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In Milestone Release, Chain Open-Sources its Blockchain Tech

(@pete_rizzo_) | Published on October 24, 2016 at 08:03 GMT
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"We're going to have to have a tremendous amount of support."

Somewhere in the middle of a Las Vegas sports bar, Adam Ludwin finally explains why he's been talking about spending $10,000 on a Slack channel. Two years after starting as a bitcoin API provider, pivoting to focus on enterprise blockchains and fighting for partners against the likes of R3CEV, the CEO of blockchain startup Chain is ready to make his big move.

On Monday, Chain is officially open-sourcing its blockchain platform, Chain Protocol, at Money2020, at which point the technology the startup has built with select partners (and first announced as ChainOS) will be freely available to developers worldwide to download and install.

The release further coincides with the unveiling of extensive new resources for developers, offerings that filled Ludwin with a enthusiasm as he scrolled through page after page of a 100-page specification and 24-page white paper. (For a time, the only thing longer as the pages fly by seems to be the pennant drought the Chicago Cubs are poised to break on the TV behind him).

But if Ludwin succeeds on his vision, he believes the release of Chain Protocol could be just as big a part of history. Indeed, he went so far as to call the release the "biggest yet" for the company, one that he hopes will drive blockchain adoption among financial firms globally.

Ludwin told CoinDesk:

"I don't want to be a gatekeeper. I want people to go from PowerPoint to pilot. Now most banks will say, 'Yes we're doing something'. What are they doing? They have a strategy in a PowerPoint and they're trying to figure out how to build it."

In this way, Ludwin sees this release of 30,000 lines of code as one that will enable enterprise firms to begin using a blockchain built for business without permission. He argues that Chain Protocol offers something truly novel in a market where more mature public blockchains "aren't fit for purpose" and other permissioned ledger systems remain in the development phase.

To drive the point home, Ludwin said that Chain recently tested its software by attempting to see if Chain Protocol could process "the entire day's trades for the Nasdaq" on its ledger system in real time, a test he said it passed.

While limited (the test only explored whether Chain could sign and get a single validation for each trade), Ludwin asserted that the trial proved his startup's technology can meet the demands that will be placed on live networks.

He added:

"There's no protocol limitation to the scalability."

Out of the box

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Released as part of the package are actually two pieces of technology.

The first is the Chain Protocol, the underlying cryptographic protocol that is maintained by Chain and that defines the rules for participants in new blockchain networks. The second is Chain Core, which implements the protocol and elements like its key generation scheme.

In this way, Ludwin said that Chain Core enables organizations to "manage [the] issuance, ownership and control of digital assets" in a similar manner to existing public blockchain networks.

"With bitcoin, you have the protocol, you have the node and you can connect the node to main blockchain or the testnet. It's same with us, there's Chain Protocol and Chain Core, and you can connect that to our testnet or you can start or join a network," he said.

Unlike bitcoin or other public networks, however, the Chain Protocol assumes that participants in the blockchain will have some inherent trust (or at least a previously defined relationship).

For example, Chain Protocol uses a federation of block signers in which one entity is designated to have a "privileged role" in the network. The full white paper reasons that it makes sense to have a "single company or utility" that is responsible for the network.

"If the block generator behaves maliciously, or is intentionally shut down, it is probably better (in these use cases) for the network to stop. Such misbehavior can be detected and dealt with out-of-band," the white paper reads.

Other differences include that nodes need only track unspent transaction outputs (not the full network state) and that public keys can be pseudonymous, obscuring the parties that perform certain actions to protect trade information.

Design choices

But while Ludwin said that Chain's technology represents the best of breed, he also acknowledged that its users will need the help of other service providers as they seek to take prototypes and proofs-of-concepts live.

For example, as a software provider, Chain isn't directly involved with helping its users ensure builds are compliant with their end markets or that the networks operate to the highest degree of efficiency.

"When you're creating an asset, Chain Protocol doesn't know that you're the legal issuer," Ludwin remarked in one example.

Chain also isn't seeking to provide the hosting infrastructure for either its testnet or for live projects that utilize the technology. Its testnet, for instance, is a collaboration with the Initiative for Cryptocurrencies & Contracts (IC3) at Cornell University, which runs a network with more than 1,000 nodes.

Further, the software is available on Microsoft Azure, a service designed to allow developers to build private blockchain networks using the tech giant's hosted computing infrastructure.

"You can run Chain Core on Azure or on [your own] premises. There is no single chain network," Ludwin continued.

Path ahead

Looking forward, Ludwin said that Chain plans to soon offer an enterprise version of Chain Core that will play a key role in helping the startup monetize its technology with more robust features.

Additional tools include specialized firmware that aims to make compromising cryptographic keys more difficult, as well as other features that Ludwin said will enable the networks to run with "high availability".

"It's the same but it has additional security and scalability features that you don't need when you're doing test development," Ludwin said.

Ludwin added that Chain intends to work further on projects with enterprise customers, and that this is where the startup's new slack channel will play a role. Notably, the announcement is days removed from the news Visa will use the technology offering to launch a live blockchain in 2017, a development that could likely spur a spike in public interest.

All in all, Ludwin said he is left with a feeling that he's now played a winning hand in establishing market leadership with traditional enterprises, and that from here on out, the company will enter a new phase.

"All of the last two years of work goes public on Monday," he said.

Somewhere in the background, the Cubs begin to celebrate, though for a moment it's hard to tell who's more content with the victory.

Images via Pete Rizzo for CoinDesk

Disclosure: CoinDesk is a subsidiary of Digital Currency Group, which has an ownership stake in Chain. 

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