Cisco is changing.
The technology firm best known as the supplier of enterprise computer hardware has seen a slow, steady decline in revenue from some of its core products. As a result of an increasing number technological services being virtualized, and the storage of information moving to the cloud, the $158bn firm has been restructuring and exploring new ways to capitalize on connected devices.
But amidst this change in identity, it's in identity itself where some of the California-based company's most interesting new experiments are taking place. With a series of early stage blockchain projects, Cisco is now pushing even deeper into what could end up being much more than a way for employees to prove who they are across subsidiaries.
In conversation with CoinDesk, Robert Greenfield IV, Cisco software engineer and executive team lead of the firm's Connected Black Professionals resource group, explained how several blockchain projects have evolved into a new way for corporations to prove identity.
"On a grand scale, it's going to be absolutely necessary for Cisco to really master blockchain technology, because it's bridging the gap between hardware and what Cisco as a company is transitioning towards, which is software and security."
Corporate identity on a blockchain
Founded in 1984, Cisco Systems was one of the first members of the blockchain consortium Hyperledger, led by the Linux Foundation.
After remaining largely under the radar (while other members of the group made splashy headlines), the company earlier this year revealed its role in helping launch a new consortium with BNY Mellon, Foxconn and others aimed at investigating how connected devices could be integrated with distributed ledger technology.
In interview, Greenfield expanded on earlier reports that Cisco was focused on work related to the group – formally called the Trusted IoT Alliance – related to distributed identity and supply chain management.
It turns out, not only is Cisco exploring how to distribute identity to simplify employee logins across more than 20 of the company's subsidiaries, but that Cisco's customers themselves may someday use the service to better audit the transactions of suppliers.
According to Greenfield, many database standards still have difficulty recognizing that a subsidiary is actually part of a parent company, making it hard to track who conducted which transactions and under whose authority.
"We wanted to create a blockchain ID use case that uses the different APIs across these different organizations, and internal applications to establish one identity for internal users," he said. "But also customers as well, where it’s going to be easier to perform analysis."
With so many points of entry, the attack vectors for potential hackers also increase, resulting in a greater potential security threat.
So, in addition to linking APIs associated with each subsidiary to blockchain-based corporate identities and employee identities, Greenfield said Cisco would like to upgrade its current two-factor authentication to a blockchain-based multi-signature functionality.
"There's a lot of points of entry that hackers, people who want to corrupt the network, can get into," said Greenfield. "So, it's a security issue, but it's also an efficiency issue."
If all goes as planned, Greenfield says the blockchain-based identities capable of granting access across subsidiaries, could one day expand the security benefits beyond the confines of Cisco itself and be used to prove identity to other organizations as well.
"It's early stages in terms of creating the security handshakes on the blockchain for this type of security for identity. But everything in terms of outlining how this would work has been created and criticized. Now we're going into the MVP [minimum viable product] module."
Evolving business model
But Cisco's push into blockchain goes beyond portable, decentralized identities. Also springing from the Trusted IoT Alliance is a project to move Cisco’s complex supply chain to a distributed ledger.
In partnership with several startup members of the alliance, Cisco is currently exploring how its identity work could be integrated with a private version of the ethereum blockchain to track hardware, including routers and switches, according to Greenfield.
In spite of generating a total of $49.2bn in revenue last year, Cisco has reported declining sales in its routers and switches category for each of the past five quarters, according to a Search Networking report earlier this year.
If Cisco’s complex supply chain can be further simplified by integrating it with blockchain or machine-to-machine communication, Greenfield argued that entirely new smart contract-enabled services could be built directly into the hardware.
"It gives a viable solution to regain recently lost market share," said Greenfield. "Particularly in router and switch markets, and maintain global dominance within the Internet of Things."
This week stands to mark multiple milestones in the history of Cisco's early blockchain work.
While much of the firm's efforts with the technology are aimed at finding efficiencies on the enterprise side of its operations, the firm's independently operated non-profit, the Cisco Foundation, is also exploring blockchain.
Greenfield works as a liaison with the foundation, and today he expects to begin a partnership with non-profit Street Code to help increase the number of minority coders in blockchain. Another partnership with Black Girls Code is in the early stages of development.
Further, Greenfield said he will soon meet with one of the technology partners working with the UN to explore how the two organizations might improve identity to better serve both those in need internationally and locally in the US.
"Over the next few months, there's going to be some tangible results and [proofs-of-concept] developed out of that. They're very intensely looking into it."
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