Hanging Out with the Chain Gang, Part 1

So, I got an opportunity to attend the Ethereal Summit this past week, and I’m glad that I did. It was my first time, and it was worth it. Why? For a number of reasons. Also, strangely, I found it interesting to see Joe Lubin casually walking down a street in Red Hook, especially when I remember how the ‘hood used to be when the movie Made was shot. In addition to surreal imagery, it was a pleasant experience for the exposure to all of the different projects. Plus, it didn’t hurt that The Red Hook Lobster Pound was just a few doors down.

On the first day, I attended a few workshops, but the one that especially caught my attention was an Ethereum-based platform for VPN called Orchid. Some people might chastise me for not knowing about it, saying that it’s been around for years. But I’m an old man who lives under a rock, so many “ancient” things are new to me. In any case, it was one of those ideas where you say “Oh, yeah, of course that makes sense! Why didn’t I think of that?” After listening to the presentation for only a few minutes, I was sold on the idea. I only wish that I had taken a better picture (which is the one shown below):

I listened to a few presentations from the main stage, but they seemed rather short and bit rapid in pace. Afterwards, I decided to visit the exhibition area with all of the vendor booths. (Which, I was told, had sadly shrunk to a fraction of its size from last year and its crypto “good times”). I walked past the free candy stand, drank my cucumber water with my pinkie out, and checked out the nearby booths. It was then that one booth and its XBox caught my eye:

The gentleman sitting down seemed oddly familiar to me, but I had a hard time placing where I had seen him before. Little did I know at that moment, he was more or less the guest of honor at this summit. Because this event was mostly about one major player who had now taken a profound liking to the Ethereum platform: Microsoft. As I would soon learn during the course of the next day.

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Product Review: Azure Blockchain Workbench

So, until there’s a Kubernetes Operator for an Ethereum test chain (or something comparable where you click a button to get everything running and perfect), it seems like you’ll have to do things a little more manually when it comes to setting up an Ethereum development environment in the cloud. Why’s that? Because with a nascent tech like Ethereum, everything keeps changing rapidly, and a Docker image with an embedded Ethereum testchain and dev tools will be outdated in just a few months. So, in the end, you’d have to do the same thing anyway with just a basic Docker image: download the latest packages, make any needed adjustments to get a testchain working, and then refactor your code (Solidity, etc.) so that it’ll now compile without warnings or errors.

Sigh

So, when I heard that Microsoft had created a service that would wrap around Ethereum, my eyes started to sparkle. Finally, I wouldn’t have to worry about playing the role of admin or devops, so that I can just develop…

…but then I promptly stopped and thought “Wait a minute? Microsoft? Creating a PaaS with Ethereum? Hmmmm…I don’t know about that…” Still, though, I’m willing to try anything once, so I decided to give Blockchain Workbench a chance.

So, I tried out Workbench to get a quick impression, and after a few hours, I think that I have a fair assessment of it. Now, if you’re a beginner, I’d recommend it: it’s a good place for an Ethereum beginner with an Azure account. But (and I’m trying not to be too harsh here), I would say that’s where its potential would be maxed out. Beyond being interactive teaching software for enterprise officers to learn about blockchain, I doubt that it’s something Ethereum developers or proponents would ever use. Not only is the Ethereum node completely hidden and inaccessible, the Workbench is an abstract wrapper around the node, so abstract that it becomes an hindrance to even communicate with the node. In the end, it’s completely unfriendly to a developer, an opinion which seems to be shared by others.

However, I will agree with Dimitrios on a second point: Microsoft’s template for Ethereum PoA could be useful. After experimenting with that one for an hour, I could totally see a consortium opting to try it out as a shared Ethereum solution.

Quick Tangent: Maybe When I’m Dead

I always think about circling back to my haunted house game, especially since it seems that the tech stack gets a little closer each year to making the design viable. And now, just a few days ago, the IEEE standard for precise locations was announced to be released in March! That means silicon designs could be just around the corner, right…?

…right?

Oh, let’s be honest. At this rate, I’ll be one of the ghosts in my game before this damn thing ever gets done.

DevCon IV, The Resurrection: Part 4

The lectures were interesting, but let’s not forget one of the most important purposes of the conference: to reconnect with old friends (of which I spent most of my time towards the end). And connect with new ones! Speaking of which, it looks like Microsoft has decided to move into the neighborhood, complete with their spanking new workbench:

They did a good job trying to sell it, especially for Ethereum users. For the grizzled developers like me, I appreciate that they’re trying to entice more of the enterprise people (i.e., oldtimers) to Ethereum by integrating existing platforms (like BizTalk) with the blockchain. I’m still not sure about their approach with BizTalk, and I still prefer my solution to their solution…but who knows? Maybe it just needs some time to mature.

It seemed like only a few more minutes passed by, but when I looked up at the board, it was practically over!

I could hear the singing that signaled the unfortunate end of the 4-day event. I couldn’t say what was worse: it was already finished for this year, or somebody still thought that it was a good idea to close the show with a sing-a-long in the style of Ned Flanders at Bible Camp.

Minus the singing, I’m already looking forward to next year!

DevCon IV, The Resurrection: Part 3

Of course, there were some events that I should have attended but did not (like the Buterin talk), but I lost so much time in conversations with people. Eventually though, on another day of the conference, I decided to pry myself from talking and follow one crowd to a lecture, as everyone poured into one of the larger lecture rooms. I wondered what this talk would be about…and then out walked Emin Gün Sirer! I had heard of him, and I knew that he was doing some work on Serenity…but, ultimately, being the newb that I am, I didn’t actually know in detail. (I learned later that he assists Buterin and others with ideas regarding sharding.) As it turned out, though, this lecture was more of an argument for Avalanche instead of Casper. So, what exactly is Avalanche? Sirer eloquently and amusingly put an end to my ignorance, as he launched into an explanation.

Unbeknownst to me (since I am, in fact, a newb), Casper wasn’t the only popular proof-of-work algorithm that was out there. Where Casper relies on disincentives in its trustless model, Sirer explained that Avalanche relied more on statistics and random sampling. Since all memories of my S&P 101 class in college were now holes in my brain chewed out by chronomice, I’ll admit it: I didn’t understand it completely. But I was still dubious since mischievous behavior wasn’t taken into account. Like Casper’s Vlad Zamfir had said: “We don’t get to take a probabilistic model of the network for granted [in my opinion].” In any case, though, it was an interesting talk, and I appreciated his passion for his project. He was confident, enough so that he even wanted to create a platform and token based on his work:

It was an informative and entertaining presentation, and he probably won over some people. Personally, it gave me an appreciation of the thriving competition for passionate ideas in this nascent community. More importantly, it showed me that there was an open-minded attitude here not often found elsewhere. Given that Casper has been the picked implementation for the next version of Ethereum, the organizers of DevCon could have shut out any dissenting opinions. Instead, though, they had embraced this alternate idea and had given Sirer a platform to advocate it. I now appreciated this whole movement on a grander scale.

Let’s hope that it will stand the test of time.