A Simple Explanation of Enterprise Blockchains for Cryptocurrency Experts

And why R3’s Open-Source Corda platform is the one to watch…

We’re doing some really interesting engineering at R3 right now… We have Java running in Intel SGX… We’re hacking a JVM to make it deterministic… We’ve proved you can suspend threads of execution to a database and bring them back to life across restarts as if nothing happened… (We even got emojis to display cleanly on multiple different terminals….)

“It’s just so nice to finally see people doing software engineering in this space” (unsolicited comment at a recent conference I attended)

But why are we doing all this work? After all, public blockchains are red hot right now: prices reaching new highs, “Initial Coin Offerings” showing no sign of slowing and new innovations announced daily. Why is a strange firm called R3, which recently raised $107m to complete the build out of our open source Corda platform, heading off in what seems like a different direction? Aren’t we just building over-complicated centralized databases? Or solving a problem that nobody has?

To be honest, I thought the public blockchain community didn’t have much interest in our work… until Joel from our developer relations team visited San Francisco to deliver our Corda technical training. He had been nervous: many cryptocurrency ‘maximalists’ are West-Coast based… and he thought he would be in for a hard time.

Anyway… he needn’t have worried. The audience was the best he’d ever presented Corda to: uniformly respectful, engaged, questioning and inquisitive. And it made me realise: I’ve done a terrible job of explaining what we’re up to and why we’re taking the route we’re are.

What problem do enterprise blockchains solve?

I wrote about this in more depth when we first announced Corda but, in short, the story is simple:

  • In the beginning there was Bitcoin…
  • … and it was a revelation.
  • Not only because, for the first time ever, we had a censorship-resistant, confiscation-proof, scarce, digital bearer asset…
  • … but because the architecture that Satoshi built to give us this amazing gift taught us something we didn’t previously know. It taught us that:
  • It is now possible to build systems that are operated by multiple parties, none of whom fully trust each other, that nevertheless come into and remain in consensus as to the nature and evolution of a set of shared facts.
  • In Bitcoin, the set of shared facts are: how many bitcoins have been mined and what conditions govern how they can be spent?
  • Newer platforms, such as Ethereum, build on these ideas and expand the set of facts over which we’re coming into consensus; in Ethereum’s case: what is the state of a shared world computer?

As we know, Satoshi set a very high bar for Bitcoin. It works when you don’t know who most of the participants are and it lets miners come and go at will without anybody even knowing who they are.  Like I’ve long said, Bitcoin is a work of genius.

But a key point to stress is that those of us building enterprise blockchain platforms aren’t trying to build a better Bitcoin or even build a better Ethereum. (Why bother? They already exist!) Instead, the thing that interests us is the sentence above that I wrote in italics:

It is now possible to build systems that are operated by multiple parties, none of whom fully trust each other, that nevertheless come into and remain in consensus as to the nature and evolution of a set of shared facts.

This is tantalizing… because it suggests we could completely transform the economics and structure of entire industries. Not by introducing a new currency or decentralized governance model (that’s already being built out by the public blockchains, after all).  But by also massively improving the efficiency of what already exists.

If we knew that all parties were in sync, we could accelerate securities settlement, optimize supply chains, liberate assets stranded in one silo for productive use elsewhere and more.  Anywhere where trade is hampered because of inconsistent systems could be in scope for improvement.  In short, we now have at our hands a new approach to solving one of the trickiest problems in transaction processing: the reconciliation problem.

If we could be sure that one firm’s IT systems were in perfect sync with their counterparts’ systems, it is mindblowing to imagine how much error, risk, duplication, complexity and cost could be eliminated… and how many hitherto impossible transactions became feasible.

In other words: quite separate to the well-understood revolution ushered in by the advent of Bitcoin, an entirely different field also got a massive kickstart. Two revolutions for the price of one.

It doesn’t sound as exciting as a new world currency, to be sure. But it could, in its own way, be utterly transformational. And note: the solution I’m talking about is not the same as a distributed database. And it’s not the same as a fully centralized solution. And it’s not another cryptocurrency or public blockchain. It is something new entirely.

In short, there’s a reason why enterprise blockchain firms like ours look, talk and act differently to cryptocurrency firms and communities: we’re building on some of the same technology, but solving different problems. Problems like managing trade finance relationships, confirming trades and issuing and trading Commercial Paper.

But don’t fall into the trap of thinking all enterprise blockchains are the same. Because they’re not. The Corda introductory whitepaper and Corda technical whitepaper go into this in more depth. But I know you’re busy. So let’s look at just three aspects.

Architecture

First, architecture.  We set ourselves the challenge of building an enterprise blockchain that met the needs for the most demanding clients in business: the financial services industry. It’s why it’s the only enterprise blockchain designed to support interoperable business networks: we want ecosystems to be able to transact and to trade. And it’s why we built a platform that could easily talk to existing business applications and which businesses could actually deploy.

That’s why Corda runs on the Java platform, stores its data, immediately queryable, in a relational database and moves data using message queues.  This facilitates integration, keeps operations people happy in big companies and massively simplifies the design.  Mike Hearn has spoken about this at length.  It sounds so simple – so traditional – yet it’s unbelievably valuable. We scratch our heads every day asking ourselves why everybody else in the enterprise blockchain world left this opportunity wide open for Corda to take!

Contrast that with Fabric, part of the Hyperledger Project: written in Go, it uses a gossip network to spray data indiscriminately around the network, with a cumbersome “channels” abstraction bolted on to fix that problem. And rather than default to a SQL database, it offers a strange choice between a key-value store or a NoSQL document database.

JPMorgan’s Ethereum-fork, Quorum, is still a work in progress so it’s hard to comment but it has a talented team behind it. So I’ll just note in passing that the problem that Ethereum solves so well in the public blockchain world is very different to the problem that large institutions have. So it’s not immediately obvious why you’d use the solution to one as the foundation of the solution to the other.

Privacy

Secondly, privacy.  Corda’s design, from day one, was based on an atomic, need-to-know privacy model that enables multiple different business networks and transaction types to co-exist and interoperate at the same time. Truly an interoperable network of networks is being built out.

Fabric’s design is very different. It has had at least two entirely different privacy designs in its short life and the latest, “channels”, suffers from all the same problems as other coarse-grained approaches to privacy: you end up with lots of mini-global-broadcast blockchains that don’t talk to each other and in which assets will get stranded; the opposite of the vision to which we’re building. You might get away with this design in some simple cases but will then come unstuck when you try to extend the solution.

Quorum’s approach is more innovative but I think it still fundamentally suffers from this problem.

Corda is built for the future

Finally, Corda is built for the future. When we designed Corda, we looked at where the broader industry was going and tried to anticipate those trends.  That’s why Corda is designed to work naturally and seamlessly with Intel’s SGX security technology. It’s why you can write your apps in any JVM language and why we chose to write the base platform in Kotlin, one of the most exciting new languages around – a decision which was vindicated when Google made it a first-class language for its Android platform – and it’s why Corda is jam-packed with cool little developer-friendly features that other platforms simply don’t have, such as our support for reactive programming and support for continuations, which we can automatically persist across JVM restarts.

To be fair to IBM, Fabric is also built for the future. If you assume the future runs on a Mainframe 🙂

Learning More about Corda

Corda is currently in public beta, we’ve just shipped our latest milestone release and you can download our one-click live DemoBench tool to get started in no time.

Or if you’d prefer to look at or contribute to the code, head over to our GitHub repo: https://github.com/corda/corda.

The team does its work in public… join the conversation at slack.corda.net!

 

Finally: a note on terminology. In this post I used Blockchain and Distributed Ledger interchangeably.  I tried for a long time to retain engineering purity (“Corda has chains of transactions but it doesn’t batch them into blocks so we probably shouldn’t call it a blockchain!”) But the reality is that the market uses the term Blockchain to describe all distributed ledger technologies, including ours. So I’m not going to fight it any more…!