A new feature introduced on the most recent release of the most popular enterprise blockchain platform will make it much easier for companies to collaborate with each other. On July 3, the Hyperledger project released Hyperledger Fabric 1.2, a new version of the permissioned blockchain infrastructure. Fabric is essentially a software development kit for companies who want to build enterprise blockchains—it doesn’t come with a user-facing component but is meant to be integrated with existing systems.
‘Private data collections’, which were an experimental feature in the 1.1 release, have been made official in this latest Fabric version. Companies participating in a blockchain project based on previous versions of Fabric had to share everything or nothing with their peer nodes.
For example, say that a large digital brokerage operates a blockchain network (or ‘channel’, in Fabric’s terminology), with all of its shipper customers, a large number of carriers, and a large number of customers all participating. For any given shipment, the shipper, broker, carrier, and customer all need to be able to see the location of the load. But the broker doesn’t want the carrier to see how much he’s getting to move the shipper’s freight, and the broker also doesn’t want the shipper to see how much he’s paying the carrier. So, while some attributes like geolocation, status, contents, accessorials, etc, might need to be transparent to all parties, crucial details like pricing have to be private to the parties directly involved.
Under previous versions of Hyperledger, the broker wouldn’t be able to make some parts of a transaction private and some parts public—he’d either have to share everything with the entire channel or would have to create separate channels for each shipper and carrier so that they would only see the pricing information meant for them.
It’s not just about brokers’ margins, although that’s one of the simplest scenarios where some, but not all, details of a transaction need to be shared by multiple parties. Carriers worry about their shipper accounts being taken from them by competing carriers who could see their rates and volumes and undercut them; shippers might be leery of their competitors reverse-engineering their networks and operations based on their truckload contracts.
“At every event where I've spoken about blockchain,” said Daniel Pickett, FreightWaves’ chief data scientist, “privacy and competitive intelligence was a top concern. There were awkward, kludgey workarounds to these issues before, but the 1.2 release’s private data collections are a simple, elegant solution to this problem. Privacy and competitive intelligence should be much less of an stumbling block for companies wanting to share data on a need-to-know basis, via blockchain.”
So when should you use a separate channel and when should you use a private data collection? The Hyperledger 1.2 notes explain: “Use channels when entire transactions (and ledgers) must be kept confidential within a set of organizations that are members of the channel. Use collections when transactions (and ledgers) must be shared among a set of organizations, but when only a subset of those organizations should have access to some (or all) of the data within a transaction. Additionally, since private data is disseminated peer-to-peer rather than via blocks, use private data collections when transaction data must be kept confidential from ordering service nodes.”
While the Hyperledger family of blockchain projects was started by the Linux Foundation as an open-source community, large companies like Intel and IBM have devoted significant resources to helping build its tools. IBM has around 60 developers working on Hyperledger projects, a figure that’s grown over time. As interest in blockchain has blossomed over the past few years, hordes of coders have joined in, so IBM’s percentage of contribution relative to the community has actually gone down.
FreightWaves spoke to Kathryn Harrison, Director of IBM Blockchain, and Jordan Graft, VP of Payments at TriumphPay, one of the original seven members of the Blockchain in Transport Alliance (BiTA), by phone.
“In all our conversations with BiTA members, in the think tanks and working groups, this was the number one issue we saw,” said Graft. “How do you have a truly unmanaged network while still keeping the data private and without having thousands of channels? The IBM-Maersk model did not really have a chance of working in the trucking industry—we don’t have that kind of consolidation. It was really exciting to see this private data collection in the 1.2 release. In our opinion, it’s a huge development. IBM is responding to people and pushing this thing forward. We had lost some faith in an unmanaged blockchain network, but this really opens up that door again,” Graft said.
“What we’ve found is that previously in [Fabric] 1.0 and 1.1,” said Harrison, “you had to set up channels for peer to peer interactions, and there were many companies for whom this made sense in order to organize their data. But now, in 1.2, for private interactions, you can actually share data by sharing only the hashes on the blockchain. You can still create channels, you can still have a private ledger, but private data collections just gives you another privacy option depending on each case and how you’re wanting to interact. It is still helping keep data off-chain,” said Harrison.
Graft said that IBM’s ground game in encouraging the Fabric community through meet-ups, and developing tools like Composer that make it possible for relatively unsophisticated developers to quickly build blockchain business networks. “We don’t have a multi-million dollar budget for prototyping,” Graft admitted, “so to have this available on Composer is a huge win for us to start working on a prototype.”
Harrison said that IBM was laser-focused on simplifying blockchain technology so that businesses could easily implement it. “We’re focused on making Fabric a lot simpler, first and foremost—it gives you a lot more flexibility. Blockchain for enterprise requires a pluggable and modular system in order to work," Harrison said.
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