Universal Interoperability: Why Enterprise Blockchain Applications Should be Deployed to Shared…

April 05, 2018

Universal Interoperability: Why Enterprise Blockchain Applications Should be Deployed to Shared Networks

Business needs the universal interoperability of public networks but with the privacy of private networks. Only the Corda network can deliver this.

The tl;dr of this post is:

  • Most permissioned blockchains use isolated networks for each application, and these are unable to interoperate. This makes no sense.
  • We should instead aspire to deploy multiple business applications to an open, shared network. But this needs the right technology with the right privacy model.
  • Corda, the open source blockchain platform we and our community are building, was designed for just this from day one. But there was a piece missing until now: the global Corda network.
  • In this post I describe the global Corda network for the first time in public and how it will be opened up to the entire Corda community in the coming months.
  • If you’re building blockchain solutions for business, you need to read this post…

Think back to how excited you were (well, I was!) when you first heard about Ethereum. The idea of a platform for smart contract applications, all running across a common network, with interoperability between all these different applications written by different people for different purposes. It was mind-blowing.

And it’s not just a vision, of course. The public Ethereum community have actually delivered it! Indeed, emerging standards such as ERC20 are a demonstration of the power of a shared, interoperable network and the power of standardisation.

So the question we asked ourselves at R3 back in 2015 was: imagine if you could apply that idea to business… imagine if different groups of people, each deploying applications for their own commercial purposes, woke up one day and discovered that those apps could be reassembled and connected in ways unimaginable to their creators but in a way that respected privacy and which could be deployed in real-world businesses with all the complexity that entails.

It seemed obvious to us that this was the right vision. And that it would require a universal, shared, open network, the topic of this post.

But it dawned on me recently that this is not how everybody in the permissioned blockchain space sees it. The consequences for users could be serious.

To see what I mean, take a look at the first few seconds of this speech by IBM’s Jerry Cuomo, one of the inventors of Hyperledger Fabric.

“We [IBM] have ten active networks that we’re managing”. [Jerry Cuomo, IBM]

I believe this is the wrong approach.

The win comes when we break down silos; when we enable data and assets to move without friction; when we avoid duplication; when we eliminate reconciliations and unnecessary integrations.

And for this to work, we need all these different solutions to operate across massive, open, shared blockchain networks… not isolated private deployments.

Indeed, as R3’s CEO explained to CNBC, enterprise blockchain is all about optimising at the level of an industry rather at the level of individual firms. And because each of these firms participates in multiple business networks, with multiple webs of relationships, it means these deployments have to interoperate at a truly intimate and fundamental level.

There Are Competing Visions for Interoperability; Choose Wisely

Corda was designed from the ground up to bring the benefits of the blockchain “I see what you see” promise to business across a universally interoperable network.

The industry now finds itself at a critical juncture: do we pursue the IBM vision of “one blockchain per application” or do we pursue an open vision of “universally interoperable applications”?

Either side of the debate is legitimate. But until recently, of course, it was a debate that we couldn’t have: no meaningful business solutions were live and no technology delivered on the promise of universal interoperability with the privacy that is needed by real-world businesses.

But that has now changed: applications are going live and Corda 3.0 has shipped. And, with Corda 3.0, we delivered a long-term wire-stable platform, meaning applications deployed today won’t need to be redeployed as Corda continues to mature.

So now the industry has a real choice: those who build on the open source Corda platform have the ability to deploy their applications to be universally interoperable with all other Corda applications, with the privacy and ease-of use you have come to expect from Corda.

To be clear: no other blockchain can do anything remotely like this.

The Corda vision is one of universal interoperability

I presented at The R3 CordaCon conference in Tokyo recently. My subject was interoperability. A keynote about interoperability?! What was I thinking?!

Universal Interoperability: the vision lies within our grasp

But I chose the topic deliberately… because this thing I thought was obvious to everybody turns out not to be.

Here’s a thought experiment to make this real:

Imagine an airline deployed a CorDapp to link them to all their travel agents around the world so that everybody, at all times, is in complete consensus about which seats have been sold and who is allocated to them. Maybe a forward-thinking travel agent could assemble groups of seat records on the ledger in an innovative way to invent a new ‘virtual charter’ airline, safe in the knowledge that if the airline ever had to switch out an airframe or reallocate a seat, the information would flow all the way through to the traveller without any loss of integrity. A vivid example of a new opportunity that arises when you know for sure that the data you’re looking at is correct.

Then, maybe one day a group of hotels deploys an app to manage their room inventory.

Suddenly a new way to construct package holidays emerges: by combining the airline app with the hotel app in a way that nobody expected beforehand. The new value to the consumer (complete transparency into what they’ve actually bought and total assurance that the information they’re looking at is correct and not clouded or filtered by intermediaries) is immense.

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.

But hang on a moment… if that was the Ethereum vision, why not just use Ethereum to solve these problems? Why did we invent something new? An eagle-eyed viewer spotted the slide on this in my CordaCon deck, which summarises the answer:

In short, Ethereum works on the basis of sharing all data with all parties. So the public Ethereum network just can’t be used to deliver this vision. Right vision, wrong architecture for business, if you like.

Unfortunately, attempts to address these issues through initiatives like the Enterprise Ethereum Alliance have yet to deliver anything.

No activity on the Quorum project for over a month. Getting Ethereum to work for business scenarios is hard.

Bright hopes such as JPMorgan’s Quorum appear to have been moribund for months according to their GitHub repos. The departure of that project’s leader throws t
he Quorum project even further into doubt.

Enterprise-oriented clones of Ethereum such as Fabric are faring no better, shipping yet another redesign in an attempt to make the underlying architecture work in the presence of strict privacy requirements. Don’t expect this to be the last redesign.

We are seeing again and again that starting with an architecture designed to solve a different problem just doesn’t work.

At CordaCon, we outlined a better way by reminding everybody what we wrote in the Corda whitepaper almost two years ago. Here is a screenshot of the introductory paragraph:

Universal interoperability (“transact seamlessly for any contractual purpose without friction”) was one of the key design goals for Corda. Our community has been executing on this vision ever since.

But… (there’s always a but, right?)

It’s not enough to design a platform to work this way; people actually have to all join the same network, of course!

But nobody in their right mind would sign up if that universal shared network were centralised and controlled by a commercial entity like R3, right?

The Corda network

So we’ve been working really hard with the early users of Corda to make sure this shared network is open, transparently governed and an attractive place to deploy their applications and build their business networks.

We’re putting the finishing touches to the Corda network and will soon be well underway in onboarding the first users. Our ambition is for this to be a truly global and openly governed network, whilst ensuring the strong identity assurances and privacy you’ve come to expect from Corda.

Why am I telling you about it now? Because if you buy in to our vision of a universally interoperable business blockchain network, you really need to be building on Corda. If you’re not, get started now!

And then make sure we know about you so you can help contribute to the work-in-progress governance model and participate in the opening of the Corda network to the world!