Technical Overview of Blockchain
Design and business considerations of Blockchain technology based on experience
I am an enterprise architect with almost four decades of technology experience and working on Blockchain design solution since its inception.
My clients asks critical questions such as:
Is the Blockchain panacea to address manipulation problems and illuminate the world with true trust?
Can we enable Artificial Intelligence without the Blockchain?
How can we start developing the Blockchain application?
In this article, my aim is to introduce what the Blockchain is without hype: its importance with facts,
its architecture for autonomous systems,
compelling use cases it presents,
business value proposition,
the technologies and processes behind it,
learning and development opportunities,
current progress for its deployment,
future plans for integrating it to our lives to better understand it and gain more insights about its value proposition.
Can we trust without trusting?
Yes, we can!
By understanding, exploring, welcoming, and embracing the Blockchain!
If you are a skeptic, don't miss this one-time opportunity.
Please read and understand the reason behind my informed madness.
With a few minute investments of your valuable time, your views may change, and who knows, you can turn to an evangelist for the fascinating potential of this ugly child in our block.
This article seems to be ambitious in its scope however I do my best to simplify and encapsulate the essential points as much as possible. I want to give you an informative viewpoint so that you may start leveraging this remarkable technology for your business.
For some good or bad reasons, the Blockchain is still a controversial topic. It turned to a love-hate situation in our society. Some love it and some hate it. I am neutral, optimistic, and open-minded about its potential. My major concern is that it is taken out of context by those who do not understand the concept and only look at the enigmatic aspects of it. Admittedly, it is a complex topic with many societal implications.
As a quick background, probably you heard this story many times, the Blockchain was originally designed for Bitcoin (popular digital currency). However, it is not exclusive to Bitcoin anymore.
It evolved, since then, into different forms and posed new use cases. It is still rapidly growing with horrible teething pains. In my view, it has started becoming the backbone of the new Internet and is expected to be the biggest extension of the Internet in security, privacy, and trust domains.
The Blockchain is a relatively new technology; in fact, it appeared around a decade ago. It only started hitting the news in 2008 with an article from a mystical person Satoshi Nakamoto.
During my conversations with contacts in social media, it was evident that nobody has ever talked or met this person. So, it is speculated that it is not a single person, perhaps a group of genius developers used this name as a pseudonym to protect themselves from potential harm.
In 2009, Blockchain was used as a core component of the digital currency bitcoin serving as the public ledger for its transactions.
Why did Blockchain gain such attention in this short time frame?
Because it attempts to solve a major problem in our modern society.
The pervasive problem of manipulation!
In some of the industry and academic forums, the discussions resulted in a consensus that the biggest useful technology after the Internet can be the Blockchain.
This has been a surprise to some business and technology leaders. However, the recognition was proven via substantial investment globally and highlighted the significance of the Blockchain in our lives.
Even though some still think that it is a futuristic technology, the truth is far from it. We have already started exploring and exploiting it graciously. I can assure that it is a proven technology because we performed many proof of technology (PoT) initiatives in multiple business and academic organisations.
It technically works! Therefore, it has been rapidly accepted and embraced by corporate and academic organisations. During these PoTs, as one of the research fellows pointed out, it is not just a fancy new-age concept anymore.
What is the Value Proposition for Blockchain?
The Blockchain, as a widespread, proven, and robust technology, offers two compelling value propositions:
(a) it cannot be controlled by any single entity
(b) it has no single point of failure
The societal significance of the Blockchain comes from the trust we thirst for.
It provides trust in our daily transactions, for example, trusting the food we eat, the intended quality of the purchases we make, and the origins of the equipment we use. We never had a trusting mechanism that the Blockchain could offer so far in human history. I know this is a big statement but holds the truth. Bear with me!
The real value it adds can be outlined with the following a dozen of compelling characteristics:
Who is the Blockchain for?
During my technology awareness presentations in various collaboration forums, the most frequently asked question was "Who uses it for what purpose". My knee-jerk response has been "anyone!", which usually created pleasant chuckles from the curious audience.
Let me introduce and explain the common use cases.
During my initial literature on the topic, the usage of the Blockchain was evident in a wide variety of domains. The most frequently mentioned areas and use cases were IoT, stock trading, data management, neighborhood micro-grids, prediction markets, land title registration, protection of intellectual property, manufacturing assurance, distribution of goods (e.g. food, music, and digital products).
From my observations, the finance industry has the strongest use cases for the Blockchain. The main reason for this: "the Blockchain removes the middleman from the transactions". It also turned to be user-friendly in the finance domain, by implementation and widespread use of digital wallet applications. People in finance can easily make transactions (both buy and sell) using digital currencies, which the Blockchain make it readily available in a trusted manner.
One of my favorite and biased use cases in my interest areas is empowering IoT with the Blockchain for predictive analytics and mass-scale automated systems management.
IoT requires connecting, networking, and managing things (physical devices) via the Internet using embedded smart chips in a reliable and secure way. The major components of IoT are software, hardware, network, electronics, sensors and actuators. These components enable the things (physical objects) exchange data and make the data human-readable and easily understandable. IoT marks many security concerns.
This understanding empowered us to take informed actions for IoT for a wide variety of use cases in our business and personal life. The Blockchain can contribute and empower the security capabilities of IoT. Security, especially cybersecurity, is our weakest point hence the biggest concern of our century as far as IoT devices are concerned.
For more information on IoT, you can check my article titled "A Technical Overview of Internet of Things (IoT)" on Vocal.
Technical and Architectural Aspect of the Blockchain
Understanding the technical and architectural aspect of the Blockchain is important to see its potential value. Let me give you a simplified technical background on the Blockchain architecture.
The Blockchain is based on decentralised technology framework. It is a digital data management protocol with a network consists of nodes. It offers storage technology coupled with information transmission. It allows all participants in the process and can be transparent to everyone. The database of the Blockchain is distributed by design. Its database keeps different copies simultaneously in different nodes.
The protocol of the Blockchain is based on a peer-to-peer architecture model. In other words, it does not require a control body. This is the core architectural principle for the Blockchain.
Then, the next critical point is that the protocol and database are proven to be infallible and secure. The distributed nature of the database enables different copies to exist simultaneously on different computer nodes of the network by preventing the Blockchain from being hacked.
Apart from its unique protocol and database, its security design framework worth mentioning. The security framework for the Blockchain is supported by the use of Byzantine fault tolerance.
This is a complex computer science topic. However, in a nutshell and in the simplest terms, it is a prevention mechanism and measure. The objective is to be able to defend against system failures of the components, with or without symptoms, aiming to prevent associated components of the same system from reaching an agreement for the desired operation of the system.
The most critical architectural component of the Blockchain is the database. It has two kinds of records namely: blocks and the transactions. Blocks are designed to hold batches of valid transactions. They are hashed and encoded into a Merkle tree.
Merkle tree is a common term in cryptography. It can be defined as a tree in which every non-leaf node is labelled with the cryptic hash of the labels or values of its child node. I won't bore you details of cryptography which is a humongous domain itself, however it is important to understand the architectural and security rigour put into the database of the Blockchain.
In the architecture and technical communities, the Blockchain is widely discussed and every day new publications pop up. New open-source initiatives are announced. For example, one of the emerging areas related to Blockchain use is smart contracts, such as Ethereum, which is an open-source Blockchain project. This project aims to program smart contracts to perform small functions such as a financial item meets certain criteria and automate the payout.
Industry Perspective of the Blockchain
From the industry standpoint, it is possible to witness several well-functioning mass-market offerings with Blockchain. I came across the OpenBazaar and Slock.it as prime examples in my case studies. Let me briefly touch on these two interesting offerings relating to Blockchain implementation.
I found the OpenBazaar depicting a visionary leadership in this area. If you visit this site, you can find yourself in the future. They truly use the Blockchain to support small business from many countries. The store makes appealing comments like "Create a store. Sell Anything. Pay Zero Fees. Sell whatever you'd like. Reach a new audience. Get paid in Bitcoin". These statements can be music to ears of the entrepreneurs hence I want to raise the awareness here.
The Slock.it depicts the prime example of the power of the Blockchain with IoT. Their website asserts that "Enable devices of any size to access blockchain data securely, take payments autonomously, and interact with humans, machines and anything in between."
Future of the Blockchain
You may be wondering the future of Blockchain. Let me briefly touch on trends which may shed lights on the future merits of Blockchain.
The main trend for Blockchain is identity management. This can allow us to perform identity management in a decentralised manner. This powerful shift can help us own our data and to manage it as needed; and others can trust us in the process. Isn't that a great desire for humanity?
My prediction is that the Blockchain will evolve rapidly and transform into an inevitable and ubiquitous technology in less than a decade.
From an employment perspective, there will be a high demand for Blockchain architects, developers, implementers, and supporters.
The Blockchain is still work in progress, especially in the open-source communities, which intensively work on it. These communities continually update it. There are remarkably growing research and development initiatives on the Blockchain in industry and academia.
Several universities have already commenced conducting substantial research in developing and extending the Blockchain with new use cases. Many large corporate organisations are creating awareness and striving to make it part of their strategic business enablement path.
In the Western world we trust large organisation for our information. For example, Google became our Internet trust organisation over a decade now. We "google" everything consciously or sometimes unconsciously.
However, the same trust does not appear in other parts of the globe, as reflected in the media, e.g. China, Russia, Eastern Europe, partially in India and Africa. Those countries are expected to embrace this technology to deal with manipulation and enable a truly trusted trust in their lives.
Hence, the Blockchain has geopolitical implications hence these implications sometimes affect its reputation from technological aspects and cause confusion, create concerns, and raise skeptics.
Paradoxically, aiming to generate a global trust without trust, despite all negative connotations, Blockchain is a technology which skyrockets in development and exponentially grows with acceptance in our society.
My informed observations in the industry reveal that we cannot have true and widespread implementation of Artificial Intelligence without integrating our cognitive systems with Blockchain.
Autonomous systems require dynamic and flexible security models, reliable operations, and sustainable trust mechanisms. Based on current technology capability standpoint, the Blockchain is the only alternative which can meet the security requirements of Artificial Intelligence. This will be a growing area of research and investment.
My vision and conviction reflect that, as we cannot do without the Internet anymore, we will not be able to do without the Blockchain. It is imminent!
Despite the hype, concerns, pessimism, and skepticism, as intrapreneurs or entrepreneurs, we must be optimistic to explore the compelling offerings of Blockchain, learn it, understand it, know it, experiment with it, embrace it, and get prepared for its remarkably compelling, disruptive, radical, and revolutionary potential.
From a practical perspective, if you are an intrapreneurial or entrepreneurial software developer, you may start understanding the development principles for the Blockchain, learn about fundamental blockchain concepts such as shared ledgers, smart contracts, provenance, and consensus.
As a hands-on software developer, you may get your hands dirty by creating more complex blockchain applications, perhaps build an IoT Blockchain network for a supply chain leveraging these free training modules.
What is your view, aspiration, and position related to your expertise and your industry for the Blockchain?
Let's get started and do something about it! It is not hype anymore.
Thank you for reading my perspectives.
If you liked this article you may also enjoy the following articles:
A Modern Enterprise Architecture Approach by Dr Mehmet Yildiz
Architecting Digital Transformation by Dr Mehmet Yildiz
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About the author
I'm a writer and published author with four decades of content development experience in business, technology, leadership, and health. I work as a postdoctoral researcher and consultant. My background is at https://digitalmehmet.com.