A host of big banks including JP Morgan, Santander, UBS and BNY Mellon have joined the Enterprise Ethereum Alliance (EEA), alongside Microsoft, Intel and many blockchain heavyweights from startups, academia and consultancies.
The non-profit initiative, which has been driven by New York's ConsenSys Ethereum studio, will build, promote, and broadly support Ethereum-based technology best practices, standards, and a reference architecture, EntEth 1.0.
Ethereum is like Bitcoin on steriods: whereas the latter uses a tamper-proof, shared ledger to verify the number of coins transacting on the network, Ethereum uses blockchain to potentially automate all manner of things – agreements, workflows, identity management and various financial services – locking value into the system in a form known as smart contracts.
The founding members of the Enterprise Ethereum Alliance rotating board include Accenture, Banco Santander, BlockApps, BNY Mellon, CME Group, ConsenSys, IC3, Intel, JP Morgan, Microsoft, and Nuco.
Bringing Ethereum minus its public mining component to enterprise has been an interesting journey. A concerted effort to bring the Ethereum C++ client within the auspices of the Hyperledger Project ultimately failed because not everyone was happy to re-license under the Apache 2.0 licence.
Andrew Keys, head of global business development at ConsenSys, said that after this effort ran aground last September, a handful of Ethereum enthusiasts got together and began the EEA initiative.
"In the end things may have turned out better," said Keys. "Instead of being one of many things inside the Hyperledger tent, now we are our own tent.
"This is an open source foundation. It's not part of Hyperledger, but it's like Hyperledger in a sense. And we have had conversations with the Linux Foundation to potentially add this as its own project, separate and distinct from Hyperledger. It may make sense to have it under the Linux Foundation so they can help with administration aspects."
Keys said he'd witnessed lots of different enterprises like Bank of New York Mellon, JP Morgan and Santander, companies like BHP Billiton, and even multiple governments around the world, all taking a version of Ethereum and tweaking the protocol and taking things like mining out, to use in a private enterprise setting.
"We thought that this was absolutely redundant; 95% of these companies want to be building on the application layer and not dealing with the protocol. So a handful of us got together and started driving an initiative which is being publicly announced today."
Comparing EEA to other startups and consortia efforts encamped within the blockchain space, Keys was bullish: "I think we have got about a two-year head start with the technology," he said.
The EEA launch event at JP Morgan in NYC is showing off production grade transactions happening interbank. "We are demonstrating a multi-node environment with production grade privacy, displaying interbank payments. What other companies are asking banks for millions of dollars for, we're demonstrating live, and it's open-source."
Some of the wind under EEA's wings is coming from JP Morgan's Quorum, a fork of Ethereum which the bank open-sourced last year. This was a seismic event, says Keys, which offered a putatively secure and private Ethereum implementation for banks and financial institutions, and which also forced the hand of other enterprise blockchains to open up.
Alongside the privacy element provided by JP Morgan's Quorum, EntEth 1.0 will offer pluggable consensus. For instance Caspar, Ethereum's consensus algorithm for proof of stake, can be swapped for something like Practical Byzantine Fault Tolerance (PBFT), which is more suited to the sort of permissioned environments enterprises work within.
Additional EEA founding members include AMIS, Andui, BBVA, brainbot technologies, BP, Chronicled, Credit Suisse, Cryptape, Fubon Financial, ING, The Institutes, Monax, String Labs, Telindus, Tendermint, Thomson Reuters, UBS, VidRoll, and Wipro, among others.
Asked what role IBM might play in EEA, Jerry Cuomo, head of Blockchain IBM, said: "We will participate as visitors. We will go and be productive participants.
"IBM is behind Hyperledger - 100%," stressed Cuomo, "but we are also part of the overall blockchain world community.
"We'll be ambassadors from Hyperledger to the EEA camp with an eye to working with these clients on higher value things on DLT. And also with a view that maybe there are pieces within there that we can interoperate with and share.
"I don't mind that group forming," added Cuomo. "I just think it would be cool if that group had a linkage to Hyperledger as well."
Regarding JP Morgan's Quorum fork of Ethereum, Cuomo said he respects very much what they have done. "They have produced some very nice pieces of technology. I would love to invite them to open source those pieces into Hyperledger and collaborate with us on mixing and matching technologies.
"I think building out Enterprise Ethereum is probably not a bad idea. It certainly worked out well for us building out a set of cohorts. We have about 120 of them. It's taken us the better part of a year and a half to get here. Maybe in a year and half they will get there too. But in the meantime we are going to conduct a lot of business."
Andrew Keys concluded: "Many members of Enterprise Ethereum Alliance are also members of Hyperledger, and we have tremendous respect for Brian Behlendorf.
"As EntEth1.0's goal is to be modular, our goal would be able to interoperate with other technologies. For example one could swap out a Hyperledger consensus algorithm for an EEA algorithm and vice versa.
"There are too many smart people building amazing things for us not to all play well together in the sandbox."