A Lesser Evil – Inside the ‘Trusted’ Alternative to Blockchain – Accelor
Silicon Valley is full of self professed ‘disruptors' and startups that profess that they want to help make the world a better place, change the face of an industry, or shake up an established system. But none have the audacity as to state that it will go on to take a metaphorical sledgehammer to the infrastructural roadblocks that prevent blockchain from pushing ahead.
Nevertheless, here we are, talking in retrospect about . just one of these Silicon Valley startups, called Accelor, which, earlier in March, professed that it would do just that, and earning a total of $2 million in order to make it happen. And with a go to market strategy and product that was alleged to be market ready and would move technology on to the next stage, is it at all possible that it will live up to these lofty expectations?
First, it's important to get a grip of what this killer product is exactly, and how it professes to change the face of this market. For starters, this product is a chip, known only as a Field Programmable Gate Array, sounds like Science Fiction, but is it more Science or Fiction?
For one, critics of this FPGA have made the argument that this chip will introduce a great deal of risk when it comes to the security of any company that would try to use it. These statements are because the chip itself professes to ratchet up the throughput, and was itself programmable on the fly, making it adaptable to specific products, but raises some risks in the minds of potential investors and buyers.
According to the founders of Accelor, they argue that the opposite is true, and illustrate the fact that the potential vulnerabilities within the software of blockchain provide a problem that . can be solved with the use of its chips, which are being made to present real use cases for industries ranging from 5G Communications technology to robotics.
“We are using hardware to solve the performance, security and decentralization issues the whole blockchain community is facing right now,” GJ Chu, the co-founder of Accelor continues. “Lots of people are racing to fix that, including Intel. Our solution will avoid potential risk, potential attack.”
The team itself has a good deal of credibility to the arguments that they put forward, thanks in large part to the kind of technical credentials that they bring to the company. And they have a great deal of optimism when it comes to their technology overall. Considering the fact that between them, they have worked with some of worlds technology giants, including the likes of Samsung, Nvidia, AMD and Qualcomm.
But while this list of companies is enough to throw some off their metaphorical scent as they go off to market this semiconductor chip aimed at ‘enhancing' blockchain applications, there is one company that team members have ‘cut their teeth' with that has since raised a good deal of suspicion.
This company is Huawei, and a number of crypto news outlets such as Ledger Insights have gone so far as to actually demand commentary from the Accelor team regarding the reasoning for omitting Huawei when publishing its latest press release.
Should we be coming down hard on Accelor for not mentioning Huawei? Is this just a case of the team wanting to distance themselves from this recent employer? Or blamed further for wanting to make the technology to speak for itself on a pure use-case basis?
A Question of Huawei – Former Woes
Gaining a mixed reputation, but nonetheless a communications and electronics giant both in and outside of China, Huawei is a big name in the business, but not in the best terms with the likes of international players, especially the United States.
Largely this is due to an ever-growing list of controversies that it is finding itself embroiled in over the last few months, and as a result: it has fast become the go-to telecommunications company for intelligence agencies like the CIA, NSA and FBI to condemn and scrutinize.
These controversies have gotten so bad that the company has since been accused of being involved in an extensive line of cyber and corporate espionage, helping to push up the dominance of the Chinese Tech sector.
From its plant in Santa Clara, three of the now founders of the startup Accelor, worked for Huawei, and they have not escaped scrutiny and controversies themselves. An example of this is one of the former employees of a Huawei subsidiary company, FuterWei, who is now filing a lawsuit against the company under charges of harassment, discrimination, and unfair dismissal. Now suing the company for a total of $105 million, this employee was subject to these actions after complaining of the company's involvement in acts of corporate espionage.
When Accelor was asked why they had suspiciously left Huawei off its most recent press release, a spokesman for the company stated that the teams involvement with Huawei was not deemed relevant enough to be referenced in the press release. When pressed further, the spokesman stated that they simply intended to ‘pick the largest company names, with the best media clout, as it relates to semiconductors, which is the core of their product,” the spokesman went on to conclude.
Shooting for FPGAs
The co-founders of Accelor – Chu, Shiwen Hu, and Xiohan Ma decided to meet on a basketball court situated on the Santa Clara headquarters of Huawei. All three of these eventual founders had worked for the China-based telecommunications behemoth since at least 2016, and all three of them had previously studied, as well as worked inside the mainland United States since 2006.
While working for the company within Santa Clara, Chu worked as the Senio Strategy Director for the company, while both Ma and Hu worked within the HQ's division for hardware. During this same span of time, they would meet both in and outside of HW, meeting to play basketball in their downtime as well as socially interact during Huawei organized functions and lunches.
This talk moved from the idle, to the friendly and, from there, inevitably onto the prospect of new and emerging technolgy, specifically the prospect of developing a Field Programmable Gate Array (FGPA) which was the predominant tech that each of them had an involvement with, and the kind of potential that it had of resolving what was regarded as the ‘impossible triangle': the trio of decentralization, security and performance.
“The idea for Accelor came about when we realized the gap in the market in dedicated hardware to run blockchains applications,” Chu told Decrypt. “We had the expertise to develop such hardware, so we just jumped at the opportunity.”
For some greater context: a Field Programmable Gate Array is a kind of chip that possesses an electrical functionality that can be changed in order to match what it will be applied to. This makes it a very adaptable and versatile system for developers, as well as being a very cost-effective solution. As a result, these chips have rapidly gained a reputation as a celebrity reputation chip within the world of decentralized technology, allowing for lower latency, faster processing speeds and far better power efficiency.
What helps provide this with some credence, developers have already put these chips to use within industries like communications, UAVa, Artificial Intelligence, Radar defence systems, Robotics, as well as Satellites and in-vehicle navigation. When it comes to communications infrastructure, specifically for 5G communications solutions, the demand for FPGA's is forecasted to increase dramatically, rising by 100 percent over the next seven years, primarily due to their ability to be reprogrammed with relative ease.
Delivering on That Promise
While these FPGAs have already demonstrated plenty of uses within the world of blockchain mining, the reality is that the only kind of hardware being developed, with the lions share of development focusing in on software applications.
This is where the trio of Chu, Ma and Hu found that their FPGA technology, which they finally acted upon in July 2018. In July, the team announced their official resignation from Huawei, before moving rapidly to form a company, and managed to successfully attract 2 million dollars worth of seed funding from Chengwei Capital, a China-based capital firm.
After leaving the company, Chu, Ma and Hu spent the good part of a year steadily and covertly working on two products, with the later point of March seeing the company officially launching its complete and tested performance engine (APE) in order to optimize processes within software, including encryption performance, as well as a security architecture based on FPGA technology (ASA), which is designed to both eliminate threats and safeguard information.
At this moment in time, the products are awaiting shipment from the main production base of Accelor, which is situated in Nanjing, in China. So while these two products are in their later stages such as shipment, the company is eager to get to raising more capital in order to obtain the kind of potential they believe they have to provide users.
“We wanted to develop the product before raising further, to show that we could deliver on our promise,” says Chu.
Accelor – Under its Hood
The kind of security architecture that Accelor seeks to provide is a kind of security architecture that seeks to tackle the kind of outstanding hardware limitations that blockchain technology faces at the moment.
At this moment, blockchains of all kinds currently rely on CPUs which can deliberately or even inadvertently expose secure information and data. This is according to Chu, and devices like the Intel SGX Chip from Intel is one of the dominant products in the industry so far.
In order for this kind of system to work within blockchain, it needs to have a ‘trusted execution environment,' which provides a ring-fenced system of the Central Processing Unit is necessary for protecting the related cryptographic keys.
So long as blockchains continue to rely on the security services and products of a centralized manufacturer, then blockchain will never be able to be fully decentralized and secure. This is the viewpoint of Accelor thinkers like Chu believe about blockchain. Chu goes on to cite the likes of Spectre, Foreshadow as well as Meltdown, which showcase these issues: “It is paramount for the industry to move these intensive computing functions onto dedicated hardware,” says Chu.
CPU manufacturers have not been blind to this whole issue, as a number of manufacturers have since introduced a series of software patches in order to fix this issue of security, while Chu goes on to stress the fact that this dependency is placing far too much trust in the hands of one company, with the likes of Accelor and its solution providing its customers with far more flexibility towards security.
“We are using hardware to solve the performance, security and decentralization issues the whole blockchain community is facing right now,” he says. “Lots of people are racing to fix that, including Intel. Our solution will avoid potential risk, potential attack.”
While this is something that has drawn a good amount ot support, it is certainly not a matter of broad sweeping agreement. FPGA's are something that are still quite contentious for developers and their potential users. While they offer a great deal of potential, they are very susceptible to vulnerabilities, according to institutions like the United States Department of Defense. The Department has since issued a warning that their programmable systems make them an all too vulnerable target for malware, cyber attacks as well as malicious insertion operations.
While this is something that has since been pointed to by governmental organizations, the Accelor team works to rebuke this notion by illustrating the kind of threats make the assumption that the FPGA chip has been modified in some way so as to make it vulnerable, or that the vendors or manufacturers involved in FPGA shipping and production are untrustworthy.
In order to counter this claim, the team goes on to state that their products are subject to stringent third-party audits in order to assure their reliability in the hands of consumers.
Hampered by its FPGA or Marauded by the Past With Huawei?
Huawei has always sought to present itself as a truly international company, with its principles hinging upon an independent enterprise that is placed in the hands of its employees. Those that are more informed of the company in question understand that no company based in China would be able to succeed with some degree of support from the Chinese Communist Party.
There seems to be some credence to this association with the Chinese Communist Party, as the companies founder – Ren Zhengfei was formerly an officer-enlisted within the People's Liberation Army.
But, according to analysts and investors, the metrics of potential risk behind Huawei's tech remains relatively varied as opposed to solidly high or low.
“There is so far little to nothing to substantiate concerns,” working and speaking on behalf of the technology based advisory company – Ecostym, the principal analyst for Digital Transformation – Claus Mortensen had previously spoken to news outlets: “[But] it does appear logical that the U.S. should distrust systems designed and manufactured in a country that the U.S. sees a strategic adversary and a potential enemy.”
With many of its devices being designed within the United States, but being developed and built within China, the former of which being where Accelor's headquarters is based. Mortensen goes on to state that it is understandable why the company would want to take the time to downplay its previous connections and relationship with the Chinese telecommunications firm: “Clearly, it does not exactly help Accelor, that the company is founded by Huawei alumni—at least not in the current climate. Nor does it necessarily help that the key investor is a Chinese investment fund.”
Mortensen does continue on to state that, with the blockchain ecosystem still going on to become increasingly well defined, there are still some fundamental concerns regarding the technology in general and the kind of implications that relate to its security, the latter of which would take precedence over ties between themselves, Huawei and China.
The Trying Times
While Accelor has faced its fair share of scrutiny and potentially bad press, it is not letting any negative affiliations or bad press hold it back from what it wants to accomplish. With the company, having since been approved for its own patent in the United States, with a total of five currently undergoing pending application, it has already managed to successfully test out its technology via the private blockchain – IBM's Hyperledger Fabric Blockchain, which allowed it to achieve a total theoretical speed of 200,000 transactions per second.
“For real-time, blockchain payments to become a reality, performance has to improve,” says Cha. “Using FPGA improves it. We can achieve ten times better throughput.”
This technology has all the potential to be woven into the world of investment and finance, as the Accelor team has since announced that it is currently in talks with some potential banks and financial companies that would be interested in this technology.
It does seem to be quite ironic that these permissioned blockchain solutions are the most eager to press forward from ‘trusted hardware' solutions, and comes of as being so at odds with cryptos and their decentralized approach towards a security model.
For blockchain, trust in a centralized company for security services is somewhat unavoidable on account of the kind of market dominance that Intel has over the computing world – with its chips being used in almost 90 percent of computers across the world.
While this is very much the ironic reality for blockchain solutions the world over, these same public chains aren't oblivious. Vitalik Buterin, the Co-founder of Ethereum has taken polls of his existing community back in December 2016, asking them about the kind of trend towards making use of a more trusted system of hardware for private and public blockchain projects.
He found that his polling was met with an incredibly polarized response. But while the mixed responses demonstrated a community unsure of the best way forward, maybe it is time for these same developers to make a more robust foray into the application of blockchain centred, FPGA hardware.
While FPGA still has a good deal of work to do in order to acknowledge and finally redress the matters of security that have since cropped up regarding the hardware, it would be a greater shame for the community to just dismiss it out of hand.