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IBM blockchain technology combines the company's existing high-performance hardware with a suite of bundled open source tools.
Blockchain, a decentralized transactional database system, already forms the backbone of cryptocurrencies, such as bitcoin. It is also making inroads in other types of processing, including manufacturing and supply chain use cases, and major IT vendors, such as IBM, are looking to capitalize.
Blockchain technology eases transactions
Traditional applications tend to keep one monolithic copy of a ledger or system of record (SOR), which presents several problems. First, if the SOR is down, nobody can update or reference it.
This approach also makes transactions between two entities difficult, as both parties' SORs must agree. For instance, a successful money transfer requires a debit on one side and a credit on the other. If either is missing, someone is out some money.
Lastly, erroneous ledger entries can go undetected or be difficult to remove.
Blockchain technology, in contrast, provides a distributed ledger that is shared among any number of servers. Each server has a copy of the ledger and receives incoming transactions that it builds into blocks. A new block becomes official once at least 51% of the servers agree it is valid. Communication between the servers keeps them all up to date.
Blockchain security mechanisms
Blockchain technology also has several safeguards to prevent fraud. It encrypts each entry, or block, and every block contains a hash of the block before it, which makes tampering with settled transactions immediately detectable. This approach also makes it computationally prohibitive to insert a bogus entry because an attacker would have to unencrypt and rehash every subsequent transaction.
Incoming transactions must have proof of work (POW) to be valid. POW is a consensus algorithm that costs the sender a certain amount of computing power, but that the receiver can easily verify. In the case of bitcoin, for example, the servers keeping the ledger use the POW to validate and prioritize transactions.
Lastly, blockchain servers must maintain Byzantine fault tolerance to exclude potential bad actors. This approach also adds resiliency to a network if an individual server is down or acting erratically.
How IBM blockchain technology works
IBM is vying for a piece of the blockchain pie by running the software on its flagship Z system mainframe hardware. The IBM blockchain technology runs on Integrated Facility for Linux processors, which avoids incurring IBM's usage-based monthly license charges. In addition, configurations running Linux guests on IBM VMs provide a lot of operational flexibility, efficiency and scalability.
The IBM blockchain software stack combines a lot of open source suites -- primarily Hyperledger Composer and Hyperledger Fabric, two Linux Foundation projects with many heavyweight members.
Hyperledger Composer provides a programming foundation and runtime for blockchain applications. Developers program in a domain-specific language that abstracts the ledger's primitives.
On the runtime side, Hyperledger Composer has a REST server to expose blockchain APIs to other platforms, such as traditional mainframes. One workflow tool includes a monitoring panel displaying how parties interact with the ledger's network.
Hyperledger Fabric is the core operating system for the blockchain application. It is not permissionless, in that every participant must be known to the entire network. Instead, it enables the construction of channels through which a set of members can communicate without involving the entire network.
Inside the IBM blockchain strategy
Many distributed ledger applications -- again, bitcoin comes to mind -- are permissionless, which means the network has an open membership utilizing servers that may or may not be in good faith. The use of Hyperledger -- and its permissioned networks with known members -- in IBM blockchain technology adds a level of comfort for entities leery of completely open networks.
IBM also aims to ease and secure Hyperledger by packaging it as a Secure Service Container, a self-contained deployment designed to run in a logical partition on IBM mainframes as a software appliance.
IBM offers four options for organizations looking to deploy blockchain technology. They range from an entry-level plan with basic services and pay-per-use pricing to two enterprise plans with advanced features and monthly subscriptions. There is also a plan for organizations that want to deploy and manage IBM blockchain technology on their own infrastructure.
In addition, IBM's website has a sandbox that enables programmers to either experiment with Hyperledger Composer in the cloud or to download it onto a laptop. In addition, the Hyperledger site has several industry-specific blockchain applications, so no organization has to start from scratch.
Hyperledger Fabric could help bring blockchain to the enterprise