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3 things to learn before considering blockchain integration

Paul Swider, CTO at RealActivity LLC, discusses how to use blockchain technology to increase the security and usefulness of transaction software during a presentation at SPTechCon 2019.

Blockchain is a naturally secure encryption structure, making it an emerging technology that businesses are considering to beef up the security, shareability and functionality of their record keeping.

There is a lot of pushback against blockchain integration, however, which comes from people misunderstanding how it works and what it does, said Paul Swider, CTO at RealActivity LLC, during a session at SPTechCon 2019 in Boston. Many people still associate it only with Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies.

Public blockchain is just one of many types of distributed ledger technology, where transactions are recorded in multiple places at once without being linked to a central database.

"That's what makes blockchain perfect for traceability," Swider said. "This includes using it to track food supplies, cars and more."

For content management, organizations can construct a blockchain-enabled content management system (CMS) that stores content without having to worry about security failure. Many companies, such as Sphereon, create scripting processes that help connect blockchain systems to SharePoint and Office 365.

Here are three things to learn before integrating blockchain into your workflow.

1. Understand how blockchain works

Say you work in auto sales and you want to create a ledger of all cars sold, including information such as make and model, when it sold and price. You would create a spreadsheet and feed it into your blockchain-enabled software.

Paul Swider presents at SPTechCon 2019
Paul Swider, CTO of RealActivity, speaks during a session about blockchain and the modern workplace at SPTechCon in Boston.

The file you uploaded is now a part of a digital ledger, where the data -- a block -- is encrypted and added to a chain of similar data. And the system automatically copies and distributes it to all the other peers on a network. These peers can only edit a chain of encrypted data sequentially, and because there is no central authority over the chain, a blockchain protocol validates edits against the versions that other nodes on the network hold. To accept the edits, a majority of the nodes must verify the changes.  

This means when you edit the file, it creates a record that exists independently of your version of the ledger, and it checks it periodically against the versions of the ledger that exist on every other server or node on the network. This is called a consensus. If someone outside the network tries to edit it without your permission, the blockchain protocols will stop the edits from happening. And because all edits are added in order, you can always trace a change back to the moment someone added it and see why the consensus validated it.

"Data lives in multiple places," Swider said. "There's a copy in an SQL database, a copy in blockchain -- you could send it to a SharePoint list. The blockchain is the version of the truth, though."

2. Figure out if this technology is right for you

Data lives in multiple places. The blockchain is the version of the truth, though.
Paul SwiderCTO, RealActivity LLC

Blockchain integration won't help everybody, but it has more applications than you might think. You can integrate blockchain with CMS for many applications, including validating news and managing digital music rights.

Here's a small sampling of what blockchain is useful for:

  • document sharing and editing;
  • supply chain management inventory;
  • contract transfers and record keeping;
  • copyright, royalty, and permissions distribution and protection;
  • content backup and storage; and
  • tracking product distribution.

Blockchain is also able to run code, such as JavaScript, making it useful as a development environment. Many of these applications are still in their infancy, but blockchain is gaining a lot of ground in the realms of healthcare, banking and even election systems.

"All tech goes through a hype curve," Swider said. "We're just now coming out of that."

3. Collaborate with others

Blockchain is designed for collaboration. For example, if you run a company in Boston and want to share data with partner organizations in other places, you can create a consortium network. This brings people onto a network through the use of a variety of third-party software to collectively share and edit content. Multiple partners can access and edit a private blockchain system, and you, as owner of the ledger, can set varying permissions for them.

The unfortunate side effect is this system is less secure than a public blockchain, because certain high-permission nodes can make edits without consensus. That means more points where someone could alter the ledger without the consensus overriding the change. In a public blockchain system, such as Ethereum and Bitcoin, all nodes have equal permissions, and all transactions are public. Because there is no central database to override the consensus, as in a private blockchain, there is very little chance of someone hacking or altering the record.

While a government entity might want a closed-network blockchain ledger to share classified information, an online real estate listing service might use a public chain. Blockchain is especially useful for multi-cloud workload processes. If you are using IBM Blockchain, you can still collaborate on content with someone on, say, Oracle Blockchain, as blockchain is open source and designed to run on simple coding languages, such as JavaScript.

As vendors begin to integrate blockchain into their own services, many companies will likely begin to bundle it with other offerings. Private blockchains, after all, require extra security updates to handle the challenges of using a tiered permissions structure. Microsoft, for example, announced that Azure will have blockchain capabilities, and the software will handle all node and security patches for its customers.

"We're finally getting to a point where you can hook things up with the click of a button," Swider said.

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