Blockchain, Fine Wine, And The IBM i
November 4, 2019 Alex Woodie
Of all the overhyped technologies in the world today – and there are many of them – blockchain may be the most overhyped of all. Despite that dismal honor, the distributed ledger technology has already found its way onto an IBM i server. What’s more, the blockchain application implemented by a wine retailer actually makes sense.
As a technology, you know you’ve ventured into dangerous territory when the comic strip Dilbert hops on the bandwagon. Such is the case with blockchain, which has been the subject of many of Scott Adams’ strips in recent years. The pointy-haired boss doesn’t understand what blockchain is, but he knows it’s cool, and so he orders Dilbert to adopt it, and hilarity ensues.
That’s sort of how blockchain exists in the real world: A magical technology that few people actually understand, but which many people feel will be “the next big thing.” Fear, greed, and a desperate desire not to be left out are the primary drivers powering the blockchain phenomenon, especially as it relates to blockchain’s biggest application to date: the cryptocurrency Bitcoin, which is based on blockchain.
But before bashing it any more, let’s look at what blockchain is. Ironically, the idea behind distributed ledger technologies like blockchain (there are others) actually is quite sound. It’s the applications that sometimes have gone off the rails.
The whole point of blockchain is to provide an unalterable method for recording transactions. That job today is typically handled by central authorities, such as banks, which spend millions of dollars to build advanced IT systems that can be trusted to handle transactions. The IBM i server certainly runs many of these established transaction processing applications.
But with blockchain, instead of relying on a trusted third-party to provide the authority for transaction processing, the blockchain itself provides that element of trust. The technology does this essentially by maintaining an unalterable log of the entire transaction set in a distributed manner, across thousands or millions of nodes.
A party can initiate a blockchain transaction by writing a new block to the end of the chain. Because the entire history of the blockchain is replicated across thousands or millions of computers, any attempt to falsify that one log entry would require falsifying thousands or millions of blocks across the entire chain, which is basically impossible.
In this manner, distributed ledger technologies like blockchain can provide a certain degree of security when conducting financial transactions, but without involving the trusted third party (or paying her a cut). In typical Internet fashion, distributed ledger technologies threaten to disintermediate banks, insurance companies, national currencies, title companies, and any other business that requires a trusted third-party to handle sensitive transactions.
But there are other uses for distributed ledgers, including optimizing supply chain and logistics. IBM has been at the cutting edge of blockchain R&D, and is currently working with Wal-Mart to implement a blockchain-based application for tracking lettuce.
According to this September 2018 story in New York Times, the companies should already be live with a new blockchain database that allows detailed information on each batch of lettuce to be tracked from more than 100 farms. Nobody wants a repeat of the Great Romaine Lettuce Scare that occurred during Thanksgiving week last year, and this system – which ostensibly is the first use of blockchain technology to protect a food supply chain – could be the trick to ensuring that nobody gets sick.
That brings us to the new IBM i-based blockchain application that is being put in place by Wijnen Van Maele, a 70-year old Belgian wine retailer. According to this IBM case study, the wine company’s new e-commerce system will use blockchain to track various aspects of the wine, including the quality of the grapes and the length of time the wine has sat in the bottles.
“We have always focused on the stories behind the wine we sell, and our new blockchain application is a logical extension of this approach,” Axelle Van Maele, the daughter of the CEO, says in the case study. “We can now demonstrate, with hard data, just where our wine has been, from grape to bottle to glass. We predict that traceability will be a crucial selling point for many wine distributors and retailers and the near future, and with our own blockchain application on IBM i we can ensure we remain ahead of the curve.”
IBM i shops aren’t often at the bleeding edge of technological adoption. That’s a good thing, especially with overhyped technologies that fail to deliver the goods. And while blockchain certainly has seen its share of hype, there are also legitimate use cases for the technology, such as better tracking of food and drink at Wal-Mart and Wijnen Van Maele.
The fact that IBM i is capable of running these technologies – in the cloud, in Wijnen Van Maele’s case, no less – shows that the platform can be just as modern as you like it. Blockchain may not spell the end of trusted authorities, but it certainly can open up new ways of manipulating data, and that’s good news no matter what platform you’re running.