Accelor, a Silicon Valley-based startup, promises to bulldoze through the infrastructure roadblocks holding blockchain development back. Earlier this month, the company announced a $2 million funding raise, and a market-ready product that would move the technology to the next level, beyond what’s possible with mere software changes. Its killer product? A chip, known as the Field Programmable Gate Array.
But some critics say that technology behind the chip, which is programmable on the fly and can exponentially speed up throughput, introduces security risks.
Accelor's founders say that just the opposite is true and point to software vulnerabilities in blockchain technology that can be obviated by hardware FPGA chips, which are increasingly being used in all sorts of things, from robotics to 5G communications.
“We are using hardware to solve the performance, security and decentralization issues the whole blockchain community is facing right now,” company co-founder GJ Chu says. “Lots of people are racing to fix that, including Intel. Our solution will avoid potential risk, potential attack."
The team, which has impeccable technical credentials, has great confidence in their technology. They cut their teeth at some of the world’s best-regarded tech companies, including Nvidia, Qualcomm, AMD and Samsung.
But, as they go about marketing the first semiconductor chip designed specifically for blockchain applications, it’s their most recent place of employment—Huawei—that’s raised eyebrows. And crypto-news outlet Ledger Insights went so far as to call Accelor out, for omitting to mention Huawei in its press release.
So should Accelor’s founders be judged for wanting to distance themselves from their recent employer, or blamed for wanting the promise of their technology to speak for itself?
Chinese telecommunications and consumer electronics giant, Huawei, is not in good odor within the U.S. these days. It’s been at the center of a long list of controversies in recent months, and virtually every intelligence agency—the CIA, FBI and NSA—has slammed the company, citing concerns that range from cyber espionage, to the dominance of the Chinese technology sector.
Huawei’s Santa Clara plant, where the three Accelor founders worked, has not escaped controversy; an ex-employee of Huawei subsidiary, FutureWei is currently suing the company for $105 million and alleges unfair dismissal, harassment and discrimination after he complained about corporate espionage activities.
Asked why the company left Huawei off the press release, an Accelor spokesman said the team’s affiliation was deemed to be irrelevant. The company simply wanted 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 said.
Shooting for FPGAs
Accelor co-founders Chu, Xioahan Ma and Shiwen Hu met on the basketball court at Huawei’s Santa Clara HQ. All three had been working for the telecoms giant since 2016 and each had studied and worked in the U.S. for at least the previous decade.
Chu was Huawei’s senior strategy director, while Ma and Hu worked in the hardware division. They would meet to play ball at weekends and for regular Huawei-organised lunches. Inevitably, their talk turned to the promising properties of the Field Programmable Gate Array (FPGA) tech they worked with, and its potential to square the “impossible triangle” 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.”
FPGA is a chip with electrical functionality that can be changed, even after the equipment has been shipped to customers out in the “field.” This makes it highly versatile and cost effective for developers, so FPGAs are evolving into the rockstar chips of the decentralized world, bringing faster processing, increased power efficiency, and lower latency.
FPGAs have already found applications in communication systems, UAVs, robotics, radar, missile control, satellites and vehicle control systems, In just one area, the 5G communication infrastructure market, demand for FPGAs is expected to increase by more than 100 percent between 2018 and 2025, largely due to their reprogramming characteristics. (For more on their properties, see our article and the guidance here and here.)
Delivering on a promise
FPGAs have already shown their merits in blockchain mining, In fact, thus far, the only hardware being developed specifically for blockchain applications is mining equipment. The rest of development is all focused on software.
Chu, Ma and Hu decided to follow up on this potential they saw in FPGA-based technology and, in July, 2018, they resigned from Huawei, formed a company and quickly attracted $2 million in seed funding from China-based Chengwei Capital,
The trio spent a year or so in stealth developing two products. Earlier this month, they launched their fully complete and tested performance engine (APE) to optimize processes including encryption, and FPGA-based security architecture (ASA), designed to eliminate threats. Their products are waiting to ship from Accelor’s production base, in Nanjing, China. And now they are ready to set about raising more capital to fully realize the enormous opportunity they believe is at store.
“We wanted to develop the product before raising further, to show that we could deliver on our promise,” says Chu.
Under the hood
Accelor’s security architecture aims to tackle current hardware issues facing blockchain head on. Blockchains currently rely on central processing units (CPUs) which can expose supposedly secure data, says Chu, and Intel, with its Intel SGX chip, is dominant in this space.
For a blockchain, the “trusted execution environment,” a ring-fenced part of a CPU, is vital for protecting cryptographic keys.
Chu is among those who believe that blockchains will never be truly secure while developers continue to rely on the security of a dominant manufacturer. They point to vulnerabilities such as Spectre, Meltdown, and Foreshadow to underscore their concerns.“It is paramount for the industry to move these intensive computing functions onto dedicated hardware,” says Chu.
While CPU manufacturers have introduced patches to remedy the problem, Chu asserts that such dependency is putting too much trust in one company’s hands, and Accelor’s solutions would give potential customers greater options. They can, for instance, set up their own identity-management systems to authenticate each device under their control.
“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.”
But not everyone agrees. FPGAs, while full of potential, are also subject to vulnerabilities—at least according to the US Department of Defense, which has warned that their programmable nature makes them a target for cyber malware and malicious insertion.
The Accelor team counter this by pointing out that such threats assume that an FPGA chip has been modified or that the FPGA vendors and manufacturers are untrustworthy. They also stress that their own products are subject to thorough third-party audits prior to release.
Haunted by Huawei or hampered by FPGA?
While Huawei likes to portray itself as an independent enterprise wholly owned by its employees, those with knowledge of the matter argue that no Chinese company could succeed abroad so spectacularly without China’s Communist party patronage. The company’s founder, Ren Zhengfei is a former officer in the People’s Liberation Army.
But international analysis of the risk Huawei’s tech presents is varied.
“There is so far little to nothing to substantiate concerns,” Claus Mortensen, principal analyst for Digital Transformation at Hong Kong-based technology advisory firm, Ecosytm told Decrypt. “[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.”
While Accelor’s devices are built in China, they are designed in the U.S., where the company has its headquarters. Mortensen believes it’s perfectly understandable that the company would seek to downplay its Huawei connections: “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.”
But Mortensen councils that, as the Blockchain ecosystem is still being defined, there are plenty of more general concerns about the technology’s security implications, which would trump ties to Huawei and China. The latter, he says, probably wouldn’t have much impact for a new player at this stage.
Of course, this could change, should Accelor achieve market dominance in the future, he says.
Accelor is not letting any negative connotation hold it back. The company, which already holds one approved US patent, with five patents-pending, has already successful tested its tech on the Hyperledger Fabric blockchain, achieving a 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.”
Accelor says it is “in talks” with a number of banks and financial institutions interested in deploying blockchain tech, but nothing is yet confirmed. It’s somewhat ironic that permissioned blockchains are keenest to move on from the so-called “trusted hardware” that is so at odds with crypto’s decentralized security model, as originally conceived. Trust in Intel is particularly hard to avoid, since their chips power so many devices. Intel chips run almost 90 percent of the world’s computers, according to 2015 data.
But public chains are not oblivious to this fact. In December, 2016, Ethereum's cofounder, Vitalik Buterin, polled its twitter community to ask about the trend toward using trusted hardware for blockchain projects.
His query met with a mixed response. But perhaps now is the time for the world’s developers to wake up to the potential of blockchain-specific, FPGA-based hardware.
While FPGA-related security questions must be acknowledged and addressed, it would be a tragedy if blockchain development was held up over unspecified risks pertaining to Huawei. Or if U.S. investors let the matter of a shady former employer prevent them from seeing what could be the next big step.