Ethereum 2020: Convergence and Collaboration

First published on Coindesk on 26th December 2019 as The Ethereum Community is No Longer Fighting with Itself.  This is my original draft.


This post is part of CoinDesk’s 2019 Year in Review, a collection of 100 op-eds, interviews and takes on the state of blockchain and the world. Bob Summerwill is Executive Director of the ETC Cooperative.

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2016 and 2017 were divisive years for the Ethereum ecosystem.

In January 2016 the former CTO of the Ethereum Project, Gavin Wood, spun off the former ETHDEV C++ team to found Ethcore – later renamed as Parity Technologies.  There has been an ongoing love-hate relationship between Parity and the rest of the Ethereum community ever since.  This continues to the present day with their controversial proposal to move the Parity-Ethereum project into a DAO.

In July 2016 we had world class drama when The DAO was drained of funds.  After a month of the most intense debate, the ecosystem was cleaved into two with The DAO Fork.  The “World Computer” majority accepted the fork which returned funds.  That fork retained the ETH “ticker” and the Ethereum trademark while the “Code is Law” crew showed the world that minority chains can survive by supporting the unforked chain and bringing Ethereum Classic to life.

In October 2016, Parity Technologies blocked relicensing of cpp-ethereum to Apache 2.0 at the eleventh hour because it would have affected their commercial interests.  They also feared that having IBM’s “nose under the tent” could have led to a chain split.  That relicensing looked very likely to result in a huge swing towards Ethereum within the Hyperledger consortium which had been formed a little under a year before.  Not to be.

Blocking the relicensing led indirectly to the creation of the EEA which emerged as a “Plan B” as the relicensing floundered.   No grand alliance between Ethereum and Hyperledger was possible at that stage, but there were sufficient enterprises using Ethereum for more formal collaboration to be worthwhile.

So February 2017 saw the founding of the Enterprise Ethereum Alliance (EEA), including household names like Microsoft, Intel, JP Morgan, BNY Mellon and CME Group.  The members were primarily focused on private and consortium chain scenarios.  The birth of the EEA was a very tense affair, with serious worries that the Ethereum Foundation would flat out denounce the EEA.   Vitalik Buterin was privately supportive, but did not attend the launch event in personal.  Instead he sent in a pre-recorded video which made no mention of the EEA but spoke in generalities about business uses of Ethereum.   The EF itself made no formal statement.  The tension was palpable in those early months.

Was the EEA an attempt at corporate capture of Ethereum?   Was the EEA just a front for ConsenSys (who were contributing most of the resources during that launch period and early stages of operation)?   Parity were also notably absent, and indeed have never joined the EEA.  Were the EEA and Hyperledger rivals?  Was this just a proxy battle between Microsoft (a major backer of Ethereum) and IBM (the primary mover within Hyperledger?)

None of these fears were true.  They were all the result of zero sum thinking.

As Jeremy Miller said at the EEA Launch event, there was a no reason why a suitably modular Ethereum codebase should not meet all of these use-cases – public and private, permissioned or permissionless.   An analogy could be drawn with Internet and Intranets.  Both have their uses.  Deployment choices would just be configuration settings on common codebases.

That is just how things have played out.

In February 2017, Monax (a founding EEA member) joined Hyperledger and contributed the first Ethereum Virtual Machine – Burrow (previously known as ErisDB).  That codebase had only ever run as a permissioned chain using Tendermint, never on the Ethereum mainnet.  It was integrated into Hyperledger Sawtooth (as Seth), and then into Hyperledger Fabric.  EVM-in-Fabric was the primary display at the IBM booth at Consensus in May 2018.

In January 2018 I wrote a tweetstorm which become the “Call for an End To Tribalism in Ethereum” keynote at the Ethereum Community Conference in Paris in March 2018.  Kent Barton continued that theme with “Divided We Fail: The Irrational Insanity of Crypto Tribalism” in April 2018.

That Paris conference also saw the launch of the Ethereum Magicians led by my former colleagues Jamie Pitts and Greg Colvin.  That group of individuals sought to mature the governance around the Ethereum protocol improvement process.

In October 2018, EEA and Hyperledger announced that they were becoming associate members of each others organizations, and would be collaborating on common projects.  In April 2019 the Token Taxonomy Initiative was launched, with Microsoft and IBM working together.  In June 2019, Microsoft finally joined Hyperledger.  Now we just need IBM to join the EEA (hint, hint)!

Tensions between the Ethereum Foundation and the EEA thawed in 2019, with Aya Miyaguchi, the Executive Director of the EF joining the Board of the EEA in August 2019, and the Mainnet Initiative being announced as a collaboration between the EF and the EEA.

In August 2019, ConsenSys announced that they would be joining Hyperledger as a Premier Member, with Joe Lubin joining the Governing Board.  They announced that they would be contributing their Enterprise Ethereum client Pantheon (now renamed as Besu).

Three years after the failure of cpp-ethereum relicensing, we finally had a fully-fledged ETH mainnet client as part of Hyperledger.  Besu was written in a mainstream enterprise language – Java, had permissive Apache 2.0 licensing and had mature governance under the Linux Foundation.   It was built by a large team of world class software engineers, building to the specifications which the EEA had matured since 2017.

ETC Cooperative funded ETC support and that work was completed by ChainSafe in December 2019.  There has been a period of growing collaboration between the ETC ecosystem and the ETH ecosystem in late 2018 and throughout 2019, after several years or hurt feelings and bitterness after “a bad divorce”.  Virgil Griffith was key to that detente and has been an excellent friend to ETC.

As my good friend John Wolpert said so well in his seminal “Bring on the Stateful Internet” blog post in August 2018:

“I wish we could take all the good work out there — the patterns each team in the blockchain space has explored for the past several years — and lop off all the brands, the flags, the preciousness we all get when looking at our own babies. We would see it all as a bag full of Legos, a set of potential standards converging on what we really need in order to build awesome new applications that transcend the limitations and troubling central control issues of client/server.”

The artificial boundary we have put in place in our minds between “public chains” and “private chains” is fading rapidly.    All our different technologies, whether we call them blockchains, or DLTs, or distributed databases, should be interoperable.

One chain to rule them all is Maximalist nonsense.   Out future evidently has multiple chains.   L1s and L2s.  State channels, Rollups, Plasma, Lightning, Counterfactual instantiation, L2 privacy solutions, Off Chain Compute, every type of consensus under the sun.  Integration with legacy systems is critically important too.  Blockchain is not a silver bullet.

At the close of 2019, we are in a completely different place than we were during the high drama of 2016.  Former rivals (both within Ethereum and across the broader enterprise blockchain ecosystem) are pulling together in a way which is a delightful contrast to the fractured and tribal landscape of the near past.   Collaboration is proving the winning strategy over cut-throat competition.  This trend will only accelerate into 2020.

Maturity of governance is also finally being seen as the critical foundation for collaboration which it truly is.   The whole ecosystem is finally growing up.

In 2016 I wrote:

“We have the opportunity to build a set of technologies in the next few years which could have similar societal impacts as the Internet, the World Wide Web and open source languages, relational databases, etc.  We are building a decentralized computing platform which every individual on Earth should benefit from.”

“These technologies need to reach into every nook and cranny of our computing fabric: big and small, public and private, independent and corporate; smartwatches to mainframes.”

“This is a large and ambitious undertaking that is addictive and all-consuming for many of us.  Diversity of viewpoints, a broad spectrum of use-cases to mature the base technology, and an open and inclusive attitude and environment of collaboration will help us achieve our shared goals.”

In 2020 that dream is ever closer to becoming a reality.   It is a sheer delight to have had such a front-row seat to this revolution.   Bring it on!

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