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by Pete Harris, Feb 18, 2016

The Block Chain Conference – Pointing to Blockchain’s Enterprise Potential


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Last week saw the debut of The Block Chain Conference in San Francisco, an event produced by Lighthouse Partners to bridge the gap between the “IT establishment” – major vendors and users of enterprise IT – and the blockchain startup world. Around 240 delegates and speakers participated, and some 14 countries were represented. Executives from the likes of IBM, Cisco Systems and Red Hat mingled with counterparts from Wall Street brokerages, insurance companies and e-commerce retailers, as well as with more familiar faces from blockchain players, including Gem, Ripple and Symbiont. This was not your normal Bitcoin conference.

Here are some of the highlights from the conference program, which was for the most part business-focused, with architecture level discussions of technology:

IBM: Keynoting the conference was John Wolpert, IBM’s Global Blockchain Offering Director, and while he did not make any official announcements (those came this week), he pointed out the company’s 30-year expertise in relation to distributed consensus approaches and noted its history of working on open source and collaborative software projects, such as the Java programming environment. That, he said, meant that the company was comfortable in leading an effort to form the Hyperledger blockchain project under the auspices of The Linux Foundation, and to donate code to it.

Providing some detail of its intent, Wolpert said that IBM has “an army” of staffers working on blockchain projects, and has been working with different platforms for at least a couple of years. By way of emphasizing the company’s commitment to the technology, he proclaimed “We’re all in on blockchain.”

Ascribe threw something of a surprise for its session, which was slated to focus on its service for tracking the ownership of and derivative rights pertaining to digital art. While that was how CEO Bruce Pon began his presentation, he quickly pivoted to describe how the company had determined that the data capacity and throughput of Bitcoin’s blockchain would be an impediment to scaling its service. That realization, he noted, had led the company to develop BigchainDB, which he characterized as a “scalable blockchain database.”

BigchainDB, said Pon, draws on distributed database architectures of the kind leveraged by big data processing engines, and is capable of more than one million writes per second, with 100-millisecond latency and petabyte-scale capacity. Those kinds of performance metrics, he said, make BigchainDB suitable for enterprise applications.

Pon was joined on stage by BigchainDB’s first customer, Everledger, represented by CEO Leanne Kemp. Everledger is a blockchain-based service for authenticating and tracking ownership of diamonds, to prevent fraud and theft. Kemp noted that while its service is live, she realized that a new technology architecture would be needed to allow it to scale to meet its potential and that led to Everledger investigating BigchainDB.

Tendermint used its presentation to launch its enterprise-grade private blockchain offering, which it developed on top of its own consensus algorithm. Like BigchainDB, it has been designed with performance in mind, but also with a focus on simplicity and speed of deployment. In particular, it highlighted its Mintnet service, which can deploy blockchains on any major cloud provider in less than three minutes.

ConsenSys: The Bitcoin blockchain was not the only public ledger covered, with a segment of the program devoted to Ethereum and applications developed on the platform. Much of the discussion was led by Kieren James-Lubin of BlockApps, a blockchain tools company backed by Ethereum specialist ConsenSys.

As well as an overview of the Ethereum platform and how it fits in to the broader blockchain ecosystem, James-Lubin also described a number of applications that have been built on the platform. These include Ujo Music, which keeps track of recorded music intellectual property and administers royalty payments to songwriters, publishers and producers. He also noted Balanc3, a triple-entry accounting platform that removes the need for reconciliations between trade partners, and Transactive Grid, an energy transaction and control platform for a new generation of micro power grids now being deployed in various cities.

Gem, which recently evolved its business model from Bitcoin API to a fuller function blockchain platform, explained the key functional characteristics of such a platform – including identity, authentication and data integrity – and explained how one might revamp legacy infrastructure and medical claims processing to improve efficiency and speed, and reduce costs.

SAP: Business application giant SAP used its presentation to point to a number of banking use cases for blockchain, focusing in particular on supply chain finance, where large sums of money are “trapped” in the process of transmitting payments between multiple banking participants. While there was no comment on the company’s intent to leverage blockchain in its future services, its presence did underpin the notion that major IT vendors are now tracking distributed ledger technology, and looking at how it might be leveraged in their businesses.

Indeed, SAP’s participation, alongside that of IBM, demonstrated the tangible interest being shown in blockchain by global IT vendors that have the capability to deploy blockchain on a mainstream scale, assuming the technology is up to enterprise scratch. As IBM’s Wolpert suggested as he concluded his keynote, blockchain is “either going to be a holy mess, or it’s going to change the world.”