Drawing a Parallel Between Linux and Blockchain
What the history of open-source tells us about the future of distributed networking
Linux technology, coupled with advanced enterprise-focused IT services, once changed the landscape of the internet and the way businesses operated servers. It all started with
Hello world!. This next major technological shift begins with something slightly different.
Hello blockchain world!
My name is Phil Zamani. I have involved myself in open-source for over twenty years. I have had the pleasure to witness and directly participate in Linux’s growth from what was once just a technical idea to something that became a global technology phenomenon.
This article is a breakdown of the strategy behind Aergo and highlights key components of an innovative blockchain platform that we at Blocko are diligently working on. I do this by explaining some of our core principles and the associated hypotheses that underpin them. We plan to apply my 20 years of direct open-source leadership experience to recreate the success seen by perhaps the most well known open-source project in history, Linux; with blockchain. This post will explain the core industry-contradicting philosophies behind the Aergo project, which are based on Linux’s dominating open-source mantras. Moreover, it describes the significant role Blocko will play as an established blockchain infrastructure provider and the similarity it has with Red Hat.
During my twenty years in open-source, I worked in many enterprise-IT environments and was focused on helping customers cross the chasm in adopting open-source platforms based on new technology like Linux. I also had the honor of working directly with some of the most notable developers in history who were behind some of the most impacting open-source technologies of all time, some of them being:
- Michael Tiemann, the original author of the GNU compiler
- Alan Cox, number two to Linus Torvalds (creator of Linux)
- Markus Rex, founder of SuSE Linux
- Rod Johnson and Adrian Collier, co-founders of the Spring Framework
- Paul Maritz, founder of VMWare’s original Pivotal cloud project
- Core maintainers or creators of many other leading open-source projects like Apache, Android, MongoDB, Hadoop, and OpenStack.
Perhaps the most successful of all of these technologies was Linux. Linux is a software kernel that was launched in 1991 by Linus Torvalds, a Finnish programmer now revered in the programming world. Many of the prior Unix operating systems Linux competed with enjoyed strong commercial backing having seen adoption over the previous thirty years. However, Linux endured and thrived against significant competition from many of these established Unix operating systems.
Today, Linux isn’t just a kernel or an operating system. It’s the codebase that underpins many different technologies powering most of the worlds IT systems. It is the core of Android OS and much of the web itself. It’s the single most crucial open-source technology in the world.
In the open-source enterprise-IT companies I worked at such as Red Hat; my role was to help companies discover, experiment with, and implement these open-source platforms like Linux in their business strategies. Often, these implementations were made at the expense of replacing Unix systems sold to them by incumbents like IBM, HP, and Oracle; with tailored Linux systems developed by underdog firms like Red Hat. A diverse range of projects were deployed. Some examples of the systems I implemented with my team include:
- 10,000 node computer clusters at HSBC and Deutsche Bank — to run core banking applications and to host high-frequency and high-volume financial modeling algorithms
- High-performance computing implementations at Ferrari to run formula 1 wind-modeling simulations before race day
- Various other mobile or internet-centric solutions at Sony, Ericsson, and Alcatel
In 2001, my team at Red Hat worked with Nokia’s advanced mobile phone division who asked us to cut the size of their core software library down, which would let a version of Linux fit and run on Nokia’s new innovative mobile phone architecture. The core maintainer of the software refused. Years later, under the guidance and stewardship of Google, this changed. What emerged was a project that has now become one of the world’s most successful open-source consumer projects in history, based on the Linux Kernel: Android.
I later ended up joining one of my past business clients from Red Hat — Deutsche Telekom — where we built and ran their new cloud business unit on open-source technologies that included Linux and OpenStack. Now, Deutsche Telekom Cloud serves over three million small to large business customers in Germany with an array of business-focused — and cloud-based — applications.
All of these experiences taught me quite a bit about open-source, cloud computing, and IT. But if there’s one thing that I’ve been able to grasp the most insight from, it’s the rise of Linux and the role I saw it play first-hand in the expansion of IT. By looking back at the insights I’ve gathered, I believe we may be able to predict the likely winning formula for blockchain — a new open-source technology — specifically in enterprise-IT business environments.
The hypothesis I propose is that successful blockchain platforms in business-focused environments will follow a similar path to that which Linux followed in business-focused environments.
To act on my hypothesis, my team and I are building out a blockchain system that not only follows the open-source characteristics that Linux followed; but has a company with perhaps the most blockchain implementation experience in history driving adoption of it, just like Red Hat had with Linux.
This firm is Blocko, who has deployed over 23 commercialized blockchain systems. This is a feat not many can claim. We believe the only other firm that has deployed this many real-life and currently in-use enterprise blockchain systems as of writing is IBM.
Just like Linux, it will be enterprise-IT consulting and technical support-focused companies (like Red Hat back then — and Blocko now) that drive adoption of these technologies. These companies will give businesses the integration support and risk-mitigation services they need to deploy and leverage the benefits of blockchain systems commercially.
To begin, let me describe the earlier days of open-source history and how Linux managed to rise to dominance to better explain my hypothesis.
Open-source platforms were once considered awkward additions to business strategy because there wasn’t any clear-cut methodology to implementing them. Businesses didn’t feel comfortable using technology that they did not have a direct license to. For many decades, large commercial software providers like IBM, HP, and Oracle were able to create proprietary licensed software that locked businesses into closed software and hardware environments. It became challenging for enterprises to switch out of them. Despite this, open-source technologies like the GNU compiler, Apache web server, Linux OS, Spring programming framework, many forms of open-source virtualization, many containerized IDEs, and many big data processing tools like Hadoop have prevailed. It was all possible because of the many thousands of open-source developers around the world who supported, built, and continuously improved these technologies.
Adoption of open-source technology is now pervasive across all industries. Millions of firms continue to deploy open-source business models and challenge conventional approaches of paying to use proprietary solutions. Companies that built businesses based on open-source platforms in the past are now praised as pioneers who harnessed data-centric business strategies early on. The rapid shift I’ve seen over the past twenty years is staggering. Open-source innovation shows no sign of slowing down against proprietary development processes.
The expansion of the internet and the emergence of growing IT ecosystems due to open-source has created more data than ever before. More data was generated and captured over the past two years than in the entire history of humanity up to that point in time. The value of this data is unfathomable. That’s why the digital incumbents of today like Amazon, Netflix, Google, and Uber keep it in siloed environments. Most data-centric money generating machines like Google make sure they do not sell their data to anyone; but rather continuously recycle and reuse it to provide targeted marketing services. They are the primary beneficiaries of this customer and user data. It’s not only too valuable but also too risky to share or trust this data with anyone under current technological constraints, where trustless environments for data transfers have been impossible to implement. Even with some of the world’s most advanced IT systems architected by companies with billions of dollars at their disposal, data still gets compromised.
Sharing data with many third parties will give businesses the scale and reach to achieve massive network effects without having to trust an intermediary. Companies are starting to realize this. Data, like software was with Linux, will eventually be opened up to the broader market through open-source technologies that enable trustless environments. Forms of distributed ledger technology, like blockchain, will be what allow these trustless environments to exist and flourish.
These technologies will create the means to open the data market up and shift power away from digital incumbents. It will play out similarly to how power in the IT world back in 1998 moved away from IBM, Oracle, and HP to new open source based solution providers. With the use of trustless environments, data could become trusted, distributed, and shared. This data will be put in the hands of the many and not merely the few, once it truly is in the best interest of all parties involved. In the future, businesses will be able to share sensitive data like supply-chain registries, transaction books, and consumer data more effectively and more securely. It could all happen without involving a middleman.
Just as Linux became the open-source paradigm shifting technology for software and internet services; blockchain technology will be the same for new socioeconomic systems and massive shared data ecosystems. Trustless environments created by blockchain will enable economies of value where sharing of data can be enabled at scale. Ben Horowitz from a16z does an excellent job explaining this concept.
Blockchain technology is a new open-source phenomenon. The exciting thing about any public distributed ledger is that it has to be open-source for it to be considered completely trustworthy. The reason for this is that users of a trustless network (which is what public blockchains emulate) need to be able to review the code behind it to verify that there are genuinely zero liabilities imposed in use of the network. As a result, the coming blockchain revolution will be more fast-paced than anything we’ve ever seen before as it depends on open-source even more than Linux did twenty years ago.
Distributed ledgers have the power to improve security and efficiency of legacy technologies and digitally transform IT systems by supplying them with new ways to dictate how much they trust other parties. Businesses could save sunk costs through more stable architecture, retain security of data or directly monetize it in a more trustless decentralized manner, or achieve faster settlements and confirmations through secure consensus. They could even couple all of these features together with the customizability, privacy, and flexibility of a legacy or permissioned system — by way of a hybrid and interoperable approach connected to a trustless public blockchain. Public, private, and legacy systems working together will bring about the best of many worlds.
What’s great about all of this is that the technology to allow for trustless environments already exists. The consensus protocols, the computing environments, the blockchain protocols, and the smart contract frameworks are all open-source and available for anyone to realize today.
For some reason, however, blockchain technology hasn’t quite taken off to enable large-scale benefit from distributed trust. Over USD 5,000,000,000 in funding has been contributed to startups building blockchain applications and protocols, yet little business value has been captured. There is little consumer use of public blockchains. Blockchains platforms are continually being developed and applications are being built on them, yet no real business value is being captured.
To gather insight as to why this is, we could look at the history of open-source. Back then, the same narrative played out.
Unix-like operating systems had been around for over thirty years at the time that Linux took off. Many open-source projects have developed in the meantime with thousands of programmers around the world. A number of them succeeded and made cloud and big data a reality. However, like the state of blockchain today, many of them never took off on a commercial scale.
There was one Unix-like system that not only became the most successful open-source operating platform in the world; it now powers billions of internet and mobile devices. There are over 21 million lines of code in its Git repository. There are over 10,000 lines of code added to its codebase every single day. It powers Google Chromebooks, Android devices, roughly 70% of web servers hosting the top ten million web domains, 92% of Amazon EC2 public cloud environments, 498 of the top 500 supercomputers, and much more. The platform I’m talking about is Linux.
What Linux was to the Web hasn’t been emulated yet in the blockchain. This is perhaps the reason why blockchain hasn’t yet taken off on a commercial or business level. Knowing this, there isn’t much I can do to resist thinking back to what Linux did to become successful and propose the same approach with blockchain.
Linux owes its success to the open-source GNU project. GNU produced the tools, compilers, debuggers, and shell implementations necessary to build a Unix-like operating system. Linux glued all sorts of technologies, developer tools, and software development kits together to create the most pragmatic technology platform in the world.
There are perhaps a number of main reasons why Linux was so successful.
Linux was open-source end-to-end
One of the main reasons for Linux’s success was that Linus Torvalds made the Linux software free and open-source. At the same time, he also made sure that the licensing model was business friendly. Torvalds originally released Linux under a license that simply prevented its commercial use. Though being the genius and pragmatist he is, he later switched to the GNU General Public License which protects the openness of source code but allows complementary business-friendly licensing to co-exist, like BSD and Apache to allow for commercial use.
Many early Unix operating systems developers built variants of were more freely shared than those restricted by expensive commercial IT vendor licenses. However, they weren’t ideological about what the commercial purpose of the projects was. On the other hand, those that were ideological about commercial use were not decentralized in terms of code sharing.
A large and highly skilled community of free software developers followed Torvalds and his specific dual approach. A great product was built with a clear vision of its purpose. As a result, early adopters came rushing in. Businesses who brought in the masses followed these early adopters. The rest is history.
Linux’s development was decentralized, yet maintained
Linux had a true resonance to open-source and became a hot topic among developers. A seminal essay by renowned developer Eric Raymond, “The Cathedral and the Bazaar” and related works made the case that software develops best when a large number of contributors collaborate continuously within a relatively decentralized organizational structure. That has indeed proven to be the case with Linux. Developers are what make technology, and attracting them requires practicing open-source as a way of life. Just listen to Steve Ballmer describe what it takes for technology to become successful if you still aren’t convinced.
Incumbent IT vendors like IBM took a centralized approach to Linux development and as a result, failed to build an alternative complete Linux operating system to compete with vendors like Red Hat and SuSE. The same perhaps goes for current IT vendor dominated consortia trying to implement private blockchain systems for specific industries. This centralized development approach will likely not succeed in the face of decentralized development with thousands of smart minds shaping the future of blockchain software.
However, a decentralized approach is not the only thing needed to succeed. Linux succeeded because Linus Torvalds assumed a figurehead and leadership role in the resulting Linux codebase development. He chose which contributions to include or reject. Linus was the core maintainer of the platform; which coupled with its decentralized development, is an approach that made Linux successful.
Linux took a pragmatic approach to execution
The core architects of Linux didn’t spend all their time on R&D and academic papers; they didn’t spend all their time trying to use the best or the sexiest technology. Many proposed competing systems to Linux followed the former approach, and in the end, did not succeed. They became research projects rather than practical or commercial implementations. They should have focused on leveraging existing proven technologies and techniques, but instead, concentrated on indefinite research and testing.
Linux was supported by firms with customer know-how that relentlessly drove adoption of the technology
The rise of Linux systems as a result of Linus Torvalds’ pragmatism in licensing the Linux software with complementary business-friendly license models led to the emergence of a new breed of enterprise IT support firms. One of these firms was Red Hat, who built their products entirely on open-source technology. To this day, they follow the same strict open-source mantra and methodology when conducting business that they did over twenty years ago. Red Hat currently nets $2.9B in revenue per year and is a global leader in providing Linux solutions to enterprises.
Red Hat began life as a software and consulting company in 1994 selling its product (known as a ‘Linux distribution’) called Red Hat Linux. A few years later, and just under 20 years ago, Red Hat went public. The firm reached an immediate valuation of USD 3,000,000,000. This gave them the currency to grow by building out technical and business teams around the world. It also enabled them to acquire leading-edge open-source firms like Cygnus (caretaker for the GNU compiler) to get control of critical complementary technologies and open-source developers and to allow them to invest in finding and nurturing early lighthouse customer reference cases. Being part of the executive team at Cygnus, I subsequently became global head of internet appliances at Red Hat and ran its early stage embedded Linux (aka IoT) unit.
Red Hat’s stock exchange listing got them noticed by global incumbent IT vendors, namely IBM. IBM’s then-CEO Louis Gerstner sent a team to Red Hat’s HQ in North Carolina to learn more about this new open-source Linux phenomenon. A few months later: when asked by Red Hat to be added to the IBM price list so customers who wanted this could buy support for it, IBM initially refused. When Red Hat later asked for its assistance in its efforts to build an IBM mainframe version of Red Hat Linux for interested clients — they also refused. Many clients today run Red Hat Linux on IBM’s mainframe systems, despite IBM having its in-house version of Linux to sell and support.
Today, Red Hat is the global leader of Linux for enterprise business customers. They deliver great technology, provide expert enterprise support, and continue to innovate its technology. Red Hat’s model was a formula for success. Red Hat began as a Linux company that later became a 24/7/365 technical support and software vendor for its Linux distribution. Red Hat leveraged its technical know-how built around its open-source model, which is its key differentiator. When combined with its innate customer understanding, this resonated with customers and allowed it to stand out from the IT incumbents of the time like IBM who didn’t understand open-source.
Red Hat has achieved incredible success (USD 23,000,000,000 market cap as of writing), and Linux has penetrated most of the worlds IT systems. This can all tell us a lot about what it takes to make a new open-source technology successful. Let’s look at how we could apply that to the next significant open-source movement: blockchain.
Just as Eric Raymond’s essay shaped ideologies of open-source — Satoshi Nakamoto‘s whitepaper of 2008 explains the virtues of a public distributed network which developed doctrines regarding trust. A new industry formed around blockchain after Nakamoto’s whitepaper. It has been increasing in size ever since.
In January of this year, I was offered a leadership position at another IT services-focused startup. In many ways, that moment felt similar to how it felt when I took on my first position at Red Hat. Back then I was with a new, up and coming contender in the open-source IT software and services space with significant customer interest. This time, I was joining a new blockchain IT company that has one of the highest numbers of commercial deployments in the industry.
This company wanted to develop an innovative distributed ledger to present to some of the most significant early adopter blockchain clients across the world. I met the team following the offer and was asked to lead their open-source strategy. I agreed to join them. They were a group of brilliant database engineers based in Korea.
When we met, there were no hyperbola or infeasible visions of changing the world or making all data secure forever using an ERC-20 smart contract. There were only focused talks of building solutions for customers and emulating successful open-source business models.
It was an easy decision because I instantly knew what had to be done. I also felt I had something to add that may help them. I understood all of the foundational open-source practices, methods, and best business practices for an IT company to drive enterprise adoption of open-source technology. I’ve seen this same narrative play out over the thirty years that I’ve been in IT. I understand how to package and explain technology, then deliver it to clients.
I plan to use all of these things that I have learned, and my open-source experience in a new project that I am fully focused on and am enjoying every minute of. This project is Aergo. Aergo will emulate all of Linux’s open-source models and will have an existing global enterprise-IT consulting firm with prior experience in delivering commercial blockchain implementations to drive adoption of it.
Just as Red Hat was involved in Linux software and used consulting services before it gained commercial scale to become the go-to technical support company for the technology; a relatively unknown company from South Korea, Blocko, has been delivering private blockchain implementations to large clients around the world for the past four years and will become the go-to technical support company for the Aergo technology.
The team comprises of over 50 senior developers that know how to develop, test, and package commercial-scale blockchain solutions together. The team here has an innate customer focus and deep technical understanding of blockchain technology. This is very similar to Red Hat in the early days before it became a global player in the technology space.
Aergo is a new platform that is initially being developed and supported by Blocko not only around a core set of open-source technologies; but as an entire open-source platform and supporting ecosystem. Aergo is a blockchain platform that enables businesses to achieve distributed trust at scale. Aergo follows the key principles of open-source development; open-source software licensing; decentralized development approach; pragmatic leadership; and support for developers, integrators, and businesses.
Aergo is open-source end-to-end
Aergo has established itself as an open-source and not-for-profit organization. It’s a form of an open-source foundation that will adopt, follow, and adapt to the same open-source platform model proven to be successful with Linux. The licensing model Aergo is adopting is a so-called dual licensing developer and business-friendly licensing approach. This allows us to keep the software open-source to benefit from developer interaction and follow the associated methodology, while also allowing businesses to commercialize the technology to support their end customers.
Aergo follows a decentralized development approach led by Blocko
A decentralized development approach is necessary to maximize the potential of a technology. Aergo will release its technology through well-established open-source platforms like GitHub. Developers will be able to inspect, criticize, correct, and enhance the base-layer Aergo protocol and all of the IT services we ship with it.
Not only that, but some key components to Aergo will release as standalone open-source projects that anyone can use. Our highly experienced strategic development partner Blocko helps our foundation to direct and focus key efforts to make sure that dApp developers, technology partners, and our future customers can adopt and use the platform in real-world enterprise deployments. Aergo has hired many leading open-source experts who helped customers not only adopt open-source but they often were the ones who wrote the underlying code used.
Aergo takes a pragmatic approach to execution
There were significant technical differences between Linux and other competing systems that were also trying to get a foothold to replace Unix in business over the past 20 years. Most of them failed. Part of the reason for this was that many of these alternatives were somewhat more research projects than practical implementations.
What is needed isn’t merely a more scalable architecture or higher throughput capabilities. What’s needed is a focused and expert team that is pragmatic, just like the Linux Foundation was; to carefully develop and package the blockchain as well as key associated technologies together in the right way.
There are hundreds of companies and institutions putting research into new consensus protocols, database implementations, and tokenomics designs to create a Utopian public chain that can scale. Looking back, this is very similar to how most Unix-like system projects indulged in lengthy research operations and waited to commence development. The Linux project moved ahead by compiling and redesigning the best of what techniques were available then; adding new technologies along the way; and then packaging them together. It was a massive success. At the time, many developers resented Linus Torvalds’ pragmatic approach. They may have been technically correct and genuine in their criticisms, but they would have significantly slowed down the adoption of the technology. The technology may have even turned out to be better, but it surely would not have turned out to be so successful.
There are many research papers and white papers on blockchain out there. The question is, where are the enterprise customer-focused in-production deployments?
Aergo is very different from other blockchains projects. It uses the best of existing blockchain technologies; the best of enterprise software development methods; the best and most cost-effective techniques for secure serverless cloud delivery; and finally it uses best practices proven to work in full-scale enterprise deployments with clients around the world.
What the market needs is not more research. What the market needs delivery made with aggression.
Blocko is actively using its customer know-how to drive adoption of Aergo
Aergo aims to deliver on all of the above by combining each element and using over four years worth of in-production private blockchain know-how from the company backing the project, Blocko.
Just as Red Hat began selling Linux services and distributions before scaling to become a global operation and leader in Linux deployments; Blocko has delivered blockchain implementations and services to over 23 enterprise clients in South Korea with over 25 million endpoints before it began with Aergo. These are not white papers or proof of concepts. These are real enterprise deployments with real customers; secure, maintainable systems designed locally and scaled out globally.
Blocko is not only taking four years of practical blockchain, cloud, and IT development know-how and building the platform as well as the foundation behind it; it is also working very hard to make the platform easy to use. The non-profit organization behind Aergo is comprised mainly of existing Blocko team members — dedicating their time and expertise to make the platform’s open-source vision a reality.
Just as Red Hat established global business development branches to establish reference customers globally; Blocko is putting together similar local teams that can help clients quickly discover and implement blockchain in their IT ecosystems. This will give the company the leverage needed to drive serious adoption of Aergo and finally trump software services incumbents like IBM in terms of blockchain services.
The company is slowly building out the team to deliver these local services with offices in Seoul, London, Germany, Brazil, and Canada. I am actively hiring many of the open-source gurus that I’ve worked with over the past twenty years and bringing them on board to provide the same valuable skill-set they provided in driving adoption of Linux at Red Hat — but now to blockchain at Blocko. We’ll continue to add to this team and are actively looking for more skilled open-source and blockchain developers and ambassadors to join our cause. An ambitious mission like this takes time and people. More than ever before, it really is about the team.
Blocko will release advanced developer-friendly software development kits; stable and well-documented application programming interfaces; as well as easy to follow and adopt deployment blueprints. These blueprints will use software code, smart contracts and example implementations developed for real-life, large-scale commercial deployments by our partner Blocko over that past four years. We intend to make them available to users of the Aergo public network to design, deploy, and manage blockchain systems based on proven use-cases modeled by Blocko. These will allow developers, technology partners, and customers to build robust blockchain systems in a matter of weeks rather than months — while learning everything they need to learn in the process of doing it themselves in that same amount of time. Aergo is a sophisticated platform made easy.
Linux and other such innovative technologies were adopted by leading early-stage clients over the past 20 years with the help of experts; experts who previously worked at Red Hat, SuSE, VMware, and Deutsche Telekom; experts who have built secure and scalable systems serving millions of business customers around the world and across many industries.
I believe the same narrative will play out with enterprise blockchain. Experts from Blocko who have built systems for large enterprises — such as Samsung SDS, Hyundai Motors, Lotte Card, Shinhan Bank, the Korean Stock Exchange, and others now actively work on Aergo. Just as Linux became the foundation of the computing world, blockchain-based platforms like Aergo could perhaps become the foundation of what many are now calling Web 3.0.
I’m excited to work with the Blocko team in building out the Aergo platform. We hope this article gives an insight into the very differentiating philosophies behind Aergo and why this isn’t just another project. This is something much more, and much grander than many may realize.
Oh, and we won’t be joining any so-called large IT vendor-focused consortium or ask anyone to add our solution to their price list anytime soon. The IT suppliers of yesterday can do that.
We will simply focus all our efforts on building the tech, attracting great developers and partners, and working with customers. We focus on customers who want to build great new products and services with the scale and reach to achieve massive network effects without having to trust their data to a middleman.
This post is available in Korean here.