Executive's guide to implementing blockchain technology

The technology behind bitcoin is one of the internet's most promising new developments. Here's how businesses can use it to streamline operations and create new opportunities.

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Blockchains are one of the most important technologies to emerge in recent years, with many experts believing they will change our world in the next two decades as much as the internet has over the last two.

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Although it is early in its development, firms pursuing blockchain technology include IBM, Microsoft, Walmart, JPMorgan Chase, Nasdaq, Foxconn, Visa, and shipping giant Maersk. Venture capitalists have so far poured $1.5 billion into the space, with storied firms such as Andreessen Horowitz, Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers, and Khosla Ventures making bets on startups.

The applications for blockchain technology seem endless. While the first obvious ones are financial -- international payments, remittances, complex financial products -- it can also solve problems and create new opportunities in healthcare, defense, supply chain management, luxury goods, government, and other industries. In more advanced stages, the technology could give rise to what Gartner calls "the programmable economy," powered by entirely new business models that eliminate all kinds of middlemen, machine networks in which devices engage in economic activity, and "smart assets" in which some form of property such as shares in a company can be traded according to programmable or artificial intelligence-based rules rather than the control of a centralized entity.

Executive summary (TL;DR)

What is blockchain: A blockchain is a single version of the truth made possible by an immutable and secure time-stamped ledger, copies of which are held by multiple parties.

Why it matters: It shifts trust in business from an institution or entity to software and could someday spell the demise of many traditional companies. It also promises to make trade-able many assets that are illiquid today, enable our devices and gadgets to become consumers, and bring trust to many areas of business, eliminating fraud and counterfeiting.

How it works: Cryptography secures the data and new transactions are linked to previous ones, making it near-impossible to change older records without having to change subsequent ones. And because multiple "nodes" (computers) run the network, one would need to gain control of more than half of them in order to make changes.

Why it's disruptive: At the least it promises to make firms' back-end operations more efficient and cheaper, but down the line, it could replace companies altogether.

Business opportunities: New services and products will pop up in areas such as creating and trading assets, tracking provenance, managing supply chain, managing identity, and in providing ancillary services to the software itself.

Main vendors: More than a dozen platform vendors have sprung up, and several dozen consulting and implementation providers assist in adopting blockchain projects.

Career options: The main blockchain specialists include developers and business and technical architects. But roles are also needed in risk management, security, cryptography, business process management, product strategy, and analytics.

What is blockchain

A blockchain is a golden record of the truth that creates trust among multiple parties. Specifically, it's a secure, tamper-proof ledger with time-stamped transactions, distributed amongst a number of entities.

This means a blockchain -- a piece of technology -- can replace an intermediary in situations where a trusted third party is required. So, for instance, while we now need a bank (or several) in order to make a payment to a foreign country, a piece of software -- the program running bitcoin -- can now send money to someone across the world for us. And the latter is much cheaper and faster -- and, in the case of bitcoin, transparent so you can see when the money arrives, whereas with a bank wire, you have to find out from the recipient. (Blockchains can be made private as well, to protect data.) Overall, blockchain technology promises greater security and lower costs than traditional databases.

"The problem in the market is that blockchain is being used as a collective noun for the bitcoin blockchain and everything else in between, and that's not exactly true," says David Furlonger, Gartner vice president and fellow. Blockchain has become the catch-all phrase for a larger group of technologies called "distributed ledger technology" or DLT. Technically speaking, it is possible to have a distributed ledger that is not constructed as a blockchain (as described below), however, when people refer to blockchain technology, they are often speaking about DLT.

And if you want to get really technical, "DLT falls short because it assumes information gets distributed when in many cases it doesn't," says Javier Paz, senior analyst at financial services research firm Aite Group. But "blockchain," "distributed ledger," or "DLT" should suffice for all but the most technical discussions.

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Why it matters

"The key differentiator between a database and blockchain is that a database is managed and controlled by someone," says Eric Piscini, principal of financial services technology at Deloitte. "A blockchain doesn't need to be managed by someone, so you don't have to trust someone to run the platform. It's run by everyone at the same time. That's a shift in business models."

Eventually, blockchains could give rise to a number of peer-to-peer networks not run by any centralized parties that enable the creation and transfer of money or other assets. For instance, the technology could be used to create an Airbnb-like network without the company Airbnb. When combined with the Internet of Things (IoT), it could create an Uber-like program without Uber. Such peer-to-peer networks are often referred to as distributed autonomous organizations (DAOs), and someday, they could transform our whole conception of companies.

Gartner projects that blockchain will result in $176 billion in added business value by 2025, and $3.1 trillion by 2030.

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How it works

Not every blockchain works the same way. For example, they can differ in their consensus mechanisms, which are the rules by which the technology will update the ledger. But broadly, a blockchain is a ledger on which new transactions are recorded in blocks, with each block identified by a cryptographic hash of that data. The same hash will always result from that data, but it is impossible to re-create the data from the hash. Similarly, if even the smallest detail of that transaction data is changed, it will create a wildly different hash, and since the hash of each block is included as a data point in the next block, subsequent blocks would also end up with different hashes. This is what makes the ledger tamper-proof. Finally, security also comes from the fact that multiple computers called nodes store the blockchain, and so to change the ledger, one would need to gain control of at least 50 percent of the computing power in order to change the record -- a difficult feat especially for a public blockchain such as bitcoin's.

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Why it's disruptive

A common saying is that blockchain technology will do what the internet did to media -- disrupt -- but to sectors such as financial services, law, and other industries offering trust as a service.

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"The industry has lived and breathed off the back of intermediation," Furlonger says. Noting that banks typically control financial activity and governments usually control the economic assets we use, he adds, "If you think about the way authentication and identification is done, the way you onboard customers, the way you share records, all of this is done through siloed, decades-old channels and processes. And here you have a technology that basically says you no longer need a middleman, you have one golden copy of a record that no one can change ... anyone can join any time because it's open source ... it's kind of free, anyone can create any asset and distribute it to anyone else on the planet. You're basically saying, we're going to change the way the economic models that have grown up for the last several centuries operate. As a result, we're going to change the way society operates as well."

He believes the outcome will be what Gartner calls "the programmable economy," which it defines as a global market powered by algorithmic businesses and DAOs running on blockchain-based networks whose assets engage in economic activity by rules coded in software or artificial intelligence. The two most commonly used public networks so far are bitcoin and Ethereum, a public blockchain like bitcoin's that is focused on smart contracts, which are software programs that execute transactions when certain conditions are met.

But that's at least a decade off. To start, the technology will make the back-end operations of many companies more efficient because, now, firms that work with each other and even different departments within one organization often maintain their own ledgers, duplicating work. "At least we will see it impacting the back and middle office, eradicating the problems and cost associated with sustaining multiple versions of the truth," Paz says.

A recent report by Bain and Company estimated that the savings from implementation of blockchain technology would amount to $15 to $35 billion annually. As services at certain companies become more efficient and cheaper, marketshare among incumbents is likely to change. And because the technology is open source, "You can build that platform for a fraction of what it would cost you with traditional technologies," Piscini says. That gives both startups as well as the software itself an opening. For instance, people could use the bitcoin network, which is not run by any one company, to make payments cheaply, quickly, and efficiently. "If you just enable transactions for others, you're in big trouble," he says, "because the blockchain can replace you as an entity without the need for a legal entity to run it."

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Business opportunities

Though some executives might fear software replacing their role or their company's, even email hasn't killed snail mail. Though the technology does promise to change existing marketshare, Piscini says companies can avoid becoming obsolete by seizing upon new opportunities. "If companies provide incremental services, if they provide you the ability to dispute transactions, to do some analytics on top of that platform -- incremental value that you don't have today -- that's how they're going to survive." In fact, blockchain technology will enable companies to offer services that previously were impossible without it. Gartner predicts that by 2022, at least one new business based on blockchain technology will be worth $10 billion.

Blockchain technology makes possible new offerings in industries as diverse as financial services, health care, supply chain, oil and gas, retail, music, advertising, publishing, media, energy, government, and many others. In finance alone, it can be used for making international payments, trading stocks, bonds, and commodities, and providing an audit trail for regulators. It can create new forms of assets and make it possible to trade existing illiquid ones, such as mobile minutes, energy credits and frequent flyer miles. It can be used to track provenance, stamping out fraud and counterfeiting in areas such as luxury goods, fine art, pharmaceuticals, food, and government documents. It makes it possible for musicians, writers, and other artists to embed royalty payments into their MP3s, ebooks, and other creations to pay themselves every time their work is bought or resold. It can be used by publishers to run publications funded not by ads but by micropayments issued by readers' browsers. It can enable people to manage their identity and the privacy of their data instead of having to rely on centralized entities such as Google, Facebook, or Twitter. It can show an individual voter that their vote was counted correctly and the entire electorate that no votes were fraudulent or counted more than once. And those are just some examples.

Gartner projects that devices or things using blockchains to transact will comprise 30 percent of the global customer base by 2030. One of the more popular futuristic scenarios is that we may someday tell our self-driving car that we're in a rush and to send a micropayment to any car that is willing to be passed on the highway. The money will be transmitted via a combination of blockchain and IoT technologies.

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Vendors

A host of platform vendors to enterprise have already cropped up. Although the space has more than a dozen players, the most active groups (two are not companies), in alphabetical order, are:

  1. Chain, which, together with Nasdaq, created the first private blockchain in production (though on a small scale) -- Nasdaq Linq, which is used in managing shares in private companies. It also has partnerships with Visa, Citi, and Capital One.
  2. Ethereum, a P2P network that's public like bitcoin but focused on smart contracts, not payments, and that has an enterprise initiative, the Enterprise Ethereum Alliance (EEA).
  3. Hyperledger, the open-source effort run by the Linux Foundation and closely affiliated with IBM which counts companies as diverse as Airbus, American Express, Daimler, and Intel as members.
  4. R3, a consortium of financial institutions whose distributed ledger offering, Corda, is not structured as a blockchain, meaning that transaction data is not published to the ledger of every participant in the network. Instead transactions are published only on the ledgers of the relevant parties.

Others include Axoni, Digital Asset Holdings, Monax, Ripple, SETL, Symbiont, and T0 (T-zero, as in settlement in zero days).

Businesses helping firms implement blockchain solutions include Accenture, CapGemini, Chainsmiths, Deloitte, Ernst and Young, IBM Global Services, Infosys, KMPG, PwC, Polaris, Tata Consultancy Services, Wipro, and others. IBM and Microsoft are leaders in cloud blockchain services.

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Career options

Numerous executives have noted a talent shortage, and because financial services firms are hiring in the space, blockchain developers command high salaries. Venture capitalist William Mougayar, author of "The Business Blockchain: Promise, Practice and Application of the Next Internet Technology," estimates blockchain developers to number 30,000 to 35,000 among an estimated 18 million worldwide in 2014.

The roles needed in the space include blockchain developers, technology architects and business architects, and specialties should include risk management, security, cryptography, business process management, product strategy, and analytics. Technology architects construct the blockchain so that it's appropriate for the business needs, secure, and does what it intends to do. As the technology develops further and smart contracts become a reality, staff will also be needed to combine IoT and artificial intelligence with blockchain. Less blockchain-focused roles are also necessary to ensure the solution can be integrated with, say, accounting.

"People underestimate the complexity of replacing a transaction platform with a blockchain solution," Piscini says. "It may be working in the lab, but when you work from the lab into production, you have a lot of challenges."

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