Bitcoin has made many people familiar with the term “Blockchain.” But many enterprises don’t realize that the foundational pieces that comprise this model already may be in place in one form or another for internal Blockchain use cases. Though likely they have not been packaged together to drive similar benefits within an organization. These pieces include a shared distributed ledger, the concept of consensus, and the concept of smart contracts.
“There’s a pretty large gap on the education side of Blockchain,” says Jim Scott, Director of Enterprise Strategy and Architecture at MapR. The company is making an effort to bring a common set of terminology and descriptions for users to be able to understand how to apply Blockchain technology in the enterprise, the most important and critical piece of which is the shared distributed ledger, he says. What’s been missing from discussions is the notion that Blockchain is really about how you organize data behind the scenes, a critical piece for mass adoption.
“This is really as simple as it sounds. It is a ledger, like used for accounting purposes. The key detail of a ledger is that you can’t go back and change a single item without having to rewrite the entire ledger. This proves useful when dealing with regulatory bodies as the amount of work required to falsify information is immense. The distributed part of the definition is critical to business processes in that it ensures high availability and redundancy for cases like disaster recovery. The final piece is it being shared.”
MapR Event Streams (MapR-ES) – part of the MapR Converged Data Platform that integrates Hadoop, Spark, and Apache Drill with real-time database capabilities, global event streaming, and scalable enterprise storage to enable Big Data applications – is an immutable, shared distributed ledger, the underlying technology upon which companies can implement Blockchain solutions for multiple corporate use cases, Scott explains. It supports only standard APIs, including the Kafka API, which is dominant for high-speed events streaming.
Atop this sits the pluggable consensus piece, though in the enterprise it should take the form of voting or workflow approval processes incorporating requests and sign-offs, rather than Bitcoin’s proof of work – a piece of data which is costly and time-consuming to produce. “In an enterprise that doesn’t make sense,” says Scott, because it’s s private Blockchain. “Proof of work would be a massive waste of energy to apply to internal Blockchains,” he says. Using for consensus an approval process – a workflow whose roots in the enterprise stretch back decades for tasks as simple as completing and sanctioning expense reports – businesses can write units of work to the ledger using whatever approach works best for them, perhaps requiring a two-thirds vote for its authorization.
“Blockchain implementations rely heavily on the concept of consensus, as it is the determining factor for who can write a piece of history to the Blockchain,” says Scott. “Within the enterprise, consensus may look a lot like voting, or even a request for approval and a sign-off approving said request. It could be a group vote where a quorum is required or even something more like a two-thirds vote.”
The smart contract part is the guarantor that some unit of work has occurred. But it’s not necessarily the revolution it’s been portrayed as: “A smart contract,” Scott says, “is nothing more than a Function-as-a-Service (FaaS) that is fully audited.” A FaaS, a term that’s been picking up steam over the last 18 months or so, is a microservice wrapped in a light framework. Coupled with underlying auditing and storage components, whatever action it performs based on trigger events – say, two parties signing off on a consensus workflow – is saved. Bottom line: “It is a mechanism for ensuring that software runs,” is completely audited and can be proven that it ran, in addition to identify what it actually produced.
“While the initial Blockchain for bitcoin wasn’t intended to deliver a smart contract platform, it inherently had one built in as a mechanism for keeping track of ownership of bitcoins. The real expansion of this concept being applied to Blockchain was brought with the creation of Ethereum.”
Internal Blockchain Benefits
Scott says that he finds it intriguing that the ideas popularized by Bitcoin with its Blockchain are not new, “but repackaging of constructs that have been around for years to deliver new business value.”
Yet many still view Blockchain as “some magical system that is ultra complex,” he says. It’s not, and once there’s a level-setting of the terms involved in it, everyone “can more quickly implement what they need and reap the benefits of the model,” according to Scott. “So, we’re trying to bring this to a head” so that adoption of Blockchains within the enterprise can take off.
What are the benefits of using Blockchains internally within the enterprise? Primarily, any industries dealing with regulatory oversight can benefit from the Blockchain model. “The core concept of irrevocable proof is ultimately what people want out of a Blockchain solution,” he says.
MapR counts among customers an EMEA client relying on its technology stack as a component of its General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) solution – “a vast topic for privacy and proof of information,” he says. “This is exactly the type of problem Blockchain assists in solving.” For instance, a consensus workflow implemented atop a MapR-ES distributed ledger can provide proof of history for auditing purposes, logging that consent to an individual’s data to use for marketing comes from that person’s email address.
Another MapR client, which performs security log analytics, relies on it to provide its users proof that their security logs are managed, maintained, and accounted for – no changing or falsifying is possible within its system. Another use case, he says, is HR systems, where employers may need to verify when employee personal information was changed. Currently, HR systems will just show the new data, such as a name change upon a person’s marriage, but not what it was before. With Blockchain, it’s possible to roll back to see what the name was set to previously, for proof of past identity if required.
“I think you can literally just continue with use case after use case,” Scott says. “If a company finds it useful to require an irrevocable history of transactions then Blockchain is applicable.”