Will Blockchain Impact IBM i?
February 5, 2018 Alex Woodie
Lately there’s been a lot of talk about blockchain, in both the IT press and the mainstream media, which is telling. Most of this talk centers around digital currencies like bitcoin that are based on blockchain technology. But because of the media-fueled speculative bubble that’s pushed digital currency values through the roof, it’s tough for a rational being to separate the incredible hype from the underlying reality.
What’s interesting about the whole blockchain-bitcoin discussion, however, is how many smart technology folks have come out and basically said that while the digital currencies are interesting but not ground-breaking, the underlying blockchain technology is an absolute game-changer.
For those of us who work in the IBM i world, technology changes are a fact of life. While the IBM i itself may be 30 years old and IBM i shops in general are suspicious of new tech, the IBM i platform’s greatest strength is how it’s evolved over the years to support emerging technologies.
So with that in mind, it’s worth spending a few words to wonder whether this blockchain fad will ever spill over into the real world of the IBM i user, and if so, what that might look like. The first step in that journey is to define blockchain and investigate what it can do.
What Is Blockchain?
Blockchain, at its core, is a public ledger of transactions. Each block is an individual record, while the chain is the entire collection of records. Powerful encryption ensures that the ledger is unalterable.
The technology was first conceived 10 years ago by a person called Satoshi Nakamoto (although the Wikipedia entry on blockchain states that Satoshi Nakamoto may actually be a group of people). Nakamoto used blockchain to secure the public ledger of transactions for a fledgling digital currency called bitcoin.
What made this blockchain-backed bitcoin unusual was that it was not issued by any centralized authority. While the United States Treasury backs the U.S. dollar, bitcoin’s authority arises through the un-alterability of the blockchain.
2014 brought the emergence of blockchain 2.0, which added a distributed nature to the ledger. The blockchain for bitcoin contained an unalterable history of all the transactions ever recorded, and it grew over time – from 20GB in 2014 to 30 GB in 2015 and finally to 100 GB in 2017.
Since it’s a decentralized, distributed, and public ledger that runs across many computers, it’s theoretically impossible for someone to alter a blockchain record retroactively without the alteration of all subsequent blocks. Once it’s written to the blockchain, it’s there for good.
What Can It Do?
As explained above, the un-alterability of blockchain is really what provides bitcoin with its authority. Only those with the correct encryption keys will be able to edit the blockchain, and then only the portion they’re involved with.
The underlying premise is this: If you promise to pay another party in bitcoin as compensation for a thing, then you cannot welch on that deal. (Well, you could still welch, but since there’s a unalterable record of the transaction, you’ll ruin your reputation and invite lawsuits upon yourself if you do.)
One can see how blockchain could back a currency, but there are many other potential ways that one could put such a trustworthy and distributed ledger into use. That includes recording business documents, medical records, voting, identify management, food traceability, recording of legal contracts, real-estate transactions, protection of copyrights and intellectual property, and voting.
In fact, blockchain could be used in any type of transaction processing that’s currently done by a trusted party, such as a bank, a store, or a hospital. The potential for blockchain to eliminate the middleman is what excites so many – and also why many fear blockchain will be too disruptive.
Blockchain On IBM i
Because it’s an unalterable and distributed database, there could be reason to believe that blockchain could take over some of the jobs done today by relational database management systems, which have been developed over decades to provide so-called ACID features, or atomicity, consistency, isolation, and durability.
The IBM i server is, at its heart, a database for processing transactions. Businesses run it to automate the recording, management, and dispositions of transactions in retail, banking, healthcare, trucking, gaming, hospitality, and every other industry. IBM, like Microsoft and Oracle, have invested billions of dollars over the years to deliver rock-solid ACID capabilities in its database to process trillions of dollar’s worth of transactions annually.
Will that investment in ACID databases go away, thanks to blockchain? The answer to that question, at this point seems to be a resounding “maybe.”
The potential for blockchain is great enough that it’s attracting the attention of all the tech giants. For its part, IBM has developed its Blockchain Platform, which is a fully managed blockchain as a service (BaaS) offering. The platform is based on the Linux Foundation’s Hyperledger Fabric and Hyperledger Composer technology, and is designed to enable developers to model, build, test, and deploy blockchain-based business applications to the network.
Blockchain technology is seeping into traditional software markets, like ERP. Last month, a London firm named Geoprise Technologies Corporation announced that it released what it’s claiming to be the “the first and only” ERP system that uses blockchain to secure business to business collaboration.
Geoprise CEO Nelson Nones says the software, which is the result of a collaboration with the developer the MultiChain blockchain platform, Coin Sciences Ltd, says the use of blockchain technology will enhance security.
“Conventional collaboration tools, such as Web portals, centralized databases and even electronic data interchange [EDI], are proving vulnerable to security breaches which are accelerating at an alarming pace,” Nones states in a press release. “Not only does MultiChain keep a permanent, tamper-proof and verifiable blockchain ledger for GM-X ERP, it provides a secure ‘pipe’ for pushing or pulling data in either direction between any two organizations, under the control of automatic ‘data valves’ at either end to protect confidentiality, maintain control over information assets, and enhance mutual trust among trading partners.”
Lee Paul, the CEO of IBM i development tool maker Surround Technologies, is bullish on blockchain. In our predictions piece last month, Paul told IT Jungle that blockchain is front and center in a convergence of technologies that will drive big changes in 2018.
“The technologies driving this shift are augmented reality and artificial intelligence along with sensors, wearables, and other IoT technologies,” Paul stated. “Throw in distributed trustless consensus technologies like Blockchain to improve on processes involving transactions, immutable history, and ways to exchange value of any form (cryptocurrencies/tokens/contracts) between multiple, distributed participants and companies have everything they need to not just compete, but to totally disrupt their market.”
There’s no doubt that there’s a lot of excitement around blockchain, just as there’s hope that artificial intelligence will automate many routine tasks. But whether blockchain turns out to be a flash in the pan or a lasting source of value has yet to be determined. It is worth keeping an eye on, however – by IBM i shops and every other company seeking to gain a competitive advantage through information technology.