An interview with Brian Behlendorf

Back on the Block

© By Swapnil Bhartiya

© By Swapnil Bhartiya

Article from Issue 194/2017

Apache developer, Brian Behlendorf, talks about Hyperledger and blockchains.

Brian Behlendorf is nothing short of an open source celebrity. Behlendorf was one of the primary developers of an open source project that revolutionized the web: the Apache web server. In 2003, MIT Technology Review listed Behlendorf among the top 100 innovators in the world under the age of 35.

I first met Behlendorf back in 2005, when I lived in India, and I would often seek his input for my stories. But Behlendorf took a sabbatical from the open source world for several years. Early this year, The Linux Foundation appointed Behlendorf as the executive director to head their Hyperledger project. Hyperledger, which launched in December 2105, is an industry-wide effort to develop and enhance open standards for blockchain transaction technology. Blockchain is best known as the technology at the core of the Bitcoin cryptocurrency, but many experts believe it has much wider application to a range of tasks, from banking, to medicine, to real estate.

I asked Behlendorf what he has been doing all these years – and what brought him to The Linux Foundation.

Linux Magazine : You have been in the open source world for a very long time. How much has open source achieved in all these years?

Brian Behlendorf : I think open source has become the default. If you're launching a new platform or trying to promulgate a new technology, you have to be open source.

IBM knew there wasn't much of a commercial future for a proprietary blockchain platform. It would have been a hard time for them selling against the already market-winning, open source equivalents. The innovation that you see in open source would be really hard to achieve in a venture capital-funded private domain. This is for broad market, not just some specific domain.

The financial services world was an early adopter of open source without realizing it. A lot of their technologists brought in Linux and Apache under the bar, but still thought of themselves as buying Big Iron and big technologies from a company like SAP or Oracle.

The financial world is also waking up to move quickly into these new domains, like blockchain. Their involvement on Hyperledger has been partly a journey of helping their executives understand what does it mean to be writing code and then giving it away.

In some ways, open source is now a default; in other ways, there's still a whole new terrain and whole new groups who need to learn how open source works. Those conversations are shorter now than before, but they're still happening.

LM : You worked at the White House and also on the Obama campaign. How important do you think it is for government to use and open-source their own infrastructure?

BB : I think if taxpayer money is being spent on the development of new software that should all be open source. No question.

I think when government developers are building code, that should also be open source. It should be open source, but also shared upstream with open-source communities, such as those housed at Apache, or The Linux Foundation, or elsewhere.

In fact, government should try to find homes for their code very much like the homes for Linux or Apache, and if they don't exist, create new ones. I think the nonprofit structure that we've figured out with many of these large organizations is really really important to making these communities work. Government can spend a million dollars towards a body of code, then just throw it out there. No one ever sees it again and evolves it. It is as good as dead. It has to be about more than just putting a license on it and shipping it out.

By the way, the license shouldn't be GPL. It shouldn't be an MIT or Apache license. MIT and Apache also give you all the patent rights. Most people don't know this, but governments can actually file patents.

LM : Linux often gets the credit for making companies comfortable with the open source development model. How will this comfort with open source help in the adoption of blockchain?

BB : Banks are an important part of this open source blockchain technology. Fifteen years of running Linux helps them understand that open source is reliable and is not a fad. They are more comfortable with the idea that, when you need to build something new, you build it collectively with other banks.

The other thing is that banks have always collaborated on standards. They worked on financial products market language and other XML-based systems, but those standards then had to be implemented separately. Those implementations always lead to conflict and struggles, especially when you wanted to upgrade.

Now people are realizing that, if we can evolve the standards and the software in parallel, at the same time, and in conjunction with each other, we can evolve these platforms more quickly. I think that's what has driven this interest in blockchain. It's hard right now to tear apart blockchain standards from blockchain implementation. Blockchain, in particular, is a tool that only makes sense when you're talking about a community of companies. That requires thinking about sharing code and pushing that code out.

LM : Can you please explain what blockchain is and how it will affect our lives?

BB : Blockchain is a shared, multi-master database resilient to hostile actors. It's a ledger where each entry in the ledger is agreed to by consensus by everyone else in the network. Everyone has the same copy of the database. It's in the same order. Events that happen, that are written to it, can't later be refuted. They can't later be censored or changed. That creates a system of record – a common body of truth that you can use to implement immediate settlement in a banking network.

You can also use blockchain to build a land title registry for a country, where everyone can see who owns what property. Then as a property changes hands, you can see the history of the changing ownership. If a corrupt politician tries to steal that land, you'd be able to catch it and keep that from happening.

Once you have this shared database, you can build smart contracts that execute on shared databases across the network. The accompanying software can add new entries to that ledger based on whatever variables you want.

LM : What are banks and other institutions doing now (or prior to adopting a blockchain solution)? Don't they need something similar to ensure no one is tampering with records?

BB : Previously banks would either depend upon a single company at the center of that network to maintain point-to-point connections with everybody, but then depend upon that central provider to arbitrate when there were conflicts or if there were just differences in how things were recorded. That was a problem. If you have to depend upon a central provider, that's a weakness. That's the main idea.

LM : What other industries will blockchain affect?

BB : It's also hard to imagine which industry is not going to be affected. For example, many companies are already working on the question of storing health data in blockchains. There's obviously a lot of privacy concerns when it comes to sharing health data; not just a personal medical record. You could share things like who's asked for permission records because sometimes just knowing who's asked for that permission is important enough. It's worth recording somewhere in an indelible ledger, so that you can go back later and audit to see who asked for records across the network. I know there's one company working on recording patient consents for clinical trials.

Blockchain offers paperwork reduction benefits. It is also a way to give patients better visibility when the data of a trial that they've participated in is studied later when making a case for a new trial. These medical uses are some really interesting applications. The privacy concerns mean it's not as obvious or as easy as putting all the big data into one big pool.

LM : What's in there for developers to get excited about blockchain?

BB : If you're simply curious about where this technology is heading, that's one reason to start to dig in and get your hands dirty. If you work for a company that is involved in some sort of operation where they're sharing data with other firms, and you think you might benefit from blockchain technology, now may be the time to start thinking about building a proof of concept. It still might be a year or two away before you're launching something into production, but build a proof of concept now, to start thinking about the right kinds of data to record in a chain – and the right kinds of smart contracts to define the transactions.

This is 1994 in the web. In '94, a lot of companies could afford to ignore the web. By '97, most could not afford to ignore the web. By '99, if you were ignoring the web, you were writing your own death certificate. We're still 5 years away from that, but now's the time to get started, if you want to be on the leading edge. There's so much employment demand now for developers who understand blockchain technologies.

LM : You were in a kind of retirement phase; you took a break from the limelight?

BB : Sort of. I just had a career where I felt like I wanted to take a little bit of break from pure open source. I was at CollabNet and enjoying it, but ultimately, it went in a different direction from what I would have liked. I've moved on. I actually gave my boss 2 years notice and then left in 2007.

In 2007, I spent a lot of time traveling and speaking about open source. Then I worked in the 2008 Obama campaign. I was a policy advisor, thinking about open source software, but I also addressed how to combine open data and open government. After President Obama was elected, I worked at the White House on those issues. All I could do really was plant some seeds that later blossomed. I didn't want to stay in government forever. I just wanted to go long enough to have an impact, but I spent 2 years there.

While I was in government, I started a consulting relationship with an organization I've always been very close to and really liked, which was the World Economic Forum. That consulting relationship turned into a full-time job. I moved to Geneva as CTO for WEF. Open source wasn't really the focus of my job at the WEF. I was responsible for a team of 30 people. Spent half my time trying to build a social network for world leaders. The other half of my time I spent trying to get the WEF off of LotusNotes and everything in between. I did a lot to plant open-source seeds in a bunch of the operations and in the communities at the World Economic Forum. I got to see a lot about how the world works. I also got to do a lot of skiing in the French Alps.

Then, after that, I came back to San Francisco and took maybe even more of a departure. I decided to work as a venture capitalist – mainly because a friend of mine had started a fund that seemed interesting. The fund seemed different, distinct from a lot of the flash of the venture capital heyday: you know, all the random apps. It wasn't about the early stages. It was about the later stage. Instead of being Uber for Dogs or something, our goal was to fund clearly defined technologies, such as a nuclear fusion energy plant or an energy technology company or a cure for diabetes. That was intellectually very interesting and I had fun there about 2 1/2 years, but I felt a gravitation pulling me back to open source.

LM : What brought you to the Hyperledger project?

BB : Jim Zemlin [Linux Foundation CEO], and he's been trying to hire me constantly. Then he finally got an office right next to mine.

LM : So he moved closer to you. He wanted you that badly?

BB : (Laughs) He opened an office in San Francisco in the Presidio (which is a collection of buildings near the Golden Gate Bridge), right next to where I was working at a venture capital firm. I joked with him that he did that as a recruiting tool to try to bring me in, but it worked. I joined in May of this year.

LM : Did you really feel that Hyperledger was as big and important as Apache, or did you join just to make Jim happy?

BB : (Laughs) No, no. I didn't just take it to make Jim happy. It had to be more than that. My personal motivation was that the blockchain space had some problems. There were problems in the way the communities around it were working. I felt like, if I can play a role constructively in helping with solving some of these structural issues, that would be a valuable thing. I just wanted to get back to something related to open source.

It really did go back to this feeling that we're in 1994 and this is the web. Blockchain is such a foundational technology that could affect so many things. We don't know exactly how it will. We don't know exactly to what depth. It feels likely to me that blockchain technologies will affect the way societies build their IT systems – not company systems so much as society IT systems. That's what I want to play a role in helping re-invent.

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