What’s in a name?
I was at an event last week and someone pulled me aside asked: why do you guys at R3 typically stress the phrase “distributed ledger” instead of “blockchain”?
The short answer is that they are not the same thing.
In simplest terms: a blockchain involves stringing together a chain of containers called blocks, which bundle transactions together like batch processing, whereas a distributed ledger, like Corda, does not and instead validates each transaction (or agreement) individually.1
The longer answer involves telling the backstory of what the R3 consortium is in order to highlight the emphasis behind the term “distributed ledger.”
R3 (formerly R3 CEV) started out as a family office in 2014.2 The “3” stood for the number of co-founders: David Rutter (CEO), Todd McDonald (COO), and Jesse Edwards (CFO). The “R” is the first initial of the CEO’s last name. Very creative!
During the first year of its existence, R3 primarily looked at early stage startups in the fintech space. The “CEV” was an acronym: “crypto” and “consulting,” “exchanges,” and “ventures.”
Throughout 2014, the family office kept hearing about how cryptocurrency companies were going to obliterate financial institutions and enterprises. So to better understand the ecosystem and drill into the enthusiasm around cryptocurrencies, R3 organized and held a series of round tables.
The first was held on September 23, 2014 in NYC and included talks from representatives of: DRW, Align Commerce, Perkins Coie, Boost VC, and Fintech Collective. Also in attendance were representatives from eight different banks.
The second round table was held on December 11, 2014 in Palo Alto and included talks from representatives of: Stanford, Andreessen Horowitz, Xapo, BitGo, Chain, Ripple, Mirror, and myself. Also in attendance were representatives from 11 different banks.
By the close of 2014, several people (including myself) had joined R3 as advisors and the family office had invested in several fintech startups including Align Commerce.
During the first quarter of 2015, David and his co-founders launched two new initiatives. The first was LiquidityEdge, a broker-dealer based in NYC that built a new electronic trading platform for US Treasurys.3 It is doing well and is wholly unrelated to R3’s current DLT efforts.
The second initiative was the incorporation of the Distributed Ledger Group (DLG) in Delaware in February 2015. By February, the family office had also stopped actively investing in companies in order to focus on both LiquidityEdge and DLG.
In April 2015 I published Consensus-as-a-Service (CaaS) which, at the time, was the first paper articulating the differences between what became known as “permissioned” and “permissionless” blockchains and distributed ledgers. This paper was then circulated to various banks that the small R3 team regularly interacted with.
The following month, on May 13, 2015, a third and final round table was held in NYC and included talks from representatives of Hyperledger (the company), Blockstack, Align Commerce and the Bank of England. Also in attendance were representatives from 15 banks as well as a market infrastructure operator and a fintech VC firm. In addition to the CaaS paper, the specific use-case that was discussed involved FX settlement.4
The transition from a working group to a commercial entity was formalized in August and the Distributed Ledger Group officially launched on September 1, 2015 although the first press release was not until September 15. In fact, you can still find announcements in which the DLG name was used in place of R3.
By the end of November, phase one of the DLG consortium – now known as the R3 consortium – had come to a conclusion with the admission of 42 members. Because of how the organization was originally structured, no further admissions were made until the following spring (SBI was the first new member in Phase 2).
So what does this all have to do with “distributed ledgers” versus “blockchains”?
Well, for starters, we could have easily (re)named or (re)branded ourselves the “Blockchain Group” or “Blockchain Banking Group” as there are any number of ways to plug that seemingly undefinable noun into articles of incorporation. In fact, DistributedLedgerGroup.com still exists and points to R3members.com.5 So why was R3 chosen? Because it is a bit of a mouthful to say DistributedLedgerGroup!
Upon launch, the architecture workstream lead by our team in London (which by headcount is now our largest office), formally recognized that the current hype that was trending around “blockchains” had distinct limitations. Blockchains as a whole were designed around a specific use-case – originally enabling censorship-resistant cryptocurrencies. This particular use-case is not something that regulated financial institutions, such as our members, had a need for.
While I could spend pages retracing all of the thought processes and discussions surrounding the genesis of what became Corda, Richard Brown’s view (as early as September 2015) was that there were certain elements of blockchains that could be repurposed in other environments, and that simply forking or cloning an existing blockchain – designed around the needs of cryptocurrencies – was a non-starter. At the end of that same month, I briefly wrote about this view in a post laying out the Global Fabric for Finance (G3F), an acronym that unfortunately never took off. In the post I specifically stated that, “[i]t also bears mentioning that the root layer may or may not even be a chain of hashed blocks.”
In October 2015, both James Carlyle and Mike Hearn formally joined the development team as Chief Engineer and lead platform engineer respectively. During the fall and winter, in collaboration with our members, the architecture team was consumed in the arduous process of funneling and filtering the functional and non-functional requirements that regulated financial institutions had in relation to back office, post-trade processes.
By the end of Q1 2016, the architecture team gestated a brand new system called Corda. On April 5, 2016, Richard published the first public explanation of what Corda was, what the design goals were and specifically pointed out that Corda was not a blockchain or a cryptocurrency. Instead, Corda was a distributed ledger.
Prior to that date, I had personally spent dozens of hours clarifying what the difference between a blockchain and a distributed ledger was to reporters and at events, though that is a different story. Unfortunately even after all these explanations, and even after Richard’s post, the Corda platform was still inappropriately lumped into the “blockchain” universe.
Following the open sourcing of Corda in November 2016, we formally cut the “CEV” initials entirely from the company name and are now known simply as R3. Next year we plan to make things even shorter by removing either the R or 3, so watch out domain squatters!
As of February 2017, the R3 consortium is formally split into two groups that share knowledge and resources: one group is focused on building out the Corda platform and the other, the Lab and Research Center, is focused on providing a suite of services to our consortium members. I work on the services side, and as described in a previous post, my small team spends part of its time filtering vendors and projects for the Lab team which manages several dozen projects at any given time for our consortium members.
The Lab team has completed more than 20 projects in addition to 40 or so ongoing projects. Altogether these involved (and in some cases still involve) working with a diverse set of platforms including Ethereum, Ripple, Fabric, Axoni, Symbiont and several others including Corda. Since we are member driven and our members are interested in working and collaborating on a variety of different use-cases, it is likely that the services side will continue to experiment with a range of different technologies in the future.
Thus, while it is accurate to call R3 a technology company focused on building a distributed ledger platform and collaborating with enterprises to solve problems with technology, it is not accurate to pigeonhole it as a “blockchain company.” Though that probably won’t stop the conflation from continuing to take place.
If you are interested in understanding the nuances between what a blockchain, a database, and a distributed ledger are, I highly recommend reading the multitude of posts penned by my colleagues Antony Lewis and Richard Brown.
- Blockchains inspired by cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin used blocks because Satoshi wanted identity-free consensus (e.g., pseudonymity). That implies miners can come and go at will, without any kind of registration, which eliminated the choice of using any existing consensus algorithm.
As a result, Satoshi’s solution was proof-of-work (PoW). However, PoW is susceptible to collisions (e.g., orphan blocks). When a collision occurs you have to wait longer to obtain the same level of work done on a transaction. Thus you want to minimize them, which resulted in finding a PoW on average every ten minutes. This means that in a network with one minute propagation delays, not unlikely in a very large network (BGP sees such propagation times) then you waste ~10% of total work done, which was considered an acceptable loss rate in 2008 when Satoshi was designing and tweaking the parameters of the system.
Distributed ledgers such as Corda, use a different design because it is an identified network, where members cannot just come and go at will, and do have to register. With Corda, the team also assumes relatively low propagation times between members of a notary cluster. One of the key differences between mere PoW (i.e. hashcash) and a blockchain is that in the latter, each block references the prior – thus PoWs aggregate. It can be tough to do that unless all transactions are visible to everyone and there is a single agreed upon blockchain but if you do not, you will not get enough PoW to yield any meaningful security. [↩]
- The R3CEV.com domain was created on August 13, 2014. [↩]
- It may look like an odd spelling, but Treasurys is the correct spelling. [↩]
- At the time, I was an advisor to Hyperledger which was acquired by Digital Asset the following month. [↩]
- The DistributedLedgerGroup.com domain was created on December 23, 2014 and R3members.com was created on March 15, 2016. [↩]