Fluree combines a graph database with blockchain. And it just switched to open source after scoring a $ 1.5 million seed expansion round as part of its DoD contract. ZDNet caught up with Brian Platz, Fluree co-founder and co-CEO, to try and unpack it all.
Fluree was founded in 2016 by Platz and veteran entrepreneur Flip Filipowski. Platz said he and Filipowski have been working together for about 20 years now. Managing data more efficiently, not only for their products, but also when working for customers and seeing the battles they had had have been on their minds for them, Platz said:
“We looked at the landscape. We saw some exciting momentum around blockchain technologies that we thought could add value around data to ensure information integrity, something that surprisingly does not have much today.
And then we have also been very enthusiastic about semantic internet, semantic graph technology and its ability to connect data as the internet connected information. These two combined with some other things that we could look at really have an opportunity to take data management to a whole new level. “
The team spent many years building and in some cases rebuilding the product. In 2018, a beta version was released followed by a community release that now counts 15,000 users. In 2019, a commercial version was released that added additional features, services and support to the community edition. Platz said about 60% of the company is R&D.
Fluree has managed to attract customers with its commercial version. Fluree’s largest customer is the Ministry of Defense, US Air Force. Fluree presents itself as Web3 Data Platform – a semantic graph database that guarantees data integrity, facilitates secure data sharing and provides connected data insight, all in one plug-in stack. What could DoD do with it?
Platz said Fluree solves some pressing pain points that most organizations have, but they are more acute in certain scenarios where information is considered very secure or very important. Data is used automatically where origin becomes important and there can be very serious consequences if errors or security incidents occur. This is where the blockchain aspect comes in – but more on that in a moment.
Fluree was self-funded until about a year ago, when they raised a seed funding of $ 5 million. An interesting side effect of having a contract with DoD is that it mandated it Fluree raised an additional $ 1.5 million. DoD wants to ensure that there is commercial interest in the products that its contracts entail. Since this is difficult to prove for small businesses, DoD mandates raising capital.
Goes open source
Platz said they have made a great effort to make it easy for people to start using Fluree. The promise is that you do not need to know anything about blockchain or cryptography, these are features that you can take advantage of when you start worrying about them:
“People can download Fluree on their laptops, run it as a single node, form a consensus on a machine automatically. You can put some data in, and you can start building a React app or something that uses GraphQL, and you can literally do it in like 20 minutes. “
Fluree wants to minimize obstacles for organizations thinking about adopting Fluree. For this reason, Fluree today goes into open source. Platz mentioned that they tried to address the perceived risk they realize comes with adopting a product like Fluree by adopting two main strategies. Standards is the first.
Release of the product below AGPL license today is the second. AGPL is selected as is known to be avoided by cloud providers which tend to offer open source products as a service, competes with the suppliers who build them.
The Fluree crew has no experience with open source, and Platz acknowledged that it took a lot of work to get to a point where they felt safe enough to release. Releasing a product as open source comes with control, responsibility and increased demand for documentation and community support.
Part of the reason for Fluree’s complexity is the use of blockchain. Using blockchain was not an end in itself, but it plays a role in the integrity of data and how data can be proven to external parties, Platz said. It is a side effect of the need to increasingly share data with other parties. This is typically done by creating custom APIs today, but also with new technologies like AI Platz continued to add:
“While we as humans can make judge calls about the information we receive when we make decisions, machines – especially AI – do not have a good ability to make a similar assessment of calls about the data it works on and about being able to to prove that the data has not been tampered with. “
Platz believes that data stem, ie how data originates, becomes a very important issue, as AI and machine learning make several decisions automatically – especially when these decisions have consequences. Audit is required and audit costs. Why not take advantage of the ability to record and prove the data stem and integrity that blockchains provide, one thinks.
Fluree uses what is known as one allowed blockchain, which means that it is a controlled network within an organization, not one that everyone can participate in. Part of the reason is that this fits into the use cases that Fluree targets. Allowed blockages are faster and more reliable, Platz said:
“When dealing with data and information integrity, you need to be able to guarantee both. So to be able to do that in a very fast way, really a permissible [blockchain] Networking is the only good way to do that. “
A graph database with a twist
Fluree is an RDF graph database. Platz referred to the beauty of the graph, how it facilitates complex queries that relational databases cannot easily handle, as well as the fact that it is a universal data format. It was an obvious choice for Fluree, with the downside being that it is a newer technology that not many people know.
Although “GraphQL has nothing to do with really specifically a query language or even a graph database”, it has switch to GraphQL as an API interface, people get to know how graph works, whether they know it or not, Platz believes. Fluree also supports GraphQL. When a schema is created in Fluree, a GraphQL interface is automatically exposed to it.
It works to find a particular piece of information and then maybe review relationships and get data out in a tree. Often this is exactly what people need to do, especially if they run a front-end app. But to get to the real strength of the graph for queries, you need a real language for graph queries. Fluree has chosen SPARQL, the default query language for RDF graph databases, but with a twist.
Fluree offers a SPARQL interface to query as well as its own JSON-based query language called FlureeQL, in addition to GraphQL. It is also adding a SQL interface, Platz said. This is all in line with the ongoing development of graph databases: From databases to platforms and from a query language to many.
Under the hood, however, everything is translated into FlureeQL. FlureeQL is SPARQL and JSON plus some other things as Platz put it. These other things include the ability to review graphs or search for specific times in the past. The latter is a feature specific to Fluree, the former just not supported well enough in SPARQL, Platz said.
RDF graph databases are also called triple stores. This is because the RDF graph data model is expressed in triplicate. Over time, some vendors have expanded this to quadruplicate to be able to store additional information such as metadata about the graph to which a triple belongs. Fluree has expanded this to 6-tuples, which makes it possible, among other things, to support the property graph data model.
Another option for open source fans
Fluree represents an interesting offer. It seemed to us that the combination of elements it includes makes it particularly suitable for data integration and data virtualization scenarios with a twist. These scenarios are something RDF graph databases are generally good at. Twist here are the data lines and authenticity features that Fluree brings to the table. It also looked like Fluree is a complex product, at least conceptually.
Platz joined both. I have emphasized the unique aspects of Fluree, while mentioning that they have worked hard to make the product more accessible. As of today, developers are free to control themselves, and those looking for an open source graph database have another option.