When investing in Blockchain, Use Caution

Blockchain has received its fair share of hype. The technology has received acclaim from The Guardian, which described blockchain as “one of the biggest IT inventions of our time.”[1] Other praise includes declarations of a future technological revolution. CNet states, “With smart contracts, blockchain could help automate lots of computing operations,” a rebellion in the form of automation.[2] This coup certainly entices investment. Yet, some transformations fail to materialize. One currently unfolding insurgency is blockchain. The technology’s praise has enticed investors to direct funds towards blockchain-related projects. Whether these endeavors provide any impactful benefit is unclear. This lack of a clear, impactful application prompts questions regarding a sensible approach for investment. The judicious strategy for blockchain investment is caution, since the technology has no demonstrated use case in a business critical area, its implementations are only beginning to stabilize, and it lacks an agreed upon definition.

[1] To read the entire article, go to: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/jan/24/blockchain-bitcoin-technology-most-important-tech-invention-of-our-age-sir-mark-walport

[2] To read the entire article, go to: https://www.cnet.com/news/blockchain-explained-builds-trust-when-you-need-it-most/

Investment in blockchain should proceed with caution, since the technology does not have a demonstrated use case in a business critical area. When a technology demonstrates usage in a critical area, that technology becomes a foundation on which other functionality can be built. Those capabilities extend core business functions, expanding an enterprise’s toolbox. That toolkit is only expandable to due to foundational technologies, which blockchain is not. Blockchain has not demonstrated that it has applications in a business critical area.

Some critical applications of the technology have been abandoned. One attempted usage was credit swaps, a market whose assets are worth 11 trillion dollars (Nordrum, 2017). Applying blockchain to resources of that value is the very definition of a business critical area. If blockchain could succeed in a sector that manages 11 trillion dollars of assets, then the technology would demonstrate a use case in a business critical space. To handle that critical market, IBM and the Depository Trust and Clearing Corporation (DTCC) developed a blockchain-based solution (Nordrum, 2017). That product was abandoned. The DTCC cancelled the project (Irrera & McCrank, 2018).

Other endeavors have not been abandoned, but they have not borne fruit either. The harvest from IBM’s efforts has not been abandoned, but it has not delivered a windfall either. IBM is attempting to bring the benefits of blockchain to the world’s food supply chain (IBM Announces Major Blockchain Collaboration with Dole, Driscoll’s, Golden State Foods, Kroger, McCormick and Company, McLane Company, Nestlé, Tyson Foods, Unilever and Walmart to Address Food Safety Worldwide, 2017). Food and its supply chain are the epitome of a critical area. Failure in the world’s food supply can literally lead to death and sickness. Mitigating these problems would be a huge windfall for humanity. Hoping to deliver such beneficial fruits is IBM. The company developed a platform called Food Trust designed to introduce accountability and visibility into food supply chain (Welcome to IBM Food Trust, n.d.). To aid in providing accountability and visibility, several large companies have signed on to use IBM’s Food Trust. The platform’s participants include ten of the world’s largest companies (Nash, 2018). With the help of these large organizations, IBM’s Food Trust is moving along. However, the product is still under development (Nash, 2018). Food Trust has not been abandoned, but it has not yielded any fruit either.

Blockchain projects appear unlikely to deliver a revolution in the near future. Some efforts are abandoned. Other endeavors are still under development. New undertakings are unlikely to fare better in the near future. Blockchain’s technological core is still developing. The solutions for building blockchain-based products are still immature (Bennett, 2017). The projects that deliver those products are unlikely to provide a revolution, due to the nascence of blockchain’s technological core.

The technology’s solutions are immature, and they are only beginning to stabilize. A stabilizing solution can lead to vast expenditures of time and money, even when appropriately applied. A steadying implementation can sometimes exhibit problems or shortcomings that an organization can only overcome through large expenditures of time and money. The potential of such expenditures demands caution prior to utilizing a solution looking to find its footing. Blockchain technology is that sort of solution. Its implementations are still stabilizing.

Ethereum’s Go Client has been steady for the longest period, and it only started to stabilize itself from the end of 2016 through the beginning of 2017. Ethereum experienced, after the first third of 2015, a rapid decrease in large spikes of content additions and content deletions, according to Figure 1. A decrease in large spikes is an indication that a project’s structure is stabilizing. A stable project structure is solid indication that the project itself is stabilizing. Ethereum’s Go Client was moving towards structural stability after the first third of 2015. However, its’ commits per release had not yet begun to stabilize. With the number of check-ins still declining in 2015, the amount of work per release had not stabilized yet, even though the structure of the project had. Ethereum’s work experienced stabilization from the end of 2016 through the start of 2017, when, according to Figure 2, Ethereum’s Go Client experienced a stabilization of the number of commits per release. With stable check-ins in each release and with fewer large addition and deletion spikes, Ethereum was starting to stabilize from late 2016 to early 2017, an earlier period than the other blockchain solutions.

Figure 1: Ethereum’s GO Client Addition and Deletions[1]

Figure 2: Ethereum’s Go Client Commits per Release[2]

Another blockchain implementation, Bitcoin Core, only started to stabilize form the end of 2017 through the start of 2018. Bitcoin Core experienced, according to Figure 3, a rapid decrease in the frequency of large spike of content addition and deletion in 2017, with only one large spike occurring at the beginning of 2018. A decrease in large spikes is an indicator that a project’s structure is stabilizing. A stable project structure is a sound indication that the project itself is stabilizing. Bitcoin Core was headed towards structural stability in 2017. However, its’ commits per release had not yet begun to stabilize. The check-ins per release were still declining in 2017. From the end of 2017 through the start of 2018, the number of commits per Bitcoin Core release stabilized, according to Figure 4. Bitcoin Core had both stable check-ins and infrequent large spikes of content additions or deletions as of early 2018, so it was beginning to stabilize at that time, a time that was earlier than the other common blockchain solution.

Figure 3: Bitcoin Core’s Content Addition and Deletions[3]

Figure 4: Bitcoin Core’s Commits per Release[4]

The other common blockchain implementation, Hyperledger Fabric, started to stabilize in the first half of 2018. In the first third of 2018, Hyperledger Fabric experienced, according to Figure 5, a stabilization of content addition and deletion spikes. The last large spike occurred in the first third of 2018, with previous large spike occurring a year and half prior. The size of the spikes decreased greatly after the large spike of 2018. In 2018, the structure of Hyperledger Fabric’s project was stabilizing. A stabilizing project is a well founded reason to suspect that the project itself is stabilizing. Hyperledger Fabric was moving towards stability in the first third of 2018, yet its commits per release had not yet stabilized. By the end of the first half of 2018, the number of check-ins per release stabilized, according to Figure 6. By mid-2018, Hyperledger Fabric stated to stabilize, having both a reduction in large addition and deletion spikes and a stabilization in the number of commits per release. In 2018, blockchain’s most common implementations stabilized.

Figure 5: Hyperledger Fabric’s Content Addition and Deletions[5]

Figure 6: Releases per Commit[6]

Blockchain solutions such as Bitcoin Core are most prominently associated with cryptocurrency, a perception that muddles the definition of the term. Bitcoin is a cryptocurrency that runs on Bitcoin Core. [7] That technology implements a client that runs on a bitcoin network (Bitcoin Core, n.d.). That network is a collection of nodes that operate on a peer-to-peer basis through a replicated distributed-ledger called a blockchain (Bitcoin network, n.d.). “Blockchain is best known as the technology behind the cryptocurrency bitcoin,” according to CNet’s Steven Shankland, so it is quite understandably conflated with cryptocurrency, particularly bitcoin. In fact, blockchain and bitcoin are so frequently conflated that Tim Culpin of Bloomberg felt the need to disambiguate the two terms. [8] The term blockchain is not clearly defined.

[1] To get this graph’s latest version, go to: https://github.com/ethereum

[2] The raw data for this graph comes from commits listed with each release listed on: https://github.com/ethereum

[3] To get this graph’s latest version, go to: https://github.com/bitcoin/bitcoin

[4] The raw data for this graph comes from the commits listed with each release listed on: https://github.com/bitcoin/bitcoin

[5] To get this graph’s latest version, go to: https://github.com/hyperledger/fabric

[6] The raw data for this graph comes from the commits listed with each release listed on: https://github.com/hyperledger/fabric

[7] For a fuller description of bitcoin, go to: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bitcoin

[8] To read Culpin’s complete disambiguation, go to: https://www.bloomberg.com/gadfly/articles/2017-11-08/blockchain-bitcoin

The term lacks an agreed upon definition. Without an agreed upon definition, an organization will struggle to understand any use case for blockchain and to understand how to use any implementation of blockchain, even if each use case is well defined and every implementation is mature. A use case for something cannot be understood, if one does not have a clear definition of what that thing is. An implementation of that thing cannot be understood without a definition of what is being implemented. A clear definition is essential to understanding a technology. Blockchain technology has a muddy definition.

A blockchain is defined, in various places, as a type of distributed ledger or the technology behind a distributed ledger. A blockchain is a specialization of a distributed ledger. The technology is described, in Bits on Blocks, as a type of distributed ledger. [1] However, not all distributed ledgers are “traditional” blockchains. A ledger with sectioned, permissioned data is not considered a blockchain in the mold of bitcoin’s blockchain (Platt, 2017). A distributed ledger might refer to a bitcoin-esque blockchain or it might not. In fact, a blockchain might not be a distributed ledger at all but the technology behind distributed ledgers instead. Distributed ledgers are powered by blockchain technology (McWaters, 2016). Regardless, blockchain and distributed ledgers are linked. Blockchain cannot be defined without defining the term: distributed ledger.

The term, distributed ledger, is defined as a concept distinct from a distributed database or as a specialization of a distributed database. A distributed ledger defines its trust boundary differently from a distributed database. In a distributed ledger, a trust boundary exists around each node whereas a distributed database defines its trust bound as existing around its collection of nodes (On Distributed Databases and Distributed Ledgers, n.d.). With different understandings of trust boundaries, distributed ledgers and distributed databases appear to be distinct concepts. However, distributed ledgers are also defined as a specialization of the concept of distributed databases (Meunier, 2016). Distributed ledgers and distributed databases are defined in some sources as distinct concepts, while they are defined as interconnected concepts in other sources.

With blockchain’s underlying concept, the distributed ledger, having an unclear definition, blockchain’s definition is decidedly unclear, requiring caution before investing in the technology. Blockchain’s lack of a clear definition creates risk for the organization pursuing it. An institution is unlikely to make sound investment decisions about a technology for which it does not have a definition. Therefore, a technology such as blockchain is invitation for unsound decisions. For better choices to be made regarding blockchain, an organization must wait for a clearer definition to emerge. Only time will give blockchain a less muddy definition.

[1] To read the fuller description, go to: https://bitsonblocks.net/2017/02/20/whats-the-difference-between-a-distributed-ledger-and-a-blockchain/

Blockchain is not going deliver a technical coup in the near future. That upheaval is delayed by abandoned projects and endeavors that are still in their infancy. These efforts are currently experiencing growth spurts. Blockchain projects are immature and so is the technology behind them. Blockchain implementations are only beginning to stabilize. In fact, the definition of blockchain is still stabilizing. Without a stable definition and implementation and without completed endeavors in business critical areas, the only sensible investment strategy for blockchain is caution. An approach that is defined by care appears to burst the bubble of blockchain enthusiasts. Irrational hope is popped by caution. Yet, a careful strategy does not preclude investment in blockchain. The technology has not proven itself unworkable, making R & D (Research & Development) endeavors a target for funds. If a project engages in appropriate risk mitigation, investment can even be reasonably directed towards business critical efforts, making blockchain reasonable for long-term, practical projects. The revolution is not imminent, but it is not dead either.

Works Cited

Bennett, M. (2017, November 9). Predictions 2018: The Blockchain Revolution Will Have To Wait A Little Longer. Retrieved from Forrester: https://go.forrester.com/blogs/predictions-2018-the-blockchain-revolution-will-have-to-wait-a-little-longer/

Bitcoin Core. (n.d.). Retrieved from Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bitcoin_Core

Bitcoin network. (n.d.). Retrieved from Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bitcoin_network

IBM Announces Major Blockchain Collaboration with Dole, Driscoll’s, Golden State Foods, Kroger, McCormick and Company, McLane Company, Nestlé, Tyson Foods, Unilever and Walmart to Address Food Safety Worldwide. (2017, August 22). Retrieved from IBM: https://www-03.ibm.com/press/us/en/pressrelease/53013.wss

Irrera, A., & McCrank, J. (2018, March 27th). Wall Street rethinks blockchain projects as euphoria meets reality. Retrieved from Reuters: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-banks-fintech-blockchain/wall-street-rethinks-blockchain-projects-as-euphoria-meets-reality-idUSKBN1H32GO

McWaters, J. R. (2016). The future of financial infrastructure. Deloitte.

Meunier, S. (2016, December 12). Blockchain technology — a very special kind of Distributed Database. Retrieved from LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/blockchain-technology-very-special-kind-distributed-meunier/?trk=mp-reader-card

Nash, K. S. (2018, June 25). Walmart-Led Blockchain Effort Seeks Farm-to-Grocery-Aisle View of Food Supply Chain. Retrieved from The Wall Street Journal: https://blogs.wsj.com/cio/2018/06/25/walmart-led-blockchain-effort-seeks-farm-to-grocery-aisle-view-of-food-supply-chain/

Nordrum, A. (2017, September 29). Wall Street Firms to Move Trillions to Blockchains in 2018. Retrieved from IEEE Spectrum: https://spectrum.ieee.org/telecom/internet/wall-street-firms-to-move-trillions-to-blockchains-in-2018

On Distributed Databases and Distributed Ledgers. (n.d.). Retrieved from Richard Gendal Brown: https://gendal.me/2016/11/08/on-distributed-databases-and-distributed-ledgers/

Platt, C. (2017, February 27). Thoughts on the taxonomy of blockchains & distributed ledger technologies. Retrieved from LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/thoughts-taxonomy-blockchains-distributed-ledger-colin-platt/

Welcome to IBM Food Trust. (n.d.). Retrieved from IBM: https://www.ibm.com/blockchain/solutions/food-trust

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