Silicon Blockchain: Intel's Distributed Ledger Strategy Is All About Hardware

Upending the narrative that software is key in the blockchain space, Intel details its years-long effort to link distributed ledgers to hardware.

AccessTimeIconAug 23, 2017 at 11:00 a.m. UTC
Updated Sep 13, 2021 at 6:51 a.m. UTC

In the age of advanced blockchain software, some companies are turning to something more familiar in their search for security and scalability – microchips made from melted sand.

Far from a startup-led or open-source movement, at the forefront of this push to bring distributed ledger technology back within centralized processing units is none other than Intel, the $170 billion computer chip manufacturer that's also one of Silicon Valley's biggest success stories.

In fact, since 2014, Intel has been hard at work seeking to find ways to both solve blockchain's big problems and play to its own strengths, and hardware is proving essential to this strategy. While that's not exactly a secret, it's nonetheless a vision the company has certainly become less open in evangelizing.

That, however, may be changing.

In a new conversation with CoinDesk, Ricardo Echevarria, vice president of Intel's software and services group, opened up about his company's approach, explaining why Intel moved from early experiments with cryptocurrencies to designing enterprise-grade blockchain solutions powered by its existing technology.

He told CoinDesk:

"This is a place where we're threading the needle with scalability, security and privacy, and removing some of the most challenging technical barriers to the deployment of blockchain."

The long game

Speaking at a Microsoft press event earlier this month, Echevarria provided new context to Intel's approach, talking broadly about the problems the company identified in the blockchain industry and the reasons it charted its unique course.

Going back to its earliest experiments, Echevarria stressed that Intel saw hardware as a way to improve two major weak points with the technology and its implementation: trust and security.

"Every time somebody hacks a wallet, or every time you start engaging in debates over which bitcoin exchange versus the other [is more secure] ... it just doesn’t give people confidence this is something they can trust their business with," Echevarria said at the event.

So, rather than work with existing open-source software, Intel created its own.

And it started in the place where many other blockchain networks began, by focusing on how participants running the protocol would achieve trust.

While most public blockchains rely on the time- and energy-intensive "proof-of-work" consensus algorithm, Intel took a different tact, choosing to point customers back to hardware.

Called "proof of elapsed time," the algorithm was designed to run on Intel chips through the use of software guard extensions (SGXs) – sets of instructions that create enclaves for important data within the hardware.

Launching use cases

But, that's not to say Intel has taken a closed approach.

While its SGX technology is proprietary, the blockchain software that grew out of its experiments is not, and has since been open-sourced as the Hyperledger Sawtooth code base.

Yet, Echevarria still sees the use of SGX as essential to its strategy – framing it as a way to ensure information that runs inside it is both encrypted and "only accessible to the application."

"There's no operating system lower in the stack that can access what's inside of that enclave," he said.

If security was initially an advertised benefit, though, Echevarria contends the idea has produced further fruit. Through the use of SGX, he said Intel has been able to significantly accelerate transaction times.

And work to demonstrate this continues in proofs-of-concept in which other companies are testing the waters by combining software and hardware.

Notably, the latter use case, which came in the form of a partnership with blockchain healthcare startup PokitDok, integrates a hardware component, using Hyperledger Sawtooth and SGX as a route to better secure and protect health records.

Hardware on trend

However, Intel is not the only player seeking to position its hardware as essential for blockchain development.

Earlier this year, tech consultancy Accenture integrated the Thale's hardware security module (HSM) in an effort to end the debate in enterprise circles over blockchain's security loopholes. And IBM offers users of its High Security Business Network access to its HSM too.

Not everyone agrees hardware solutions will solve blockchain's security problems, though. Microsoft itself touted its software-based trusted execution environments (TEEs) at the same launch where Echevarria was discussing Intel's hardware-based strategy.

But if there's competition, Echevarria seemed unfazed, seeing Microsoft's launch as a way to get more enterprise interest in everyone's projects.

In interview Echevarria said:

"[Blockchain] is going to be very important to businesses. We're well positioned to help accelerate it, and that's going to be our intent."

Intel conference booth image via Shutterstock


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