Interest in blockchain platforms has been growing significantly as a way to streamline supply chains, improve traceability, simplify trade and improve financial transactions. A lot of this interest started with the speculative frenzy surrounding Bitcoin, which is based on an older blockchain platform that faces challenges with energy consumption and speed.
Modern blockchain platforms have been developed to help overcome these limitations and provide practical value for other business uses and applications. "We are seeing multiple enterprises adopt blockchain platforms for some of their application needs," said Suseel Menon, senior analyst at Everest Group, an IT advisory firm.
Menon has seen the most interest in areas that require multiparty cooperation or data exchange. Blockchain applications in supply chain tracking, trade finance, digital assets and identity management are going beyond the pilot stage. Menon has also seen a fair bit of activity in using blockchain platforms for building certain functions of ERP, such as vendor management and supply chain management (SCM).
Alex-Paul Manders, partner and blockchain solutions lead at Information Services Group, an IT advisory firm, said the evolution of blockchain platforms to date has promoted heightened awareness of decentralized finance, or DeFi, for driving new business models that pose significant threats to traditional banking, finance and supply chain finance.
Manders predicted that blockchain platforms could disrupt legacy supply chain businesses and technology processes. For example, U.S. requirements for pharmaceutical companies to track and trace products and materials call for a new approach for supply chain participants to share and transact data more efficiently and with more transparency than previously required. Blockchain technology could be the answer.
According to Menon, the top three blockchain frameworks for these use cases are R3 Corda, Hyperledger and Ethereum, with EOSIO and ConsenSys Quorum gaining ground.
Here are nine of the top blockchain platforms to consider.
Introduced in 2013, Ethereum is one of the oldest and most established blockchain platforms. It provides a truly decentralized blockchain that is comparable to the Bitcoin blockchain network. Manders said its key strength is that it enables true decentralization with support for smart contracts. Its key weaknesses include slow processing times and higher transaction processing costs compared to other platforms. Besides its role as a blockchain platform that underpins enterprise applications, it has its own cryptocurrency called Ether.
The Ethereum platform has seen widespread adoption by technologists who build decentralized applications, or dApps, on the Ethereum network. For example, there are numerous platforms and exchanges for non-fungible tokens (NFTs) -- a type of digital asset that can be exchanged on a blockchain. It has a mature ecosystem of tools for writing smart contracts using the Solidity programming environment, which runs on the Ethereum Virtual Machine. However, alternative blockchain networks can process transactions much faster at potentially lower cost than Ethereum, though many observers expect this to change after Ethereum adopts a more efficient security mechanism.
It also has an active developer community orchestrated by the Enterprise Ethereum Alliance, which has more than 250 members, including Intel, JPMorgan and Microsoft.
The Ethereum community migrated from a proof of work (PoW) consensus mechanism to proof of stake (PoS), which is more energy-friendly. The migration required an elaborate process to spin up a separate, new type of blockchain called a Beacon Chain that has been merged into the existing main Ethereum blockchain. The Ethereum Foundation estimated this reduces energy use by 99.95% compared to the older approach.
The community was previously considering sharding, which involved splitting up the Ethereum blockchain to expand the capacity to store data, scale throughput and cut network fees. However, new techniques for combining transactions to be processed together, called layer 2 rollups, evolved faster than expected, and sharding was dropped from the roadmap. Now the community is focusing on a simpler approach, called Proto-Danksharding, which streamlines layer 2 rollups. The goal is to eventually support up to 100,000 transactions per second using this new approach.
2. IBM Blockchain
IBM Blockchain is a private, decentralized blockchain network that has been the most successful with enterprise clients who are less risk-averse, Manders said. He has seen the biggest opportunities in using it to link into enterprise cloud and legacy technologies more seamlessly than is possible in other decentralized networks.
The IBM Blockchain developer tool was designed to be flexible, functional and customizable. IBM has also invested in creating a user-friendly interface to simplify critical tasks, such as setting up, testing and rapidly deploying smart contracts.
Rakesh Mohan, IBM director of development, blockchain, said the company has seen significant progress in financial services and banking, as well as supply chain.
Some examples of successful blockchain apps include IBM Food Trust, which has completed more than 18 million transactions representing more than 17,000 products, and Blockchain Community Initiative in Thailand, which supports services such as payment obligations and enterprise auctions for 22 Thai banks.
IBM Blockchain Transparent Supply is designed to help enterprises improve traceability in supply chain management. Top features support quality assurance for validating the provenance of materials, improved forecasting and tools to reduce the cost of dispute resolution, product recalls and document sharing. Various tools help manufacturing, retail, pharmaceutical and consumer goods companies jump-start their blockchain rollout.
3. Hyperledger Fabric
Hyperledger Fabric is a set of tools for creating blockchain applications. Championed by the Linux Foundation, it was built from the ground up with enterprise distributed ledger uses in mind. It has a rich ecosystem of components that can be plugged into a modular architecture. It works well in closed blockchain deployments, which can improve security and speed. It also supports an open smart contract model that can support various data models, such as account and unspent transaction output (UTXO) models.
Hyperledger Fabric can also improve data privacy by isolating transactions in channels or enabling the sharing of private data on a need-to-know basis in private data collections. It also enables high-speed transactions with low latency of finality and confirmation, according to its proponents. It is supported by leading cloud providers including Amazon Web Services, IBM, Google, Microsoft Azure and Oracle.
Arnaud Le Hors, senior technical staff member of blockchain, edge computing and web open technologies at IBM, said the latest developments add support for an organization to join a channel without copying the whole history of the ledger. This enables a quicker startup process with less storage required. There is an active and diverse community around Hyperledger Fabric that is working on adding more features related to consensus algorithms, additional privacy options for GDPR compliance and operational improvements.
Key features to consider
Blockchain platforms consist of a wide range of components, which enables enterprises to select the appropriate components for different kinds of capabilities, said Chris Georgen, founder and managing director at Topl, which built a blockchain for sustainability.
Georgen recommended examining four features when evaluating platforms:
- Whether a platform is open (public) or closed (private) and how that affects speed and security. Anyone can join a public blockchain, which can make it easier to set up for small businesses. The downside is open blockchains aren't as fast. Many blockchain codebases can be modified to be either open or closed.
- Consensus mechanism, such as PoW, PoS or Byzantine fault tolerance. PoW is the older mechanism used in Bitcoin and Ethereum. The others are newer and less proven but faster and more efficient, Georgen said.
- Ledger technology and how it records transactions. Popular approaches include an account model and UTXO. An account model records the balance, whereas UTXO is analogous to cash with serial numbers. The account model is used in Ethereum, Stellar, Tron and EOSIO. IBM Blockchain, Hyperledger Fabric and Hyperledger Sawtooth use UTXO.
- Smart contract functions for capturing business logic on the blockchain. Popular programming languages include Ethereum Solidity, WebAssembly languages and Digital Asset Modeling Language.
4. Hyperledger Sawtooth
Another open source blockchain initiative hosted by Hyperledger and the Linux Foundation is Hyperledger Sawtooth. One of its key advantages is that it allows enterprises to choose from several consensus mechanisms for different use cases. One novel consensus mechanism called proof of elapsed time can integrate with hardware-based security technologies to enable "trusted execution environments" of program code to run in secure enclaves, which are protected areas of computer memory. It also supports practical Byzantine fault tolerance which can allow nodes to reach consensus if hackers or other bad actors compromise some nodes. Sawtooth Raft uses a leader-based consensus algorithm that provides crash tolerance for a private and controlled group of users.
Shawn Amundson, principal consultant at Bitwise IO, said the most common applications are for developing supply chain systems and customizing Sawtooth for specific purposes, such as novel consensus algorithms.
A Sawtooth library enables developers of custom distributed ledgers to pick and choose which pieces of Sawtooth they use in their application. Sawtooth also supports Splinter for networking, which provides dynamic private circuits (groups of nodes); Hyperledger Transact for transaction processing to enhance smart contract capabilities; and Augrim for consensus, which expands the number of supported algorithms.
5. R3 Corda
There is some debate whether R3 Corda is technically a blockchain or an alternative type of distributed ledger. It uses a novel consensus mechanism in which transactions are cryptographically linked but does not periodically batch multiple transactions into a block. Even the official Corda site describes it as "both a blockchain and not a blockchain." One of the key benefits of this approach is that all transactions are processed in real time, which can improve performance compared to other types of blockchains.
The R3 consortium has a strong following in the financial industry, since Corda provides an attractive approach for financial transactions and smart contracts with strong security. Leading proponents include Bank of America, HSBC, Intel and Microsoft. It supports tools that automate business logic that can execute across company boundaries. In 2022, the group launched a technical preview of Corda Payments, which it claimed will simplify the process for building distributed payment capabilities into apps.
A recent platform update purportedly improves availability and scalability and supports interoperability with other platforms. One key innovation is a delivery-versus-payment mechanism designed to improve settlement with other distributed ledger platforms.
Manders said Corda has a strong chance of becoming the de facto network of insurance-related transaction processing. However, it faces competition from other federated blockchain networks that can process transactions faster and cheaper.
In development since 2014, Tezos is an older platform that supports decentralized applications, smart contracts and novel financial instruments, such as NFTs, which can be thought of as a modern variation on trading cards that are tied to digital assets. The platform supports a dynamically upgradable protocol and modular software clients that enable it to adapt to new uses. It supports a PoS consensus mechanism that improves efficiency compared to Bitcoin and the original Ethereum implementation. An on-chain upgrade mechanism allows developers to add new features without forking, which would require spinning up a new blockchain and migrating users over. The Tezos community has been upgrading the platform at a rapid clip with enhancements that improved performance and increased the size limit on smart contracts. It has also developed tools to help automate the process of weaving NFTs into enterprise supply chains.
The latest update proposal, called the Oxford protocol, promises several new enhancements. Adaptive issuance adjusts the creation of new currency in balance with the total supply. An improved PoS mechanism creates new roles for nodes. The update also reintroduces a new version of timelocks (which was previously removed), to improve security and smart rollups to speed up the transaction rate.
The EOSIO blockchain platform was first launched as an open source project in 2018. It's optimized for developing decentralized applications and smart contracts. It uses a complex consensus mechanism based on PoS that provides better performance than older mechanisms, such as Ethereum, according to its proponents. It also includes support for a governance feature for voting on changes to the platform.
Key strengths include fast transactions and advanced account permission features for deploying applications. Over 400 applications have been developed on the platform, including identity management, SCM and gaming. The community also provides tools for customizing blockchain implementations for various decentralized use cases in SCM, healthcare and DeFi.
EOSIO-Taurus, a new blockchain released in June, was forked from the EOSIO codebase and is designed for enterprise performance on private blockchains. It includes features to handle a larger volume of transactions more securely and to improve resilience, automatic failover and disaster recovery. In addition, it could make it easier to connect the blockchain to external systems. New debugging tools are meant to improve smart contract development.
Stellar is a newer blockchain platform optimized for various kinds of DeFi applications. It uses Stellar Consensus Protocol, which purportedly can speed up the time required to process and finalize transactions on a public blockchain network. It also includes security mechanisms for shutting out bad or questionable actors in a financial transaction. It has been adopted by several companies for international trade and exchanging money across borders. Examples of applications built on the Stellar blockchain include MoneyGram for money transfer, Circle for payments and treasury infrastructure, and Flutterwave for integrating payment processing into enterprise applications. The Soroban smart contract platform helps streamline development of Web 3.0 and DeFi applications on Stellar.
9. ConsenSys Quorum
Quorum is a customized version of Ethereum developed by financial services company JPMorgan. It takes advantage of the core work on the Ethereum blockchain platform and repackages it into a hardened environment suitable for banks. It has been optimized to support high-speed transactions between institutions, such as banks and insurance companies on a private network.
ConsenSys partnered with Visa to help bridge central bank digital currencies with existing payment networks and make it easier to create new services. ConsenSys also worked with Mastercard to improve rollup mechanisms that bundle multiple transactions together to improve efficiency. Quorum also adds various privacy enhancements to Ethereum to improve support for regulations such as GDPR in Europe and CCPA in California.
ConsenSys bought the Quorum platform's intellectual property assets from JPMorgan in late 2021 and integrated them into its own work to create the ConsenSys Quorum open source protocol layer. ConsenSys has positioned the offering as a way for enterprises to accelerate development of enterprise applications that complement other Ethereum-based tools. The firm provides development services for the combined platform to enterprise customers, including JPMorgan and South African Reserve Bank. In July 2022, it launched the Quorum Blockchain Service on Microsoft Azure as a fully managed service to help simplify enterprise deployments.
The company has developed an extensive ecosystem of supporting tools and services to enhance Quorum's value. Infura is a suite of blockchain APIs and developer tools. MetaMask is a crypto wallet and gateway to blockchain apps for end users. MetaMask Institutional helps improve workflows for compliance, data aggregation, monitoring, reporting and custody for enterprises. Diligence supports smart contract audit and security services.