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What is blockchain? The most disruptive tech in decades

The distributed ledger technology, better known as blockchain, has the potential to eliminate huge amounts of record-keeping, save money and disrupt IT in ways not seen since the internet arrived.

Lucas Mearian May 21st 2018

Blockchain is poised to change IT in much the same way open-source software did a quarter of a century ago. And in the same way that Linux took more than a decade to become a cornerstone in modern application development, Blockchain will take years to become a lower cost, more efficient way to share information between open and private networks.

But the hype around this seemingly new, secure electronic ledger is real. In essence, blockchain represents a new paradigm for the way information is shared and tech vendors and companies are rushing to figure out how they can use the distributed ledger technology to save time and admin costs. Numerous companies in 2017 began rolling out pilot programs and real-world projects across a variety of industries - everything from financial services to healthcare to mobile payments and even global shipping.

It's unlikely to be a wholly disruptive technology that attacks traditional business models with a lower-cost solution that overtakes other networking technology quickly, according to Karim Lakhani, a professor of business administration at the Harvard Business School. Instead, Blockchain is a foundational technology, with the potential to create new foundations for economic and social systems, Lakhani said in The Truth About Blockchain, which he co-authored.

Blockchain adoption is expected be slow and steady, as the changes it brings gain momentum, according Lakhani, a principal investigator of the Crowd Innovation Lab and NASA Tournament Lab at the Harvard Institute for Quantitative Social Science. "Conceptionally, this is TCP/IP applied to the world of business and transactions," Lakhani said in an interview. "In the '70s and '80s, TCP/IP was not imaginable to be as robust and scalable as it was. Now, we know that TCP/IP allows us all this modern functionality that we take for granted on the web.

"Blockchain has the same potential."

What is blockchain?

First and foremost, Blockchain is a public electronic ledger - similar to a relational database - that can be openly shared among disparate users and that creates an unchangeable record of their transactions, each one time-stamped and linked to the previous one. Each digital record or transaction in the thread is called a block (hence the name), and it allows either an open or controlled set of users to participate in the electronic ledger. Each block is linked to a specific participant.

Blockchain can only be updated by consensus between participants in the system, and when new data is entered, it can never be erased. The blockchain contains a true and verifiable record of each and every transaction ever made in the system.

Blockchain isn't a single technology. Rather it's an architecture that allows disparate users to make transactions and then creates an unchangeable record of those transactions. 

BlockchainForrester Research

Blockchain isn't a single technology. Rather it's an architecture that allows disparate users to make transactions and then creates an unchangeable, secure record of those transactions. 

While it has great potential, blockchain technology is in its infancy and CIOs and their business counterparts should expect setbacks in deploying the technology, including the real possibility for serious bugs in the software.

For example, one of the most prevalent blockchain platforms, Ethereum, doesn't support the use of decimal points in its script for smart (self executing) contracts. Those coding a blockchain network would need to create a workaround.

The Linux Foundation has created tools for building out blockchain collaboration networks. And in July, the open-source developer unveiled Hyperledger Fabric 1.0, a collaboration tool for building blockchain distributed ledger business networks, such as smart contracts.

While some industry groups are working toward standardizing versions of blockchain software, there are also about 200 startups working on their own versions of the distributed ledger technology.

Why is blockchain now getting so much buzz? In a word, Bitcoin. Bitcoin is the wildly hyped cryptocurrency, a method of transacting payments over an open network using digital bits and encryption. It was the first ever decentralized one when it was created in 2009. Other forms of cryptocurrency or virtual money, such as Ether (based on the Ethereum blockchain application platform), have also sprung up and have opened new venues for cross-border monetary exchanges.

The term bitcoin was first... well, coined in 2008 when Satoshi Nakamoto (likely a pseudonym for one or more developers) wrote a paper about a "peer-to-peer version of electronic cash that would allow online payments to be sent directly from one party to another without going through a financial institution."

What does blockchain do?

As a peer-to-peer network, combined with a distributed time-stamping server, blockchain databases can be managed autonomously to exchange information between disparate parties. There's no need for an administrator. In effect, the blockchain users are the administrator.

Additionally, blockchain networks can be used for "smart contracts," or scripts that automatically execute when certain conditions are met. For example, users of Ethereum's Ether exchange must meet pre-determined conditions that prove someone owns the cryptocurrency and have authority to send the money they claim to own. In addition, multiple blockchain users can create contracts that require more than one set of inputs to trigger a transaction.

One example: real estate transactions require sign offs between buyers, sellers and their financial institutions.

blockchain how it worksNetwork World

Each digital record or transaction in the electronic ledger is called a block. When a block is completed, it creates a unique secure code that ties it to the next block.

How secure is blockchain?

While no system is "unhackable," blockchain's simple topology is the most secure today, according to Alex Tapscott, the CEO and founder of Northwest Passage Ventures, a venture capital firm that invests in blockchain technology companies.

"In order to move anything of value over any kind of blockchain, the network [of nodes] must first agree that that transaction is valid, which means no single entity can go in and say one way or the other whether or not a transaction happened," Tapscott said. "To hack it, you wouldn't just have to hack one system like in a bank..., you'd have to hack every single computer on that network, which is fighting against you doing that."

The computing resources of most blockchains are tremendous, Tapscott said, because it's not just one computer but many. For example, the Bitcoin blockchain harnesses anywhere between 10 and 100 times as much computing power compared to all of Google's serving farms put together.

BlockchainForrester Research

As with any emerging technology, blockchain faces challenges and barriers to adoption. 

"So again, [it's] not un-hackable, but significantly better than anything we've come up with today," Tapscott said.

Public vs. private blockchains

There are a variety of blockchain permutations, and they fall mainly into one of two categories - public or private. Public blockchains allow anyone to see or send transactions as long as they're part of the consensus process. There are also consortium blockchains, where only a pre-selected number of nodes are authorized to use the ledger. For example, a group of banks and their clearinghouse might use blockchain as part of the trade-clearing, where each node is associated with a step in the verification process.

Private blockchains, in contrast, restrict the ability to write to a distributed ledger to one organization, such as a group of employees within a corporation, or between a set number of organizations, such as a number of banks that agree to a network partnership.

Along the way, blockchain - because of its self-policing security - eliminates huge amounts of record keeping, which can get very confusing when multiple parties are involved in a transaction, according to Saurabh Gupta, vice president of strategy at IT services company Genpact.

Which industries use blockchain?

Shipping. Fintech. Healthcare, Energy. Blockchains are being put to a wide variety of uses in several industries.

In shipping, for example, a bill of lading for cargo shipments has traditionally been paper based, which requires multiple sign-offs by inspectors and receivers before goods can be delivered. Even when the system is electronic, it still requires multiple parties to sign off on cargo shipments, creating a lengthy administrative process. To try and streamline that cumbersome process, the world's largest container shipment operator, Maersk, in March 2017 announced it is using a blockchain-based ledger to manage and track the paper trail of tens of millions of shipping containers by digitizing the supply chain. And Maersk has now teamed up with IBM on a new blockchain-based electronic shipping platform. It’s expected to be up and running later in 2018.

Each participant in the shipping supply chain can view the progress of goods through the blockchain ledger, understanding where a container is in transit. They can also see the status of customs documents, or view bills of lading and other data in real time. And, because it creates an immutable record, no one party can modify, delete or even append any one of the blocks without the consensus from others on the network.

"Blockchain and distributed ledgers may eventually be the method for integrating the entire commercial world's record keeping," Gupta said.

Genpact, for example, announced a service for finance and accounting that leverages blockchain-based smart contracts to capture all terms and conditions between a customer and an organization for an order.

Blockchain in FinTech

Accenture recently released a report claiming blockchain technology could reduce infrastructure costs for eight of the world's 10 largest investment banks by an average of 30%, "translating to $8 billion to $12 billion in annual cost savings for those banks."

In the case of cross-border payments, processing is often complex and includes multiple layers of communication among payment participants to verify transactions - an operation known as payment and settlement.

Payments, clearance and settlement in the financial services industry - including stock markets - is rife with inefficiencies because each organization in the process maintains its own data and must communicate with the others through electronic messaging about where it is in the process. As a result, settlements typically take two days. Those delays in settlements force banks to set aside money that could otherwise be invested.

Because it can instantly share data with each organization involved in a blockchain database or ledger, the technology reduces or eliminates the need for reconciliation, confirmation and trade break analysis. That helps yield a more efficient and effective clearance and settlement process, according to Accenture.

J.P. Morgan has created what is arguably one of the largest blockchain payments networks to date: the Interbank Information Network (IIN). The financial services company announced that the Royal Bank of Canada and Australia and New Zealand Banking Group Ltd. have joined INN, "representing significant cross-border payment volumes."

J.P. Morgan created the blockchain network to significantly reduce the number of participants needed to respond to compliance and other data-related inquiries that can delay payments.

"IIN will enhance the client experience, decreasing the amount of time - from weeks to hours - and costs associated with resolving payment delays," said Emma Loftus, Head of Global Payments and FX at J.P. Morgan Treasury Services. "Blockchain capabilities have allowed us to rethink how critical information can be sourced and exchanged between global banks."

Mastercard, meanwhile, is launching its own blockchain network to enable partner banks and merchants to make cross-border payments faster and more securely. The Mastercard blockchain service can be used to clear credit card transactions and eliminate administration tasks using smart contract rules, thus, speeding up transaction settlement.

Blockchain in energy

Residents of the Park Slope area of Brooklyn are able to sell power generated from rooftop solar panels via a microgrid enabled by a blockchain ledger that records every transaction made with a local utility.

The physical microgrid, set up by Siemens Digital Grid Division, includes network control systems, converters, lithium-ion battery storage and smart electric meters. In case of another hurricane like Sandy in 2012, residents on the microgrid would continue to have power for a time – even during a blackout – as they could switch to battery reserves.

The Brooklyn Microgrid blockchain database is a web-based bookkeeping system that uses cryptographic technology to save energy data in a way that is both inexpensive and forgery-proof, the companies said.

Sun Pacific Holding Corp. also just unveiled plans to buy 60 acres of land to build a solar and wind farm that will use a blockchain distributed ledger to monitor the new grid, handle load balancing, and increase the life of electrical equipment by addressing issues in real time.

The Manalapan, N.J. company also wants to link its many microgrids, including the new renewable energy system, to the larger national grid system and manage it through a blockchain ledger. In the long run, the company said, that could allow customers to sell energy back to the grid, avoid blackouts through energy sharing and switch energy providers without hassle.

In order to participate in the blockchain system, a business or household will be required to purchase a node or computer. The nodes will be used to validate and share information throughout the microgrid, minimizing the amount of human interaction needed to operate the system.

Overall, a system balanced on blockchain has the potential to be far more efficient than the current energy system, the company said.

“We believe the future of energy lives on the blockchain and we're excited to be using blockchain technology to make managing the grid more efficient.” Sun Pacific Holdings CEO Nicholas Campanella said in a statement.

Blockchain and mobile payments

Prior to rolling out a blockchain-based electronic exchange, peer-to-peer foreign exchange provider KlickEx was limited in scale by the company's own infrastructure; it served about 1 million users per day across eight countries, or about 80% of households in its Pacific region. Today, the monetary exchange handles about 90% to 95% of all electronic payments for the region that are for $200 or less. When not overtaxed, the old KlickEx exchange system was able to clear payments in between 90 and 200 seconds. But a common processing issue often slowed the process: payments received would outpace payments issued, forcing the exchange to use batch processing. That caused payments to enter queues and created a delay that could take days.

A new blockchain-based payment system that KlickEx has created can process cross-border payments in seconds.

The Polynesian payments system provider partnered with IBM to create an open-source payment network as a new international exchange based on a blockchain electronic ledger. The new network uses IBM's Blockchain Platform, a cloud service, to enable the electronic exchange of 12 different currencies across Pacific Islands as well as in Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom.

"In bringing IBM in to mature the technology, we think we're pushing something like 8 million...payments per day capacity, which is a long way up from where we started," KlickEx CEO Robert Bell said. "So the new real-time system based on blockchain means payment happens immediately, rather than in batch files."

Blockchain for healthcare

Blockchain can also act as a collaboration network, enabling varying parties to exchange and add to information, such as a patient's electronic healthcare record, in real time. The blockchain acts as a verification tool, ensuring only those authorized users — such as a physician, insurance provider or patient — to make changes to the ledger.

MintHealth, a portable, personal health record, was recently announced as a mobile platform based on a blockchain exchange. MintHealth will be rolling out the platform to commercial health insurance plans to help patients with chronic conditions, such as heart failure, diabetes, hypertension, and other conditions that account for more than 90% of healthcare costs today. In addition, patients at risk for, but not yet suffering from, chronic conditions will also benefit by having access to their medical records and control of their own health data by entering data such as vital signs or blood glucose levels.

Blockchain-enabled data allows for real-time movement of clinical and behavioral data between existing physician and patient data siloes; and machine learning on a growing patient database can help identify predictors of diseases and poor health.

"The initial step of digitizing health data in electronic health record systems (EHRs) moved us towards value-based care. Blockchain technology holds great promise for enabling the data liquidity necessary to execute on our vision of improved population health, and at lower cost," said Tee Green, executive chairman of Greenway Health, an electronic health record vendor that has partnered on the MintHealth app.

IBM Watson Health and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration are also exploring the use of blockchain for secure patient data exchange, including sensitive electronic medical records, clinical trials and data culled from mobile devices and wearables.

How is blockchain likely to evolve?

Regardless of who developed it, businesses should always take a pragmatic approach when adopting any new technology, according to Gupta. "You can't ignore it, but you can't just blindly adopt a new technology. The key is to see if it makes sense for your business problem."

More than 15 blockchain distributed ledger platforms are being developed in parallel, with specialist applications on top of them, according to Gupta. The industry will need further standardization to encourage widespread adoption.

"Such challenges are common with new technologies," he said, "and even with this concern, blockchain is seeing a lot of interest."

According to Angus Champion de Crespigny, Ernst & Young's Blockchain Leader, blockchain distributed ledger technology is well suited to propagate security policies and identity access management, which can traverse a myriad of markets. The fact that each blockchain record contains a unique cryptographic hash that is used to track that block, as well as others in the associated chain, means data cannot be modified. That makes it perfect for record keeping and auditing purposes, he added.

de Crespigny noted that more vendors are now producing business-specific products, "which is really what's needed."

Blockchain careers are taking flight

Blockchain developers now rank second among the top 20 fastest-growing job skills, and job postings for workers with those skills have more than doubled this year.

Taking second fiddle only to robotics specialists, blockchain technologists are advertising their services for as much as $115 per hour, according to Upwork, an employment site that specializes in freelance workers. Next in the list of fastest-growing job skills is another blockchain-related topic: Bitcoin cryptocurrency developers.

blockchain job postingsBurning Glass Technologies

Demand for blockchain technology professionals is skyrocketing. 

Topcoder, a company that creates computer programming contests, just announced its new Blockchain Community with partner ConsenSys. The community aims to teach programmers and engineers how to build blockchain applications.

The same thing that makes blockchain attractive - its distributed nature - also makes it a potential security threat. In the enterprise, centralized control can translate into security. With blockchain being inherently decentralized, the technology works best when information sharing is a necessity across multiple, often disparate, parties.

Central control, as in a single administrator, can also be a double-edged sword since a single point of control is also a single point of failure, according to Serguei Beloussov, CEO of Acronis, a cloud backup and file synchronization vendor. While Beloussov himself believes blockchain is secure, he has several computer scientists on his staff that believe it's not - and say it can be penetrated.

Questions about blockchain security usually point to Satoshi Nakamoto, the pseudonymous programmer who developed the Bitcoin system after releasing a white paper on the technology in 2008. The Bitcoin network, launched in early 2009, uses peer-to-peer software to transfer bitcoins. Satoshi Nakamoto could be one person's name or a pseudonym for a group of developers, no one appears to know for sure. But Nakamoto holds 1 million bitcoins, or the equivalent to $1.1 billion.

That has led some in Beloussov's company to speculate that the whole thing could be a giant Ponzi scheme, without evidence to indicate that.

Blockchain and hacks

To date, however, a blockchain network has never been hacked, and it's not likely to happen in the future, said Bruce Schneier, a cryptographer and security expert.

"That's not how this sort of thing will get broken. It'll get broken because of some insecurity in the software," Schneier said, referring to the fact that there are already many versions of blockchain. One such version, Ethereum, is a custom-built platform introduced in 2013 by developer Vitalik Buterin, who was 19 at the time.

Harvard's Lakhani, however, is not concerned about the mysteries around blockchain's and bitcoin's beginnings. "Their motivations for inventing it is not clear, but whoever they were who created it gave a great gift to the world by making it available," he said.

Most have yet to fully appreciate the use cases the distributed ledger can unleash simply because of its ability to share verified records across disparate groups, reduce costs and speed up transactions.

The future of blockchain

"Blockchain inverts our logic of how and where information resides, who has access to that information and what you can do with that information," Lakhani said. "The reason some of these organizations feel angst - [is because blockchain] goes to the heart of how we organize our information and our records-keeping infrastructure... But it's not going to happen overnight. In the case of TCP/IP - the world that we now take for granted - it took 30 years to develop.

"When we started this in the 1970s, no one anticipated I could be in Boston and FaceTime with my mobile device with someone in Shanghai. That was science fiction," Lakhani said. "My sense is this will again take time. We need both business logic and technical logic to be figured out, the applications to be developed and people to be trained to use it; then we'll adapt our institutions to the new way of sharing information."