Blockchain for Beginners

Blockchain for Beginners
 

People often get bogged down in technological complexity when trying to understand blockchain, but the basic concept is a simple and universal one. We have facts and information and we don't want accessed, copied, or tampered with, but on the internet, there's always a chance it could be hacked or modified. Blockchain gives us a constant—a bedrock we know won't change once we put something on it and where a transaction will be verified only if it follows the rules.

The Nakamoto white paper explains the basics of "mining" data into a block, then using a hash (a time-stamped link) to chain those blocks together across a decentralized network of "nodes" that verify each and every transaction. The other key innovation in the white paper is using what's known as the proof-of-work (PoW) model to create distributed "trustless" consensus and solve the double-spend problem (ensuring cryptocurrency isn't spent more than once).

A "trustless system" doesn't mean it's a system you can't trust. Quite the opposite. Because the blockchain verifies each transaction through PoW, this means no trust is required between participants in a transaction. Where does the proof-of-work come from? The miners. A P2P network of bitcoin "miners" generates PoW as they hash blocks together, verifying transactions that then go into the ledger.

In the 2016 book Blockchain Revolution: How the Technology Behind Bitcoin Is Changing Money, Business, and the World, authors Don and Alex Tapscott explain Nakamoto's bitcoin model about as succinctly as one can:

"Bitcoin or other digital currency isn't saved in a file somewhere; it's represented by transactions recorded in a blockchain—kind of like a global spreadsheet or ledger, which leverages the resources of a large P2P network to verify and approve each bitcoin transaction. Each blockchain, like the [bitcoin blockchain] is distributed: it runs on computers provided by volunteers around the world. There is no central database to hack. The blockchain is public: anyone can view it at any time because it resides on the network… and the blockchain is encrypted… it uses public and private keys (rather like a two-key system to access a safety deposit box) to maintain virtual security."

Note that nothing is completely unhackable, particularly when you don't use it as intended. Blockchain's security works not only because it's encrypted but also because it's also decentralized. Victims of the biggest blockchain breaches and cryptocurrency heists (Mt. Gox in 2014 and Bitfinex in 2016) were targeted and pilfered clean because they tried to centralize a decentralized system. Another recent blockchain security incident, the DAO hack, came down to exploited loopholes in smart contracts written atop an established blockchain, Ethereum, not within the blockchain itself. Blockchain's underlying security and encryption model is a sound one. How that security is executed is a story for another feature.

So we've explained how the network functions and how security works, but how do the blocks actually connect to one another? Why does a blockchain get stronger the longer it gets? Where does the immutability come in? The Tapscotts' explanation continues:

"Every ten minutes, like the heartbeat of the bitcoin network, all the transactions conducted are verified, cleared, and stored in a block which is linked to the preceding block, thereby creating a chain. Each block must refer to the preceding block to be valid. The structure permanently time-stamps and stores exchanges of value, preventing anyone from altering the ledger… so the blockchain is a distributed ledger representing a network consensus of every transaction that has ever occurred. Like the World Wide Web of information, it's the World Wide Ledger of value… This new digital ledger can be programmed to record virtually everything of value and importance to humankind: birth and death certificates, marriage licenses, deeds and titles of ownership, educational degrees, financial accounts, medical procedures, insurance claims, votes, provenance of food, or anything else that can be expressed in code."

The concept of immutability is maybe the most crucial to understand when trying to wrap your head around blockchain and why it's important. An object that once created can never be changed has infinite value in our editable, ephemeral digital world. Harking back to the "strength in numbers" principle, the more nodes a blockchain is distributed over, the more stronger and more trusted it becomes. It's verification on top of verification to infinity. Bloq's Garzik talked about how the network effect of blockchain is key to its immutability, and why it's the reason the public bitcoin blockchain is still the most popular and trusted blockchain out there:

"The immutability factor is very much dependent on the network effect," said Garzik. "You see that with bitcoin very specifically. The cost of creating a new digital asset is essentially zero. Therefore you have to demonstrate an overwhelming amount of value in overcoming that network effect if you want to convince someone to switch away from the bitcoin blockchain, which not only has a good track record but high-security from a technical perspective. Security and immutability are a direct function of the economics—how much investment there is in the ecosystem, and how many people are using it."

Public vs. Private Blockchains

People within the industry talk a lot about public versus private blockchains. On a basic level, public blockchains are cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin, enabling peer-to-peer transactions and, therefore, a revolution in seamless global payments. Private blockchains (those being built by distributed ledger consortium R3, for example) use blockchain-based application development platforms such as Ethereum or blockchain-as-a-service (BaaS) platforms such as those offered by Microsoft and IBM, running on private cloud infrastructure.

Brian Forde, Director of Digital Currency at the MIT Media Lab, likens public versus private blockchains to the relationship between an open-source technology, such as Linux, and companies like Red Hat that build on that tech for enterprise use. Public blockchains like bitcoin were the open-source movement that started it all, and private blockchains such as R3 are taking that technology and commercializing it for businesses.

"A private blockchain is an intranet, and a public blockchain is the Internet. The world was changed by the Internet, not a bunch of intranets. Where companies will be disrupted the most is not by private blockchains but public ones," said Forde.

Bloq's Garzik echoed a similar thought when explaining the difference between public and private blockchains, but he uses the open-source analogy a bit differently. Bloq bills itself as a "Red Hat for blockchain" of sorts, but its platform is built atop the bitcoin blockchain rather than a private or "permissioned" one. (Permissioned blockchains include an access control layer governing who can participate in the network.) Garzik's biggest question when looking at cloud providers and others building private blockchains and BaaS offerings is: Who's running that network?

"On the private and permissioned side, it's very much a question of who the referees are. I use that term specifically because what blockchains really provide is a neutral, level playing field for the execution of rules," said Garzik. "Those rules are applied to transactions that the actors create from that network. For bitcoin, it's rules like the monetary supply; the number of transactions that can fit into a block. All of that forms the economic incentives and ultimately consensus rules that everyone in the network complies with and cross-checks to create this system of checks and balances.

"Some of the other blockchain networks, whether it's [open-source project] Hyperledger, Ethereum, or a bank chain [such as R3] are opening the question of trust and trust shifting," Garzik went on. "It's less about the technology, and much more about a rapid, near real-time adjudication of rules between actors on a network. That's what blockchains do."

Once you understand what a blockchain is and how it works, the next question an everyday tech user would have is how it'll affect them. If you're not a business that's building a blockchain-based product or service, why should you care? As Don Tapscott explained it in Blockchain Revolution and in a 2016 TED Talk of his own, it's because blockchain brings us from the Internet of information into the "Internet of value." From his TED talk:

"For the past few decades, we've had the Internet of information," says Tapscott. "When I send you an email or a PowerPoint file, I'm actually not sending you the original; I'm sending you a copy. That's great, and it has democratized information. But when it comes to assets; things like money, financial assets like stocks and bonds, loyalty points, intellectual property, music, art, a vote… sending you a copy is a really bad idea. If I send you $100, it's really important that I don't have the money afterward.

"Today, we rely entirely on big intermediaries; middlemen like banks, government, big social media companies, credit companies, and so on to establish trust in our economy," Tapscott continued. "These intermediaries perform all the business and transaction logic of every kind of commerce, from identification and authentication of people through to clearing, settling, and record-keeping… they capture our data, which means we can't monetize or use it to better manage our lives, and our privacy is being undermined… so what if there were not only an Internet of information, but an Internet of value. Some kind of vast, global, distributed ledger running on millions of computers and available to everybody, and where every kind of asset from money to music could be stored, moved, transacted, exchanged, and managed, all without powerful intermediaries."

That, in a nutshell, is blockchain.

Chuck Reynolds
Contributor

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