Reading up on Blockchain and Distributed Ledger Technology

Last year, I was reading up on Bitcoin, blockchain and beyond. Since then, there have been several interesting developments in distributed ledger technology (DLT).

If you’re new to the technology, I highly recommend this introductory, plain English guide to blockchain.

I also came cross this great article defining criteria to avoid pointless blockchain projects and its follow-up on four genuine blockchain use cases.

R3 Corda

For one, R3, which I thought then and still think today shows a lot of promise, has released the code for Corda, its distributed ledger project. They also published a non-technical whitepaper as an introduction and two webinar videos: Introduction to Corda and Corda Developers’ Tutorial. There is alos this excellent non-technical 18 second definition of DLT by Richard Gendal Brown, CTO of R3.

R3 also offered its code to the Hyperledger project.

Hyperledger

Hyperledger isn’t a distributed ledger, per se, but contains multiple DLT projects, e.g. Fabric, which is backed by IBM. While you can run Hyperledger Fabric on your own machines, IBM also gives developers an opportunity to play with the technology in their cloud Bluemix.

Unlike Corda, which was built from the ground up for the financial services industry, finance is only one of the industries Hyperledger is targeting. There are, however, a number of projects underway in the financial services that use Hyperledger, as their proof of concept tracker shows.

One of those projects was undertaken by Germany’s central bank Deutsche Bundesbank and the country’s largest exchange operator Deutsche Börse. A November 2016 speech by Carl-Ludwig Thiele, member of the executive board of Deutsche Bundesbank contained mostly questions about the new technology. His speech from January 2017 already presented a prototype to handle simple settlement, payment and corporate actions.

Conclusion

There are a number of interesting projects underway to apply distributed ledger technology to finance.

Still, a lot of questions to be addressed regarding distributed ledger technology, as this position paper by SWIFT and Accenture from last year points out.

The Germany IT industry association Bitkom looks at some of these, e.g. legal ramifications of distributed ledger technology in banking (in German).

It is interesting to see though that regulators and central banks are already actively involved even though distributed ledger technology is still in its infancy in the financial services industry.

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Reading up on Bitcoin, Blockchain and Beyond

Digital Gold by Nathaniel Popper is neither a tech nor a finance book, but it provided me with a great introduction to Bitcoin. It describes at length the varied backgrounds and motivations of the people that were instrumental in getting it off the ground.

After you’ve read the book and learned the basics, Coindesk is a great source of current news on all things blockchain, cryptocurrency and so on. For specific questions, there is also a Bitcoin Stack Exchange Q&A site.

Of course, one of the most interesting things to come out of Bitcoin is not the cryptocurrency itself, but the blockchain, a distributed alternative to the centralized ledgers used in finance everywhere, it is built upon.

Blockchain, Distributed Ledgers

Unfortunately, a blockchain as used by Bitcoin has features that make it unsuitable for certain uses; poor scalability and slow speed of processing and confirming transactions being two of them.

There are, however, several projects that try to address these issues, such as Juno which specifically targets greater throughput performance.

Microsoft even has a blockchain project for its cloud computing service Azure called Project Bletchley.

But, the most interesting, in my opinion, distributed ledger project right now is R3 Corda. This is a joint venture between a number of banks aiming to built a distributed ledger specifically for financial transactions. What makes Corda stand out among the many blockchain/distributed ledger projects is that it is not a technology project looking for applications. Instead they are taking real requirements from the world of finance and try to mold the technology to fit them. As Richard Gendal Brown, R3’s Chief Technology Officer, writes in their introduction:

Every successful project I’ve worked on started with the requirements, not some cool piece of technology.

Richard Gendal Brown, by the way, also has his own blog Thoughts on the Future of Finance, on which he discusses technology in the financial sector in general (e.g. Apple Pay), not just distributed ledgers. Highly recommended.

Smart Contracts

Looking beyond finance, there is Ethereum which has built a smart contract platform on its blockchain. One example of such a smart contract is The DAO, a kind of investment company bound by bylaws written in code instead of legal prose. Since the company exists only virtually, it’s still unclear which country’s laws govern it. Its creators say a DAO is self-governing, i.e. its actions determined only by its coding and thereby not subject to outside influence such as a regulator.

Because of a coding error in the code of The DAO, an attacker was (almost) able to rob it of millions of dollars on 17-Jun-2016. This article has a good summary of how it happened. The Slock.it blog also has a number of articles worth reading on the attack and its aftermath. On the topic of entrusting your investment money to an autonomous organization bound only by smart contracts, their COO Stephan Tual writes:

[I]t is very challenging to write smart contracts that are both complex in nature and 100% safe. Therefore, it’s fair to say that the discussion of any Ethereum-based project should be handled with the great care it deserves.

Speaking of Slock.it: they have used the Ethereum blockchain as the backbone of a neat IoT project: the Ethereum computer powering smart locks called slocks.