A new crypto payment system cuts transaction times from minutes to seconds.

When Bitcoin was announced in 2008, I was incredulous. The concept of a decentralized, anonymous accounting system running on a shared public ledger (or blockchain) with no middleman was intriguing. Bitcoin does, in fact, work quite well as a system of account, but what I really wanted was a payment system. Bitcoin transactions take anywhere from 10 minutes up to an hour to finalize and consume enormous amounts of energy, which means paying for a cup of coffee is pretty hard to imagine.

A little over two years ago, when I was considering the problem of mobile payments, my thoughts again sprang towards cryptocurrency. To make something people could actually use to pay for a cup of coffee, all I could think was: “That sounds hard.”

About 12 hours later, with a lot of help from a very smart friend, I’d drafted the initial design for MobileCoin. The goal of MobileCoin was to make a payment system for the place people live and work today—mobile messaging apps. Solving for that use case meant it had to meet the extremely stringent standards of mobile applications. MobileCoin had to be exceptionally fast, privacy-protecting, and energy-efficient, all while providing a world class mobile-first user experience.

A security-rich environment in the IBM Cloud

Due to mobile device constraints for memory, computation, and network access, it was necessary to host the application remotely, or in the cloud. You simply can’t hold the entire ledger on a mobile phone.

For this application, security is essential. Users would need to be able to access the ledger remotely in a trustworthy fashion. This led us to choose a piece of technology called a secure enclave. Enclaves provide users with some strong safety guarantees for accessing the ledger on a system they don’t control.

Choosing to implement the Intel Software Guard Extensions (SGX) secure enclave, we selected IBM’s service for accessing confidential computing on demand: IBM Cloud Data Shield. This solution provides both the security and the cloud environment we needed; we consider it a crucial component of MobileCoin’s solution.

Our network users have keys on their phones that never leave their devices. They use those keys to construct and send transactions over a secure channel to the enclave. The enclave verifies the sender’s signature, then federates the transaction to all enclaves in the network for further verification before writing it to disk. The enclave doesn’t reveal the transaction amount or the identities of the sender or receiver, providing an unprecedented level of privacy.

Teaming up to take on technology challenges

The IBM team played an integral role in implementing the IBM Cloud Data Shield solution and getting SGX up and running. SGX is radically different from other systems. It’s a highly restrictive environment regarding memory and performance, and it lacks much of the tooling that comes ready-made with regular CPUs.

Due to these limitations, we initially spent a lot of time working with IBM Cloud Data Shield engineers to make it function. We chose to write our application in Rust to guarantee safety and speed. SGX is bleeding edge, meaning it doesn’t have much support in standard Rust, so we had to implement our system from scratch to ensure we could trust it. As such, we were very grateful to have the IBM team working alongside us.

Calling all testers

Our efforts paid off with the launch of a test network for MobileCoin on April 9, 2020. We’ve since gained thousands of users globally — exclusively via word of mouth — with excellent results to date.

Transactions complete in less than five seconds (as opposed to upward of 10 minutes for a Bitcoin transaction). We’ve had zero failed transactions, and energy consumption is negligible.

Based on our successful collaboration to overcome the many obstacles we initially faced, we’re thrilled with the level of support we continue to receive from IBM. We expect to continue using IBM Cloud Data Shield.

Learn more

More from Cloud

Clients can strengthen defenses for their data with IBM Storage Defender, now generally available

2 min read - We are excited to inform our clients and partners that IBM Storage Defender, part of our IBM Storage for Data Resilience portfolio, is now generally available. Enterprise clients worldwide continue to grapple with a threat landscape that is constantly evolving. Bad actors are moving faster than ever and are causing more lasting damage to data. According to an IBM report, cyberattacks like ransomware that used to take months to fully deploy can now take as little as four days. Cybercriminals…

2 min read

Integrating data center support: Lower costs and decrease downtime with your support strategy

3 min read - As organizations and their data centers embrace hybrid cloud deployments, they have a rapidly growing number of vendors and workloads in their IT environments. The proliferation of these vendors leads to numerous issues and challenges that overburden IT staff, impede clients’ core business innovations and development, and complicate the support and operation of these environments.  Couple that with the CIO’s priorities to improve IT environment availability, security and privacy posture, performance, and the TCO, and you now have a challenge…

3 min read

Using advanced scan settings in the IBM Cloud Security and Compliance Center

5 min read - Customers and users want the ability to schedule scans at the timing of their choice and receive alerts when issues arise, and we’re happy to make a few announcements in this area today: Scan frequency: Until recently, the IBM Cloud® Security and Compliance Center would scan resources every 24 hours, by default, on all of the attachments in an account. With this release, users can continue to run daily scans—which is the recommended option—but they also have the option for…

5 min read

Modernizing child support enforcement with IBM and AWS

7 min read - With 68% of child support enforcement (CSE) systems aging, most state agencies are currently modernizing them or preparing to modernize. More than 20% of families and children are supported by these systems, and with the current constituents of these systems becoming more consumer technology-centric, the use of antiquated technology systems is archaic and unsustainable. At this point, families expect state agencies to have a modern, efficient child support system. The following are some factors driving these states to pursue modernization:…

7 min read