Hyperledger Executive Director Brian Behlendorf says he’s noticed an anti-institutional sentiment out there in the world.
“You’re either with the banks or you’re against the banks or you’re with the government or you’re against governments,” he said. “Maybe it’s just because I’m old and I feel like the world is more nuanced than when I was in my twenties.”
Hyperledger, a collaboration by enterprise to develop enterprise grade, distributed ledger technologies, doesn’t discriminate. “We are one of the few organizations trying to say there’s a technology stack or set of stacks that should be able to run the gamut of helping startup companies build their companies, giving them a really cool advantage and edge, help the larger companies and banks who just have a job to get done, and even help governments in their ability to regulate markets.”
Hyperledger launched in December 2015 as a project of the Linux Foundation, a non-profit for open-source innovation. Behlendorf joinedin May 2016. There are currently 15 different projects hosted by Hyperledger.
How Salesforce Is Improving Their Business With Hyperledger’s Sawtooth
Salesforce, an American cloud-based software company, announced in April a blockchain offering on top of Hyperledger Sawtooth. Behlendorf, who has served on the board of Mozilla Foundation since 2003, notes how crucial Salesforce’s architecture is to the operations of their clients — this makes them a perfect fit to explore distributed technologies.
“There’s been concern about the centralization of data, and how much [companies] are building a dependency upon Salesforce,” said Behlendorf, who once served as Chief Technology guru of Burning Man, an annual arts festival in the northern Nevada region of the Great Basin. “The use of a distributed ledger is a way to decentralize some of that dependency so that there’s a full copy of the data sitting at every node. Some of those nodes might be on Salesforce or at other providers, as well.”
Behlendorf, who has been on the board of the Electronic Frontier Foundation since 2013, says absolving concerns about the centralization of data could help Salesforce expand into new verticals.
“For all the cloud providers, for companies who care about the providence of data, who care about exit costs from a commercial relationship, centralizing all of your data into one cloud provider creates an operational risk,” he says. “Being able to extract your data is not always guaranteed or always practical. Being able to migrate from one cloud provider to another is always a challenge, if the data isn’t being shared and standardized by default.”
Blockchain technology solves some of these concerns. “If five business partners build a distributed ledger and are conducting transactions, all five have to trust one central party to maintain the shared version of the truth — that’s a problem operationally from a risk point of view,” said Behlendorf. “If, instead, we decentralize it so we’re not all dependent on that central party, then that eliminates the risk.”
While this might not be a problem for some simple applications, for other applications, enterprise still harbors concern. “If we’re talking about core financial transactions between parties or delivery of a contract, there are a lot of companies not quite comfortable moving certain business processes to ‘the cloud’ unless they had something more decentralized,” he said. He hopes that distributed ledger technology becomes a tool for cloud providers to address the distrust around the cloud.
Hyperledger Focuses On The Enterprise Application Of Distributed Ledger Technology & Creates Tools For Public Blockchains
Hyperledger stood out to Behlendorf by not focusing on cryptocurrencies, tokens, and similar verticals.
“It focused instead on enterprise application of the technology, in which tokenization might be an attribute, but where a speculative financial instrument and burning all the CPU power of the universe was explicitly not part of what was going on,” he said, referencing the energy cost of Bitcoin and its consensus method, proof of work.
While Hyperledger spoke about using blockchain for use cases such as supply chain traceability, settlement layers between banks or other institutions, traceability challenges, most people were more interested in ICOs and tokens.
“The mass was focused on the rise of Bitcoin or whatever, and I was more interested in what you can actually do with this technology to solve real problems,” Behlendorf said. “But, you’d go out to different conferences, and we’d talk to different people outside of the enterprise space, and you kind of felt like a nun showing up to an orgy.”
Behlendorf says that what was once Hyperledger’s edge—focusing on enterprise while the rest of the industry focused on cryptocurrencies and tokens—is now the mainstream. While today tokens are still being launched and sold, established companies are increasingly talking about enterprise deployments.
“What was disruptive, edgy or non-traditional three years ago is now very much mainstream, whether it’s our tech or things like Corda, Quorum or other things,” he said. “We’ve legitimized [the use of distributed ledgers] by showing that it’s positively affecting healthcare or the fight against slave labor or transparency and accountability in financial markets. That’s actually very gratifying.”
While often associated with distributed ledger for enterprise, Hyperledger collaborates on public blockchains, as well. Hyperledger Fabric, for instance, began supporting Ethereum Virtual Machine smart contracts in the coding languages Solidity or Vyper in October 2018. Hyperledger Fabric, a permissioned blockchain infrastructure, as well as Hyperledger Sawtooth, a modular platform for building, deploying, and running distributed ledgers, are both compatible with Ethereum.
“We were one of the first organizations to say, [Ethereum Virtual Machine] is worth exploring,” Behlendorf said. “And the premise there is that by sheer virtue of all the investment and creative energy happening in the public cryptocurrency space, like one hundred monkeys typing on a keyboard producing Shakespeare, good technology will be built out. We would be remiss to ignore it or to pretend that only big companies know how to come up with innovative stuff appropriate for enterprises.”
Hyperledger remains attentive of public blockchains and building bridges within the public blockchain community, which, other than Ethereum, includes projects like Bitcoin, Stellar, and more.
Hyperledger’s Goal Is To Become The Open-Source Standard For Distributed Ledgers
According to Behlendorf, who was the primary developer of the free and open-source Apache Web server, Hyperledger’s goal is to become the open-source standard for distributed ledgers, similar to Linux’s status as the standard for open-source operating systems. Although Linux has competitors in Microsoft Windows and Apple MacOS, it is embedded in Android phones, IOT devices, as well as every one of the top 500 supercomputers on the planet.
Companies such as Google, Amazon, Kashr, IBM Cloud, SAP Cloud, Oracle Cloud, Baidu, Tencent, and Winway run Hyperledger nodes for their clients to solve different needs. Early members included Accenture, ANZ Bank, Cisco, CLS, Credits, Deutsche Börse, Digital Asset Holdings, DTCC, Fujitsu Limited, IC3, IBM, Intel, J.P. Morgan, London Stock Exchange Group, Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group (MUFG), R3, State Street, SWIFT, VMware, and Wells Fargo.
“We’re here to make sure that the technology, as it’s getting built, accrues to the benefit of everybody, and not just to the developers who wrote it, and that it’s a public resource. The Hyperledger community is building code that we hope permeates throughout the entirety of the blockchain industry.”
There Is No Blockchain Or Distributed Ledger To Rule Them All
Despite the organization’s goal to be ubiquitous, Behlendorf believes different distributed ledgers or blockchains could be deployed to solve different problems.
“There’s still a lot of people who want to see the world converge on just one blockchain technology, one protocol or one stack,” he said. “They think there’ll just be one mainnet to rule them all. And typically the people who say that are token holders in that mainnet.” He does acknowledge that if you believe in something, you’re probably going to be invested in its future, which can include holding a token.
“But, I think the reality is dawning on people that this will be a place as heterogeneous and complex as the World Wide Web is,” he said. “There’s lots of different technologies that make up the web—not just TCP, IP or HTML. We’re still at a thousand flowers bloom moment. Let’s not shut down innovation or new ideas just because we all want a single answer to everyone’s problem.”
He says there are some use cases for which public blockchains will make more sense. “I just wish we could drain the hype and pump-and-dump characteristics. But public ledgers have a role to play. Most of the world’s transactions will be conducted in non-public scenarios. Even if you were to completely answer privacy and security concerns around doing work on mainnet, you still want to have a diversity of different networks out there for resiliency. There’ll be many mainnets. There might be a couple for payments and settlement, a couple of others for identity and the like.”
By understanding many distributed ledgers could provide solutions for various problems, Behlendorf believes Hyperledger still maintains an edge. “Ironically, by being big tent and aiming to be friends with everybody, we’re actually also being disruptors,” he said. “Very few other people, it seems, have the same focus or desire to be as cross-intersectional as we are.”