back to article IBM and Maersk to shut down TradeLens supply chain platform

IBM and shipping giant Maersk have confirmed they are shutting down their blockchain-based trading platform, saying that its aim of full global industry collaboration had not been achieved. TradeLens was launched in 2018, with the goal of digitizing and simplifying global supply chains. The system was jointly developed by IBM …

  1. elsergiovolador Silver badge

    Third wheel

    What the blockchain was for in that project?

    Blockchain only use case when it is remotely an appropriate tool for the job is distributed consensus and "double spend" problem.

    I can't see evidence in the article that would suggest they were facing such issues.

    Seems like they had bad database and API design that aided inconsistencies and if you get a hammer (blockchain) then suddenly everything starts looking like a nail.

    1. Nastybirdy

      Re: Third wheel

      It was designed to unify the supply chain and cut down on problems with communication and documentation. The problem shipping companies like this have is that everyone uses different systems, stuff is still in paper, some places have different requirements than others. A single error in a bill of lading, for instance, can end up costing a company tens of thousands of dollars to rectify. Hell, even knowing where your shipping container is can be a nightmare depending on who you're dealing with. The idea behind it was sound. The technology allowed all participants to communicate far more easily with each other, to see where their stuff was, and view all the documents associated with each consignment in one location.

      But like the article says, nobody wanted to sign up, and it being tied so heavily to Maersk was a big part of that. They didn't want to dance to Maersk's tune, regardless of how many assurances they were given that the system wasn't beholden just to what Maersk wanted.

      1. elsergiovolador Silver badge

        Re: Third wheel

        That's all fine, but there is no place in what you said where blockchain could fit in.

        Seems like it was used as a buzzword to lure investors in and then mandated to be tacked in somewhere.

      2. Strahd Ivarius Silver badge

        Re: Third wheel

        How would blockchain prevent errors?

        The issue is not with the data that is transferred between different systems, but how the data is interpreted by the systems (just imagine a system using short tons and another one long tons, and each putting the value in a "weight" field that expects metric tons...)

        It is a classical issue that exists commerce began.

      3. An_Old_Dog Silver badge

        Re: Third wheel

        "A single error in a bill of lading, for instance, can end up costing a company tens of thousands of dollars to rectify"

        Yes, human typos coupled with computerized whatever have that power -- it's a double-edged sword.

        In the old days of keypunches and card readers, there was the human job class of "verifier": someone who re-keyed the data already entered, and the machine checked the first-time-keyed data against the second-time-keyed-data, signalling an error upon mismatch. But, businesses didn't want to pay for that, so out went the verifiers, and with them, a significant chunk of system integrity.

        A simple fix to the unreliability of the "human reads paper and types the info into a (different computer", or "human scans paper via OCR; the OCR'd data is sent into another computer" processes is including SHA256 sums (or SHA512, or ...). And if you've ever tried reading or OCRing a crappy-quality FAX, you'll know what I'm talking about.

        Getting all of Asia to change their shipping business processes and buy/use computers with standardized software to lower Westerners' costs-of-error-correction strikes me as being (a) getting to the root of the problem, and (b) extremely-unlikely-to-happen.

        1. elsergiovolador Silver badge

          Re: Third wheel

          So now if someone makes a mistake (no system is fool proof) and commits their document into blockchain, they'll have to recalculate all blocks since the genesis in order to correct a mistake and replace the wrong document or leave the wrong document and add a new version to the blockchain, meaning the mistake will be there forever? Or what if someone accidentally posted PII they had no permission to post.

          Seems like a great improvement this blockchain...

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: Third wheel

            Recording the correction of a mistake actually sounds like a good use blockchain. Somebody else might have transmitted that mistake and it is "correct" to know where it originated.

            1. jmch Silver badge

              Re: Third wheel

              "Recording the correction of a mistake "

              That's something easily done by a traditional database. The main "selling point" of blockchain is exactly that it cannot be manipulated by a single actor or small group of actors, everyone has to agree to the change. In a well-implemented blockchain you wouldn't try and correct something already done, because everyone on the blockchain has to agree and that ain't gonna happen. You reverse the original transaction, create the correct transaction anew, and swallow the transaction charges as the cost for having an error. This way only the 2 parties to the transaction have to agree to the reversals.

              1. Anonymous Coward
                Anonymous Coward

                Re: Third wheel

                That's exactly what I meant - thanks for clearing it up.

              2. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

                Re: Third wheel

                everyone has to agree to the change

                A simple majority have to agree to the change, not everyone. Otherwise blockchain would have librum veto and be useless.

                That's also why blockchain systems are vulnerable to network-partitioning attacks.

                1. jmch Silver badge

                  Re: Third wheel

                  "A simple majority have to agree to the change, not everyone."

                  Correct, that serves me right for using "everyone" as a colloquial expression to mean "a lot of people" rather than the literal meaning! The general point still holds though - no 2 transacting parties would ever get a majority to support their transaction reversal.

      4. James Anderson

        Re: Third wheel

        Time spent specifying a decent message format and the security and exchange protocols would have solved the problems.

        The financial industry has been successfully working this way since the 70s. Even decidedly indecent message formats such as SWIFT have been hugely successful.

        XML or JSON plus 128 bit RSA would have sufficed.

        1. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

          Re: Third wheel

          "128 bit RSA"? RSA with a 128-bit key (i.e. a modulus of 128 bits) is worthless. Lenstra's formulas don't even go that low; they estimate a 348-bit RSA key could be economically broken in 1981. (See e.g. for a calculator.)

          Perhaps you mean RSA with security strength 128 (per the NIST definitions)? That would be a 3072-bit RSA key.

          Of course, asymmetric encryption by itself is useless; you need some sort of PKI, which you haven't mentioned.

          But all that said, I agree it's hard to see the justification for blockchain here. There are many ways of creating an immutable ledger. Blockchain attempts to create one that also offers anonymity and partition resistance (though it fails pretty badly in both areas in practice), but those aren't concerns for commercial enterprises.

      5. NeilPost Silver badge

        Re: Third wheel

        Where you container is ??

        Stick an AirTag on it, and go back to sleep.

      6. hittitezombie

        Re: Third wheel

        None of that is fixed by a blockchain. All you need is one big player to control the whole process, and that was what Maersk and IBM were going for. No wonder everyone else said 'naaah thxbye!'

    2. katrinab Silver badge

      Re: Third wheel

      Blockchain doesn't solve the double-spend problem. Proof of work or similar solves that. But if it is on a centralised server, then there are other far more efficient ways to solve it.

      The big problem here is proving that the blockchain or other database entries actually reflect what is happening on the ground, and that is not a problem that bitcoin or similar needs to address.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Third wheel

        Right, because bitcoin has "real" grounding!

  2. Nastybirdy

    A shame, but not a surprise.

    I worked for IBM for fourteen years, the last three of them in the team that was responsible for both Tradelens and Food Trust from the IBM side. I jumped ship because there was no work, no customers, no money coming in despite management constantly telling us to just wait, the customers would come, the work would come! Honest! Any time now!. Aaaaaaany time...

    They cut the team twice in the three years I was there, so honestly this doesn't surprise me and just makes me all the more glad I quit when I did.

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    expected to go offline by the end of Q1 2023.

    With such a short notice, it must mean that the service has zero to very, very few customers.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: expected to go offline by the end of Q1 2023.

      Most likely just Maersk, who will probably just bring the system in-house. But as other commenters have said, blockchain is only useful if consensus is needed between multiple parties.

      I've been peripherally involved in several custom products that were designed for a single customer. Then commercial get the idea that with additional work, it could be turned into a product that can be sold to many customers. Lots of work and several years later, there's still just the original site using it.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: expected to go offline by the end of Q1 2023.

        And hopefully some angry shareholder will ask soon why so much money was spent without results when it could have been distributed as dividend...

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: expected to go offline by the end of Q1 2023.

          > And hopefully some angry shareholder will ask soon why so much money was spent without results

          Probably not. As an investor myself, I understand the need to take risks and try out things to see if they work. As long as the money is generally spent wisely, whether a particular project is a success or not is secondary, from my point of view.

  4. Henry Wertz 1 Gold badge

    Blockchain for the lose

    Blockchain for the lose. In fact, having immutable records of things being transferred is what blockchain is actually deisgned for. BUT, this is not the problem the shipping companies are having.. their problem is (as Nastybirdy) says the lack of interoperable systems. I know I for one would not be interested in signing up for a system that charges $25 for exchanging a few KB of information + blockchain hype (unless market pressures forced it, i.e.. most other shippers were in the system.) And apparently they weren't either.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Blockchain for the lose

      > In fact, having immutable records of things being transferred is what blockchain is actually deisgned for

      Yeah but other, non blockchain solutions are available. For instance a line printer, which is the old school way.

  5. sgp

    Instead of not registering the movement of a certain container in a database of one party, it is not registered in the shared database of all parties. I don't see how that solves anything, but then I'm very certainly not an expert on this.

  6. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Difficult to see why companies didn't want to get into bed with Maersk and IBM.

    I think it is known as an Irish Dog Carrier as well as something else in instructional videos of specialised genre which I once overhead a couple of blokes discussing.

  7. I Am Spartacus

    This was never a suitable project for Blockchain

    The lofty ideals behind TradeLens hold true. There is a mess of paperword, where errors cause disruption to supply chains and increase costs. The need to do something here is not dispiuted. But this was not a use case for a blockchain. The actual parts behind TradeLens are a smart contract, which is based on a blockchain, in this case HyperLedger. But it doesn'nt need to be.

    The problems that TradeLens faced are multiple. But a couple are easy to point out. This was a closed community where a finite number of players trade with each other. They are all ananonymous, but have a fixed account code / wallet address. Despite thsi being a long string of numbers, it is noit beyond the wit of man, nor a simple computer to work out that if 1234 was TradeCo1 today it will be tomorrow. I know this because I traded with TradeCo1. Now I trade with TradeCo2, whose address is 9875. Oh look I can see that 9875 has a trade with 1234, so I can deduce the TradeCo1 is working with TradeCo2. And because its a shared ledger, everyone can see this. This is a major problem for trading companies who like to keep all their trades secret. So the first problem is that TradeLens ingtroduced too much transparency. It meant that Maersk were perceived as having too much visibility of all the trade chains, and thus gave them a market advantage. That is reason one why it was not widely adopted.

    The second is the concept of the distributed ledger itself. To play on the blockchain you need to have a node where your part of the ledger resides. These are computers. Possibly several working together if you want some form of redundancy, and most traders do. These are not just simple applications that you run, backup and forget. You have a ledger that is growing with each trade, even if you don't participate in that trade. It needs management, backup, security, and all the other good things that data centre managers need. But because this is all encrypted, and you con't know all the keys, you can't get under the covers to manage the backups. As this was IBM, it is highly likely that DB/2 was that database. Thats not helpful when your whole company is an Oracle / MYSql / Postgres shop (other databases are also available). So now you have a bit of complex, mission critical computering power in your data centre which you know nothing about.

    The solution to this is to outsource the management of your node to, well, TradeLens. They can run and manage your node on your behalf. They will throw up a virtual machine to run this one. What you now have is a network of distributed ledgers runing as a number of virtual machines on a single large computer. Why not save all the problems and just run a large application to do this without all teh blockchain complexity?

    The final issue is growth. Adding new nodes to a closed blockchain network is not trivial. Depending on the implementation it often means taking the whole network down and distributing a new set of public keys to all parties. This is a nightmare of key management but with distributed ledgers. So growth was always going to be problematical.

    TradeLens is needed. The concept is right. It just doesn't need a blockchain. But then I really don't understand what does need a blockchain unless you need to have that phrase in your buzzword soup.

  8. Zippy´s Sausage Factory

    Oh look, another project inappropriately using the new hot technology shuts down because it's totally useless for the job in hand.

    Was it like this when spanners were first invented, I wonder?

    "I'm using a spanner to hammer this nail in"

    "Why not a hammer?"

    "Because spanners are new and cool, get with it grandad..."


  9. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    "Unfortunately, while we successfully developed a viable platform, the need for full global industry collaboration has not been achieved,"

    Classic example of a solution looking for a problem.

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