Blockchain 101

There is a lot of noise on Blockchain these days. Back in May, 2015 The Economist wrote a whole special on Bockchain and it said, “The “blockchain” technology that underpins bitcoin, a sort of peer-to-peer system of running a currency, is presented as a piece of innovation on a par with the introduction of limited liability for corporations, or private property rights, or the internet itself”. It all started after the 2008 financial crisis, when a seminal paper written by Satoshi Nakamoto on Halloween day (Oct 31, 2008) caught the attention of many (the real identity of the author is still unknown). The name of the paper was “Bitcoin: A peer to peer electronic cash system”. Thus began a cash-less, bank-less world of money exchange over the internet using blockchain technology. Bitcoin’s value has exceeded $6000 and market cap is over $100B. VC’s are rushing to invest in cryptocurrency like never before.

The September 1, 2017 issue of Fortune magazine’s cover page screamed “Blockhain Mania”. The article said, “A blockchain is a kind of ledger, a table that businesses use to track credits and debits. But it’s not just any run-of-the-mill financial database. One of blockchain’s distinguishing features is that it concatenates (or “chains”) cryptographically verified transactions into sequences of lists (or “blocks”). The system uses complex mathematical functions to arrive at a definitive record of who owns what, when. Properly applied, a blockchain can help assure data integrity, maintain auditable records, and contracts into programmable software. It’s a ledger, but on the bleeding edge”.

So welcome to the new phase of network computing where we switch from “transfer of information” to “transfer of values”. Just as TCP/IP became the fundamental protocol for communication and helped create today’s internet with the first killer app Email (SMTP), blockchain will enable exchange of assets (the first app being Bitcoin for money). So get used to new terms like cryptocurrency, DLS (distributed ledger stack), nonce, ethereum, smart contracts, pseudo anonymity, etc. The “information internet” becomes the “value internet”. — Patrick Byrne, CEO of Overstock said, “Over the next decade, what the internet did to communications, blockchain is going to do to about 150 industries”. — In a recent article in Harvard Business Review, authors Joi Ito, Neha Narula, and Robleh Ali said, “The blockchain will do to the financial system what the internet did to media”.

The key elements of blockchain are the following:

  • Distributed Database – each party on a blockchain has access to entire DB and its complete history. No single party controls the data or the info. Each party can verify records without an intermediary.
  • Peer-to-Peer Transmission (P2P) – communication directly between peers instead of thru a central node.
  • Transparency with Pseudonymity – each transaction and associated value are visible to anyone with access to system. Each node/user has a unique 30-plus-character alphanumeric address. Users can choose to be anonymous or provide proof of identity. Transactions occur between blockchain addresses.
  • Irreversibility of records – once a transaction is entered in the DB, they can not be altered, because they are linked to every xaction record before them (hence the term ‘chain’).
  • Computational Logic – blockchain transactions can be tied to computational logic and in essence programmed.

The heart of the system is a distributed database that is write-once, read-many with a copy replicated at each node. It is transaction processing in a highly distributed network with guaranteed data integrity, security, and trust. Blockchain also provides automated, secure coordination system with remuneration and tracking. Even if it started with “money transfer” via Bitcoin, the underpinnings can be applied to any assets. The need for a central coordinating agency such as bank becomes unnecessary. Assets such as mortgages, bonds, stocks, loans, home titles, auto registries, birth and death certificates, passport, visa, etc. can all be exchanged without intermediaries. The Feb, 2017 HBR article said, “Blockchain is a foundational technology (not disruptive). It has the potential to create new foundations for our economic & social systems.”

We did not get into the depth of the technology here, but plenty of literature is available for you to read. Major vendors such as IBM, Microsoft, Oracle, HPE are offering blockchain as an infrastructure service for enterprise asset management.


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