How R3 and Major Banks Are Building a New Kind of Distributed Ledger

FEATURE
Michael del Castillo
Apr 11, 2016 at 19:10 UTC  |  Updated  Apr 12, 2016 at 16:13 UTC

Banking consortium R3CEV held a workshop with members last week to discuss the next steps toward completing and implementing a recently unveiled distributed ledger project.

The meeting, scheduled for New York City, was the latest in a series of workshops held around the world between R3 and representatives of its 43 consortium members, a group that also includes Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, Credit Suisse and others.

But, the meetings are just part of a bigger plan by R3 to build Corda, a new distributed ledger designed to help banks honor a wide range of agreements between one another.

Charley Cooper, managing director of the consortium, said in interview that while blockchain tech may haven inspired Corda, the way it is being constructed and tested is fundamentally different.

He told CoinDesk:

"From the very outset when we launched the consortium the plan was to do so in such a way that more than appeared to act collaboratively — that we constructed a governance that contributed to actual team work."

Organizing the complexity

Founded in 2014, R3 rapidly rose to prominence in the blockchain and distributed ledger industry with the announcement it had partnered with nine global banks to explore and develop distributed ledger applications last September.

To manage a group of several dozen banks – and to increase the likelihood that those involved might actually be served by a technology some said had the potential make them redundant – R3 originally divided the project into three working groups, focused on architecture, use cases and legal and regulatory issues.

Each group was comprised of participants drawn from both the ranks of member banks as well as R3's staff.

"On any given week, on any given month, there's needs that come up. We put in the room with them our senior guys from research and elsewhere," Cooper explained, adding:

"It's not us talking at them, its us talking to each other and working through concrete problems. This is not some kind of lecture series."

It was through a combination of globe-trotting workshops, the creation of a Wiki to share information, support documentation and, most notably, the results from experiments, that the banks were able to work towards a consensus on what kinds of technology would address their specific needs.

The learning process

Initially, Cooper and the early employees of R3 divided their options for capitalizing on the technological advancements of blockchain into three categories.

"Adopt, adapt or build," he said, became a kind of unofficial motto. "The key word being, 'or'."

If a third-party's solution didn't exist, they would build one. But as the consortium grew, that clarity began to blur.

A fourth and fifth group was added to the original three working groups.

A collaborative lab was created, complete with computer scientists decked out in white lab coats emblazoned with the R3CEV logo. This lab was designed specifically to find a "unified approach" to counter what the team perceived as a hitherto ad hoc environment of experiments being conducted elsewhere in the financial industry.

The lab, which was originally intended to be a sandbox environment for experimentation, ended up becoming what Cooper describes as a "critical" component of the business model and served as a foundation that connected the other working groups together.

During lab experiments, present in the room or remotely are a collection of computer specialists, architects, business experts and legal gurus to provide feedback and troubleshoot as banks around the world launched their nodes for hosting the network.

"We can see on a screen when each of the nodes goes live," said Cooper. "If the node didn't work, scientists can walk them through."

A fifth group, the research team, which was also added later, is frequently plugged in remotely or actually in the room to collect feedback for their own analysis of how the banks act on the network.

Cooper said:

"What we ended up getting to is it's not adopt, adapt or build, but all three."

Dealing with the competition

Ranging from another consortium, to an established player partnering with another blockchain startup, there's no shortage of interested parties that some might view as potential competitors.

Hyperledger is a consortium of both banking and non-banking companies, of which R3 is also a member. In recent months JPMorgan Chase and Intel have both unveiled their own distributed ledger efforts at Hyperledger meetings.

The Depository Trust & Clearing Corporation (DTCC), which currently conducts a wide-range of transactions totaling $1.6qn, has partnered with Digital Asset Holdings for its own post-trade trial of the technology. Further, he DTCC recently positioned itself more broadly with a conference that served as a showcase of its expertise.

However, in the end, Cooper told CoinDesk there's room in the industry for more than one solution.

"We do not believe that this industry is heading in the direction where there will be one blockchain and one distributed ledger that takes over the world."

Over the coming months R3CEV plans to continue to work with its partners to improve the service, and to release the core of the Corda platform as open-source contribution.

Chess image via Shutterstock

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