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How blockchain data storage may revolutionize the enterprise

Blockchain for data storage promises to bring added trust, reliability and security to storage, but is it ready to become a mainstream technology? Experts offer their views.

Blockchain is big news these days, with supporters claiming that it has the potential to transform -- if not revolutionize -- many technologies, including data storage. While the long-term impact of blockchain and blockchain data storage remain open to debate, there's no denying that it has already attracted plenty of attention.

Blockchain offers a new peer-to-peer, decentralized approach to managing and storing data from within a data center or via the cloud.

Rather than store data in their own data centers, as centralized cloud storage platforms do, decentralized cloud storage platforms work with farmers, who rent their excess hard drive capacity in exchange for some sort of cryptocurrency or token. These farmers can be DevOps professionals with extra capacity in their data centers or a person with excess hard drive space on his computer. The capacity is made available to developers, engineers and other storage users in exchange for crypto-payments.

Blockchain for data storage uses a blockchain application as a storage protocol, creating a virtualized storage pool. "The most attractive aspect is to let any general infrastructure owner participate and create [a] storage resource pool using spare IT storage resources," said Larry Chiu, director of global storage system research for IBM Research.

Roles in a blockchain ecosystem

Multiple benefits

As a form of decentralized cloud storage, spread across multiple nodes, blockchain promises to deliver better reliability, security, performance and economics than a centralized cloud. "Broadly decentralized storage is more reliable and resilient than traditional storage," said Shawn Wilkinson, co-founder and chief strategy officer at Storj Labs, a decentralized cloud storage service provider.

[Blockchain storage is] like spreading encrypted sand on an encrypted beach.
Shawn WilkinsonStorj Labs

Blockchain data storage is encrypted, and there's no central location for anyone to attack. "This makes it like spreading encrypted sand on an encrypted beach," Wilkinson said.

Transparency, accessibility and resiliency of data are among the main benefits of blockchain storage, said John Adams, CTO of Regium Foundation, a blockchain-based content royalties management service. "The data stored becomes immutable and verifiable so long as there are nodes in the network that are incentivized to keep a copy of the data," Adams said.

Blockchain also adds a level of transparency that cloud providers typically can't match. "That means the user can have more control over how and where his or her data is stored," said Luka Horvat, head of the developer vertical and blockchain development lead at Toptal, a freelance talent recruitment service. Data is stored in redundant chunks across series of nodes in the network rather than on just one machine, Horvat said. The approach provides an extra layer of security, because "potential attackers wishing to acquire data would have to breach series of machines rather than just a single one," he noted.

Blockchain data storage has at least as many applications as cloud storage, Horvat added. "It provides the ability for users to safely store their data and access it on demand and from any place."

Immutable content storage is an area where private blockchain for data storage could be particularly valuable, said Geoff Tudor, vice president at Panzura, a multi-cloud data management company. "This would be for things like recording deeds, titles, medical images, legal testimony videos -- any use case where you need to show legal proof that the file has not been tampered with."

Blockchain's drawbacks

Blockchain storage replicates and distributes chunks of data across a large number of IT infrastructures, giving the perception of high availability and data reliability.

Yet, any distribution and replication strategy must be combined with awareness of the physical and logical topologies of the IT infrastructures to provide a necessary recovery scenario for hardware, power and software failure, IBM's Chiu said. "For example, in an untrusted or unknown environment, blockchain storage may have multiple peers, which each have [a] copy of data [that] resides in the same metro area. Once a metro area is comprised by any major outage ... it will limit data availability."

On the other hand, in a trusted environment, in which the blockchain for data storage owner carefully selects the location of the blockchain storage peer to maximize data availability, availability will likely remain largely unaffected.

One of the biggest drawbacks of blockchain data storage stems from the data being stored in a decentralized manner. Because data must be consolidated to ensure user accessibility, blockchain's chunks must be retrieved from different nodes, a process that places operational strain on the network and its operators, Toptal's Horvat said. It may take some time for blockchain to begin posing a serious threat to cloud storage, he added, because the latter is cheap, widespread and available in various forms. "Blockchain storage still has room for growth in order to reach that same level," Horvat said.

Blockchain data storage security may also not be as ironclad as many proponents believe. With all smart contracts being visible for inspection, it's possible for potential attackers to identify holes in the security for exploitation, said Scott Kahn, CIO of LunaDNA, a genomic and health research platform. "Privacy regulations, such as GDPR and the California Consumer Privacy Act, require careful attention to all places that data is collected on an individual."

Other advocates, however, view this threat as a theoretical and addressable issue, noting that blockchain technology is still far more secure than most existing storage technologies. "As people become more concerned about privacy and laws like GDPR continue to get passed, decentralized storage can provide a solution for our growing data demands," Wilkinson concluded.

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