We are so used to getting anything we want from any part of the world that we often fail to see how it all happens. The answer is the global shipping industry – a complex supply chain that includes carriers, terminals, government authorities, and inland providers. But this intricate network has been plagued by a variety of problems – paper-based processes, lack of real-time data, lengthy custom clearances, high operational costs, and fraud.
To address these challenges, IBM and Danish shipping company AP Moller-Maersk developed a supply chain platform called Tradelens, and IBM India Software Labs’ engineers have been instrumental in architecting and developing this blockchain-based solution. “Tradelens gives the supply chain ecosystem unprecedented access to logistics data and trade documents, enabling digital collaboration across parties. It has ushered in a digital transformation in global trade,” says Varun Ojha, lead architect for blockchain solutions (Tradelens) at IBM Software Labs India.
Tradelens enables greater visibility for all participants, improves operational efficiencies, allows informed data-driven decisions, coordination of activities among partners, enables response to situations in real-time, and better customer service.
When the Bengaluru R&D team started work on Tradelens in 2018, blockchain tech was relatively new, and building an enterprise-grade solution with blockchain was a challenge. There was hardly any literature on it.
The first problem they had to overcome was convincing shipping companies to join a consortium. “Blockchain necessitates distribution of ownership. You need to have multiple participants, and you can’t have any single point of control. The ball started rolling after IBM managed to convince Maersk to come on board, and eventually, we were able to get some of the biggest carriers in the world onto the consortium. We have 15 carriers now, and we make decisions and modifications through a collective governing council,” says Ojha.
The R&D team also had to build a bunch of components that had no prior reference, like a responsive user interface, a resilient asynchronous API, and an off-chain distributed cache which could be used for search capabilities. The team needed a deep understanding of distributed systems, a very good understanding of blockchain, and how to design and architect an enterprise-grade solution that leverages blockchain. They needed knowledge of cloud-native application architectures like polyglot microservices, containers, Kubernetes, and distributed streaming platforms.
“We ended up getting patents on these technologies, and were able to publish a lot of reference architecture and design patents. Others who embark on this journey can learn from our experience,” Ojha says.