Where shared ledgers add real value in enterprise IT
Almost a year after first releasing MultiChain, we’ve learnt a huge amount about how blockchains, in a private and non-cryptocurrency sense, can and cannot be applied to real-world problems. Allow me to share what we know so far.
To begin with, the first idea that we (and many others) started with, appears to be wrong. This idea, inspired by bitcoin directly, was that private blockchains (or “shared ledgers”) could be used to directly settle the majority of payment and exchange transactions in the finance sector, using on-chain tokens to represent cash, stocks, bonds and more.
This is perfectly workable on a technical level, so what’s the problem? In a word, confidentiality. If multiple institutions are using a shared ledger, then every institution sees every transaction on that ledger, even if they don’t immediately know the real-world identities of the parties involved. This turns out to be a huge issue, both in terms of regulation and the commercial realities of inter-bank competition. While various strategies are available or in development for mitigating this problem, none can match the simplicity and efficiency of a centralized database managed by a trusted intermediary, which maintains full control over who can see what. For now at least, it seems that large financial institutions prefer to keep most transactions hidden in these intermediary databases, despite the costs involved.
I base this conclusion not only on our own experience, but also on the direction taken by several prominent startups whose initial goal was to develop shared ledgers for banks. For example, both R3CEV and Digital Asset are now working on “contract description languages”, in Corda and DAML respectively (earlier examples include MLFi and Ricardian Contracts). These languages allow the conditions of a complex financial contract to be represented formally and unambiguously in a computer readable format, while avoiding the shortcomings of Ethereum-style general purpose computation. Instead, the blockchain plays only a supporting role, storing or notarizing the contracts in encrypted form, and performing some basic duplicate detection. The actual contract execution does not take place on the blockchain – rather, it is performed only by the contract’s counterparties, with the likely addition of auditors and regulators.
In the near term, this is probably the best that can be done, but where does it leave the broader ambitions for permissioned blockchains? Are there other applications for which they can form a more significant part of the puzzle?
This question can be approached both theoretically and empirically. Theoretically, by focusing on the key differences between blockchains and traditional databases, and how these inform the set of possible use cases. And in our case, empirically, by categorizing the real-world solutions being built on MultiChain today. Not surprisingly, whether we focus on theory or practice, the same classes of use case arise:
- Lightweight financial systems.
- Provenance tracking.
- Interorganizational record keeping.
- Multiparty aggregation.
Before explaining these in detail, let’s recap the theory. As I’ve discussed before, the two most important differences between blockchains and centralized databases can be characterized as follows:
- Disintermediation. Blockchains enable multiple parties who do not fully trust each other to safely and directly share a single database without requiring a trusted intermediary.
- Confidentiality: All participants in a blockchain see all of the transactions taking place. (Even if we use pseudonymous addresses and advanced cryptography to hide some aspects of those transactions, a blockchain will always leak more information than a centralized database.)
In other words, blockchains are ideal for shared databases in which every user is able to read everything, but no single user controls who can write what. By contrast, in traditional databases, a single entity exerts control over all read and write operations, while other users are entirely subject to that entity’s whims. To sum it up in one sentence:
Blockchains represent a trade-off in which disintermediation is gained at the cost of confidentiality.
In examining the four types of use case below, we’ll repeatedly come back to this core trade-off, explaining why, in each case, the benefit of disintermediation outweighs the cost of reduced confidentiality.
Lightweight financial systems
Let’s start with the class of blockchain applications that will be most familiar, in which a group of entities wishes to set up a financial system. Within this system, one or more scarce assets are transacted and exchanged between those entities.
In order for any asset to remain scarce, two related problems must be solved. First, we must ensure that the same unit of the asset cannot be sent to more than one place (a “double spend”). Second, it must be impossible for anyone to create new units of the asset on a whim (“forgery”). Any entity which could do either of these things could steal unlimited value from the system.
A common solution to these problems is physical tokens, such as metal coins or securely printed paper. These tokens trivially solve the problem of double spending, because the rules of physics (literally) prevent one token from being in two places at the same time. The problem of forgery is solved by making the token extremely difficult to manufacture. Still, physical tokens suffer from several shortcomings which can render them impractical:
- As pure bearer assets, physical tokens can be stolen with no trace or recourse.
- They are slow and costly to move in large numbers or over long distances.
- It is tricky and expensive to create physical tokens that cannot be forged.
These shortcomings can be avoided by leaving physical tokens behind, and redefining asset ownership in terms of a ledger managed by a trusted intermediary. In the past, these ledgers were based on paper records, and today they tend to run on regular databases. Either way, the intermediary enacts a transfer of ownership by modifying the ledger’s content, in response to an authenticated request. Unlike settlement with physical tokens, questionable transactions can quickly and easily be reversed.
So what’s the problem with ledgers? In a nutshell, concentration of control. By putting so much power in one place, we create a significant security challenge, in both technical and human terms. If someone external can hack into the database, they can change the ledger at will, stealing others’ funds or destroying its contents completely. Even worse, someone on the inside could corrupt the ledger, and this kind of attack is hard to detect or prove. As a result, wherever we have a centralized ledger, we must invest significant time and money in mechanisms to maintain that ledger’s integrity. And in many cases, we require ongoing verification using batch-based reconciliation between the central ledger and those of each of the transacting parties.
Enter the blockchain (or “shared ledger”). This provides the benefits of ledgers without suffering from the problem of concentration. Instead, each entity runs a “node” holding a copy of the ledger and maintains full control over its own assets, which are protected by private keys. Transactions propagate between nodes in a peer-to-peer fashion, with the blockchain ensuring that consensus is maintained. This architecture leaves no central attack point through which a hacker or insider could corrupt the ledger’s contents. As a result, a digital financial system can be deployed more quickly and cheaply, with the added benefit of automatic reconciliation in real time.
So what’s the downside? As discussed earlier, all participants in a shared ledger see all of the transactions taking place, rendering it unusable in situations where confidentiality is required. Instead, blockchains are suitable for what I call lightweight financial systems, namely those in which the economic stakes or number of participants is relatively low. In these cases, confidentiality tends to be less of an issue – even if the participants pay close attention to what each other are doing, they won’t learn much of value. And it is precisely because the stakes are low that we prefer to avoid the hassle and cost of setting up an intermediary.
Some obvious examples of lightweight financial systems include: crowdfunding, gift cards, loyalty points and local currencies – especially in cases where assets are redeemable in more than one place. But we are also seeing use cases in the mainstream finance sector, such as peer-to-peer trading between asset managers who are not in direct competition. Blockchains are even being tested as internal accounting systems, in large organizations where each department or location must maintain control of its funds. In all these cases, the lower cost and friction of blockchains provides an immediate benefit, while the loss of confidentiality is not a concern.
Here’s a second class of use case that we repeatedly hear from MultiChain’s users: tracking the origin and movement of high-value items across a supply chain, such as luxury goods, pharmaceuticals, cosmetics and electronics. And equally, critical items of documentation such as bills of lading or letters of credit. In supply chains stretching across time and distance, all of these items suffer from counterfeiting and theft.
The problem can be addressed using blockchains in the following way: when the high-value item is created, a corresponding digital token is issued by a trusted entity, which acts to authenticate its point of origin. Then, every time the physical item changes hands, the digital token is moved in parallel, so that the real-world chain of custody is precisely mirrored by a chain of transactions on the blockchain.
If you like, the token is acting as a virtual “certificate of authenticity”, which is far harder to steal or forge than a piece of paper. Upon receiving the digital token, the final recipient of the physical item, whether a bank, distributor, retailer or customer, can verify the chain of custody all the way back to the point of origin. Indeed, in the case of documentation such as bills of lading, we can do away with the physical item altogether.
While all of this makes sense, the astute reader will notice that a regular database, managed (say) by an item’s manufacturer, can accomplish the same task. This database would store a record of the current owner of each item, accepting signed transactions representing each change of ownership, and respond to incoming requests regarding the current state of play.
So why use a blockchain instead? The answer is that, for this type of application, there’s a benefit to distributed trust. No matter where a centralized database is held, there will be people in that place who have the ability (and can be bribed) to corrupt its contents, marking forged or stolen items as legit. By contrast, if provenance is tracked on a blockchain belonging collectively to a supply chain’s participants, no individual entity or small group of entities can corrupt the chain of custody, and end users can have more confidence in the answers they receive. As a bonus, different tokens (say for some goods and the corresponding bill of lading) can be safely and directly exchanged, with a two-way swap guaranteed at the lowest blockchain level.
What about the problem of confidentiality? The suitability of blockchains for supply chain provenance is a happy result of this application’s simple pattern of transactions. In contrast to financial marketplaces, most tokens move in a single direction, from origin to endpoint, without being repeatedly traded back-and-forth between the blockchain’s participants. If competitors rarely transact with each other (e.g. toy manufacturer to toy manufacturer, or retailer to retailer), they cannot learn each others’ blockchain “addresses” and connect those to real-world identities. Furthermore, the activity can be easily partitioned into multiple ledgers, each representing a different order or type of good.
Interorganizational record keeping
Both of the previous use cases are based on tokenized assets, i.e. on-chain representations of an item of value transferred between participants. However there is a second group of blockchain use cases which is not related to assets. Instead, the chain acts as a mechanism for collectively recording and notarizing any type of data, whose meaning can be financial or otherwise.
One such example is an audit trail of critical communications between two or more organizations, say in the healthcare or legal sectors. No individual organization in the group can be trusted with maintaining this archive of records, because falsified or deleted information would significantly damage the others. Nonetheless it is vital that all agree on the archive’s contents, in order to prevent disputes.
To solve this problem, we need a shared database into which all of the records are written, with each record accompanied by a timestamp and proof of origin. The standard solution would be to create a trusted intermediary, whose role is to collect and store the records centrally. But blockchains offer a different approach, giving the organizations a way to jointly manage this archive, while preventing individual participants (or small groups thereof) from corrupting it.
One of the most enlightening conversations I’ve had in the past two years was with Michael Mainelli of Z/Yen. For 20 years his company has been building systems in which multiple entities collectively manage a shared digital audit trail, using timestamping, digital signatures and a round robin consensus scheme. As he explained the technical details of these systems, it became clear that they are permissioned blockchains in every respect. In other words, there is nothing new about using a blockchain for interorganizational recordkeeping – it’s just that the world has finally become aware of the possibility.
In terms of the actual data stored on the blockchain, there are three popular options:
- Unencrypted data. This can be read by every participant in the blockchain, providing full collective transparency and immediate resolution in the case of a dispute.
- Encrypted data. This can only be read by participants with the appropriate decryption key. In the event of a dispute, anyone can reveal this key to a trusted authority such as a court, and use the blockchain to prove that the original data was added by a certain party at a certain point in time.
- Hashed data. A “hash” acts as a compact digital fingerprint, representing a commitment to a particular piece of data while keeping that data hidden. Given some data, any party can easily confirm if it matches a given hash, but inferring data from its hash is computationally impossible. Only the hash is placed on the blockchain, with the original data stored off-chain by interested parties, who can reveal it in case of a dispute.
As mentioned earlier, R3CEV’s Corda product has adopted this third approach, storing hashes on a blockchain to notarize contracts between counterparties, without revealing their contents. This method can be used both for computer-readable contract descriptions, as well as PDF files containing paper documentation.
Naturally, confidentiality is not an issue for interorganizational record keeping, because the entire purpose is to create a shared archive that all the participants can see (even if some data is encrypted or hashed). Indeed in some cases a blockchain can help manage access to confidential off-chain data, by providing an immutable record of digitally signed access requests. Either way, the straightforward benefit of disintermediation is that no additional entity must be created and trusted to maintain this record.
Technically speaking, this final class of use case is similar to the previous one, in that multiple parties are writing data to a collectively managed record. However in this case the motivation is different – to overcome the infrastructural difficulty of combining information from a large number of separate sources.
Imagine two banks with internal databases of customer identity verifications. At some point they notice that they share a lot of customers, so they enter a reciprocal sharing arrangement in which they exchange verification data to avoid duplicated work. Technically, the agreement is implemented using standard master–slave data replication, in which each bank maintains a live read-only copy of the other’s database, and runs queries in parallel against its own database and the replica. So far, so good.
Now imagine these two banks invite three others to participate in this circle of sharing. Each of the 5 banks runs its own master database, along with 4 read-only replicas of the others. With 5 masters and 20 replicas, we have 25 database instances in total. While doable, this consumes noticeable time and resources in each bank’s IT department.
Fast forward to the point where 20 banks are sharing information in this way, and we’re looking at 400 database instances in total. For 100 banks, we reach 10,000 instances. In general, if every party is sharing information with every other, the total number of database instances grows with the square of the number of participants. At some point in this process, the system is bound to break down.
So what’s the solution? One obvious option is for all of the banks to submit their data to a trusted intermediary, whose job is to aggregate that data in a single master database. Each bank could then query this database remotely, or run a local read-only replica within its own four walls. While there’s nothing wrong with this approach, blockchains offer a cheaper alternative, in which the shared database is run directly by the banks which use it. Blockchains also bring the added benefit of redundancy and failover for the system as a whole.
It’s important to clarify that a blockchain is not acting just as a distributed database like Cassandra or RethinkDB. Unlike these systems, each blockchain node enforces a set of rules which prevent one participant from modifying or deleting the data added by another. Indeed, there still appears to be some confusion about this – one recently released blockchain platform can be broken by a single misbehaving node. In any event, a good platform will also make it easy to manage networks with thousands of nodes, joining and leaving at will, if granted the appropriate permissions.
Although I’m a little skeptical of the oft-cited connection between blockchains and the Internet of Things, I think this might be where a strong such synergy lies. Of course, each “thing” would be too small to store a full copy of the blockchain locally. Rather, it would transmit data-bearing transactions to a distributed network of blockchain nodes, who would collate it all together for further retrieval and analysis.
Conclusion: Blockchains in Finance
I started this piece by questioning the initial use case envisioned for blockchains in the finance sector, namely the bulk settlement of payment and exchange transactions. While I believe this conclusion is becoming common wisdom (with one notable exception), it does not mean that blockchains have no other applications in this industry. In fact, for each of the four classes of use case outlined above, we see clear applications for banks and other financial institutions. Respectively, these are: small trading circles, provenance for trade finance, bilateral contract notarization and the aggregation of AML/KYC data.
The key to understand is that, architecturally, our four classes of use case are not specific to finance, and are equally relevant to other sectors such as insurance, healthcare, distribution, manufacturing and IT. Indeed, private blockchains should be considered for any situation in which two or more organizations need a shared view of reality, and that view does not originate from a single source. In these cases, blockchains offer an alternative to the need for a trusted intermediary, leading to significant savings in hassle and cost.
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Crypto ban in India rumors loom again
Crypto ban in India rumors is looming in the country again. Unocoin founder says rumors are bad for business. And earlier RBi crypto ban in India was quashed by the court. The potential news of the crypto ban in India to be quashed soon sends forth a wave of unanswered questions across the Indian digital […]
- Crypto ban in India rumors is looming in the country again.
- Unocoin founder says rumors are bad for business.
- And earlier RBi crypto ban in India was quashed by the court.
The potential news of the crypto ban in India to be quashed soon sends forth a wave of unanswered questions across the Indian digital market and disrupts the crypto field every now and then. With Unocoin, an old player of the crypto market adding hundreds of clients to its network daily, its Co-Founder Sathvik Vishwanath deems the ban merely speculation and news that spreads bi-yearly coinciding with the parliament session uptake.
He furthers that the news does little to the business but overall slows down the growth of the industry. While recently an Indian Bitcoin trader was forced to commit suicide after killing his wife and two children.
Crypto ban in India
Reserve Bank of India, in a bid to diminish crypto trade, had notified financial institutions to not cater to cryptocurrency-based firms and clients, however, the supreme court had canceled the notice confirming the country’s open outlook towards crypto dealings.
Vishwanath highlighted the critical need for acknowledging cryptocurrencies as a digital commodity. The vague classification and lack of information on whether it is a currency, commodity, or asset or equity keep business users confused about what rules apply to it from a taxation point of view.
The absence of clarity and standardized regulations are ongoing issues with the trade and Vishwanath believes it is playing a role in hindering its consistent growth in the region. To work around it many crypto owners have registered their firms abroad as a means to solidify business strength says, Vishwanath.
Recognizing the market potential within the region, Vishwanath informed a monthly $300 – $500 crypto trade constantly being witnessed and predicts a stark increase as more people are educated about this field’s know-hows.
Approximately 0.3 percent of India’s population is said to have knowledge of the digital trade, and Vishwanath sees it’s potential going up 5 percent. The brokerage intends to add more digital products to its lineup as and when the market demands. As per Vishwanath’s experience, 2020 has seen a major shift in focus on digital trade and has witnessed up to 500 customers signing up daily. He predicts strong investment opportunities within the field.
TA: Bitcoin Key Indicators Suggest Risk of Extended Downside Correction
Bitcoin price is down over $500 from the $13,850 swing high against the US Dollar. BTC is showing bearish signs and it could even decline below the $13,000 support.
- Bitcoin failed to stay above the $13,500 support and declined below $13,200.
- The price is currently consolidating near $13,200 and the 100 hourly simple moving average.
- There is a key contracting triangle forming with support near $13,220 on the hourly chart of the BTC/USD pair (data feed from Kraken).
- The pair is likely to resume its decline below $13,200 and $13,100 in the near term.
Bitcoin Price Starts Downside Correction
Bitcoin price traded to a new monthly high at $13,850 before starting a major downside correction. BTC broke the key $13,500 support level to move into a short-term bearish zone.
The decline gained pace below the $13,200 level and the 100 hourly simple moving average. The price even spiked below the $13,000 level and traded as low as $12,899. Recently, there was a recovery wave above the $13,000 and $13,100 levels.
The price traded above the 23.6% Fib retracement level of the recent decline from the $13,850 high to $12,899 low. Bitcoin is currently consolidating near $13,200 and the 100 hourly simple moving average.
There is also a key contracting triangle forming with support near $13,220 on the hourly chart of the BTC/USD pair. If there is a downside break below the triangle support and $13,200, there is a risk of a fresh decline. The next major support is near the $13,000 level.
If the bulls fail to defend the $13,000 support level, it could open the doors for an extended downside correction towards the $12,600 level or $12,500 in the coming sessions.
Upside Break in BTC?
If bitcoin stays above the $13,200 support level, it could clear the triangle resistance near the $13,315 level. The next key resistance is near the $13,375 level. It is close to the 50% Fib retracement level of the recent decline from the $13,850 high to $12,899 low.
The main hurdle for the bulls is near the $13,500 level, above which the price is likely to restart its rally and it could even revisit the $13,850 high.
Hourly MACD – The MACD is likely to move into the bearish zone.
Hourly RSI (Relative Strength Index) – The RSI for BTC/USD is now well below the 50 level.
Major Support Levels – $13,200, followed by $13,000.
Major Resistance Levels – $13,315, $13,375 and $13,500.
MicroStrategy CEO Michael Saylor HODLs $230M Worth Of Bitcoin Privately
Michael Saylor, the founder and CEO of the Nasdaq-listed company MicroStrategy, has revealed that he personally HODLs nearly 18,000 bitcoins.
Additionally, he announced that his company has instituted a new Bitcoin-oriented treasury reserve policy and plans to make further BTC purchases.
Michael Saylor Owns 17,732 Bitcoins
The CEO of MicroStrategy has a somewhat compelling history with Bitcoin. As CryptoPotato reported recently, he said in 2013 that BTC’s days are “numbered.” However, he has completed a one-eighty since then and has been quite bullish on the cryptocurrency in recent months.
The company that he founded more than three decades ago bought a total of 38,250 bitcoins in two batches. This substantial amount represents 0.18% of all bitcoins ever to exist.
Apart from MicroStrategy’s holdings, Saylor disclosed today his own BTC balance.
“Some have asked how much BTC I own. I personally hodl 17,732 BTC, which I bought at $9,882 each on average. I informed MicroStrategy of these holdings before the company decided to buy Bitcoin for itself.” – he tweeted.
To put his Bitcoin holdings into USD perspective, the amount equals $230 million, with BTC’s price trading around $13,000 per coin at the time of this writing.
MicroStrategy’s Bitcoin-Focused Reserve Policy
In a recent interview, Saylor also revealed his company’s Q3 results. Apart from displaying impressive quarterly numbers, MicroStrategy’s CEO announced a compelling new treasury reserve policy that focuses on Bitcoin.
“We have also instituted our new treasury reserve policy, which states that Bitcoin will be the primary treasury reserve asset for the company for capital that exceeds our working capital needs.”
MicroStrategy plans to purchase even more bitcoins as the company generates cash beyond what it needs to run the business of a day-to-day basis.
Millions of (Unrealized) Profit
Having in mind Saylor’s averaged price when he bought his BTC stack, simple math shows that he spent a little over $175 million. As mentioned above, the 17,732 bitcoins now have a value of over $235 million. As such, his profit, should he choose to sell the coins now, would be north of $50 million.
Additionally, a popular cryptocurrency commentator Kevin Rooke brought up similar statistics regarding MicroStrategy’s numbers. He said that the Nasdaq-listed company had earned $78 million in the last three and a half years from their business endeavors. However, if they sell their BTC stack now, their profit will be about $100 million in just two months.
It’s worth noting that to register profit or a financial gain, one has to sell the asset he has previously purchased. Since neither MicroStrategy nor its CEO had actually disclosed selling their Bitcoin holdings, the numbers above provide a hypothetical viewpoint instead of hard numbers.
Featured Image Courtesy of The Business Journals
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