September 17, 2016

Corda: An Introduction (paper)

R3 - the financial institution distributed ledger people - have published the first high level view of how we'll build the shared ledgers of the future:

Corda: An Introduction

Richard Gendal Brown, James Carlyle, Ian Grigg, Mike Hearn

August, 2016


     A distributed ledger made up of mutually distrusting nodes would allow for a single global database that records the state of deals and obligations between institutions and people. This would eliminate much of the manual, time consuming effort currently required to keep disparate ledgers synchronised with each other. It would also allow for greater levels of code sharing than presently used in the financial industry, reducing the cost of financial services for everyone. We present Corda, a platform which is designed to achieve these goals. This paper provides a high level introduction intended for the general reader. A forthcoming technical white paper elaborates on the design and fundamental architectural decisions.

The paper of course speaks for itself, so there is little I can do to add. It's an introduction only, so members of the community looking for some meat will have to wait a bit.

Yet, let me share some background on the thinking that led to this design. When Richard gendal Brown was doing his initial musing on the nature of all things blockchain, he was aware that it was the coolest thing around; indeed blockchain was why R3 formed a consortium and why gendal jumped ship for future vibrant green pastures. And in the process, rounding up the usual suspects - James, Mike and myself - to muse and white board on what this future of blockchain would look like for banks.

Yet the history of coolest things in IT is dismal, frightening even. That led us on a search for what financial institutions really need or want. There are many things on that list, but two things stuck out like sore thumbs:

Right thumb - those managing the money of customers do so with privacy. It's no good if your bank decides to broadcast your wealth to the world; any leakage of any form of any value to anyone at all is a weakness that inevitably ends in theft. Privacy is security, and this was the origin of banking - the bank offered to keep your money in greater security and greater privacy than you could yourself. End of story.

And therefore, you can bang nails into your right thumb with your blockchain hammer as much as you like, but the fact remains that a public, shared blockchain is a non-starter - for banks. Before you say "but zerocash, but homomorphic encryption, but confidential transactions," let me just say, we all like science fiction as much as the next guy, but banks can't foister it on customers. Tell us about it in 5 years when it's actually proven to work.

Left thumb - Proof of Work is a killer. Last I heard, Bitcoin is consuming the power of Ireland for less than a million users. If we scale up 100 times, that gets us ... what? 100 million users and the power-equivalent of Europe?

Folks - get real. If the energy numbers mean nothing to you, try this for size: The USA and Russia are currently running a proxy war in Syria because some sheik wants to run a gas pipeline down to Europe. In short, wars get started over that amount of energy. Bitcoin, noble experiment that it was, will not be used by major institutions, if only because it's bad for business if the public think that the banks are the cause of more energy wars.

This is not necessary. The reason for PoW was that we cannot trust the sybil element of an open access system - necessary to ensure the fabled censorship resistance. But in the institutional market, they know how to trust each other. They've been doing that for 100s of years. Literally - with letters of credit, trade finance, introductions, short term loans and interconnects, relationships.

Institutions don't need proof of work. They do need proof of something else, sometimes fallaciously and naively known as identity. They can rely on their existing networks and systems to provide that, and, inefficient and systemically dangerous as the current 'identity' system is to the world of finance, it is probably less costly than a war. Identity of course is a more complicated story, one that is as yet little understood, and it's a story for a book worth of posts, so let's not get distracted.

Back to R3's Corda: Without proof of work, and without the public blockchain, we are really talking about a completely different animal to Bitcoin. And that's what Corda is - a redesign from the base requirements of the institutions. For what that animal looks like, read the paper, and look out for a forthcoming technical paper.

Posted by iang at September 17, 2016 07:31 PM

“You may have heard a myth that Bitcoin consumes the energy consumption of Ireland,” says Michael Mainelli, executive chairman of financial tech think tank Z/Yen. “That’s absolutely wrong. It’s only half the energy consumption of Ireland.”

Posted by: What is a blockchain, and why is it growing in popularity? at November 7, 2016 06:09 PM
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