Our Developer Showcase blog series serves to highlight the work and motivations of developers, users and researchers collaborating on Hyperledger’s incubated projects. Next up is Vipin Bharathan, Blockchain Strategist for BNP Paribas. Here’s what he had to say about working on blockchain and Hyperledger:

Give a bit of background on what you’re working on, and let us know what was it that made you want to get into blockchain?

I had been leading a small team developing front office applications for Fixed Income Products in a major financial institution for some years. The work was technical, but it needed expertise in social and political aspects of the enterprise as well. We had to deliver solutions to highly demanding internal clients in a high risk environment. We, the developers, were communicating directly with the clients and had an agile program in place that turned around solutions in a highly iterative way. Although we could engineer our solution to be highly reactive using a distributed data fabric, we found that the interactions that we had with other enterprise systems severely constrained our capabilities and made our software appear brittle and incomplete.

Our front facing systems had to cope with temporal, service level and quality mismatches between electronic trading systems, reference data, pricing and other internal services. Recognizing the integrated nature of the systems, we relied on two or three simple concepts like autonomous systems, traceability and decoupling to improve matters. We also proposed a high level design for a bus that held both data and code and had simple interface contracts that would bridge the services and increases the integration and resilience; keeping the systems loosely coupled. This was an abstract design, but resources were not available for such an ambitious project, especially since it broke horizontally through silos.  Enter the blockchain!

It was around this time that I read about bitcoin, purely as a crypto-currency; intrigued, I read the initial bitcoin paper by Satoshi Nakamoto. I had also been attracted to bitcoin because of my work in cryptography harking back to the eighties and nineties. At first, the solution for our dilemma was not visible in the bitcoin framework. Further reading helped me understand the direction taken by Blockchain, soon to be christened DLT (Distributed Ledger Technology) and the work being done in R3, Hyperledger and other consortia. I attended the first calls of the Hyperledger TSC and attended the R3 steerco. Listening to the many talks, reading papers, going to meetups, meeting and talking to the many devotees of the technology, I was convinced that adoption of Blockchain Technology could help solve the fragmented landscape of Financial Enterprise software. I also saw that this would not happen in a short period of time, it would take implementations in the real world for the ideas to get shaken out, for hardened solutions to emerge. This is a sociotechnical effort, to be addressed on both those fronts, so evangelization was necessary.

I created an internal techno-social blog focused on chronicling of the fast developing space. I also made some presentations; first to technical audiences and soon to broader audiences. Within about a year, I was offered a different role in our organization; to function as a Blockchain Strategist and Coordinator for North Americas. I see my job as that of a catalyst, a translator, and a bridge; between the past and the future; business and technology, external entities and the organization, ideation and execution especially in the Blockchain space.

Vipin Bharathan, Blockchain Strategist at BNP Paribas

What is the one issue or problem you hope blockchain can solve?

Blockchain is a generic solution; a way to mutualize the source of truth. The truth could be about currency, the truth could be about Assets: registration, issuance and exchange. The setting could be completely trustless or semi trusted. This opens up varied use cases; this is evident from reading about the efforts by startups, established enterprises and consortia. If I said Blockchain would solve world hunger, measure dark matter & energy, effect nuclear fusion or make immortality possible that would be a stretch, but aside from these, the possibilities in the transaction space are many.

What do you think is most important for Hyperledger to focus on in the next year?

Hyperledger as an umbrella and a community needs to focus on providing an environment to experiment, to measure, to fail, to get input from a wide variety of folks , to improve and to execute securely on the DLT frameworks. In the short term, we seem to be agreeing to focus on building standards around composable components. We are also working on Identity and other foundational concepts and generalizing these.  The other area we can collaborate on is providing tooling for development, testing, measurement, deployment and monitoring. We have a choice group of DLTs incubated and developing under the Hyperledger. Pressure is also on to move from PoCs to MVPs and beyond in many enterprises. In the next year we must focus on improving and polishing the DLTs we incubate, as well as influencing and learning from publicly available data on other open-source DLTs.

Where do you hope to see Hyperledger and/or blockchain in 5 years?

Hyperledger continues to grow in membership. Charters for most working groups have been written. In the short term, the next year or so, we will produce White Papers specific to each Working Group. This will move towards the creation of Standards for Interaction and the possibility for composability. This could bring about a situation in which users can easily create a bespoke solution to their use case by mixing and matching components from different implementations of DLT. The broad community in Hyperledger can also help build tools and other peripherals around adoption in multiple industries.

In the five year horizon, we hope to see several production systems in play. Techniques for Interoperation in the cross-self (across hard forks), cross-chain and cross-over (legacy systems) will improve. The confluence of practices in Big Data and RPA (Robotics Process Automation) under the Blockchain umbrella is inevitable. This is because the Blockhain could have access to huge quantities of Transaction and other Data, Smart Contracts would enable analytics and automation on top of this data. These currents coupled with TEE (Trusted Execution Environment) will strengthen the cryptographic guarantees around attestation and processes. Privacy around activities and side channel revelations are another area that will be improved.

The current work on DLTs reveals that this is not a magic bullet. Lots of effort will be needed to incubate and foster DLTs in the Enterprise. Inevitably, somewhere in five years, the hype-cycle would be in its downward slope before mass adoption. It would be necessary to keep the eyes on a longer timeframe not to be disenchanted.

There could also be public and costly failures; we have to be ready to learn from them, design now to limit their damage, to adapt and to move forward.

What advice would you offer other technologists or developers interested in getting started working on blockchain?

Read and understand Satoshi Nakamoto’s bitcoin paper, the founding document of the Blockchain. Familiarize yourselves with the federated DLT environment and the difference with the public, trustless, peer-to-peer public Blockchains like Ethereum and Bitcoin. Get yourself some new grounding in distributed computing, cryptography, data stores and other important components of the ecosystem. Even if you are familiar with some of these concepts; there are some nuances in the context of Blockchain which will require changes in your mental models. Get ready for lots of discussions with Bitcoin maximalists and Enterprise skeptics.

There are many free online courses from Coursera, Udacity and EdEx specific to cryptography, bitcoin and DLT technology. In terms of smart contract programming; most permissioned platforms use languages similar to JavaScript or Java and in the case of bitcoin, Forth. The most important idea here would be to create systems that are resilient as the data is immutable. Revive your interest in Functional Programming as some platforms embrace Haskell or its variants to implement strong guarantees of halting and determinism. In addition to seeing where DLT could be used, it is necessary to see what should not be solved by DLT, this requires a critical assessment of the suggested use cases.  It is a rewarding journey, and we are just starting out on it.