Inside the Blockchain Factory: How IBM’s Distributed Ledger Work Went Global

For one of the world’s largest tech companies, “small” is a relative term.

So when IBM, a tech conglomerate that boasts 380,000 employees, says it has a “small” team working on blockchain, by startup standards, it’s anything but.

Far from just building a garage and staffing it with a few engineers, IBM has created IBM Garage, a fully fledged product for companies that want access to its expertise, itself just one way it is seeking to operationalize its team of 1,500 blockchain professionals now operating out of a dozen offices.

Perhaps more impressively, all those moving parts are choreographed by one person: Marie Wieck, a 20-year veteran of IBM and the general manager of its newly created blockchain unit.

In an exclusive interview with CoinDesk, Wieck explained what it takes to build distributed networks using both its proprietary IBM Blockchain Platform and the open-source Hyperledger Fabric, which her firm helped pioneer. For companies looking to gain access to one of those networks, build their own network or compete against IBM, the step-by-step description provides a rare glimpse into how the $135 billion company conducts its blockchain business.

Speaking from her office at IBM’s Watson headquarters in downtown Manhattan (one half of what is internally referred to as “Blockchain North”), Wieck painted a picture of a distributed team that in many ways mirrors a blockchain in its design.

She told CoinDesk:

“We’re trying to keep as co-located as possible with the teams working together so we can really focus on the speed to market that we want to see.”

Blockchain North

While her job now is buzzing back and forth between the Manhattan location and the Thomas J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, New York (the other half of Blockchain North), Wieck first started working with IBM back in 1997 when she joined as a founding member of the company’s nascent internet unit.

As part of this team, she began a career of finding business use cases for cutting-edge technology that would eventually include XML, web services and mobile, preparing her in many ways for her current task of helping IBM’s clients with blockchain.

The “solution work” of this process – as Wieck calls it – is centered around Blockchain North, the assembly line mechanism of the project, where staff help clients around the world build applications using the IBM Blockchain Platform.

Due in large part to the open-source code at the core of IBM’s blockchain strategy, one which lets clients build on their own distributed ledgers as well, Wieck frequently doesn’t get involved until the clients – or potential clients – are already well advanced in their work.

As for work on that open-source platform, and the IBM Blockchain Platform itself, that largely takes place 511 miles south.

Blockchain South

IBM Research Triangle Park

Known as “Blockchain South,” the Research Triangle Park offices in Raleigh, North Carolina, are home to what Wieck calls IBM’s “platform work.”

This is where the IBM Blockchain Platform – unveiled for enterprises last month – has been developed for the past three years. The platform is designed to be an end-to-end or “full-cycle” solution where developers and managers can experiment with the technology, building it and testing it either by the hour or via subscriptions.

This platform is the machinery that in part cranks out the solutions in Blockchain North. But “platform work” also has another meaning at Blockchain South.

For builders around the world with a more adventurous bent, this is also where they can go to hire help on projects that bypass IBM’s proprietary platform and go straight to its open-source core: Hyperledger Fabric.

While Fabric comprises about one-third the total code used in the proprietary IBM Blockchain Platform, anyone can build on it – even if what they want to create is a direct competitor to IBM.

“Whatever they need to do at the technical level to operate or to build a blockchain network, we would like to see continuing to expand in that platform,” said Wieck.

Littleton, Massachusetts

IBM Mass Lab - Littleton campus

IBM’s newest blockchain offices are located at the IBM Mass Lab in Littleton, Massachussets.

Originally opened in January 2010 as what was then touted by IBM as the largest software development lab in North America, the location now serves as a satellite location of sorts for Blockchain North.

But instead of being focused on solutions work generally, the location is helping develop what Wieck calls “solution accelerators,” or frequently used widgets such as the provenance engine required by many of IBM’s clients to track items.

Crucially, however, this is also the base operations for another kind of solution: governance.

Based on the lessons learned from other implementations, IBM uses the Littleton branch to help companies write software to onboard new members, develop consensus mechanisms so they can find ways to agree, and if things go wrong, kick bad actors off the network.

Or as Wieck put it:

“How to actually operate a network at scale.”

In the garage

IBM Bluemix Soho

Arguably the most startup-like component of IBM’s blockchain work, Wieck also oversees nine “Bluemix Garages” scattered around the world, in New York City, Toronto, San Francisco, London, Nice, Tokyo, Singapore, Austin and Melbourne.

Initially launched in 2014, the collaborative locations are similar to WeWork facilities, but with startups hand-selected to receive support from IBM.

Gradually, those locations are being adapted to accommodate increasing demand by blockchain companies. Most recently, this July, the BlueMix Garage in the Soho area of New York (pictured above) expanded to include support for blockchain services.

At these disparate locations, and in any real garages where people build on the open-source technology Wieck helped develop, she said the basic principles that form IBM’s blockchain networks first take root.

“To me, it’s kind of like a mall,” she said, concluding:

“You may have the anchor tenants, but you don’t stay in a mall unless the food court is good, there’s good movies playing. You want all of those value-added services around that network.”

Globe image via Shutterstock; IBM office images via Michael del Castillo for CoinDesk

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