Blockchain as a TRUST enabler. - It's at the start of its hype curve, but IBM and others are betting on business Blockchain

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Content Copyright © 2017 Bloor. All Rights Reserved.
Also posted on: The Norfolk Punt

One of my takeaways from IBM Interconnect 2017 is that IBM is taking Blockchain, as a business technology, very seriously. Is it a mature technology yet? No, but “standards-based” (if you see an Open Source Software, OSS, Project as some sort of “standard”) Blockchain services, using the OSS Hyperledger Fabric (hosted by The Linux Foundation’s Hyperledger Project) are available (in beta) as services to IBM Bluemix developers (and others).

Meeting with John Maclean, VP Global Blockchain Labs Engagement, Industry Platform (from lBM Hursley), he was at pains to discount the hype and stress that Blockchain was an emerging “distributed ledger” technology for the business and that its Bitcoin implementation was almost irrelevant in this context (Hyperledger is a ground-up rewrite) – although Bitcoin was the first practical implementation of the Blockchain concept. The main differences between the Bitcoin implementation of blockchain and Hyperledger, apparently, are that Hyperledger has less baggage, is better engineered (according to Maclean), offers higher performance and doesn’t have tokenisation (which means that it doesn’t anonymise assets).

In the general instance, a Blockchain network is a decentralised system for the exchange of business assets, with a shared, distributed ledger for recording asset transaction histories. Its “secret sauce” is that it doesn’t rely on a trusted third party to provide the TRUST element in the transactions but uses a consensus mechanism as a basis of trust, accountability, and transparency for participants in the network.

Maclean also stresses that Hyperledger is intended for large business networks with known assets and roles. It probably wouldn’t be appropriate for a small organisation where all participants were known to each other. As an aside, I note that other uses for Blockchain are being proposed (Michael Stroh of ServiceNow, for example, writes about the applicability of Blockchain to Configuration Management of IoT assets, in a BCS eBook scheduled for publication at the end of April); I don’t know whether their proponents will find Hyperledger useful.

Hyperledger deals with tangible, intangible and digital assets at a high level. The Blockchain doesn’t hold actual assets, it holds pointers to the real assets and deals with “reasonable-sized” data parcels (which is, presumably, how it delivers good performance and low overheads).

As already mentioned, Hyperledger Fabric is an open source, industry-focused implementation of Blockchain technology for business use. IBM and other companies are collaborating on its development, using a modular architecture that should deliver high degrees of scalability, privacy, and confidentiality, as a platform for distributed ledger solutions on permissioned networks (i.e., ones with collectively defined membership and access rights within a business network with a defined owner).

The Hyperledger Project uses the Linux Foundation License, the least restrictive OSS licences available, not the GPL license. As I’ve pointed out elsewhere, OSS is not license-free and its licensing matters. The point is that Hyperledger promises developers clean code, without surprises, absolutely free to use. I’m not going to detail on how you get and use this code here, but there is a very good “Blockchain 101” quick-start guide here. It is at developer level, but one can read the high-level sections if one isn’t actually into coding. Blockchain (Hyperledger) is also in the Bluemix catalogue.

In addition, IBM provides useful guides to “what is blockchain” and to the Hyperledger Community.

I am thinking that this Blockchain approach could become (in the course of time) an important part of implementing TRUST in business systems in the Enterprise generally, in part because I see a consensus approach as inherently more resilient than a trusted third party approach to transaction mediation – Quis custodiet ipsos custodes, but with Blockchain everyone is involved with TRUST, so there are no “guards” as such.. 

Nevertheless, a breakfast with Bill Hartwick, VP IBM Cloud, talking about cloud platform services generally, reminded me that technology doesn’t deliver TRUST all by itself. Hartwick, for instance, highlights the fact that millennials don’t behave any differently to the way we did, with new technology; the stuff they play with is just more valuable and has a greater scope of impact. But, we used to know how this stuff works, many millennials don’t and just take it for granted, which is just a way of saying that they treat the technology in their trusted iPhones, say, as if it was magic (cf. Arthur C Clarke “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”).

This doesn’t bode well for TRUST based purely on Blockchain (or any other) technology; I’m sure that there must be ways to subvert it at the human level (in some circumstances, it might even be counter-productive, by engendering a false sense of security). Technology can only ever be part of providing TRUST and TRUST can evaporate rapidly, in the face of publicised exploits, if it is only based on blind faith in magic technology.

However, while in the realm of magic, I begin to wonder whether Watson Cognitive services are going to be useful here, by alerting users to patterns indicative of things (outside of the pure technology domain) starting to get risky? I could imagine a user interface where a screen got dingy and used ugly fonts when Watson thought that the user should start being more careful and used cheerful saturated colours and attractive fonts when it recognised “good citizen behaviour” from all parties! However, I then start to wonder how easy it will be to subvert Watson’s pattern analytics…