A New Trusted Compute API for Ethereum Blockchain Solutions

Ethereum

At Devcon4 this week, Intel joined with other leaders in the Ethereum community to introduce a new application specification called the Trusted Compute API (TC API). This new specification has generated much enthusiasm from the community as it promises to help improve the scalability and privacy of Ethereum transactions. 

The TC API originated in the Enterprise Ethereum Alliance (EEA).  A technical working group called the Trusted Execution Task Force formed in late 2017 with a goal of identifying a common way for Ethereum smart contracts to utilize off-chain compute resources. The group’s motivation was that off-chain trusted compute could help accelerate execution of complex smart contracts, and help preserve privacy of sensitive off-chain data.

Ethereum in Brief

Ethereum is a public blockchain network that has amassed over 250,000 developers1, $15B2 in initial coin offerings (ICOs), and a $20B cryptocurrency3. As opposed to the centralized, institutional trust model of traditional transaction networks, decentralized computational trust lays at the heart of transactions that execute on the Ethereum blockchain.

Trusted Compute API

The TC API announced at Devcon4 extends the notion of decentralized trust to off-chain workloads. With the TC API, transactions can execute in an off-chain compute environment and then return results to the main Ethereum blockchain. 

The TC API was developed within EEA, and it can be used with both the public Ethereum network where cryptocurrency is traded as well as with emerging private Ethereum networks deployed by businesses.

Scalability and Privacy

The off-chain compute enabled by TC API can scale and accelerate transaction execution as well as improve data privacy. Scalability is a significant issue for blockchain networks. The decentralized nature of a blockchain requires multiple computers to validate a transaction before that transaction can be considered valid. That means more network nodes can actually slow network performance for on-chain transactions. 

Privacy is another challenge for blockchain networks. Multiple parties operate on a common blockchain infrastructure which raises the question: which parties can see which transactions and associated data? 

The TC API helps improve both scalability and data privacy. By moving transactions off-chain, a developer can choose to use additional hardware for more complex tasks, which helps transaction throughput. For privacy, that data can be kept off-chain with less data on the main blockchain.

Trusted Execution Environments and the TC API

Developers implementing the TC API will find that Trusted Execution Environments (TEEs) like Intel® Software Guard Extensions (Intel® SGX) play a key role.  First, Intel® SGX technology can provide an attestation that a specific workload has been loaded into the TEE.  While the workload is executing in the TEE, Intel SGX ensures that the code and data cannot be observed or manipulated from outside the TEE.  Finally, the workload can cryptographically sign the data that resulted from completed execution and return those results to the main chain. This approach can help ensure that the right workload executes to completion and delivers a valid result.

Developers Support the TC API

At Devcon4 this week, several developers are speaking about their intent to support the TC API with their software solutions, including: ConsenSys, Enigma, iExec, Microsoft and Oasis Labs.

ConsenSys is developing several blockchain ecosystem initiatives that seek to scale to millions of users and billions of transactions. Specifically, ConsenSys is developing “Layer 2” solutions incorporating trusted compute solutions based on EEA compliant APIs which allow offloading heavy compute and storage workloads to trusted off-chain compute, thereby delivering desired scalability and privacy while maintaining decentralization. 

Enigma is contributing to EEA TC standards and building the privacy layer using their decentralized privacy protocol for the decentralized web. Enigma believes its implementation of TC with stateful computations provides robust cross-organization collaboration opportunities for sharing data responsibly, capitalizing on missed opportunities, and preserving data privacy.

iExec announced availability of their Intel SGX-based scalable solution for businesses to secure blockchain-based computing. This solution leverages the EEA TC API specification, which iExec experts believe is a great milestone for the Ethereum community to preserve privacy and provide trusted computing.

Microsoft is applying enclaves to the blockchain layer with Confidential Consortium Blockchain Framework (CCBF formerly code-named Coco) and Enterprise Smart Contracts to provide scalable off-chain compute for building multi-party, multi-blockchain applications. The TC API can help more application developers access off-chain compute and bring the power of blockchains and the cloud together.

Oasis Labs is building a privacy-first cloud computing platform on blockchain. The Oasis platform aims to help users regain control of their data and unlock the potential of privacy-preserving machine learning and AI to enable fundamentally new applications across many industries. Oasis Labs is working with Intel to accelerate adoption of encrypted enclave technology such as SGX and usher in a new era of privacy-first computing.

Where Will This Go?

The TC API provides a glimpse into a future that some call “web 3.0.” It is a world in which distributed services draw on the specific data they need, and consumers gain control over the services that they use and the data that they share with each service, and perhaps are compensated for use of their data. TC API is a first step toward a web 3.0 future.

The next steps I recommend for developers are to use the TC API specification, work with Intel to help evolve the specification as it advances, and become a member of the Enterprise Ethereum Alliance.

Footnotes
  1. TrustNodes https://www.trustnodes.com/2018/04/11/ethereum-tops-list-developers 
  2. Reuters https://www.reuters.com/article/us-cryptocryptocurrency-token-offerngs/digital-currency-sales-hit-13-7-billion-in-first-five-months-of-2018-report-idUSKBN1JO2XP 
  3. Coin Market Cap https://coinmarketcap.com/currencies/ethereum 
 
 Michael Reed

Michael J Reed is Director of Intel’s Blockchain Program Office, where he manages a team responsible for delivering new blockchain ledgers and applications that utilize unique elements of Intel® architecture. Mike has more than 20 years’ experience funding and driving technology ventures related to blockchain, crypto-currency, online payments, RFID, Internet of Things, cloud computing and consumer electronics.

Follow Michael on Twitter and LinkedIn 

For more complete information about compiler optimizations, see our Optimization Notice.