Collaboration: Key to the first multicloud blockchain deployment

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Vertrax CEO Vinny Mullineaux (center) with Ken Zimmerman, CEO of Chateaux Software (left) and Vijay Rathna, Director of Enterprise Applications, Chateaux Software (right)

Individual data points are like fuel molecules waiting in pipelines and tanks to heat our homes or cook our food. Massive amounts of them sit inside supply chains and transactions, just needing a spark to unleash their transformative power.

Vertrax knows something about this. We create software solutions for participants in the oil and gas supply chain — the producers, suppliers and retailers who move bulk liquids like crude oil, natural gas liquids and derivatives like natural gas, propane, butane and more.

The business problem we’re trying to solve for is the ever-present, IT-caused inefficiencies that run the entire length of the oil and gas supply chain. Like unused propane sitting inside a tank, there’s a wealth of powerful data inside this supply chain — and as a result, a lack of transparency that leaves significant profit opportunities on the table for all participants, whether they’re competitors or collaborators, in a business with razor-thin margins.

In response, Vertrax has created a series of solutions that address these inefficiencies — and we’re doing it in a way no one else has done before.

See how blockchain solutions transform industries

Using AWS, we’ve built an innovative Sonar-based IoT platform that provides pinpoint accurate measurement of any bulk liquid energy product in any part of the supply chain. Our on-tank sensors measure bulk liquids inside of 20-pound barbeque cylinders, massive 200,000-gallon storage tanks and everything in between, feeding data and analytics to user dashboards that help customers make much smarter inventory management and storage replenishment decisions.

Additionally, we’ve used AWS to build a Transportation Management platform that manages trucking logistics for tracking and moving bulk liquids, driving efficiencies across pickups and deliveries — whether it’s to residential consumers, small businesses, agricultural concerns or other industrial users.

Why I am talking about solutions built on AWS on an IBM Blockchain blog?

Our AWS solutions have served our clients by gathering near real-time data and disseminating valuable insights. But in order to provide truly transformative supply chain visibility and efficiency for all participants, we knew we needed something more: blockchain.

It all started with the realization that developing a platform where participants could derive value from shared data using more traditional technology — although possible — would take a tremendous amount of time, money and vendor cooperation. It would also leave us far short of solving massive challenges like distributed data cleansing and security, data access based on permissions and much more.

We were often told by our customers, “We’re happy to share data on your platform, but we don’t want our competitors — who are also on this platform — getting access to our data,” as well as, “We want our data to be used by our customers to provide incremental value to our partnership — but it has to be in a secure way.” That’s why blockchain’s data encryption and permission-based access were so appealing.

A second need our customers told us about was addressing overly-lengthy payment and settlement issues. Blockchain’s smart contracts make it possible for parties to make near real-time payments or apply for credit quickly — and this can greatly improve their all-important cash flow.

Knowing that blockchain was our answer, the next question was, “Which blockchain platform should we go with and how do we tap the resources to make it happen?” We also had a key requirement: while we wanted our blockchain platform deployed on AWS, our customers were adamant that we provide a multicloud platform that didn’t force them onto one cloud or another.

With the help of our development partner, Chateaux Software in Norwalk, CT, we compared an early version of the AWS blockchain platform with Ethereum and the IBM Blockchain Platform. We wanted a mature, enterprise-grade blockchain platform, one that addressed data security and structured permission access out of the box. We also needed a speedy time-to-market — six months or so — and business functionality, access to engineering talent and proven development tools. At the end of the day, selecting the IBM Blockchain Platform was a no-brainer.

IBM and AWS working together

An engineering partnership between Vertrax, Chateaux Software, IBM and AWS was quickly formed to work together in pretty rapid fashion. Between October 2018 and June 2019, we developed the first IBM Blockchain solution deployed on a non-IBM cloud — in this case AWS. It was a textbook case study of various vendor resources coming together to build something that’s never been built before.

Today, the Vertrax Blockchain — built on the IBM Blockchain Platform, deployed on AWS and available for use by any of customers regardless of their computing environment — provides greater visibility and insight into data that’s long been locked in IT systems up and down the oil and gas supply chain. This first-of-a-kind blockchain platform brings data from participants into a single, secure, permission-based platform leveraging analytics that track supply versus demand, payment and reconciliation, and overall tracking of product as it moves through the supply chain, integrating all of our IoT and transportation platforms plus those from our ever-increasing universe of participants.

As a first stage, we’re working with participants in the large retail downstream propane industry, building a network of suppliers, transportation companies (trucking, rail) and retailers. We’re focusing on visibility and tracking of bulk liquid orders, analyzing the supply versus demand equation to best ensure timely and accurate delivery of product to retail locations, so they in turn can better serve residential and commercial customers. We’re also now looking at how we can leverage Red Hat open source technology — recently acquired by IBM — into a wider multicloud strategy. And because of blockchain, we’re doing it in a way that allows fierce competitors to derive shared value together through collaboration while protecting their most important asset: their data.

We’ve proven the technical aspects of the network and are in production. And this is just one use case — the first of many — proving the value of the Vertrax Blockchain. We anticipate working with IBM Global Services to develop integration projects leveraging their expertise in management, integration, onboarding and custom analytics software development for participants in new blockchain networks based on the Vertrax Blockchain. And Vertrax will evolve the platform to meet the needs of more oil and gas participants, partnering with IBM on software development, onboarding and management of the network on an ongoing basis.

From time to time, we invite industry thought leaders, academic experts and partners, to share their opinions and insights on current trends in blockchain to the Blockchain Pulse blog. While the opinions in these blog posts are their own, and do not necessarily reflect the views of IBM, this blog strives to welcome all points of view to the conversation.

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