Beyond Bitcoin: How Enterprises Can Integrate Blockchain into Business [Infographic]

In 2016, blockchain technology came close to hitting its peak on Gartner’s annual Hype Cycle, signaling an imminent shift from an emerging, theoretical technology to widespread adoption. Like cloud, big data, and the Internet of Things (IoT) before it, blockchain is the tech industry’s latest Next Big Thing. Analysts and industry experts say it holds immense potential for organizations, but many business leaders don’t yet see a practical application for their operations. While a lot of people know blockchain is the technology behind Bitcoin, Ethereum, and other cryptocurrencies, what about enterprise applications in other industries?

What exactly is blockchain?

The code that makes up blockchain is incredibly complex, and only a few thousand people understand it. On a high level, it’s a data structure supported by peer-to-peer (P2P) protocols that form a distributed, decentralized transaction ledger. Every member on the community network uses the same “consensus mechanism” to verify every transaction made through the network, creating a unique, permanent audit trail. Thanks to the distributed nature of the blockchain, there’s no single point of failure, and no way to make modifications to the transaction record.

You may start to hear a new acronym—DLT, or Distributed Ledger Technology. Many experts think 2017 is the year blockchain technology will gain traction in the enterprise, and new mainstream understandings about the technology will lead to high-value applications and process simplifications as general adoption trends progress to line of business solutions.

It’s important to understand that blockchain isn’t a technology layered on top of existing infrastructures in order to tweak the way business is done. It requires a different way of thinking and an entirely new approach to business. There are no middlemen involved in a blockchain transaction to facilitate and verify the exchange; it’s all done instantly on the distributed network, with the record of transaction logged permanently in the database. It’s a machine-to-machine process that has no human touch points once the transaction is entered.

Enterprise use cases

Blockchain is the next iteration of the connected enterprise. It’s the next logical step in a data sharing ecosystem in which every process is now—or will soon be—digital. The amount of data we have to process is overwhelming. As IoT takes hold, connected smart machines and devices will exchange information and execute automated tasks.

Blockchain is already used in a handful of applications including cryptocurrency. This year, as more people set their minds to understanding the technology and finding creative applications, we will see a sharp increase in new use cases in industries as diverse as agriculture, finance, healthcare, energy, and manufacturing.

  • Supply chain The immutability of DLT makes blockchain suited to banking and finance, which is why the first mature applications, such as Bitcoin and Ethereum, are in this space. The responsibility for verifying and securing the transactions shifts from a central authority to the distributed network, and the ledger is public, which increases transparency. But you don’t have to deal in cryptocurrency in order to find a fintech application for blockchain. The real promise for enterprises lies within the supply chain. Because transactions happen in real time, sales order processing, inventory management, and accounting work more closely together and at significantly increased speeds.Picture this: a women’s apparel retail store does a booming business in a particular line of handbags. The store’s inventory management system sends a purchase alert when it’s time to order, and through the blockchain, the application sees available inventory and triggers a sales order. There’s no need to verify the inventory is in stock; because of the transparency, the system knew that before it placed the order. Payment is automatically generated and transferred in real time, bypassing the bank entirely. With blockchain, a process that takes weeks could be completed in a matter of minutes.
  • Food and beverage
    When you deal with perishables, keeping an exact chain of custody is imperative. Walmart has partnered with IBM to test a blockchain application that tracks the pork it sells in China. Every step the product takes between farm and cash register is documented on the blockchain. The record shows where it originated, how and when it was processed, which truck transported it, at what temperature it was stored, when it will expire, and which store bought it.Right now, this application is only in the testing stage in a very small market, but the clear benefits mean it won’t be long before using a blockchain in the food and beverage industry becomes best practice.
  • “Limited blockchains”
    Blockchains aren’t only helpful when exchanging valuable assets with entities outside the enterprise trust circle. Some of the applications with the most creative potential are in private use cases where the data is shared with a smaller, pre-defined value chain. In many instances, these blockchains will be used in tandem with off-blockchain solutions and brokers because enterprises won’t have the advantage of a vast P2P network of distributed entities. In this sense, they’re limited blockchains.For example, the handbag manufacturer we outlined above may use a limited blockchain to manage its production schedule. From the sales team to the shop floor to the warehouse, every touchpoint in the product lifecycle is recorded on the blockchain, while more granular business processes are controlled off-blockchain. Or in healthcare, a consortium of medical care providers and insurance companies could use the blockchain to decentralize patient health records, creating one source of patient data. However, because of HIPAA regulations, there may need to be an off-blockchain application matching each blockchain node with the corresponding patient’s sensitive identity information.

 

 

Challenges to overcome

The promise of blockchain is exciting, but there are some significant challenges to work out before widespread adoption is realistic. One of the biggest is security and privacy. In June of last year, hackers exploited a vulnerability in Ethereum’s blockchain code to steal $60 million. Because of the distributed nature of the blockchain, a certain number of Ethereum’s network would have had to agree to rewrite the rules in order to recover the money. Several refused to do so, citing the sanctity of blockchain’s immutability.

It was eventually resolved, but the incident left the banking industry cold. A few months later, Accenture developed a way to edit the blockchain, which caused no small amount of controversy among blockchain purists. But the edit feature was welcomed by the financial industry. Before enterprises feel safe entrusting their financial records and other sensitive information to a blockchain, they’ll need to see a lot of security advances.

The other big hurdle is the lack of regulation surrounding blockchain. Remember the FBI vs. Apple debacle where the feds wanted the manufacturer to unlock an iPhone used by terrorists in the San Bernardino shooting? The FBI used a 227-year-old statute as the basis of their argument. That’s how slowly governments move on new technology.

However important the information on that iPhone, that situation was a lullaby compared to the alarm bells blockchain has set off. Remember, there’s no intermediary for blockchain transactions. Banks are subject to federal regulations, but Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies are not. Further, new advances in blockchain encryption show promise for the ability to hide the origin or destination of the assets exchanged. This all spells trouble for governments trying to collect taxes or institute consumer protection laws.

On the practical side, the infrastructure needed to give a large blockchain such as Bitcoin integrity is massive. Some experts estimate that you’d need more than five megawatts of data center just to track users’ currency. Blockchain applications require immense cloud infrastructures, with each transaction conducted as a virtual session within a data center. As blockchain grows, the demand on servers will increase dramatically, necessitating investments in advanced storage solutions such as hyper-converged infrastructure.

The World Economic Forum predicts that by 2025, one-tenth of our GDP will have made its way onto the blockchain. For a nascent technology, that’s a bold prediction. But we’re living through a period of technological transformation that moves at unprecedented speeds. If you’re not already thinking about blockchain, you may already be behind.

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Blockchain: Everything You Need to Know

The first thing you need to know about blockchain is that it enables the creation of virtual currencies and intelligent contracts. At its core is the concept of a “distributed ledger,” where data on transactions is recorded across a range of specified databases. Every transaction can be tracked and replicated in real time. That’s how the identities of user accounts, even if they are anonymous, can be verified and secured behind advanced cryptography and digital signatures.

The second thing you need to know is that blockchain changes the rules on everything. This isn’t just about digital transformation of the finance industry — it resets what’s possible for all forms of peer-to-peer exchange and enterprise value chains. Billions of dollars are already being invested by the world’s largest enterprises and governments to create a programmable economy.

Take a moment to look over the what, where, why, and how of blockchains. The who? That’s up to you.

The Definition of Blockchain

As you might expect from a new technology, blockchain has conflicting definitions. One of the most compact definitions comes from Deloitte: “Despite its apparent complexity, a blockchain is just another type of database for recording transactions — one that is copied to all the computers in a participating network.”

The blocks are arranged in fixed structures that include a header and the content. The header block contains all the metadata like a time-stamp, reference number, and a link to the previous block. The content block contains a validated list of digital assets and instructional statements. As you can see, encrypted identity information can be handled separately and protected in another database.

When you pull down the latest block, you also gain access to all previous blocks linked together in a chain of database records, giving you an easy way to verify and audit transactions. The more participants there are, the harder it is for hackers to get around all the verifications. That’s one of the primary reasons that the UK government has chosen a blockchain solution to protect the networks and data of nuclear power stations across the country.

Blockchain vs. Bitcoin

Most people know that blockchain has something to do with bitcoin, which often makes them wary of learning any more about it. They know that bitcoin is a software-defined currency preferred by anonymous users possibly doing illegal things.

Bitcoin was the first application of blockchain, introduced in a 2008 white paper called, “Bitcoin: A Peer-to-Peer Electronic Cash System.” The author of the paper was either a developer or a team of developers working under the pseudonym “Satoshi Nakamoto.” Although several people have claimed to be the mysterious author of the piece, nothing has been proven conclusively yet. Blockchain and the distributed ledger were created to record and verify bitcoin transactions, the first of which was later in 2008.

Bitcoin and blockchain came to the attention of many financial professionals in 2013. That’s when the FBI shut down operations at the Silk Road site, which used bitcoins to make payments anonymous for drugs and other illegal activities.

Real-World Applications of Blockchain

Since 2013, blockchain has left bitcoin far behind as more than $1 billion in investment has flowed in to develop the technology. Anonymous virtual currency is just one very limited application of blockchain, and isn’t what IBM had in mind when it launched a test of blockchain this year for more accurate record keeping in its supply chain. IBM joins financial giants like Nasdaq, JPMorgan Chase & Co., and Bank of America Corp., who have already launched their first blockchain projects.

The BI Intelligence Blockchain Report laid out the true potential of blockchain: “[It] has the ability to allow multiple parties to transfer and store sensitive information in a space that’s secure, permanent, anonymous, and easily accessible. That could simplify paper-heavy, expensive, or logistically complicated financial systems, like remittances and cross-border transfers, shareholder management and ownership exchange, and securities trading, to name a few. And outside of finance, governments and the music industry are investigating the technology’s potential to simplify record keeping.”

The report estimated that blockchain could save enterprises $20 billion annually by 2022.

Blockchain for the CIO

Despite all the business interest and investment, perhaps the biggest input still missing from blockchain is imagination. At the Gartner Symposium/ITxpo this year, David Furlonger, Gartner VP, encouraged financial leaders to get creative. “We now have a digital capability to represent any form of value that is privately issued — you can become your own banker, insurance agent, or foreign exchange teller. What does that mean for how society operates today? What are the implications for governance, our tax system, and our legal framework?”

Gartner gave not answers, but reasons to investigate what the technology could do for each individual enterprise, saying, “CIOs should build a list of potential use cases for their own industry to discuss with the CEO.”

The practical uses so far, in addition to those by IBM, the UK government, and banks, include:

  • A channel for universities and educational institutions to provide proof of course completion and grades across continents.

  • A diamond registry that can identify stones by their unique features, such as the stone’s cut, color, clarity, and carat. Diamonds can be tracked from mining location to retail destination.

  • In China, it is being deployed to trace the origin and destination of fresh produce, beef, and milk.

  • In emerging markets where it is difficult to track and verify land ownership, it is used as the backbone of a comprehensive land title system.

The primary skill that any database development team needs to create and maintain its own blockchain application is a strong background in databases and distributed computing.

Blockchain for Developers

The Byte Academy’s Blockchain Bootcamp in New York runs eight weeks and costs around $10,000. That may be a substantial investment for some developers, but compare that with the $220K annual salary that an experienced blockchain developer can command on the market now.

Dave Hoover, co-founder of Dev Bootcamp, projected that blockchain developers will become an essential component of IT teams over the next few years. He said, “To me, it’s a matter of when, because I believe blockchain is fundamentally game-changing technology. It’ll probably happen faster than it happened with the web.”

Here are some resources to get you started:

  • Blockchain University combines online with classroom resources, including bootcamps and hackathons that bring together developers, product managers, attorneys, designers, and builders with entrepreneurs or enterprise intrepreneurs.

  • Ethereum is a new open-source initiative striving to establish a universal set of blockchain protocols with a built-in programming language. It will allow developers to build any application on top of Ethereum, with the rules enforced by the blockchain. There are currently Ethereum implementations built on C++, Go, and Serpent 2.0.

Blockchain for Consumers

One of the most interesting developments with blockchain has emerged in Australia, where alternative energy is changing the way power is delivered. It starts from the aspect of blockchain that simplifies peer-to-peer exchanges.

David Martin, managing director of Australia’s Power Ledger platform demonstrated why blockchain makes more sense in a programmable economy. “The energy system used to be linear  — energy flowed from distant generators to consumers via long networks and was facilitated by wholesale markets and retail agents. The system is more distributed now, and energy flows in multiple directions. Yet we still rely on wholesale markets and retailer intermediaries to operate as they always have.”

Blockchain forms the basis of an energy exchange, which can serve as a model for the home or office-based solar generators in the United States. That’s already being done in Brooklyn, NY, where an independent co-operative microgrid has been set up to allow members to trade power according to what they need.

The Promise and the Peril

Despite all the positive possibilities blockchain opens up for more efficient exchanges, monetary and otherwise, Gartner’s Furlonger also pointed out that, “In its current form, blockchain suffers from significant limitations in scalability, governance, and flexibility.” Scalability is limited by the vast amount of computer and power resources required. Governance remains an open question as private companies pursue their own blockchain initiatives based on many different infrastructures. Finally, flexibility is compromised by lack of integration with corporate legacy systems and policies.

Any distributed application involving the exchange of highly valuable data requires a much higher bar in terms of reliability and performance. Most financial institutions have web and mobile apps these days. To keep up and differentiate from their competition, financial companies need to offer a feature-rich app that gives users an exceptional experience and easy access to their accounts. Solutions like those provided by AppDynamics allow financial institutions to monitor online banking apps, credit processing, claims processing, payment processing, anti-fraud, and improve customer support.