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The Integrity of the IoT: Blockchain Levels the Playing Field

By Cynthia S. Artin
May 14, 2018

As we move into the next phase of massive IoT and Industrial IoT (IIoT) roll outs, the community of connected everything finds itself faced with integration challenges unlike any we’ve seen over the last several decades. 

There are so many different protocols, languages, vendors, platforms, and approaches, it’s no wonder service providers and enterprises have been slow to move out with implementations and offerings. It’s daunting to know that if they select one path forward, they may end up having chosen the “Betamax” version vs. VHS, only to find out VHS was going to cave in to DVDs and ultimately open source streaming media techniques that render all legacy technology useless. 

The evolution of everything-as-a-service (XaaS), including network-as-a-service (NaaS), and the adoption of cloud-only applications attached to edge-computing for more real-time applications requiring low-latency processing is turning connectivity upside down, forcing the industry to innovate again. What’s driving innovation? 

Economics, for certain. 

And security, for sure. 

Michael Hathaway has been a visionary in Machine-to-Machine technology for decades, a witness and accomplice to the evolution of “telematics” to “M2M” to “IoT” even as the acronyms changed. Fascinated with the value created when companies can control machines virtually, optimizing their yield, predicting requirements for maintenance, and improving safety on site, Hathaway built a reputation within Industrial IoT industry advising and developing pilot projects for fortune 50 companies like AT&T and Chevron. He has had extensive experience in developing specialized processing architectures for processing network protocols, ranging from a high-speed Internet Router processing projects at DARPA and Ironbridge Networks in the mid 1990’s to his involvement in the early Network Processor industry in the early 2000’s. For the last 10 years he has applied this experience towards developing solutions that translate legacy automation protocols and blockchain protocols into a common secure communication layer at Information Xchange and now Windmill Enterprise.

“Along the way, we like a lot of other companies focused on the hardware and software, networks and applications needed to enable humans to control remote machines for many good reasons,” Hathaway said. “And we did it! It’s been an incredibly exciting time, and we’ve created a ton of value getting the flywheel turning. In fact, it’s the success of remote control which has driven new concerns about how to secure all these transactions, especially when it comes to critical infrastructure. What we’ve learned from this is that Administration becomes the key challenge as assets are increasingly scattered outside the direct control of IT firewalls.” 

Hathaway has been at work with some of the greatest minds in the IoT world, in part through his company’s joining up with the Linux Foundation’s EdgeX Foundry, a community working together to solve for big challenges at the very edge of the IoT. 

“It only makes sense for our industry to work together to develop common frameworks and standards, given the nature of the digitally connected world,” Hathaway said. “Open is good, but open also needs orchestration and when it comes to secure orchestration, we saw a huge need to solve for security of transactions, or sessions, at a mass scale.” 

This insight drove Hathaway a year ago to invest in leveraging blockchain to secure the IoT, and other enterprise systems, with a disruptive vendor-neutral, blockchain agnostic and trusted technology. 

Hathaway and his partners established Windmill Enterprise, enabling the resilient and redundant storage of an encrypted permission base (or permibase) which keeps information about which devices and people have access to which data and can only be changed upon consensus.

“We saw an opportunity to create a blockchain-based ledger enabling an enterprise to implement security on any of its internet connected devices on-site, without having to transport the data,” Hathaway said. “Enterprise data-hosting sites are empowered to check the blockchain stored permissions each time a query is responded to dynamically.”

Hathaway went on to explain the difference between scenarios today, and in the future. 

“Today, an enterprise signs up for an IoT Cloud or SaaS service that requires them to agree to the service providers service and privacy agreement. Essentially, the cloud provider imposes their security policies on the enterprise. How does this scale? How can enterprises possibly manage a plethora of privacy and service agreements across dozens of vendors?  Our approach flips the tables, and instead enables the Enterprise to enforce THEIR security policies upon service providers wherever they share data or device access.”

Their new product Cognida which becomes generally available later this year, delivers trusted blockchain solutions that address the increasingly complex information sharing challenges that enterprises face by allowing them to incorporate decentralized blockchain security features into their existing infrastructure. 

“Enterprises can leverage Cognida’s Service Network Interface to connect to trusted service networks where they can administer third-party cloud services from a single interface,” Hathaway said, “enabling administrators to manage privacy, access, and security of their data on remote systems through a unified platform. This addresses a huge, understandably challenging barrier that has slowed down roll outs of connected factories, offices, mobile assets, and other applications given the complexity multi-vendor systems create.”

As enterprises adopt new distributed technologies, the data landscape is evolving away from centralized services maintained behind corporate firewalls to a complex distributed landscape. This trend has corporate data scattered across devices and services outside the enterprises’ administrative control.

“Our decentralized blockchain approach allows IT teams to gain control in an increasingly distributed data landscape,” Hathaway said. 

“To roll out truly valuable connected machine deployments, the gap between enterprises and blockchains must be bridged so blockchain integrity is not altered and organizations can retain and administer service relationships with providers on their terms.” 

Empowering enterprise IT teams is the goal, but the way forward towards that goal is entirely open and collaborative. Windmill is introducing an open-source foundation as part of the launch of the Cognida Service Network based on enterprise-controlled blockchain systems.  

In a white paper, Windmill says enterprises on the verge of embracing the technologies face several issues: 

  • Blockchains are inherently anonymous and their transactions are performed in a trustless manner which is incongruent with enterprise security policies which require known and trusted services and transactions on their network.
  • Services and ledger data are decentralized and distributed across anonymous locations. Enterprise security traditionally uses centralized security with equipment located in known locations.
  • Enterprise security administration is done in a hierarchical fashion. Administrators and Managers have varying levels of access and control within the enterprise. Blockchain security is not natively hierarchical. While existing smart contract technologies address some of these challenges, they are difficult to map to complex administrative hierarchies found within enterprises.

“Our contribution to the evolution of secure networking is simple,” Hathaway said. “Enterprises will not have to choose one blockchain with the built-in compatibilities, given the availability of standardized security APIs for interaction with multiple blockchains. Portability has been addressed early, allowing migration between blockchains or the ability to utilize multiple blockchains.” 

Built-in optimized interoperability allows best possible utilizations of different blockchains, according to the white paper, with distributed permissions (removing single-point-of-failure and enabling multiple stakeholders), trusted relationships (with anonymized ledger data unreadable outside trusted stakeholders) and secure interaction with service providers (enabling third-party services to address volatile cryptocurrencies associated with Blockchains to offer predictable cost structures). 

Hathaway believes, based on a year of collaboration with their customers, partners, service providers, industry analysts and tech giants that taking a neutral, blockchain agnostic approach and looking at the world of communications as an uber-exchange requiring real-time fluency, without giving up security, will be the force that unlocks massive value in the IoT, IIoT and any connected machine or human communications network. 

“We have to keep the bad guys out,” Hathaway says, “to allow the good guys to flourish. Blockchain applications are many, but for us, using blockchain to secure the hyperconnected world was a focused mission that we wanted to solve – working with the community in creative new ways.”

Edited by Ken Briodagh

Contributing Writer

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