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Podcast Episode

Voices in Cloud – Episode 9: A Conversation With Ed Featherston of Cloud Technology Partners

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In this episode David speaks to Ed Featherston about cloud technology, blockchain, enterprise system architecture and more.

Today's leading minds talk Cloud with host David Linthicum


Ed Featherston is a Distinguished Technologist at Cloud Technology Partners. He brings 35+ years of technology experience in designing, building, and implementing large complex solutions. He has significant expertise in systems integration, Internet/intranet, and cloud technologies. He has delivered projects in various industries, including financial services, pharmacy, government and retail. He contributes regularly to thought leadership initiatives, contributing articles on blockchain, big data, machine learning, IoT and cloud to CTP's The Doppler publication, leading webinars and serving on industry panels. He is a frequent speaker on blockchain technology, and recently served as the blockchain technology chair for the CloudExpo Conference in NYC. He has been named to Rise Global Cloud Global Power 100 Influencers, Onalytica’s Big Data 2017 Top 100 Influencers lists, as well as in the top 10 blockchain social influencers by both Enterprise Management 360 and Enterprisers Project.


David Linthicum: Hey guys, welcome to the GigaOm Voices in Cloud podcast. This is the one place where you will hear from industry thought leaders providing no-nonsense advice on how to succeed with cloud computing, IoT, edge computing and cognitive computing. I’m Dave Linthicum, best-selling author, speaker, and B-list geek.

Joining me today is my very good friend, a person who’s been on lots of my podcasts and lots of shows, Ed Featherston. He’s a techno-evangelist, Distinguished Technologist at Cloud Technology Partners, a Hewlett-Packard Enterprise company, experienced senior-level enterprise systems application architect with experience in systems integration, Internet/Intranet, client/server, middleware and cloud technologies. As a Distinguished Technologist at Cloud Technology Partners, he provides technology leadership on the design, construction and implementation of projects for a variety of industries, including financial services, government, pharmacy and retail. So catch us up. We were on another show a couple of months ago; what have you been doing since then?

Ed Featherston: Oh, continuing on a lot of work in the cloud space, a lot of conversations and discussions with various folks around one of my favorite topics: blockchain technology. [I’m] in the midst of doing some cloud delivery right now with a client in the AWS environment and just still enjoying the technology world.

Yeah, it’s a fun world, ‘cause if you don’t like it, it’ll change next week.

Uh, yeah, or tomorrow.

Tomorrow. So anyway, I was looking for topics to talk with you [about], and I saw you authored an article called “Will Supply Chain be the Breakout Blockchain Use Case for 2018?” This is something I’ve written and spoken about as well, and let me get your perspective on this, and we’ll go ahead and leave you a link to this article that was on CloudTP.com. So summarize what you’re asserting here and what we’re going to be seeing in a few years.

Yeah, well, the way I was coming at it from, when I talk blockchain with a lot of people, a lot of times they have difficulty understanding from a use case perspective, from a business perspective, how does blockchain fit in? And what I try to describe to them is three different areas, I say, that kind of open it up for you. The first one I call “chain of custody.” The classic police procedural everybody is familiar with. You need to know when something passes from one entity to another, you need to know that that passage happened. It’s an important piece of your business. Parallel to that is “chain of events,” which is similar to custody but it’s actual events that occur: whether an inspection occurred or whether somebody did something at a particular time. And the final piece that I say brings it all together is that there are multiple stakeholders involved. It’s not just within a single company; it’s lots of different companies that are involved in these.

When you bring all three of those together, it starts creating a potentially good use case for blockchain. Now if you think about supply chain, supply chain is all of that. The biggest challenge in supply chain is keeping track of the chain of custody of an item from the moment it’s manufactured or generated until the time it finally lands in a consumer’s hands somewhere. Chain of events: if the things - especially if the things are crossing country borders or state borders and there’s all types of legal inspections and other items that have to occur; and you need to know that they occurred and when they occurred.

And in supply chain there’s always multiple, multiple people involved that need to know as things transition through the chain, and how to deal with all of that. And in today’s world in supply chain, a lot of that is done - quite sadly, still in very manual processes. Lots of paperwork, lots of duplicate entries into duplicate systems, and so a lot of different industries are taking serious looks at blockchain to help solve some of those challenges.

So what does it bring to the table? I mean, I think I’d understand; I think the listeners probably need an update on this. So in other words, what am I doing with blockchain that I couldn’t do with standard supply chain integration software just a few years ago?

Right, well, the key difference with block chain is: at its simplest level is referred to as a distributive ledger. If everybody thinks of the classic business ledger, or classic spreadsheet, conceptually, under the covers, that’s what blockchain is functionally performing. What it’s providing that’s different from standard types of systems that are out thereone of the first pieces is that it’s an immutable system in that once records get entered in the sequence that they’re entered, they cannot be modified.

Now, we can build that into systems today; we can build that into database systems. But you would still have the ability to override that at the database level if you so chose. In a blockchain, it’s part and parcel of the entire ecosystem. There is no way of modifying transactions once they’re in there. So this provides some great level of trust and security to all the participants in it, that they do have full visibility into the system and what it’s providing.

The other side piece of it is that there is no master node in a blockchain ecosystem. It’s a peer-to-peer technology. Everybody is getting a copy of the transactions in their systems. There is no master gold copy that everybody goes to; it’s a fully distributed peer-to-peer system, which gives both the visibility that people are looking for; plus, it gives a higher level of resilience since everybody is getting exact copies of all of the transactions. You have higher access and availability into the information that you’re looking for.

So why can’t I change information that’s in a blockchain ledger?

The way the ecosystem is built, it uses encryption technologies that basically chain each transaction together, and if you attempt to remove a blockhence the term in blockchainthe encryptions will fail and it will demonstrate that that block no longer belongs. And because it’s a peer-to-peer system, the other participants in it will see that there is a disagreement from that system where you try to make the change, and they will throw it out of the blockchain effectively, so that bad transaction cannot be replicated to the other systems.

It’s almost like the origin of this was via some cryptocurrency thing.

Yeah. I mean, blockchain originated as underpinnings for Bitcoin and all of the cryptocurrencies that followed suit. It was the technology underneath the covers that lets Bitcoin do what it does and lets the cryptocurrencies do what they do, as far as the trading and the visibility and the immutability of the transactions.

I find cryptocurrencies less interesting to me. I find the underlying blockchain technology far more interesting in the other business case scenarios that are not dealing with financials but dealing with entities with assets, with physical things and tracking them.

Right. So how much is this gonna cost us to convert our systems that are not leveraging blockchain to blockchain? And what kind of technology do we need, how do we create the architectures, what security pass do we need ? It seems to me that there’s dozens of things to consider for moving toward this technology.

And there are, and part of what I try to get across to people - sadly, when we talk blockchain and we say, “Think distributive ledger,” people start thinking oversimplification; and blockchain is an entire ecosystem that does all of the encryption; that does the consensus and agreement between the peer-to-peer system that the transaction is a valid transaction; that does all of the transfers in the peer-to-peer...there’s a very complex ecosystem sitting under the covers on it.

There are a variety of blockchain vendors out there. One of the areas I think is ripe from blockchain is the concept of ‘blockchain as a service’ in the cloud. All of the major cloud vendors are now starting to provide that offering there. That way, they’re dealing with the underlying complexity of getting the ecosystem in place for you and then you can build on top of that ecosystem without worrying about it.

The other benefit I see with the blockchain as a service offering is the fact that because it’s peer-to-peer, everybody that’s participating needs to have at least a node in the blockchain ecosystem. And if everybody has to start installing the hardware and the software in their environments, and then integrating each of the other players and stakeholders and their blockchains in their environments, the level of complexity for them to set that up - even to just try it out - becomes very daunting. Whereas with the blockchain as a servicewhether it be Azure or AWS or IBMyou could go in there and try it out do a pilot without making that significant investment.

Get your other participants in there playing with it as well, and then you’re all set if you decide that yes, this is something I want to move forward with into production mode, the cloud, to me, is just the ideal environment for doing something like this.

But there is a cost in terms of me adjusting my internal infrastructure to leverage blockchain, is there not?

Absolutely. At some point, you’re going to want to do other things with the data out of that blockchain, or have information you have to provide to that blockchain. So you still have integration points in there. You still have investments in skillset costs for people to be able to understand the underlying system that is being built to make sure that it’s doing what you want it to do.

It is a fundamental change conceptually from a lot of other application development concepts because of the peer-to-peer nature of it and the immutability of it. And that creates some cultural challenges [that] I’ve seen in some of the clients I’ve talked to that are looking at it and evaluating it because they’re used to the classic, “Okay, I’ve got a database, I’ve got a gold copy and I replicate out to my slave databases.” And the concept of having full peer-to-peer systems is not something that has been, I’d say, in the norm for most enterprise environments.

The other thing that has to be taken into account from a cost perspective is: because you’re replicating it to all of these other different systems and because the different consensus algorithms that are used to validate transactions and everything tend to be very CPU-intensive, blockchain is a resource consumer on a very large scale. It’s going to require lots of storage; it’s going to require lots of network bandwidth; it’s going to require lots of CPU utilization in order to have a usable blockchain implementation. And it’s one of the areas I think a lot of people don’t think about when they’re first looking at blockchain: that yeah, it’s providing you lots of value, but there are costs involved and you need to take those costs into account to figure out if it’s worth the effort.

So how do we sell this to a board of directors? In other words, we have internal costs that have to be changed, you just mentioned we have additional capacity costs, so it’s cheaper to leverage a remote blockchain for a managed service provider or a remote ledger system on the cloud-based systems, but there’s significant investments, and so what’s the ROI? What do we tell the business?

It’s got to come back to what your original business case is, and what the challenges are there and what the costs are associated with those challenges. .’Cause like I said, the examples I gave are, “This could fit for blockchain, but you’ve got to sit down and figure out: if I do use blockchain and take into account the costs on it versus the costs of the way I do it today, or the cost of me trying to build something from scratch, ‘cause as you and I both know, you can build any solution completely from scratch to do what you need it to do, but there’s tradeoffs in doing all of that.

But to me, it always has to start from the business side of figuring out: what is the challenge, and what is the cost, both in my current implementation and in losses because I’m not able to do what I need to do? And in the case of the supply chain, what’s the cost to my business because I’m not able to track my particular items in the supply chain from the minute they are created to the minute they show up on a consumer’s table?

One of the great examples I’ve seen used [is] IBM and Wal-Mart are working on a big blockchain implementation for tracking produce; for tracking food from the minute it’s picked to when it makes it to the stores. And it’s important to the businesses like Wal-Mart and everything from the times when there are outbreaks of like E.coli on the food, and being able to track back [to] ‘where did that contaminated produce come from?’ And right now, it can take them weeks and weeks without a good supply chain system to be able to track that back, which puts more and more people at risk until they can solve it. Their goal for doing it with this is that they would be able to immediately trace back where that particular product came from and know where the original source of the contamination was.

So it’s a matter of figuring out what that business case is, what the cost is, because we’re not getting what we need out of it today, and so does that make it worth the investment to go into blockchain? ‘Cause it doesn’t always necessarily. You and I both know, just because the technology can solve a problem, doesn’t mean it’s the right piece to solve the problem.

So anyway, I was researching blockchain a couple of weeks ago for an article. A lot of the reporters were talking about kind of a downturn in interest in blockchain that occurred a couple of years ago. Have we recovered from that?

Well...the last time I looked on the classic Gartner Hype Cycle, blockchain is diving down into ‘the trough of disillusionment,’ which in some senses I’m kind of happy for, because the hype was making it hard to have serious conversations with people because everybody would say blockchain would solve world hunger. I’m happy to get past the hype part ‘cause as we go to the trough of disillusionment, the people who are really committed to it are going to do some actually valuable implementation that will help come out of that into the realm of actual implementations and we get past all of the hype and the buzz.

But I mean, there’s been a lot of pull-back, but the other thing I’m finding which has been quite interesting is that I’ve talked to a lot of different clients that are looking at it, but they don’t want to talk about the fact that they’re looking at it publicly. When I talk to some of the different vendors that there are fairly significantly sized companies that are looking at it that aren’t publicly talking about the fact that they’re looking at it, and part of it is because they don’t want to be looked at as chasing after something that isn’t going to provide them value.

Yeah, I mean, just putting their eggs in what they consider a new and shiny basket, this technology starting to merge forward. And I think many companies talking about blockchain and other technologies consider it a strategic technology; therefore they don’t want anyone to know what they’re doing (including the blockchain providers). In essence, they’re building this big Frankenstein monster of a blockchain supply chain in the background, and they’re looking to take it out at one particular time and they can kind of spring it on their competitors. In other words, disrupt the disruptors.

There are companies out there being disrupted by companies that are kind of born in the cloud, born in blockchain; everything is kind of new and shiny, they’re able to take advantage of new technologies, and they have to have some secret sauce that’s able to get them in the business, and many are looking to blockchain to be that. You think they’re going to be successful?

I think they will. I mean, I’ve seen other technologies that I had good faith in that didn’t quite make it. This is one that I think I see the benefit, I see the value, and have high hopes that I think it’s going to come out the other end as being a game changer for a lot of people. And the fact that I’m seeing such a big investment by so many on it right now bodes well that hopefully I’m right. But time will eventually tell. When you get folks like IBM and Wal-Mart and Maersk the big shipping lane, and De Beers Diamonds, and major pharmaceuticals all looking at building blockchain solutions to help them deal with some of their supply chain problemsthese aren’t small people, and they’re not spending small money. So they’re hoping it comes out the other end also.

Yeah, and I think that ultimately we’re moving in this direction, and I think using it as not necessarily a strategic technology, but something that can really solve a lot of tactical problems out there. The big strength of blockchain is it’s not a proprietary piece of technology; it’s a standard out there that was developed by many people and also developed for other purposes, which is kind of the way good technology shows up.

We see something that is leverage for something else, in this case Bitcoin and cryptocurrency, and we’re able to move it into other things where we’re missing some of the core pieces to do secure transactions in and between companies in a secure peer-to-peer way. So where are we going to be in five years? Is everything going to be on blockchain? Are we going to have blockchain mobile voting? I actually had a reporter call me about that.

And I’ve seen some experiments done in the voting space on blockchain and some of the others, and that goes into that high hype side of blockchain, that blockchain is going to solve every technology problem that we have, which it isn’t. Blockchain’s going to solve some challenges; blockchain isn’t going to solve others. In the voting space, my God, with all of the issues we’ve had with voting, I can’t picture people willing to trust electronic voting in any way, shape, or form any time in the near future. Just because it’s a black box that I don’t think the average user would be willing to accept.

You’re saying we can trust blockchain; at least the first couple paragraphs of your article; it will help us with our food supply. Seems like it works there. And it has some rudimentary kind of dependability that’s built in to the fact that we’re doing synchronized trust at the end of the day; centralized trust, synchronized trust between different peers. Seems to me... we’re probably going to have more success doing that than trying to build this stuff in different ways.

I mean, I think it will - I think it’s got the potential for getting there on that...that’s just one of the ones I think from a cultural perspective. From a technology perspective, I think you could do it. From a cultural perspective, getting people to accept it will be the bigger challenge. I see that as part of the challenge even now inside of companies because it is a fundamentally different way of doing transactions in electronic system that a lot of people are still not feeling warm and fuzzy about because “it’s not what I’m used to.” But that’s changing, and I think eventually, in the next five years it will probably change more for other use case scenarios where people would be even more hesitant to adopt it.

Well, other use cases that have been brought to my attention would [include] data integration. I actually wrote a paper on data integration using blockchain that was probably a little out ahead of its time, but I’m not sure that [wasn’t] a solution looking for a problemtrying to apply to different areas, but it does have some valid data integration sync points. I wouldn’t put every piece of data integration through it, but for this validated data integration thing I guess you’re dealing with supply chain at the root.It’s data integration, moving information between various entities, and so why not use it for intra-company data integration patterns and things like that?

In that space, I’ve seen a lot of interest and work being done in the electronic health records space. Looking at blockchain for being able to deal with the fact that your health records are chains of events and you’re dealing with multiple entities, whether it be doctors, hospitals, insurance companies, and everything; but in theory, ultimately your health record is your health record.

And so people are looking at blockchain where you literally have your ‘health record wallet,’ like you have a Bitcoin wallet, and you yourself can control and say that “I give Dr. X permission to look at my health records” in the blockchain, and that’s all taken care of. And again, because today it goes across so many disparate systems, trying to get your health records shared amongst doctors can be a challenge at best.

Yeah, and I think it would benefit everybody to do that. In healthcare records, your ability to even deal with treatments versus outcomes; your ability to have things that are innately going to be private via this technology, there’s lots of little applications.

But I think the danger is that we’re going to over-apply it, and therefore really not understand where its core value or core use case to make it successful is, and I think it’s going to be supply chain. It is going to be this subordinate data integration but intra-company and not inter-company; and I think that’s where it’s going to have its value. So do you think we’ll be talking about blockchain in the next five years?

I think so, yeah. I think it’s here to stay; I think it’s going to have an impact. It’s taken a while for it to take off, but then any disruptive technology tends to do that, so we’ve gone through the cycles before. It literally took a while before cloud actually took off. I mean, cloud had been building for quite a bit before it actually took off, and now nobody thinks twice about the fact that... I’m going to be thinking about ‘cloud first’ when I go and do things.

I think blockchain eventually - not as pervasive as cloud, but I think it’s going to be one of those technologies that it’s just going to be, “Yeah, this is a tool in my toolbox and it’s going to help me solve problems and going to help me get business done in new and different ways.”

Couldn’t agree more than that. So where can we find more information about blockchain? Where do you typically learn?

There’s lots of different places I go out to for information on that. I always recommend to people, when they ask for stuff to read, I always recommend that they read the book by the Tapscotts; they are the blockchain high priests, the Tapscott brothers (Alex & Don). And while the stuff they write tends to be really high on the hype side, the reality is that when you’re talking to anybody about blockchain, you need to understand what the Tapscotts are telling people, because it’s going to be expected of them.

The hyperledger project, which is one of the blockchain implementations that’s in the open source space, is a great wealth of information around that...Ethereum. Hyperledger and Ethereum are probably the two biggies out there that I point people toto look at just to get a general understanding of how they’re implemented because they are both blockchain implementations, but how they implement them, how they do consensus, is different - and understanding that is important.

It’s the classic - when you’re building technology systems, understanding the tradeoffs and...the implementations provide different types of tradeoffs, and you need to understand which ones fit for your type of business on it.

And another thing I point people to (I don’t know if you’ve seen it at all), is the R3 Consortium. They have done what I consider a very fascinating implementation. They don’t call it blockchain anymore because they break some of the “blockchain rules” in the way they do things. It’s still a peer-to-peer, and they do some very interesting things around the consensus, and dealing with the volumes of data transfer through. I’m not sure if they’re making it out the other end. I know they’re struggling a little financially at the moment, but they have some fascinating technology that I point people to just get a better feel for: “Yeah, there are lots of different ways to skin this cat.”

Absolutely, that’s great advice, Ed. So anyway, please pick up a copy of my book, Cloud Computing and SOA Convergence, available on Amazon and other places books are sold; also make sure to follow me on Twitter @DaveLinthicum, also on LinkedIn, where I have several cloud computing courses on LinkedIn Learning. Also, Ed, where do we go to find out more about you? I picked up this off your LinkedIn page; should you send listeners there to check out your work?

Yup, go to my LinkedIn page. They can follow me on Twitter, @EFeatherston; fairly active both in Twitter and in the LinkedIn space. I’m usually publishing stuff up on our CloudTP Doppler site. They can find articles by me thereI’ve got a fair number of articles on blockchain because I love pontificating about blockchain.

Yeah, absolutely. So anyway, follow Ed; he’s a great podcast guest, but also a great thought leader in the space. He’s always looking at where the emerging stuff is going, so he’s one of the key indicators if you want to see if something’s worth investing in. Check to make sure Ed has a beat on it, and if he does, it’s typically something that’s going to make a move.

Until next time, best of luck in building your cloud computing solutions. We’ll talk to you in about a week. Take good care, bye.

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