Ethereum inside? Pictured, the JPMorganChase tower in Houston, TX. Image courtesy of Eflon on Flickr.

Inside the new corporate-friendly version of Ethereum

Today at the launch of Enterprise Ethereum Alliance, engineers will get an early peek at how corporations will change the emerging protocol.

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After one day at the Distributed:Markets conference in Atlanta, it’s back to Brooklyn for the launch of Ethereum for Enterprise. The consortium comes with a few key updates from Vitalik Buterin and the rest of the Ethereum development team about the larger direction of the Ethereum protocol. The big question: what happens to the world’s fastest-growing open source blockchain project when major corporate players become stakeholders?

To answer that question, we’ll need to take a look at the technical roadmap, as well as the governance and cooperative methodologies that will underpin this new “alliance.”

New Solidity goals

Ethereum inventor Vitalik Buterin presented to the crowd via video, describing renewed efforts in the areas of formal verification of Solidity contracts — that is, making their execution mathematically provable. For obvious reasons, provable business logic is exciting (if not essential) to the future of truly automated financial services.

To this end, Buterin said developer Christian Reitwiessner is writing an intermediate language library that will fit between Solidity (which is human-readable) and EVM bytecode (which is not). This may help with auditing and testing.

Finally: the Ethereum IDE is back, and now based in JavaScript. Once called Mix, it is now called Remix. Mix had been temporarily abandoned late last year.

Swarm updates

Swarm is a decentralized storage protocol that is part of the Ethereum project. For the first time, Vitalik described it as a repository for storing the front-end interfaces of distributed apps. Joe Lubin elaborated by saying that Ethereum will be fully scaled in 2–3 years, allowing small developers to deploy applications at essentially no infrastructure cost.

Today, developers are forced to create hybrid “dapps” wherein smart contracts on the backend, but regular HTML/JavaScript apps delivered as a service from a centralized host.

Research goals

The project is also marching towards its next planned hard-fork (ie., upgrade) Metropolis, which will introduce a major architectural change: there will no longer be two types of accounts. Today, the EVM uses “external addresses” and “contract addresses.” The former works like a bitcoin address; the latter (unique to Ethereum) can hold Solidity contract code.

EIP 86 is a proposal for more abstraction in the EVM, which would turn all accounts into contracts themselves. From the proposal: We take initial steps toward a model where in the long term all accounts are contracts, contracts can pay for gas, and users are free to define their own security model. A longer update about Metropolis is here.

Also underway is a nascent proof-of-stake system called Casper (already known) which gains new context with the Enterprise Ethereum Alliance. Part of the mandate of the alliance is to hack Geth to use different consensus engines. Also on the roadmap: zkSNARKs, which will allow parties to engage in private smart contracts, as pioneered in Z-cash.

In the morning panel, Amber Baldet from JPMorgan (an Enterprise Ethereum member) conducted a discussion with several alliance members about the nature of the group. Also on stage was Joe Lubin, cofounder of ConsenSys, the Brooklyn-based Ethereum venture studio which is anchoring the alliance. The big theme for the dinosaurs on stage (Microsoft, Accenture) was the migration towards open source development.

Non-PR Pull Quotes

Moments of candor are rare at staged events like this, but the audience was treated to a few nuggets of insight into how the alliance will work.

David Treat (Accenture): “Open source is now dominant in the conversations. An alliance is all of us having a shared goal, making the most out of this technology and innovation. We’re going to transcend any of the legacy notions of competition.”

Sandra Ro (CME): “This technology, unlike any of the others we’ve looked at, requires collaboration. If you build your own, you will be lonely. There’s a little bit of consortium fatigue — there are skeptics out there — but when the groups have a purpose, I actually think we need more [of them] not less.”

Sandra Ro’s opinion contrasts with Shyam Nagarajan of IBM, who said yesterday he believes all the players will eventually roll their own blockchain infrastructure. Someone on stage brought up “consortium fatigue,” which prompted Joe Lubin to explain how he thinks the competitive (or collaborative) landscape will develop:

Joe Lubin (Consensys): “I think the way consortia are formed is going to change. With this new technology we can build systems that are collaborative by default. And we can build consortia that are small and private at first. [Two companies] can form a consortium by creating a shared infrastructure. We’ve had great traction from the developer community. In some of the earliest discussions about what Ethereum should be, we all came down on the side that it should be inclusive. Some people in the group were not initially excited to talk to banks, but Vitalik has been very clear on being open-minded.”

Importantly, Lubin mentioned that most businesses which aspire to scale will begin will probably begin with the public chain, and move towards a private component — not the other way around. “It doesn’t make sense to build on a blockchain that doesn’t have a public component,” he said. “The cryptoeconomics of going from private to public are pretty much impossible.”

When a question from the audience asked for elaboration, Lubin took the opportunity to point out the difference between Ethereum and the (centralized, enterprise-focused) Hyperledger protocol, whose “Fabric” blockchain does not use proof of work, has no network token, and does not compensate nodes for securing the network.