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Analysis: Spoilt for Choice, Enterprise Distributed Ledgers (Part One)


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This year is set to be a big one for companies looking to implement their first live pilots of applications built on blockchain and distributed ledger technology. Drawing on the experience of in-house lab experiments and proof-of-concept (PoC) tests, these early adopters will be looking to implement platforms that they feel are now — or will be soon — enterprise ready.

 Complicating that decision is the increasing choice of distributed ledger platforms now available, either from open-source projects or from startups that have made some headway during the PoC phase. In this part 1 (of 2) article, we’ll look at some of the more established players to follow, review their recent endeavors and point to possible future directions. Let’s start with …

IBM

 At its huge IBM InterConnect 2017 event last month, IBM announced the availability of its “production ready” IBM Blockchain platform, which is based on the open-source Hyperledger Fabric development.

 IBM has added a few things to Fabric in its proprietary offering, starting with a cloud platform to host it (including its Bluemix platform software and LinuxONE servers, which are apparently great at crypto-number crunching), and features like secure hardware storage of encryption keys as well as blockchain configuration and governance tools that enterprises require.

Also of note is the Fabric Composer tool that IBM has developed (and is open sourcing), which allows blockchain business networks to be easily configured and smart contract code to be written in JavaScript.

Big Blue can also point to a number of PoCs that look to be turning into paying customers, including Northern Trust, Walmart, Maersk, Mahindra Group and Everledger.

 Hyperledger Fabric

 If you are not into IBM and its cloud delivery but still like the functionality offered by Fabric, then remember that it is open source and available from GitHub. Be aware, though, that the very recent 1.0 alpha version is quite different from the 0.6 codebase that’s been around for a while.

In addition to the 1.0 update — which still requires significant testing ahead of a formal release — comes the classification that Fabric is now an active open-source project (as designated by the Linux Foundation’s Hyperledger project) with 10 contributors involved in developing it.

What’s unclear right now is whether other enterprise vendors will offer their own Fabric-based platform products to the market in competition with IBM. It’s a scenario that seems possible, however, not least since the Hyperledger project as a whole has more than 120 members. But just as possible is that vendors will focus on incorporating Fabric into specific business applications, such as for trade finance or derivatives trading. Watch this space. 

R3 Corda

 Apart from a spat with a couple of journalists over the designation of its Corda product — it’s not a blockchain but a distributed ledger and it has said that all along (admittedly in sometimes less-than-clear techno-babble) — R3 has been quiet of late about its plans for the platform, which has been designed to work within regulated industries where privacy of data is key.

 R3’s silent running approach might be because it’s currently more focused on closing a (reputedly $150 million) funding round, or because it is figuring out the details of open sourcing Corda under the auspices of the Hyperledger project. Or perhaps it’s because it is busy adding regulators to its consortium of mainly banks, which has allowed it to gather much practical insight into how distributed ledgers might impact different applications. For sure, R3 has a few things on its plate.

What is known is that Corda exists today as a standalone open-source offering and that R3 is working toward bringing it under the Hyperledger banner from a management perspective. R3 is also active in educating the marketplace about Corda through formal training courses and other community outreach — as evangelized at www.corda.net.

Also being worked on is a partner program to bring on more application vendors like Calypso Technology, which is building trade processing systems on top of Corda.

Enterprise Ethereum

The end of February launch of the Enterprise Ethereum Alliance demonstrated significant interest in leveraging the public Ethereum blockchain platform and developing it for enterprise applications. Some major industry players — including Accenture, J.P. Morgan and Microsoft — are backing the ConsenSys-led project.

Although it’s early days in the process of developing specifications and reference frameworks, it’s already looking likely that J.P. Morgan’s Quorum platform will be leveraged for some aspects. At the launch event for the group, a number of demonstrations were run using Quorum-based applications, including a payments demo involving Banco Santander, BNY Mellon and J.P. Morgan, and also a supply-chain demo conducted by Chronicled.

With companies already running PoCs with Ethereum and Quorum, and Microsoft’s interest in the technology for projects like its supply-chain-oriented Project Manifest, it’s clear that Ethereum will be an enterprise player before too long.

That’s it for part one of this article. In part two, we’ll look at the work of a dozen or so startups and other projects that are players on the increasingly crowded enterprise distributed ledger landscape.