The Baseline Protocol — your private business, on the public Ethereum blockchain. Why on earth?

The Baseline Protocol is an exciting new enterprise blockchain initiative from ConsenSys, Ernst & Young, and a dozen other large companies looking to sell juicy, juicy consulting hours.

The official ConsenSys press release doesn’t ever quite get around to telling you what the Baseline Protocol actually is. But there sure are some big company names involved! [Press release]

The important bit is that this is funded by the Ethereum Foundation and the Enterprise Ethereum Alliance — this is promotion for the Ethereum project as a whole.

There must still be a massive untapped market for my book, Attack of the 50 Foot Blockchain, three years later — because the same consulting companies are still pushing the same nonsense I was documenting then. Please turn to Chapter 11.


Reconcile your data!

The big promise in the press release is to synchronise your “internal systems of record” — your ERP software, your customer relations management, and other such mountains of virtual paperwork. This was a standard blockchain pitch in the 2016-2017 era.

This is the one thing large companies want. Your problem is pretty much always to sort out your data and your data formats.

Blockchain pushers keep making this promise over and over — and it’s always false. Blockchains won’t clean up your data for you. The business problem is cleaning up the data in the first place — or getting legacy systems talking to each other at all.

Those of you who’ve had a real job outside blockchain enterprises may recall that literally this promise was being made for the XML data format, around the turn of the millennium.

XML did help slightly with interoperability — but mostly what happened was many thousands of billable consultant hours getting all the XML systems to talk to each other, and months and years of work reconciling data and formats.

Private data on public Ethereum — with zero-knowledge proofs

The press release mentions a supply chain proof of concept called Radish34, which there’s no public information on. They say it went well.

A company called Unibright did most of the development work, and have blogged about it. Everything connects to “registrar smart contracts” on the Ethereum mainnet — which are handy public attack surfaces, should anyone want to hack your company. [Blog post]

Unibright ran an ICO in 2018 for its minor altcoin, UBT, which has been pumped hugely in the past couple of months on the few bottom-of-the-barrel exchanges it trades on. Unibright’s promotional video for its ICO describes things that don’t exist as if they do. (And spells “business” as “bussines.”) [ICOdrops; Unibright white paper, PDF; CoinMarketCap]

An enterprise-ready “experimental solution”

The key innovation Baseline offers is privacy for your smart contracts, business dealings and communications — even though you’re on a public blockchain. [Ledger Insights]

The claim is that zero-knowledge proofs let you do this — they use EY’s Nightfall ZKP for Ethereum. The README for the software’s GitHub repository says:

It is an experimental solution and still being actively developed … This is not intended to be a production-ready application and we do not recommend that you use it as such. [GitHub]

The Nightfall software — the secret sauce in this supposedly enterprise product, the pixie dust, the magical flying unicorn feathers — explicitly tells you not to use it in production.

Amy Castor spoke to Paul Brody from EY Blockchain for Decrypt. He insists that Nightfall is not experimental — despite his own company’s GitHub repo saying so — and is actually “quite mature.” I’m sure we can trust the extensive sales and management experience on his CV. [Decrypt, LinkedIn]

But never mind that the key component doesn’t even claim to work yet — look at the promises!

“You could do invoice factoring on the main net out in the open, without your competitor knowing anything about your invoices,” John Wolpert of ConsenSys told Ledger Insights.

Business has worked for a few millennia now without putting all its records out in the street for random passers-by to try their hand at code-breaking.

I remain deeply unconvinced that even putting hashes of private documents on a public blockchain is a good idea. The only use case I can think of is confirming leaks from anonymous whistleblowers.

So, why would you put your private business onto a public blockchain in the first place — when you could just not do that?

“So much of this is driven by vendors,” said Brody to Ledger Insights. “They have FUD to dispense to you so that they can sell you a private blockchain that comes with the illusion of security instead of the transparency and inspectability of a public network.”

“There’s one internet, there needs to be one main net,” said Wolpert.

This is gibberish on a number of levels. You could always not use a gratuitous blockchain.

Comparing Ethereum to the Internet has the problem that the Internet works reliably, and scales. Ethereum literally doesn’t scale up to cat pictures — CryptoKitties blocked the whole network for a day. Enterprise-ready!

Ethereum’s proof-of-work energy waste is not yet at the level of crime against humanity that Bitcoin’s is, but it’ll get there. You probably don’t want that on your business, either.

Ethereum’s move to proof-of-stake and scalability have been coming in six months’ time for the past six years. I wish them well — but I’ll believe it’ll ever happen when it happens.

To be fair

This publicity push is ridiculously premature.

This is an attempt to put together a protocol that might achieve these things — it is not, at this point, a product. Whatever EY might be telling the press. [Baseline Protocol home page]

This is much closer to starting an ambitious hypothetical computer science project than announcing a product — even if all those companies in the press release are seeing only the prospect of juicy consulting hours.

Wolpert has been doing his best with the public relations work — we had a useful chat on Twitter. e.g., the use of Nightfall is a placeholder for Baseline probably needing to use zero-knowledge proofs of some sort. [Twitter thread]

Baseline is really about the EEA and EF developing a protocol under the guidance of OASIS, a standards organisation who’ve done good stuff — most famously the Open Document Format (ODF), as used in OpenOffice, LibreOffice and Microsoft Word, and often required by government contracts.

OASIS is a competent standards organisation — but standards without a robust reference implementation, for reality-checking, tend to turn into talking-shop guff that should usually be ignored.

Things to ask your Baseline consulting salesman

As a product, Baseline has many important unanswered questions, such as:

  • Do the exciting bits even exist and work properly yet, or is all the good stuff in the fabulous future?
  • So when is the bit that does all the magic stuff going to be a finished product, and when will it stop telling people not to use it?
  • Just how big was the Radish34 pilot, and why haven’t you released one dot of information on it?
  • Ethereum can’t scale up to cat pictures. You want me to trust my business to this?
  • The public Ethereum blockchain is so large it takes weeks to synchronise. Why would I trust my livelihood to this?
  • Why the hell would I put my private business on the public Ethereum blockchain? What sort of idiot nonsense is this?

Yes, but should I buy into Baseline? It sounds really cool!

No, you idiot. Probably not without a lot of due care and consideration. Ask yourself the following:

  • Does magic happen? If something sounds too good to be true, how likely is it to be true?
  • Is there someone above me in the org chart who loves this idea?
  • When it fails expensively and disastrously, how do I not get any on me?
  • Can my consultant get me a job in EY Blockchain when I do get some of this disaster on me?
  • Can I use this as a real-world production example in a blockchain white paper yet? (trick question — the answer is always “yes”)

Enterprise consulting is big on solving companies’ self-inflicted problems — and enterprise blockchain consulting sells you the problem, too.


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