Blockchain is seen as one of the key areas where a significant impact is going to be made on how we handle the increased digitization of our ways of doing business. It is up there with machine learning, big data, augmented reality, the internet of things, and the cloud as a “must-be-mentioned” buzzword when looking at future innovation. And yet all too much blockchain talk is just that – words rather than action.
“Most of the blockchain software is just too hard to use, says Chainfrog CEO and co-founder, Keir Finlow-Bates. “It’s aimed at people who like typing commands into terminals and memorizing function arguments. That’s a pretty small section of the ICT community. But blockchain is not truly going to take off until it can easily be integrated with existing systems and workflows, and doesn’t require the hiring of expensive blockchain experts and scarce blockchain developers.”
And blockchain experts and developers are still in short supply. Even though universities have noticed and started offering courses to their students on cryptography, game theory, distributed programming and blockchain, it is going to take some time for the next generation of students to hit the job market, gain work experience, and build these brave new systems.
So with these resource restrictions, how can you start your own blockchain pilot within your company?
To pilot or not to pilot?
At the moment a serious pilot is beyond the reach of most small to medium-sized enterprises, and even the big corporations are feeling the pain of implementing trial systems that too often achieve nothing. Chainfrog is hoping to change all this with its new product, Blockbinder, which they are launching at Slush at the end of this month.
At its simplest, Blockbinder allows a database administrator to connect their company’s databases to a blockchain through a simple web-based form, and selectively start sharing the data the databases contain to others in a secure and trust-building manner, over a blockchain.
For DevOps managers, this is a godsend, because it means that the valuable work processes and systems they have built up over the years do not have to be scrapped and redesigned anew. It allows them to “kick the tires” in an inexpensive way, and conduct real efficiency and cost comparisons between their existing system and a blockchain-based one run in parallel.
For CIOs it allows them to maintain a competitive advantage and present the company as leading edge without having to make a significant financial investment in new systems that may or may not provide cost savings.
In the beginning
Chainfrog was founded in late 2016 as the first blockchain technology company in Finland, and began by providing education and workshops into blockchain technology. They also pursued a rigorous intellectual property strategy, and now have one granted and six pending patents to protect their ideas.
“By talking to students, potential clients and just interested people, we started building up a picture of what was missing,” says Kimmo Rouhiainen, one of the company’s co-founders and the current business development manager. “Too much of the initial blockchain focus was on the ‘hows’ of the technology, rather than ‘why’. We put together a checklist of the features that a potential business case should have for blockchain to be relevant, such as a multiple numbers of participants wanting to share data in an environment where there was not fully trust.”
And such environments are common: for example, supply chains involve multiple manufacturers, assemblers, shipping companies, resellers and customers, all different and none willing to fully open up their databases to the other parties. Similarly, in the music industry the composers, publishers and royalties collection societies all need to share data to ensure due payment is made, but trust is there only by necessity, and the systems they use do not “talk” to each other.
In such environments, a tamper-proof ledger with a consensus protocol that enforces cooperation between the different parties should provide the ideal solution. The question then becomes, “how do we get started and actually do something?”
“We began to think about how to enable blockchain pilots that eventually lead to production systems”, says Jon Callan, CTO at Chainfrog. “And then it struck us: the missing piece was how to connect an existing traditional database plus front-end to a blockchain back-end in such a way that the engineers wouldn’t have to understand how blockchain works. You know, in the same way that in order to do their job they don’t need an in-depth understanding of the TCP/IP protocol or how routers and networking equipment actually function. And after all, relatively speaking, database administrators and web developers are in plentiful supply.”
Blockbinder currently uses MultiChain as the supporting blockchain engine. It is derived from the original Bitcoin code thereby benefitting from nearly a decade of real-world testing and has been modified to function as a private blockchain. It allows up to 60Mb of data to be appended per data block, and although it, therefore, cannot handle “big data” it should be sufficient for most traditional database applications. The parameters of the blockchain are fully configurable and allow blocks to be added at any rate between a few seconds to a day, which makes it suitable for systems that require near real-time responsiveness through to, for example, stock taking or payment settlements at the end of each day.
Blockbinder manages a public key infrastructure to allow participants in the system to share data selectively – the public keys are then used between pairs of participants to exchange symmetric keys, which are then used to encrypt and decrypt data on the blockchain. This allows data from the databases to be shared privately among selected recipients, as well as openly among all members of the private blockchain. Similarly, the database administrator can select which tables in a specific database are to be shared on the blockchain, and which are private.
Finally, because the Blockbinder client is installed on the same machine as the existing database, connections made are outbound from the database system to the blockchain, which is usually deployed on a cloud server. This reduces the complexity for company IT engineers, who do not have to open special ports in the company firewall to allow the system to work.
Wading through the Slush
Chainfrog is attending Slush this year, and on day one (30 November) will be demonstrating the full Blockbinder system for the first time at their demo booth, B34.
“It’s an opportunity to see an actual visualization of a blockchain, right there on the screen in front of you,” says Meiss Martén, Chainfrog’s Director of Sales and Marketing, and the company’s first employee. “We’ve abstracted the database front-end to represent a fictitious cat adoption web application so that attendees can focus on the underlying system and the benefits it could bring to their particular circumstances. You can see the blocks of data being written to the blockchain as the data in one of the connected database is updated, and seconds later you can see it appear in the database next door.”
“Also, we’ll be giving away hand-made Chainfrog T-shirts to the first eighty visitors. You are warmly welcome to visit us at Slush 2017!”
Keir and the Chainfrog team