO Victor Wong: “BlockApps STRATO makes it easy for enterprise innovation teams and lines of business to develop Blockchain applications and scale these into production … the BlockApps micro-services architecture is much more intuitive compared to alternative proprietary and open-source approaches.”

Having built an application, the next challenge is to deploy it and manage its deployed lifecycle while complying with corporate operational requirements. That’s where Red Hat comes in.

“We kept hearing feedback from our customers that while it was easy to develop Blockchain PoCs in a public cloud environment like Azure, once these Blockchain applications moved into production, they would need the ability to be deployed both on public clouds and on premises,” says Wong. “These hybrid deployments are driven by enterprise security, compliance and corporate governance mandates. Red Hat’s OpenShift container approach allows you to have the best of both worlds; you can start your blockchain applications on public clouds and then scale to a full hybrid solution effortlessly.”

Wong adds that Red Hat’s pedigree as an IT vendor is as important as the functionality of OpenShift.

“Red Hat is probably the most experienced company in the world when it comes to helping enterprises adopt open-source standards and is a trusted vendor to Global 2000 businesses,” he says. “BlockApps’ leveraging of the Red Hat OpenShift Container Platform for deployment flexibility in public, private and hybrid enterprise cloud infrastructure provides the agility and future proof capabilities that enterprises demand from technology vendors.”  

Whether or not Red Hat gets involved formally with the EEA, it is increasingly likely that Ethereum’s push into the enterprise will act as a catalyst for potential corporate users to evaluate it and for global enterprise IT vendors to get further involved with the platform in order to accelerate its adoption.

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