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Microsoft Previews New Network Solution for Blockchain Decentralized Identities

Microsoft this week announced an early preview of an Identity Overlay Network (ION) that's part of its decentralized identities (DID) effort.

The DID effort aims to give end users greater control over their digital identities. ION is a new addition to better address the scalability and performance issues associated with creating such a global ecosystem.

Last year, the Microsoft Identity Division kicked off this DID effort by announcing efforts to use blockchain and other distributed ledger technologies to give end users greater control. A combination of open source solutions was described. Those technologies included Identity Hubs for encrypted data storage, Decentralized Identifiers for document formats (a Worldwide Web Consortium spec), Verifiable Credentials for encoding DID attestations (another W3C spec) and a Universal DID Resolver for use across blockchains.

It turned out, though, that the Identity Hubs component couldn't meet the scale requirements of the DID effort.

"Unfortunately, those systems [Identity Hubs] have not had the performance characteristics required to power a truly worldwide decentralized identity system," explained Alex Simons, vice president of program management at the Microsoft Identity Division.

Instead, Microsoft is looking to use the open source ION solution to address DID scale needs. According to its GitHub description, "ION is a public, permissionless, Decentralized Identifier (DID) network that implements the blockchain-agnostic Sidetree protocol on top of Bitcoin (as a 'Layer 2' overlay) to support DIDs/DPKI at scale."

Sidetree is defined as "a layer-2 protocol for anchoring and tracking DID Documents across a blockchain," according to its GitHub description. Sidetree is said to improve throughput by "batching multiple operations together."

There's some promise that ION could address the scale needs, according to Daniel Buchner, a senior program manager at the Microsoft Identity Division.

"On low-powered consumer reference hardware we've observed tens-of-thousands of DID operations per second, Buchner said, in Microsoft's announcement.

He explained that most of ION's code is made up of "the generic components specified by the Sidetree protocol."

Microsoft is currently working with various partners on operating ION nodes. The partners include datacenter operator Equinix, as well as security solutions provider Cloudflare. Another partner is Casa, which makes Bitcoin hardware and software security solutions. Microsoft also is working with Civic, a provider of an open source identity verification ecosystem. Learning Machine is another partner, providing records solutions for blockchains.

An early public preview of ION is now hosted on Microsoft Azure infrastructure for use. It's available for review "by experienced developers" or for those looking to "interact with an ION node."

A "public launch" of ION on the Bitcoin main network is expected to arrive "in the coming months."

About the Author

Kurt Mackie is senior news producer for 1105 Media's Converge360 group.

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