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Rong Chen – A Story Worth Being Told
Sing to me Muse of the man of many gifts, who was driven on many twists and turns, far and wide, after he left the embattled internet of that distant age. Many flaws he saw and many fixes he devised, many nights he pondered on the open sea, fighting to save our network and protect our rights, our ideas, our safety, and set us free. But he could not convince his comrades then, as hard as he did try, for the Gates were shut in their gated minds. Their narrow views made them blind like fools, and as they built the internet, the internet Gods becried. Launch out this story Muse, daughter of our cyber eyes, sing to us of this man who will return us home, with his cyber gift for our cyber time.
Let’s take the time to look back on one of the earliest tales in all the world, of a man who left for war for ten years and took another ten to return home. It is time to tell a story, this time, in Homeric fashion, of a man coming home from a different kind of great battle. Rong Chen has been walking home for 18 years. Walking home not just to his life’s work, but to a home for all of us. Elastos is like a Homeric epic. Rong Chen is our Odysseus. The internet of the past is our Trojan War — and the creation of Elastos is our journey home.
Rong Chen was born into a family of scientists. According to him, the keywords of his life and career have been,“epiphany, perseverance, gratitude, luck.”
In 1977, after a decade long chaos that was known as the Cultural Revolution in China, college entrance examinations were resumed for the first time since 1965. To make up for the prolonged gap of education and opportunity that plagued China during these years, citizens from ages 13 to 37 were allowed to take the exam. This was not only a chance at freedom, but at escape. The build up and bottleneck of talent in China led to 5.7 million people taking the exam in November and December of 1977, in what is considered possibly the single most competitive scholastic test in the history of modern China. Only 4.7% of people who took the test, or 273,000, were admitted to universities. This class of 77’ would become known as the best and the brightest of their generation. From artists, to politicians, to engineers, to this day, the class of 77’ includes many of the most elite citizens of China who have gone on to succeed at the top of their society. This was a single moment for those who dreamed of a better life and wanted to make a desperate plea for advancement.
Rong Chen was one of the 4.7%. In fact, his scores were top notch and he was admitted to Tsinghua University. He became not only one of the first people in China to receive a college degree after the Cultural Revolution, but became one of the first people in the history of China to become a software development graduate. After Tsinghua University, Rong went on to study at the Institute of Computing Technology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences. Founded in 1956, it was the first school to specialize in computer sciences in China.
On January 4, 1984, feeling both luck and gratitude, Rong Chen stepped off of a plane in New York City at John F. Kennedy International Airport. From there, he began his education in operating systems. Rong was admitted to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, which in the mid-1980’s began a state-federal partnership to become home of The National Center for Supercomputing Applications, leading the university to house some of the best supercomputers in the world to this day. Supercomputers…remember that term.
Rong’s 7 years studying operating systems was backdropped by a time in computing history that included UNIX operating systems beginning to become open source for many top American universities and the arrival of a new coding language called C++. Rong Chen was captivated by this new language. It was…an epiphany.
Rong studied and studied, even staying up at night to read hundreds of thousands of lines of operating system code. He began designing his own operating systems in those years. He was obsessed, singularly, with this new and beautiful language.
In 1992, Rong began work at Microsoft Research as the first Chinese employee in its history. His work was in writing for the research of operating systems. Within a few years, Microsoft’s browser and Windows converged to monopolize the market and the PC internet. But there was a fatal weakness, and Rong saw it.
Computers around the would were vulnerable. Hackers. Viruses. Attacks. These were not going away. Money was being lost.
Rong’s team began to work on solutions. His team were some of the best programmers in the world at a time when the internet was beginning to take off in a global way. Yet even among his elite team at Microsoft, Rong had ideas that were extremely advanced.
An idea emerged from their work.
“The network is the computer.”
It was the concept of designing an operating system that made the network into a large computer, with the operating system solving the security problems. The project became known as “.NET”
This idea, of a network computer and a world computer coming together was the first seed of what would later become Elastos.
Up until then, Microsoft’s operating system was Windows 2000, which would later become Windows XP. These are stand-alone operating systems which are very different than network operating systems. .NET was the idea of a network of operating systems connecting together.
Rong now saw the battlefield, the war torn landscape of the future of the internet filled with viruses and attacks, and he proposed something to save it. He would write .NET in C++. He would create the network operating system.
But his proposal was rejected — and in 2000, he left the war behind, and returned to China to begin work on his own idea, alone.
While Odysseus devised the idea for the Trojan Horse, Rongysseus devised the way to stop them.
Thus began the twists and turns of his epic journey. Rong believed he could complete his virus-free operating system within three years, but did not take into full account that it would need to go onto hardware, and that meant competing with giants who wanted their own operating systems and their own hardware.
Now home again, it was the early days of the internet in China. William Ding, Founder and CEO of NetEase, had just registered his first domain name. Pony Ma, CEO of Tencent, was trying to sell his QQ with no success. Even Jack Ma, who was giving passionate speeches about the internet and e-commerce was met with disbelief. No one believed him about the future of the internet. In fact, they called him a liar. But these men, like Rong Chen, were men of perseverance. Men who would prove people wrong.
Rong assembled some classmates from Tsinghua. He said of the time, “Starting portal sites and doing e-commerce was not enough to quench our thirst. We wanted to do the most difficult task by developing the first set of operating systems.” They made plans to develop an embedded operating system called, “Hexin,” and to complete it in three years time. They would take down the monsters and be home in no time. Or so they thought.
There were many who doubted their vision. Calypso-like voices who tried to convince Rong and his team that they should stop their journey, that the landscape was too tough, and should instead, stay on their little island for the seas of the domestic market were too rough to sail.
But Rong and his team continued, and in 2003 finished Hexin and were visited by President Hu Jintao. Programmer Magazine declared Rong part of their, “20 people who influenced China’s software development.” It was a list of some of today’s most important programmers.
Rong became the first person in China to create an operating system.
But the twists and turns continued. In 2003, because of State policy changes, investors withdrew capital from the team of more than 100 people and Rong found himself in a tight spot, like being trapped in a cave with a Cyclops. His team were low on funds, and just when things became dire, the Shanghai government reached out with an offer to help them with mobile phones. They agreed.
Rong and his team continued to work until 2006 and completed their operating system in C++. They now had an OS that could be installed onto any hardware. With this OS, network requests would be handled by the operating system itself instead of the applications, thus blocking applications from creating background processes and preventing man in the middle attacks and many viruses that are spread through the use of background processes on a device. Applications would now be prevented from direct access to the internet. This would later become the Elastos OS.
By 2006, when the smartphone was launched in China, Rong and his team had designed all of the software, the kernel, the interface, and the functionality. The phones were a success. But by 2007, Rong found out that Apple and Google were also releasing smartphones with operating systems…and it was then that he said to himself, “I know it’s over.”
His new operating system would need to go onto hardware to succeed, and this meant competing with companies whose means were far too great at the time.
“Both Apple and Google are rich companies that we couldn’t match from a hardware and ecology standpoint. Building an operating system exceeds the capacity of a person, a company, or even a local government…. We were not prepared psychologically and financially. We also lacked hardware capabilities at that point.”
Within four years, his company was in an even tighter spot financially. They took an investment from Foxconn and Rong temporarily stopped working on the product design of the operating system, but refused to part with his native code. Until 2012, his team worked on mobile customizations for Foxconn and outsourced work for Android. They learned a lot about the Android system.
Then, in 2012, Rong found out that Microsoft was pursuing his original idea that he gave to them to rewrite .NET into C++. He proposed to Terry Gou at Foxconn that he create an open source industrial internet operating system by rewriting Android into C++ with end-to-end security. Foxconn agreed to invest.
Rong and his team began rewriting the Android code, which used the Java language, into C++, thus allowing him to run Android applications on a C++ device, or any device.
This code evolved into a virtual machine in C++.
A little background. An operating system is a piece of software that can control the hardware of a computer. A virtual machine is an emulation of a computer system, yet it can run within an existing operating system. It is like a computer within a computer, that can be installed on top of existing operating systems without replacing them. Rong realized that this could be the ticket to circumventing the monopoly that the giants had. They controlled the process of getting their operating systems onto the major hardware providers in the world, but a C++ virtual machine would not have to compete with them for hardware, but instead, could go on top of their software.
Rong was now combining his original OS from 2006 with the Android in C++, to create a virtual machine in C++. The benefits of this were that with a CVM, there is no bridge needed for the virtual machine to talk to the hardware. This prevents man in the middle attacks. This is a true sandboxed environment. By not needing to communicate with a bridge to the hardware, when a file is opened in a C virtual machine, the VM can act as a quarantined area if it has a malicious actor within it. This is unique to the C language and was a breakthrough for technology.
This marvelous machine would later become the Elastos Runtime.
The team also began work on a decentralized peer to peer network. If they could install their new virtual machine on top of an Android or iOS, they now had a solution for creating millions of users without needing to compete for hardware. They began writing the protocol for this peer to peer network from scratch. This would become the Elastos Carrier. With the new sandboxed C virtual machine and a P2P network to connect them all directly through potentially hundred of millions of devices, Rong and his team were truly getting close to the network operating system.
This idea, of creating a network of devices is really the same idea as the internet of things, but with a much more accurate name. For an operating system in a sensor, in a camera, in a router, in a smart speaker, in a car, in a phone, in anything at all, to be able to communicate with other operating systems and create a network with real security that itself becomes a giant computer, is not really about the thing, but about the web that connects them. It is the web that is the core of this, not the thing. To call this an “internet of things” is less accurate than calling it a network operating system or web OS. What Rong devised is larger than the internet of things itself… it is the web of interconnection with real security that can connect any hardware in the world into a giant smart network….and even with the immensity of this idea, he had not even discovered what he would use as the final piece of his project.
Halfway through the project Foxconn pulled out its investment. This near final twist and turn on his journey home led him to a new entrepreneurial opportunity and the cherry on top of a decades long dream. After all of his different innovations, after every twist and turn, after the amalgamation of 17 years of work, Rong Chen finally found his epiphanic glue: blockchain.
With the discovery of blockchain technology, and the influence of Feng Han, Rong Chen decided that when combined with the network operating system of virtual machines and a decentralized peer to peer network, he could actually achieve “the value internet.”
Thus, Elastos was born.
In 2017, Rong realized that with the combination of hundreds of millions of virtual machines all within their own sandboxed environment with each request made by the virtual machines authenticated by a blockchain ID and communicated directly via a decentralized peer to peer network, he would finally and truly create the Elastos network operating system.
With so many virtual machines being able to talk to each other, each getting its own ID from the blockchain, Rong finally had a real “world supercomputer.”
The internet he had been imagining for so long, was about to become very smart.
But Rong also knew that while blockchain helped create the value internet, it was not the value internet alone. A blockchain is a bookkeeping method. It can allow people to know how A transferred over to B, and this creates a new revolution of transparency and trust, but it does this slowly. It is more trustworthy, but less efficient. Blockchain is not meant for transferring movies, and music, and messages, and sending large packets of data. Blockchain is a ledger, not an entire internet, and not an operating system. Instead, blockchain would become the ledger of the network operating system thus enabling the value internet.
Rong understood what blockchain could do, but more importantly, he understood what it could not do.
With Elastos Runtime spread out across millions of devices, decentralized applications could run on sidechains, instead of the main chain of Elastos, enabling near infinite scalability.
Rong knew that blockchain possessed six traits that would benefit this internet: it could remove the operating intermediary, it could remove the player intermediary, it could give IDs, create scarcity, enable consensus, and create tokens.
This last part is important because for an open source project to work, it needs an incentive to maintain it. This is where miners and tokens come in.
“There used to be three big operating systems: Microsoft, Apple, and Google. They’re basically different ecosystems for applications so every application must take sides. In today’s value internet, there’s no side to take. The internet is a platform for people to communicate. So everything should be open source. We have worked on the operating system for 18 years. Previously, we didn’t have enough resources. Now we have the token incentive mechanism to reward the participants, so everyone can participate. We are throwing out our bricks in hopes of getting back jade.”
All of his work has been in the creation of an ecosystem that works automatically. Rong has said that this is the key to its success.
And so, here we are today. Building an ecosystem. Incentivizing our citizens. Creating an industrial network operating system for every hardware, for every person to be connected safely, to own their own code and join an internet of value that is decentralized and for everyone. This epic journey, this surreal odyssey, has at its center, a humble man.
When asked of his idols, “I’ve never thought about it. Some pioneers are marvelous, such as Steve Jobs. But now I think being a prophet is actually quite sad.”
When asked if there were times when he was filled with fear on his surreal journey, “No, I’m an optimistic person.”
When asked of his dream,
“To make Elastos available to the whole of mankind.”
Rong Chen is a surrealist, an abstract expressionist who has found form in a sandbox for the subconscious…the subconscious of the internet that is….the unseen world before us, the wild west of symbols and code and darkness that is uncontainable and can infect us with its caged fury. We are all vulnerable in this online world, Rong knew it back in the 90s, and he has spent all these years building us a defense, a new playing field, leveled just for us. The Runtime that quarantines the Darknet. That quarantines the Trojan Horse that for Odysseus and the Greeks, was the gift horse that took down an empire, that took down a country. Our country is not made in this image, but in the image of a hero’s journey that does not take down empires, but builds them up. We are starting with our citadel on a hill, our cosmic fortress, our floating castle with the knowledge of what can take us down, what can take anyone down, ahead of time. We are building this internet knowing not to accept the Trojan Horse and look its gift in the mouth — but to instead, quarantine it.
We are not the Greeks nor the Trojans nor any people within any border.
We are the world and the world is us.
Elastos will be what we are, the community that builds it.
Some might think it is self-promotional to commend one’s own so thoroughly, and under certain circumstances, this would be correct. But in this case, it’s not self-promotion, because Rong is just a human being, and he would never do that for himself. It it simply actual appreciation. There is nothing more authentic than recognizing someone’s hard and selfless work and the long journey it took them to get there and feeling enthusiasm for it. People respond to authenticity with authenticity. Rong is as authentic as they come, in tech, or in any other field. He is a humble servant to society, who has traveled a long way for many decades to get us to this point with him. We may be enthusiastic for Elastos, and have been for months, and those months may even feel like years, but Rong has been enthusiastic about it for actual decades. This is his life’s work — a safe internet that works and provides a cyber republic for the common man and woman in any country, regardless of geography, regardless of borders and divisions and regardless of how they look or what they are called. An internet for all things and all people in an open source and yet secure way. Elastos is a foundation that wants to create the foundation for a global idea. We are all connected now, and this is only going to become more common and connect more things to us in the future. We need a new infrastructure for this new smart internet of everything for everyone. We need a network operating system that can go on any device and has a blockchain to create verification and scarcity and ownership and consensus. We are not one of hundreds of similar projects — we started decades ago in the mind of a man who is more famous for what he did after he left the battlefield than when he was on it. His epic journey that started in the 1970’s and saw him live at the heart of operating systems and the internet and be bold and brave enough to face the monsters and the naysayers and the twists and turns along the way, and to make it home, to be standing today, traveling the world trying to help it benefit itself by banding together and helping each other. This man is the stuff of epics.
The Odyssey is an over 2700 year old script of 2109 lines of dactylic hexameter verse. It tells the tale of one man’s journey coming home that is really the story of all of us with a bit of epiphany, perseverance, luck, and gratitude, and that is why it has survived this long. Rong’s project is also lines and lines of a strange and intriguing language, not dactylic hexameter, but C++, that tells a story of our time in technology and as a society. It is a document of all of us. His lines paint a picture of a vision to connect everything openly and fairly and allow us to have a world where our value is ours.
This is his journey.
It is classical. It is Homeric. It is a story worth being told.
There are many suitors currently feasting in our halls, vying for our affection on a grand and global scale, but there is only one who took the journey to truly get there.
There is an old Zen koan that says, “The journey is the reward.”
So let’s take our own journey — let’s claim our own reward.
Onward! Upward! Elastos!
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