143: GreyBeards talk Chia cypto with Jonmichael Hands, VP Storage at Chia Project

Today we interview Jonmichael Hands (@LebanonJon, LinkedIn), VP Storage at Chia Project , who has been in and around the storage business forever, mostly with Intel and their SSD team, before it was sold. He was technical marketing for NVMe. He also ran the security and crypto track at FMS2022. He recently worked on sustainability, helping to create a circular economy for disk and SSD storage. Moreover, he assisted IEEE with their new (media) sanitization standard to make reuse/recycling storage easier.

Chia was born to provide a way to take advantage of storage media for blockchains in a government compliant way so that it could be spun off as a public company someday. Chia is a crypto currency that depends on proof of space (storage space exists) and proof of time (storage space is reserved for a period of time). There have been many crypto coins based on proof of work (running hard cryptographic algorithms to come up with some specific bit pattern). And ETH was forked last year to support proof of stake (where one stakes some amount of ETH for a defined period). But few, if any, have been based on proof of space and time.

Disk and SSD commands already exist to provide “Secure Erase” (multiple passes of different bit patterns overwriting the same block) and cryptographic erasure (For encrypted drives, the encryption key is changed). Both approaches insure that customer/organization data is no longer retained on media leaving an organization’s control. And yet, many companies use secure erase/cryptographic erasure and still shred disk drives and SSDs, just to be sure that no data is retained. This is a vast waste of energy and resources.

Jonmichael said that both disk and SSD drives typically have another 5 years beyond their guaranteed (5 year) production life where both can function perfectly well as storage devices (ok may performance may not be the same as current drives). And after using them for another 5 years, they are much easier to recycle, if left un-shredded and returned to manufacturers, who can dismantle them to reuse expensive components and rare earth materials.

We didn’t spend much time on the technical underpinnings of Chia so if you are interested in that we suggest you check out Jonmichael’s FMS2022 presentation video.

But if you’re interested in a high level understanding of Chia and what one can do with it we did cover that. For example, Chia has farmers (not miners). Farmers create (~100GB) Chia plot files and store these on media.

Plot files take some amount of CPU power and memory to create but once created can stay on storage forever. What makes Chia work is that it comes out and checks to see if you have a certain plot file and if you do you get rewarded for that. Jonmichael said that with a typical Chia crypto setup, one could make $0.50/TB/Month farming Chia.

The Chia project currently has about 24EB of plots online and at their peak had over 300EB. They also have 130K farmers in their current network. Bitcoin, at its peak, had about 60K miners. Jonmichael thinks Chia crypto coin may be the most distributed crypto coin in existence today.

A couple of years back Chia accounted for a significant amount of new disk drive purchases but that has died down considerably since then. As discussed earlier, Jonmichael is working to create a circular economy for storage that could lead to media reuse for Chia farming.

Jonmichael mentioned that Chia has matured significantly since peak use. It used to be that creating Chia plot files required high end CPUs and lots of technical skills, but today Jonmichael said you can be a farmer with an RPi. He did say that they have moved to making better use of available memory in the plotting process and have reduced the write load on the storage media.

Another aspect to Chia’s maturation is that they now support Chia smart coins or smart contracts. They have created ChiaLisp, a Turing complete language, as their language to implement Chia smart coins. It turns out that Lisp and other functional languages provide a natural way to implement secure code. Jonmichael mentioned that other crypto coins are starting to move towards using ChiaLisp.

Some recent innovations in Chia smart coins include:

  • Chia Offer Management – that is anything you wish to trade can be digitally tracked and traded using this Chia Offer Management smart coins.
  • Chia NFTs (non-fungible token) Management – NFT’s have been used by other blockchains to sell digital rights to assets Chia’s support for NFTs opens Chia up to this as well. The reference implementation for Chia’s NFT management is Chia Friends, where all proceeds are being donated to the Marmot Recovery Foundation.
  • Chia Data Layer Management, a federated database – here the Chia block chain is being used to support a K-V store, where the block chain stores the Key and a hash of the Value. Users can use this Chia Data Layer to store any key-hash(value) database they wish. It’s important to realize that actual the data or value is stored external to the Chia block chain.

The Data Layer solution is currently being used to develop a way to track carbon credits by the World Bank (see: the Climate Action Data Trust).

Chia has come a long way. In its heyday it was significant consumer of new disk media but with what Jonmichael and others have planned for it is to take advantage of the longer term life of storage media and to use this for the benefit of all humanity.

Jonmichael Hands, VP Storage at Chia Project

Jonmichael Hands partners with the storage vendors for Chia optimized product development, market modeling, and Chia blockchain integration.

Jonmichael spent the last ten years at Intel in the Non-Volatile Memory Solutions group working on product line management, strategic planning, and technical marketing for the Intel data center SSDs.

In addition, he served as the chair for NVM Express (NVMe), SNIA (Storage Networking Industry Association) SSD special interest group, and Open Compute Project for open storage hardware innovation.

Jonmichael started his storage career at Sun Microsystems designing storage arrays (JBODs) and holds an electrical engineering degree from the Colorado School of Mines.

37: GreyBeards discuss blockchains with Donna Dillenberger, IBM Fellow

In this episode, we talk with Donna Dillenberger (@DonnaExplorer), IBM Fellow on IBM’s work with blockchain technology. Ray was at IBM Edge Conference last month where Donna and others presented on what BlockChain technology could do for financial services and asset provenance. Ray wrote a post on Blockchains at IBM after the conference.

Blockchain is the technology behind Bitcoins, the crypto-currency, but the technology has the potential to revolutionize a lot of other activities.

What does blockchain have to do with storage? Probably not that much, but as it’s an up and coming technology with great prospects, the GreyBeards thought it worthwhile to find out more.

Blockchain explained

Blockchain is essentially a software protocol to establish trust where there is none. At another level, it is a programatic way to maintain a shared ledger of information, without compromise.

The funny thing about ledgers and record keeping in general, is that they are everywhere. From, the first record of written language, to double entry accounting, to todays keeping track of financial transactions, ledgers do it all.

Blockchains is just an updated, software protocol version of good ledger keeping.

What’s so special about blockchain ledgers is that they can be maintained correctly and consistently even with entities/persons/servers that are trying to cheat the system.

Donna called this the Byzantine Generals’ Problem.

Byzantine generals are tricky

There’s a group of Byzantine armies surrounding a castle and some want to attack while others want to retreat, and they would all like to coordinate their actions. But some Byzantine generals are traitors and will selective tell some generals to attack while telling others to retreat, in an attempt disrupt any coordinated actions.

Generalizing the problem, when there are a number of independent entities, how does one determine consensus such that no one entity can cheat the system. CS calls this a Byzantine Fault Tolerance (BFT) algorithm.

Algorithmic consensus in blockchain

With Bitcoin blockchain (Donna calls this blockchain V1.0), consensus is achieved by “Proof of work“, a computational problem difficult to produce but easy to verify.

But Proof of work is not the only way to achieve algorithmic consensus for blockchains. HyperLedger, an open source blockchain project  has a pluggable form of consensus. So,  different Hyperledger blockchains can support different forms of consensus.

Currently, Hyperledger support a BFT algorithm, which says that 2/3rds +1 of the nodes must agree on a hash (digitally signed current transaction data and historical info) value to reach consensus.

It turns out that Hyperledger blockchains use a key-value store to record transactions history and other metadata, which is RocksDB.

Other current blockchains

At IBM Edge, Donna discussed an IBM supply chain blockchain where suppliers and consumers record sending, receipt and other movement of parts around IBM’s world wide supply chain. It uses a Hyperledger blockchain.

The  Everledger blockchain is being used to supply diamond provenance/pedigree validation. Each diamond is encoded with a digital barcode as it’s mined, and as the diamond is processed, cut and sent to wholesalers/retailers with each of those transactions maintained in the blockchain. One can easily validate the origin, clarity, color, carrot and cut of a diamond by examining it’s transaction history on the blockchain.

IBM Blockchain activities

IBM wrote the Hyperledger code from scratch to run on z/Linux but their financial services customers wanted it open sourced. So, IBM donated it to the Linux Foundation and sponsored the Hyperledger project. It’s currently the fastest growing Linux Foundation open source project at the moment. You can run a Hyperledger apps an any Linux system.

IBM z/Linux has some unique security characteristics useful for financial services and other  critical organizations/industries. For instance, secure application signing/verification to run, data at rest/in-flight encryption with secured keys and crypto code, and a secure cloud where the hardware is run.

Together these software, hardware and data centers have a FIPS 140-2 level 4 certification.

IBM also offers professional services to help customers create and host their own Hyperledger apps. Moreover. IBM are sponsoring Hyperledger hackathons to add features  and are sponsoring other Hyperledger community events.

The podcast runs long, over 50 minutes and introduces blockchain technology, where it can be used, and what IBM is doing with it. Howard and I could have talked with Donna for hours on the topic but we had to stop sometime. . Listen to the podcast to learn more.

donnaDonna Dillenberger, IBM Fellow


Donna Dillenberger is an IBM Fellow at IBM’s Watson Research Center.   She has redesigned many enterprise applications for greater scalability and availability.  She has worked on analytic models for financial, insurance, retail and healthcare industries.

In 2005, she became IBM’s Chief Technology Officer of IT Optimization.   In 2006, she became an Adjunct Professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Engineering. She is a Master Inventor and is currently working on cognitive analytics and blockchain.