Although most developers use GitHub to organize and share open-source code, funds like Coinbase Ventures, Distributed Global and Digital Currency Group are betting on a crypto-native alternative.
Former ConsenSys token guru Harrison Hines is now CEO of his own startup, Terminal, which closed a $3.7 million seed round in late 2018 for a developer hub specifically built for decentralized apps (dapps). The hub quietly went live over the summer and is undergoing a soft launch this week.
Unlike the Microsoft-owned GitHub, which requires a quick workaround in order to use smart contracts, Hines told CoinDesk Web3 developers will be able to deploy software directly from the Terminal platform. Projects like MakerDAO stablecoin loans rely on smart contracts (software that automatically executes business logic) to safeguard hundreds of millions of dollars worth of cryptocurrency.
“For a large ecosystem like MakerDAO with tons of smart contracts live, Terminal allows us to curate starting points for developers tailored exactly for their needs,” MakerDAO engineer Vamsi Alluri told CoinDesk.
Terminal CTO Janison Sivarajah told CoinDesk this platform was designed for Web3, the shorthand for an internet populated by applications that aren’t hosted or controlled by a single entity.
“Once that smart contract is actually deployed on the blockchain, it is a live object that lives on one of these decentralized protocols,” Sivarajah said. “People need an interface to surface them, view data about them and interact with them. You can’t do that on GitHub.”
Terminal also offers limited node services, for free, and direct conduits to external infrastructure providers like Infura or BlockCypher.
Stepping back, ethereum fans generally use “infrastructure” to mean an external party running nodes and offering blockchain data as a service. Unlike bitcoin, which has plug-and-play hardware node options, most experts agree it is cumbersome to run an ethereum node with full archives. In order for dapps to take off and hit the mainstream, token connoisseurs say, the industry requires more independent node operators and easier access to node data.
“You have to run nodes across all those [testing, production, etc.] environments,” Sivarajah said. “Someone could use the hosted nodes that we provide … because that’s a lot cheaper and easier to get off the ground. But then you can point the production environment to your own infrastructure.”
To be clear, Terminal isn’t looking to compete with ConsenSys-owned API provider INFURA, which served 5,000 daily users as of July 2019, according to INFURA product manager Michael Godsey. Hines told CoinDesk his legal complaint against ConsenSys founder Joseph Lubin, alleging the former employer owed Hines $13 million in unpaid profits and benefits, was resolved amicably out of court.
“We are planning to, hopefully, get every ConsenSys project onto Terminal and using Terminal,” Hines said. “I do think there are opportunities for us to work with several of them in the future.”
Terminal’s freemium business model is predicated on the hope that, like GitHub, some developers will eventually pay for premium support services.
“Alerting and notifications are just one feature in Terminal, but it is a feature we have been exploring the most to assist 0x developers,” engineer Jacob Evans, of the exchange startup 0x, told CoinDesk. “Terminal also has a number of great features that will help support developers at the prototyping and hackathon stage. It's critical that developers can play around and experiment efficiently.”
With regards to such experiments, Sivarajah said Terminal is running roughly seven different nodes to support projects using blockchains like xDAI, Rootstock and POA, in addition to private testnets.
“A contract on ethereum can easily be deployed on any of the other networks that use the EVM [ethereum virtual machine] blockchain,” Sivarajah said, estimating two-dozen networks currently use the EVM. “We will also see which other frameworks are gaining traction.”
If you build it, will they come?
From the perspective of Distributed Global partner Johnny Steindorff, a Terminal investor, part of this relates to how much manual work is required to maintain reliable Web3 applications.
“I think middleware is one of the biggest present-day opportunities to drive mainstream [blockchain] development and adoption,” Steindorff told CoinDesk.
Indeed, BlockCypher CEO Catheryne Nicholson told CoinDesk that “running ethereum infrastructure is really painful.” Yet her company has thousands of customers, ranging from rogue developer teams to enterprises, paying for such ethereum API access.
With more companies providing affordable support services across the ecosystem, Hines said, startups can avoid that hassle and focus on their core competency. He added that Terminal aims to eventually offer self-hosted versions of the platform for developers who prefer not to rely on centralized websites.
“Most developers need redundancy,” BlockCypher’s Nicholson said, referring to how teams need backups in case one ethereum API provider has a hiccup. “It’s not one company eat all. You need multiple players to make that ecosystem work.”
Disclosure: CoinDesk is a subsidiary of Digital Currency Group, which has an ownership stake in Terminal.