A group of global financial institutions and blockchain startups gathered online last week to play a friendly game of marbles.
But instead of using a virtual shooter marble to knock the competition out of a circle of chalk, the marbles were created using an early version of Hyperledger’s Fabric blockchain platform.
The dozen participants included the London Stock Exchange Group, IBM, Skuchain, Everledger and Loyyal, along with a number of other firms which asked that their identities not be disclosed.
Once the digital assets were distributed, participants walked through the process of dragging and dropping them using the Fabric platform, shifting them from account to account in what one participant described as a blockchain-based version of "hot-potato."
What followed was a first in Hyperledger history, and the next step in the business blockchain consortium's plans to create a production-ready distributed ledger platform capable of transacting any number of different assets.
"These nodes are scattered all over the world, right?" one person asked early on in the demonstration.
"That’s correct," replied another as the token was moved in a transaction conducted by Gari Singh, IBM distinguished engineer and blockchain CTO.
To mark the simple, but notable event, IBM’s global blockchain director, John Wolpert, said:
"That’s one small step for marbles, one giant leap for marble-kind."
While a glitch exposed during the test demonstrated that there is still room for improvement, the general consensus among users was that the open-source technology would soon be ready to support an ecosystem of applications built by third-party developers.
"It’s time for those innovators to step up and start building stuff," said Skuchain co-founder Zaki Manian.
A game of marbles
The test of the “marbles app” conducted at 10 am ET on Friday morning marked a milestone in the progress of the Hyperledger project, which kicked off almost exactly one year ago.
Initially comprised of contributions from IBM and Digital Asset Holdings, the "Fabric" code has undergone countless changes over the past year, contributed by developers from the more than 100 members that constitute the Hyperledger ecosystem.
Unlike the open bitcoin network, which can be accessed and utilized by any participant, Hyperledger’s Fabric is a closed system, meaning only credentialed participants can use it to conduct transactions.
The trial highlights how this works in practice. Leading up to the marble game, participants created accounts by registering with an email and a password. A private key amounting to a membership card was then sent to each recipient’s email address, and participants were prompted to download the necessary software.
"That is so cool," said one of the participants, after a script was executed that launched a series of virtual marble containers "Very cool," echoed another.
The rules of the game, once the users logged in, were simple.
Participants were allowed to create and trade assets between one another. However, they couldn't trade assets owned by any other party.
What ensued was a virtual assets war games of sorts.
Companies began with the digital hot potato game before being prompted to attempt "illegal" moves that were prevented by the terms of the smart contract itself. A "show mode" was also made available, revealing the architecture of the transaction in real-time animation.
From there, the group engaged in a "free for all", wherein they moved marbles at will from their respective accounts to others. This led to the next – and perhaps most pivotal – phase of the test.
“Let’s try to break it,” said one of the participants.
Heart in throat
In the melee that ensued, that's exactly what they did.
A yellow marble that had successfully passed from one account to another failed to appear in the account managed by UK-based Alasdair Blackwell, technology chief for blockchain startup Everledger.
The curse words quickly followed.
Each of the other participants saw the small yellow circle appear in Everledger’s digital bag of marbles, but Blackwell’s own account failed to display the asset. Had this marble represented the stock in a company, the title of a home, or a newly cut diamond from the Catoca mine in Angola, it might have been lost forever.
"My heart was in my mouth," Blackwell later told CoinDesk.
One of the participants described the situation as a rocket blowing up on one of SpaceX’s landing platforms. It was part of the learning curve, they hoped, and Blackwell was instructed to conduct the lowest-tech fix possible: restarting his computer.
To the audible relief of those involved, Blackwell’s marble appeared. Exactly what went wrong wasn’t apparent at the time, but in conversation after the demo, IBM’s Wolpert positioned it as evidence of the system’s resiliency even when obstacles appear.
"It failed correctly," he said. Blackwell’s appraisal was a bit less moderated.
"It was a triumph of engineering and of teamwork, of people all over the world coming together and it working," he told CoinDesk. "There were hiccups, but that’s expected."
Now that the dust from the virtual marble circle has settled, the data analysis is set to begin.
Over the coming weeks, Hyperledger members will analyze the results from the test, which were recorded as part of the software’s show mode, in order to “triage the ledger and check it,” as one participant described it.
Those involved will be able to continue their blockchain game of marbles into the holiday season, so long as they re-register every Monday. As part of the effort leading up to the launch of a production-ready Fabric, more formal "connect-a-thons" are expected to be conducted on a monthly basis.
In conversation with CoinDesk, IBM vice president of blockchain technology Jerry Cuomo compared the test to the early days of the Internet, when the network's total population could be distilled down to a single diagram.
Following the demonstration Cuomo said he believes the simplicity of the demo showed the potential application of the technology to a wide range of assets.
Ultimately, he added, the test was an effort to get real stakeholders knocking some marbles — whatever they might represent — back and forth.
"The v1 fabric code is progressing quite well and we wanted to perform a live test to perform dynamically, in an ad hoc way, but with a set of rules to form an exchange for digital assets."
Marbles image via Shutterstock