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T-Mobile's Blockchain Work Is Quietly Coming Together

T-Mobile has been quietly toiling away on an enterprise blockchain solution for months, and it looks primed to make a big reveal soon.

The telecom giant’s interest in blockchain was most recently advanced after the company was prominently mentioned for its role in helping develop Hyperledger Sawtooth’s 1.0 version. Yet, its overarching blockchain work is not widely known.

And while details are still being kept under lock and key, Chris Spanton, the senior architect of T-Mobile’s Hyper Directory, a blockchain proof-of-concept (PoC) that was quietly unveiled in November, told CoinDesk several milestones are in the works.

Each, he said, fits into the company’s larger push to take advantage of open-source software.

Hyper Directory, for instance, uses Hyperledger Sawtooth to control who gets access to which T-Mobile cloud-based solutions, a process called identity and access management, or IAM.

Spanton toured the progress made on the directory at Amazon’s Re:Invent event in Las Vegas in December, presenting on how blockchain can improve security and cut costs for enterprises.

In interview with CoinDesk, he added:

“Creating Hyper Directory solved core IAM use cases we had in our cloud infrastructure, and building it as a blockchain solution provided unique opportunities to push forward our deep technical expertise.”

Open to open-source

A closer look at some of the publicly available information on Hyper Directory provides some valuable insight into how it might fit into T-Mobile’s big picture.

In Spanton’s first article on Hyper Directory, he described the PoC as a reaction to “several unique pain points” he had experienced helping T-Mobile scale its cloud solutions to large enterprises. Specifically, the directory is being designed to address concerns over who has access to do what in the cloud, when those permissions are active, who grants those permissions and how this can all be done without increasing complexity.

“How do we solve the ‘who is watching the watchers’ problem of auditing change management?” Spanton asked in the post.

Spanton then went on to describe a system of smart contracts that approves and distributes permissions via an API layer on top of the Hyperledger Sawtooth blockchain.

As part of that interoperability, the cloud permissioning directory is specifically being designed to integrate with some of T-Mobile’s other open-source software.

Originally it was designed with the company’s recently launched open-source Jazz platform, meant to develop cloud computing platforms without the need of a centralized server, in mind.

But upon closer look at T-Mobile’s other open-source projects, a number of other possible integrations become apparent. In addition to Jazz, T-Mobile is working on a project called Keybiner, described in the Github repository as a library that tokenizes a user’s authority to perform transactions.

While it remains to be seen how these projects might eventually overlap, its clear that not only is T-Mobile increasingly serious about open-source software, but more specifically, blockchain.

Communications competition

And the reason behind this interest, could, in fact, be competitive edge.

Last year, a number of blockchain patents were awarded to potential telecommunications competitors, including Comcast and British Telecommunications PLC. And an earlier project by Scandinavian telecommunications giant Telenor looked into the possibility of one of its partners launching an initial coin offering (ICO).

As T-Mobile continues to battle for market share, building an open-source way for any cloud computing company to grant and rescind permissions could give it an upper hand in attracting valuable early partners.

The wireless carrier, which currently has 69 million subscribers, has added at least 1 million subscribers per month for an 18 month period ending in October, and has spent $8 billion on new wireless spectrum.

As such, Spanton told CoinDesk:

“While blockchain has been a relatively new space for T-Mobile, developing game-changing solutions to old problems is not.”

T-mobile store image via T-Mobile

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Intel's Hyperledger Blockchain Sawtooth Is Ready for Business

Long considered one of the most promising codebases hosted by the Hyperledger blockchain consortium, Intel’s Sawtooth software is officially ready for enterprise use.

Revealed today, version 1.0 of the technology provides what might be expected, features inspired by bitcoin and other public blockchains, but repositioned for enterprise. Yet, what its team of 50 contributors (from startups Bitwise and R3, to corporates Red Hat and Capital One) hope will distinguish the solution is its modular functionality, designed to give enterprises across industries a head-start on meeting consumer and regulatory demands.

Among the early companies already using Hyperledger Sawtooth are telecommunications giants Huawei and T-Mobile, who are building a decompiler for the software, and e-commerce giant Amazon, which now lists Sawtooth among its blockchain partners.

Indeed, Intel venture technical lead and Hyperledger Sawtooth maintainer Dan Middleton positioned the software as a way for enterprises with demands that exceed the capabilities of available public blockchains to capitalize on its benefits.

Middleton told CoinDesk:

“We feel that if companies really want to adopt blockchain, or a distributed ledger, then we shouldn’t forgo the basic blockchain properties in taking something from a public chain to enterprise usage.”

Stepping back, Hyperledger Sawtooth is the second open-source blockchain platform to emerge with an enterprise-ready 1.0 version, following closely on Hyperledger Fabric, which was contributed by IBM and launched last year.

From a development perspective, the launch of 1.0 software solutions is an important step to any codebase, as it signifies that the maintainers are committed to the core features, giving coders a sense of confidence that anything they build won’t break as a result of future upgrades.

“For us, it’s a big event, both for the Sawtooth team because of stability milestone. But for Hyperledger, it’s evidence of a growing community of developers working on blockchain,” said Kelly Olsen, another Sawtooth maintainer and member of the Hyperledger consortium’s technical steering committee.

A familiar touch

But beyond the potential importance to developers, there’s another key differentiator highlighted by the Sawtooth team in the launch: the innovative method by which computing networks running the software will be able to forge consensus on mission-critical events.

Specifically, Sawtooth marks the business debut of a consensus mechanism called PoET — or proof of elapsed time — a variation on an older system called Byzantine Fault Tolerance that lets users reach consensus, even in an environment where counterparties don’t know each other.

By comparison, other permissioned blockchains require that users know and trust each other. In this way, the blockchain platform is designed to resist denial-of-service attacks that become more likely in a more public blockchain, or one in which unknown parties might interact.

Still, compatibility is also being sought with other blockchains of this nature. Notably in the final version is support for the Solidity smart contract language, pioneered by the ethereum blockchain.

Smart contracts can also be written in Go, JavaScript, Python and more.

“The maintanters aren’t promoting an unpermissioned version of Sawtooth,” said Olsen. “But we’re trying to make the resiliency still available.”

Hardware integration

In addition to certain public blockchain features, Hyperledger Sawtooth has become known for the ease with which it can be integrated with hardware security solutions.

And central to Sawtooth’s PoET consensus mechanism in a streamlined ability to integrate with hardware security solutions called “trusted execution environment,” among which Intel’s newly launched scalable Xeon processor.

The potential hardware integration was originally seen as a controversial solution because it places the security considerations of a decentralized ledger behind the protection of potentially fallible hardware. But the Sawtooth maintainers emphasized this is part of a balancing act between leveraging the strengths of public blockchains with transaction volume and security demands of enterprise companies.

Further, they clarified that while a single company may provide the hardware that creates these trusted execution environments, Sawtooth hasn’t restricted that company to Intel.

Olsen concluded:

“Sawtooth is a hardware-agnostic platform. There is no dependence of Intel hardware.”

Intel chip via Shutterstock

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