Blockchains and Interoperability

Enterprise blockchain projects are seeing the inevitability of public chain networks.

Richard Brown of R3 recently wrote of his admiration for the public chain vision of Ethereum, but also noted that its current scaling and privacy challenges are too great and that “[o]nly the Corda network can deliver this.”

While we disagree with his conclusion, there is a deeper message in Richard’s comments that we think bodes well for the future of Ethereum. Enterprise blockchain providers like R3 and IBM, long purveyors of “blockchain good, bitcoin bad” pronouncements, are now accepting the inevitability of public chain use cases in industry. The walled gardens of consortium blockchains, though useful as proofs of value, pale next to what a scalable, interoperable blockchain network could do for enterprise. Brown himself clearly acknowledges this:

“The possibilities that open up when these disparate applications, initially deployed by different groups for different purposes, can interoperate in the future are mind-boggling. There’s no genius on our part here, of course: THAT is the obvious implication of the Ethereum vision applied to business.”

On the other hand, Brown does not provide any description of how the global Corda network will work — only vague promises that they have experimented with a few users and will be rolling it out soon. Indicating “wrong” and “right” in a comparison graphic does not count as technical detail. The Ethereum community, conversely, has been transparent and exhaustive with its technical concepts and plans.

Over the past year, some twenty working groups have collaborated on white papers, research, and education on shardingzero-knowledge proofs, homomorphic encryption, and layer 2 solutions like Raiden and plasma. The documentation for all of this work takes into account extensive comments from leading researchers and is made readily available to the larger Ethereum ecosystem.

Moreover, Brown himself comments that a perfect network is not useful if no one has joined. The public Ethereum network has million of members, and, contrary to Brown’s writing, many enterprises are securely transacting for its base use case of transferring and storing value already.

Nonetheless, we would still take this opportunity to rebut a few of his points:

  • Scaling for enterprise. We acknowledge there have been challenges with public Ethereum scaling, which SKALE, sidechains, and sharding are meant to ease. Progress has been steady and deliberate by design, to ensure the safety and resilience of the features on a network that is storing nearly $40B in value. R3 is developing cutting-edge features for a public chain but in an environment with only a few users. This exercise reminds us of Plato’s allegory of the cave: the shadow of threats cannot substitute for the real thing. Moreover, in private networks, Proof-of-Authority (PoA) consensus has been available for over a year and can provide several multiples of greater transaction capacity.
  • Enterprise privacy needs. PegaSys, the protocol engineering team at ConsenSys, is among a number of companies that have developed next-generation privacy solutions for Ethereum. Hyperledger Besu, an open source Ethereum client that was developed by the PegaSys team, meets the privacy and permission needs of enterprises while ensuring compatibility with the Ethereum mainnet. Generally, the volume of activity and innovation on Ethereum should not be underestimated — and we would like to take this opportunity to point to the level of developer mindshare on the network, an advantage compounding over time.

  • The pace of the Enterprise Ethereum Alliance (EEA). Work is going on extensively behind the scenes to develop an official EEA spec, which should be available in the coming months. The EEA spec will enable many of the same valuable use cases envisioned by Brown’s post. It will be built directly on a protocol that has been in public production for over two years.
  • Quorum team development. JPMorgan has been a leader in the blockchain space for several years, including its deep engagement with the EEA. Moreover, its open-source positioning from the beginning has allowed an ecosystem to develop around Quorum, both from features in the code base (Constellation) and from many of its leading-edge concepts (IBFT consensus mechanism). We expect the Quorum ecosystem to continue growing.

At ConsenSys, we have developed several use cases for the world’s most innovative central banks, some of whom chose Ethereum over R3. We are confronting many of the enterprise challenges head-on using Ethereum’s frameworks, including settlement finality, private transactions, and security.

Richard Brown’s comments and R3’s changing view are valuable insomuch as they acknowledge the point that we have been making all along: there is no comparison between the use of “blockchain as network” and “blockchain as database.” Our work with the EEA, JPMorgan, and many others — both in the open source community and with blockchain teams at leading enterprises — continues to gain momentum, and cannot be estimated by a cursory glance at a single GitHub repo. Rather, this effort exists across the many channels, project teams, and working groups of the Ethereum community at large.

In summary, we’d like to point R3 to one of our favorite quotes on the power of networks: “That’s good. You’ve taken your first step into a larger world.”

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