Zaki Manian is the founder of Skuchain, a startup seeking to bring cryptographic trust to the supply chain.
In this opinion piece, Manian argues that Hyperledger offers the best development model for the permissioned blockchain industry, and that attempts to use public networks for business-to-business use cases are perhaps misguided.
The nascent business-to-business permissioned ledger industry is moving rapidly from pilots to real product development and deployment.
But as this novel application space opens up, it is important for technologists to start answering hard questions about what software development processes will provide the blockchain layer of these applications stacks.
The permissioned ledger industry proposes to build a trustworthy and scalable infrastructure for the finance industry and general purpose Internet security. However, the dominant development model in our industry thus far (capital-strapped startups leveraging public ledger technology for permissioned ledger applications) is insufficient for the task.
This approach comes with several drawbacks.
For one, the technical considerations for creating and operating a permissioned ledger network are largely antithetical to the needs of public networks. While the industry can expect continued cross-pollination between enterprise and cryptocurrency applications, it belies the genuine engineering work that needs to be done when we rely too heavily on software artifacts from cryptocurrencies.
Some parts of the blockchain ecosystem have been tackling the problem of blockchain infrastructure head on, and have made considerable investment in providing solutions to the technical challenges.
Given the scope of the engineering investment involved, it isn’t surprising that most of these efforts are proprietary codebases that become part of the value proposition of the startup to their customers. (As an early mover in the permissioned ledger space, Skuchain began by customizing bitcoin’s Go implementation for proofs of concept).
But to capture the value of a blockchain, customers fundamentally need the ability to operate and control their software independently, and this is only possible by delivering solutions on top of an ecosystem rather than a bespoke code base.
My company Skuchain has long viewed its proprietary ledger as a bridge to the day when an ecosystem has emerged. We feel that day has come.
Blockchains are an enabling infrastructure technology where most of the value creation occurs at higher levels of the application stack.
The incentives in the technology businesses are largely to neglect infrastructure (most of the time) to provide the desired user experiences. But niche technology stacks are not the resilient technology that the world needs for critical systems.
In our judgement, Hyperledger has three virtues as a home for enterprise ledger technology: architecture, organizational structure and development in the open.
Perhaps the most important thing to get right at this early movement in the adoption of blockchain technology is the basic technical architecture. It has proven phenomenally difficult to start out with a monolithic architecture and try to construct reasonably componentized architecture.
Hyperledger’s Fabric reflects that we are in the early stages of figuring out what the best answers are for peer-to-peer enterprise application design, adversary tolerant atomic broadcast and blockchain architecture.
Hyperledger’s organizational structure elevates and incentivizes infrastructure work.
Our view is that the participants in Hyperledger at the Linux Foundation have decades of experience trying to pick apart the puzzle of how to incentivize and sustain collaborative core infrastructure work among businesses with a variety of competitive and aligned interests in the marketplace.
Role for open development
As observers in the steering process, we’ve watched how an aligned set of incentives play themselves out in positive directions.
At Skuchain, we see a responsibility to contribute back to this community on multiple levels technically in terms of code and design work, in terms of evangelism and, eventually, as we build a sustainable business on top of Hyperledger, financially through membership.
Finally, while “many eyes make all bugs shallow” is neither adequate nor sufficient for robust security oriented development process, high-quality processes exist in both open- and closed-source development.
At this stage, Hyperledger’s core teams have been tremendously willing to balance the needs to get important milestones with an open and transparent development process. It gives us incredible confidence to see meaningful progress in the upstream commits, real work happening in the issue tracker and the second-version architecture coming along.
We anticipate that a robust infrastructure of service providers and middleware analytics and other players will be necessary for the blockchain application stack and the open development process should play a role in coordinating and accelerating that growth in a way that closed system cannot.
It’s far too early to proclaim any sort of winner in the development of a blockchain stack. But Skuchain believes that Hyperledger is defining the right kinds of structure for the blockchain industry to avoid the pitfalls that might limit its potential.
Disclaimer: CoinDesk is a subsidiary of Digital Currency Group, which has an ownership stake in Skuchain.
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