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Tensions emerge between IBM and Intel, Hyperledger’s biggest supporters

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Tensions between Hyperledger supporers IBM and Intel Crypto Heroes

The governing board of Hyperledger agreed to a new supply chain project earlier this month, and this move signified a departure from their normal business model. The project which is called Sawtooth Supply Chain has generated lots of waves because it is the first by Hyperledger to inhabit the application layer of the software stack. The supply chain will be built on top of the Sawtooth framework which was developed for the consortium by Intel.

Before the approval of this project, Hyperledger has mostly limited its work to the lower layers and focused on custom-design of blockchain application code which usually targets industry players. The vendors had been left to handle the job, and IBM has been leading the way in its now-launched food-tracking supply chain platform it started with retailers like Walmart.

Sawtooth received massive support

Despite the usual business model, nine of the eleven Technical Steering Committee (TSC) members voted to approve the new project earlier this month. It was approved as a high-level one, and this helped in massively boosting the project’s profile, venturing into the Hyperledger’s formal project lifecycle and earning the support that the consortium has.

The other two members who voted against the project where skeptical as they are not sure where the project belonged within the scope of Hyperledger. It so happens that both members, Arnaud Le Hors and Chris Ferris, worked at IBM. This disagreement has led to a little tug of war within Hyperledger and its members. On one end of the tug is IBM and Fabric, its preferred implementation project while on the other side is Sawtooth which has received the backing of Intel. Intel seemed to have the upper hand as the head of the TSC is Dan Middleton works at Intel and is the lead maintainer of Sawtooth.

Sawtooth Supply Chain is a unique project because it is now the first to become to be sponsored by a non-tech company, U.S. food giant Cargill. This implies that this project will most likely have a faster deployment and implementation process than the other Hyperledger projects. Since Cargill is involved, it is most likely that Sawtooth will challenge IBM’s Food Trust network.

Tensions might lead to bigger problems

Despite the initial tensions being valid, there is a sense of fear that it will brew to something bigger and will center on governance of the consortium. IBM is of the view that integrating Hyperledger’s imprimatur on an app-level project will most likely undermine the position of the consortium as a neutral player. Some players in the consortium don’t share that view though as they regard that comment as resistance by IBM towards the project.

James Mitchell, CEO of Bitwise commented that “This is fundamentally a discussion about what is open source software. And is the structure of an organization like Hyperledger ultimately to be protectionist around a set of commercial interests, or does it have a different set of goals?”

Diversity needed within Hyperledger

Some proponents look at the Sawtooth project as a way for the consortium to move away from its origin as a body that is dominated by IBM. While talking about this, Middleton noted that part of his job as head of TSC is to ensure that diversity is created within the consortium and for them to be able to regain their strength from the benefits that blockchain technology has to offer.

He pointed out that IBM has contributed immensely to the growth of IBM, the same way Intel and others have played their part. He stated that “I think it’s important that no one of those organizations undermines the legitimacy of having an open source organization where we are all developing code transparently. We just want to make sure that we have a good balance among all the contributors.”

Mitchell of Bitwise meanwhile wasn’t all too civil as he claimed that IBM and its early proliferation of Fabric have taken advantage of Hyperledger and used it to market its enterprises, something he regards as “open-source washing.”

While commenting on IBM’s blockchain strategy so far, he stated that “You want to be able to tell a story about how you are building open source solutions. But where it matters, which is the bulk of the application code, you want to be able to retain proprietary ownership of intellectual property and be able to monetize the solution at that level.”

He added that “I think people are savvy to this; they realize they don’t want to be paying rent to a large technology provider for the next two decades on these solutions.”

Mitchel further noted that blockchain may represent an even more aggressive form of lock-in than the previously conceived notion of enterprise software licensing. He stated that “Based on conversations we have had with industry partners we are working with, like Cargill and others, we strongly believe the industry needs to own those solutions instead of the vendors.” He further stated that it could take the form of closed-source, shared ownership amongst those parties or it might even get better and be an open source software that would enable industries to build, contribute and share.

IBM not sure about the expansion

IBM on its part is not sure about the supposed expansion of Hyperledger. While talking about the expansion of the consortium to promote the Sawtooth supply chain project, Chris Ferris pointed out that the opinion is his and not that of IBM. He stated that “When we set up Hyperledger initially, we said we would not go into the application space. And we did that for a reason because we want people to take the frameworks we are building and leverage them. We didn’t want to be perceived somehow as competition to someone who is legitimately trying to build a solution around supply chain.”

Ferris also pointed out that the components that developed in the Sawtooth project are just specific to the project at the moment. This is a cause of concern for him as he believes the Hyperledger Governing Board wants each top-level tools projects to support multiple projects instead of just focusing on one.

Ferris stated that he doesn’t think Sawtooth should be upgraded to a top-level project as he believes that it is better off placed in Hyperledger Labs. This is the perfect place for projects that are too early for TSC approval for incubation are placed, and before they become formal, the project proposal has to be submitted to the body.

While commenting on Middleton’s point about the need for greater diversity within Hyperledger, Ferris stated that Hyperledger has already addressed this over the past few months considering the fact that many developers have joined the body. He pointed out IBM is responsible for 30 percent of the contribution to Hyperledger.

Gari Singh, an engineer, and blockchain CTO at IBM stated that even though it is good for them to hear how much IBM has contributed to the growth of Hyperledger, the absence of a contribution from other big names in the industry is frustrating. He stated that “So you look at Oracle running Fabric; Amazon and their new managed blockchain service takes the Fabric samples and uses it, but no contributions back. There are contributions coming, but they are coming from the start-ups – we would actually like to see it from the big guys,” said Singh.

IBM still commands respect

Despite the recent events, IBM still commands huge respect within Hyperledger. Last week at the Hyperledger Forum in Basel, Switzerland, some prominent members of the consortium took time to show respect to the tech giant.

Casey Kuhlman, CEO of Monax, pointed out that even though Sawtooth Supply Chain project has been adopted by Hyperledger, IBM hasn’t stood in the way of the project and they have behaved like a very reasonable member of the community. He added that “Their actions have been, in my opinion, very reasonably self-serving. Because at the end of the day we are all businesses and we are all trying to make money. We are all self-interested. We should be.”

The director of the consortium, Brian Behlendorf stated that even though Hyperledger is evolving, their focus remains on things that have general applications. He stated that “It’s not going to be just to solving Cargill’s needs for a reusable body of code or template or recipe or whatever for a large number of use cases.”

At the Hyperledger Global Forum, Behlendorf paid his due respect to the tech giant, stating that “We would absolutely not be here if it were not for them.”

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