IBM has doubled the number of its employees on the technical steering committee (TSC) of Hyperledger, stoking concerns about the tech giant's influence on the enterprise blockchain consortium.
Six out of the 11 2019-2020 TSC members announced last week are IBM employees. Five work at Big Blue itself and one, Mark Wagner, is a senior principal engineer at Red Hat, an IBM subsidiary. By comparison, the previous year's TSC had only two IBM representatives and the same number of total seats (Wagner served on the committee, but IBM's acquisition of Red Hat did not close until July 2019).
The new committee will begin governing after the new TSC chair is elected next week.
While IBM has long played a major role in Hyperledger, having contributed the code for Fabric, the consortium's biggest and oldest project, the election results rattled some participants from rival firms.
Todd Little, a blockchain platform architect at Oracle, wrote in the TSC mailing list:
At stake is the direction of one of the three most widely adopted enterprise blockchain platforms, the others being R3's Corda and variants of the ethereum blockchain. The Hyperledger TSC is responsible for creating working groups to focus on technical issues, approving projects and reviewing updates.
Low voter turnout was also raised as a reason to mistrust IBM’s dominance on the committee, with only 33 percent of Hyperledger members casting ballots.
“It has been shown that in a low turnout election, committed and well-organized groups dominate,” wrote Vipin Bharathan, an enterprise blockchain consultant.
IBM had no comment by press time.
Brian Behlendorf, Hyperledger's executive director, responded to the concerns on the mailing list discussion.
Hyperledger developers “are expected to participate and contribute as individuals first, and as employees second,” Behlendorf wrote.
He added that Hyperledger staff had privately given feedback in the past when seeing TSC members act out of loyalty to their employers, that the community can call out misbehavior, and that Hyperledger can’t change the outcome of an election just because the results aren’t what members expected.
In an interview with CoinDesk, Behlendorf noted that the voter turnout was consistent with what Hyperledger had experienced in the past. "It's not like Linux or other open source organizations have 100 percent or 80 percent turnout," he said.
Around 130 of the 600 eligible voters participated in this last election. Anyone who contributes code to Hyperledger is allowed to vote, and anyone can nominate themselves or someone else.
Since the company has made more technical contributions than any other company associated with the consortium, this is not the first time that IBM has been suspected of having outsized control at Hyperledger, which has not been the company’s intention, Behlendorf told the mailing list.
“[I]t was made clear to us that IBM didn’t want that outcome,” he wrote. “They brought Fabric to Hyperledger to get developer leverage, so that their headcount would be complemented by the efforts of many others.”
Hyperledger worked with IBM on the technical process and public perception issues.
“I believe these are in the past,” Blehendorf wrote. “They no longer are more than half the contributions into Fabric ... There are many other projects beyond Fabric in Hyperledger, and IBM has supported those, boosting Indy and Sawtooth and now even welcoming Besu. Perhaps this is one reason the other electors felt comfortable voting for the IBM-employed candidates.”
The way forward
Blenhendorf then suggested that the TSC discuss increasing the size of the committee with the governing board or for “one time add of a set of new TSC members, so that this greater representation can happen in the current TSC team.”
Little argued that the TSC requirements seemed to be lacking. Under the voting process, he said, one outcome could be a steering committee run by non-Hyperledger members.
“[I]t just seems a little odd to me that there aren’t any diversity requirements for the TSC,” Little wrote. Replying to Behlendorf, he added: “You are correct in that the TSC members are individuals and not companies, but everyone [sic] of them know who butters their bread.”
Bob Summerwill, executive director of the Ethereum Classic Cooperative, noted another kind of diversity win, however.
Two women, Tracy Kuhrt, a technology architect at Accenture’s emerging technology division, and Swetha Repakula, a software engineer at IBM’s Open Technologies, won committee seats.
Summerwill told the mailing list:
Brian Behlendorf at Construct 2019, image via CoinDesk archives
CoinDesk is an award-winning media outlet that covers the cryptocurrency industry. Its journalists abide by a strict set of editorial policies. In November 2023, CoinDesk was acquired by the Bullish group, owner of Bullish, a regulated, digital assets exchange. The Bullish group is majority-owned by Block.one; both companies have interests in a variety of blockchain and digital asset businesses and significant holdings of digital assets, including bitcoin. CoinDesk operates as an independent subsidiary with an editorial committee to protect journalistic independence. CoinDesk offers all employees above a certain salary threshold, including journalists, stock options in the Bullish group as part of their compensation.